May 28, 2024

Away from the din of cocktails and chatter near the lobby of the shiny-new Loews Kansas City Hotel, an elevator zoomed C.J. Stroud up to his room. It was the night of April 27, hours after the Houston Texans selected Stroud with the No. 2 pick of the 2023 NFL draft.

Priest Brooks, his youth football coach in California’s Inland Empire, wanted a moment with Stroud. Brooks had been alongside the Ohio State quarterback for the bulk of this journey and had a list of things he wanted to say. He addressed Stroud’s impending NFL stardom, which at the time might have seemed presumptuous.

Stroud was going to the Texans, a franchise far removed from prime-time scheduling — and success — to play a position with such a jagged learning curve that most of his counterparts don’t even make it in the NFL. But in Brooks’ mind, it wasn’t a matter of whether Stroud would become a star, but when.

It took 6½ months.

On Sunday, he orchestrated the most exhilarating game of the season, driving his team 75 yards in the final 46 seconds of a 39-37 comeback victory over Tampa Bay. When he hit receiver Tank Dell with the 15-yard game winner, Stroud stood emotionless with his hands affixed to his sides, almost as if he expected it all to unfold that way.

Stroud set an NFL rookie record with 470 passing yards, his 147.8 passer rating was the highest in a game by a rookie quarterback in NFL history, and he became just the sixth player to throw for 450 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions, a list that includes Peyton Manning and Y.A. Tittle. The Texans had to play without a kicker after Ka’imi Fairbairn was knocked out with a quadriceps injury, yet Stroud led his team to its fourth victory.

Houston hasn’t won more than four games in a season since 2019.

Stroud leads the league in touchdown-to-interception ratio (14-1), broke the NFL record for most pass attempts without an interception to start a career (191), and has breathed life into a city desperate to fall in love with a quarterback again after the turbulent end to the Deshaun Watson era.

Yes, it’s early, and as Texans quarterbacks coach Jerrod Johnson said in a late-October expectation-tempering interview, “The NFL is hard.”

Still, the first half of Stroud’s rookie season has almost been unfathomable. This is a quarterback who’s in just his fifth year as a starter — counting high school, college and the NFL — and who grew up 40 miles east of Los Angeles, yet struggled to get college teams to recruit him. This is the guy who was a subject of the annual pre-draft red-flag drama because of a reportedly low cognitive test score.

How has the recently turned 22-year-old quarterback fit in so seamlessly with such poise, confidence and efficiency in one of the most demanding jobs in sports? Brooks and other people close to Stroud know. They tell the stories of Coleridge Bernard Stroud IV, whose toughest challenges came long before professional football.

Early indications

One day when C.J. Stroud was 3 years old, his parents, Kimberly and Coleridge, picked him up from day care, and a woman who worked there stopped them.

“You know,” Kimberly recalls the woman telling her, “I think your son is very special.”

They laughed it off. She probably says that about every kid, Kimberly thought. But the woman was adamant.

“No, I’m serious.”

The children had been outside playing basketball with a Little Tikes hoop that day, and C.J. kept slam-dunking on the kindergartners. They were at least two years older than him. The day care workers had never seen anything like it.

“He’s just always been that way,” Kimberly says. “Very driven, very strong-willed. When he was little, he just highly believed in himself and his abilities.

“And whenever he would see another quarterback or another football player doing something, he would just study them until he could do it, that’s just how he’s always been. Very determined.”

Versatility

The Strouds put C.J. in a variety of sports to see what he liked. He played baseball for a few years, and even pitched. But he found it boring. He tried soccer, but that lasted only one season.

“He scored so many goals,” Kimberly Stroud says, “the other kids got irritated.”

Basketball was the Stroud family passion. They had a court outside their house in Rancho Cucamonga, California, and C.J., the youngest of four children, banged around with his older brothers, perpetually frustrated that they never let him shoot.

He was completely overmatched. His brother Isaiah is seven years older than him, and six years separate Asmar and C.J.

But C.J. never stopped playing.

“The older siblings toughened him up a little bit,” Kimberly says.

Toughness

Stroud started his football career with the Alta Loma Warriors, but by the seventh grade, he yearned for tougher competition. He told his mom he wanted to play in the Snoop Youth Football League, founded by rapper Snoop Dogg.

Kimberly Stroud had her reservations.

“I was like, ‘No way,’ because they’re tough,” she says. “That’s my baby … I just prayed the whole time.”

The next hour-plus was hard to watch: Hungry teenage tacklers coming lightning-fast at Stroud, trying to break the new guy in. Kimberly had never seen her son move so quickly.

And Priest Brooks, the coach of the Pomona Steelers, hadn’t seen a quarterback like Stroud. He stood 5-foot-9, just an inch shorter than the coach, and although he didn’t have a lot of zip on the ball, he had something better: a feathery touch and an ability to put the ball wherever he wanted.

Of course he made the team.

“He was always a little bit older in the mind,” Brooks says.

A coach’s support

The players called Brooks “Coach Fly.” But most of them didn’t know his nickname was short for Soopafly, a rapper and producer who, along with Snoop Dogg, was part of Death Row Records during the label’s heyday in the 1990s.

Brooks collaborated with big names, such as Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Tupac Shakur. He was making money and living a fast life, and then one day Snoop Dogg introduced him to youth football. “I didn’t understand what the hell he was doing,” Brooks says. But then he saw how much Snoop loved being with the kids, and soon enough, he picked up a whistle. Coaching children gave him conviction, he says. It gave him a conscience.

It was time to slow down and change his lifestyle. He had a family — four boys. And when Stroud walked onto that football field years ago, Brooks had five.

He promised him the same thing he did all of his players: If he needed anything, be it a place to stay, food to eat or an ear to listen, he’d be there.

Facing ‘life’s pressures’

Stroud isn’t the type of person who asks for help, but over the next decade, he would lean on Brooks.

He had no choice.

In 2016, his father was sentenced to 38 years to life in prison after pleading guilty to kidnapping, carjacking and robbery in connection with a drug-related incident. According to court documents, he crashed the victim’s car into a pole, refused police orders to get on the ground, and tried to escape by jumping into San Diego Bay. His sentence took into account previous convictions more than 20 years earlier. In an appeal of his sentencing in 2018, the elder Stroud argued that he had “spent nearly 20 years as a successful businessman, pastor, homeowner, husband, and father. When his wife filed for divorce in 2012, his life spun out of control and he began using illegal drugs again after more than 20 years of sobriety.”

Coleridge, Kimberly says, is an intelligent man with a deep faith in God. He was once an executive at a telecommunications company. They were once a happy family, running their own church, living in a house in Rancho Cucamonga.

“He hadn’t committed a crime since his early 20s,” she says. “Then life’s pressures and all these things that happen made him lose himself.”

Coleridge’s incarceration, she says, devastated the family.

“C.J. saw him as Superman,” Kimberly says.

Brooks tried to make things as normal as possible. His son DonJ’rael is C.J.’s age, and they became close friends. Stroud and a handful of other boys would sleep over at Brooks’ house, he says, eating “every five minutes or so.”

He tried to make C.J. feel comfortable, encouraging him to “stay in a kid’s place.” Life had to go on.

Inspired by his mother

Living with women, Stroud’s mom says, gave C.J. a sensitivity, and a capacity to care more about other people’s feelings. So did going without. With Coleridge gone, Kimberly had to worry about how she’d feed and care for her two youngest children — C.J. and Ciara.

She worked labor-intensive jobs and eventually became a property manager for a storage facility, and they lived in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment above the storage units. C.J. didn’t complain, not when he wore hand-me-downs, or when he played part of a football season with cleats he had grown out of. When Kimberly saw the red blisters on his feet, she asked why he didn’t say anything.

“I don’t wanna bother you, Mom,” he told her, “’cause I see how hard you work.”

It inspired C.J. to work harder too.

“Mama,” he told her, “you’re not gonna have to do this forever. I just want you to know that.”

Consummate teammate

Stroud made the Rancho Cucamonga High School varsity football team as a freshman. Mark Verti, the former head coach at Rancho Cucamonga, can’t remember a freshman who did that before Stroud.

After competing with seven or eight quarterbacks for the starting job, Stroud found himself in a two-man battle for the job with Nick Acosta, a junior. Acosta won the job, and Stroud languished on the sideline with a clipboard for two seasons.

Kimberly got angry watching her son holding playcalling signs when she believed he was good enough to be on the field.

“I was like, ‘Put that sign down!'” she says. “But he just said, ‘Mom, this is my team. Whatever they need me to do to help them win, I’m willing to do.'”

A couple of years later, after Stroud’s first season as a starter, he had a chance to play for IMG Academy his senior year, his mom says. But he declined the offer. He said he couldn’t leave his teammates.

Basketball skills

Basketball was always Stroud’s first love. But he knew if he was going to play professional football someday, he had to fully devote himself to the sport. So he quit basketball after his junior year.

But it’s basketball, Verti says, that probably makes him such a good quarterback.

“One thing we noticed when we pulled him up to varsity,” Verti says, “it was like the first week and we’re having intrasquad scrimmage and he’s throwing passes open in passing lanes that we haven’t really gone through a lot of the reads. But he just could see passing lanes opening up.

“Now looking back on it, I’m thinking that’s like a point guard in basketball. A guy’s driving in the lane and you bounce-pass it to him, like you can see that opening. So he knows where the receiver is going to go and he can see the lane open before the guy gets to the lane.

First start

Stroud hurt his ankle in the first quarter of his first game as a starter in high school, missed the second week, and came back limping in the third game. So it wasn’t a surprise that he did not garner much recruiting buzz in his junior season.

All that changed a few months later. Stroud was invited to the Elite 11 quarterback camp in Texas. He was one of the lowest-ranked quarterbacks at the event, and one of the only players whose parents didn’t hire a personal coach for him. Over the course of the weekend, Stroud outperformed everyone and was named MVP.

Finally, the college coaches started calling. Ohio State coach Ryan Day offered a scholarship, and Stroud finished high school early and arrived on campus in January 2020.

Belief

In his first days in Columbus, Stroud gravitated to the Hope City House of Prayer and sat in the balcony on Sundays with a group of football players. Pastor Brian Williams says Stroud and receiver Kamryn Babb were sort of the leaders of that group.

COVID-19 hit that spring, and when the players returned to campus under pandemic protocols, Stroud and Babb had a lot of time to get to know each other.

Babb, a four-star recruit from St. Louis, had logged two years in Columbus when Stroud arrived but hadn’t seen the field. He tore an ACL the summer before his first training camp, missed the entire 2018 season, then suffered another knee injury the next spring. He tore an ACL four times, twice in each knee.

“There would be those moments where I truly wanted to give up,” Babb says, “or didn’t feel like I had the confidence to be the player I wanted to be or could be at times. And he would always, whether it was a play at practice or just a conversation we had in the locker room, he would always tell me how good I actually was despite how I really felt.

“He really believed in me in moments I didn’t believe in myself.”

In November 2022, Babb made his season debut against Indiana. In the first series he played, he walked up to Stroud and told him, “I love you, bro.” He’s not sure whether Stroud even remembered it. But then they were in the huddle, and Day had called a particular play but Stroud had an idea.

According to Babb, Stroud wanted to get his friend the ball. The Buckeyes were on Indiana’s 8-yard line. Stroud rolled out, and found Babb in the end zone for his first collegiate touchdown.

“I remember the first thing I was going to do was get on my knees and worship Jesus for the world to see,” Babb says. “As I got on my knees, [Stroud] allowed me to have that moment, and he’s kind of in the back waving everybody off. I got up and hugged him.

“There were many days I didn’t want to go … didn’t want to practice or rehab. I would say there were those days where you have guys like C.J. They speak to you.”

‘One-of-a-kind’

In 2022, after becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist as a redshirt freshman, Stroud, according to On3.com, ranked No. 4 in college football NIL rankings with a $2.8 million estimated valuation. The kid who had played a high school football game with only one contact lens because he couldn’t afford to buy a replacement pair was driving around Columbus in a Bentley Bentayga.

But he shared some of the wealth with his teammates. Former OSU offensive tackle Dawand Jones, a rookie lineman for the Cleveland Browns, says Stroud bought the entire O-line suits as a thank-you for blocking for him. Jones wore his Stroud-funded suit on draft day.

“He’s a one-of-a-kind person,” Jones says.

Eager to learn

Stroud’s mentor at the Elite 11 camp back in 2019, the weekend that changed his football trajectory, was a young coach named Jerrod Johnson.

Johnson, a former NFL practice-squad quarterback, immediately liked Stroud because of his humility, his talent and his eagerness to learn. That week, Stroud told the staff he appreciated their time and wanted to soak up all the information.

Fast forward four years to early 2023, and Johnson was an NFL assistant — with the Texans. He couldn’t show his bias too much, but obviously, he was intrigued by the prospect of working with Stroud again.

Johnson says that he’s a small cog in the operation and that by no means did he have any final call when the Texans selected Stroud that late-April evening. But he obviously was happy with the pick.

“I think there’s a mutual respect,” Johnson says. “We’re starting from a good foundation. There’s a fine line between comfort and growth. … I do think there’s a comfort level with each other, but there’s also a level of growth to push him. To be the bad cop.”

Evaluations

Roughly a week before the draft, NFL writer Bob McGinn, citing multiple anonymous sources, reported in Go Long that Stroud recorded the lowest score, 18%, in the S2 Cognition Test, while Alabama’s Bryce Young‘s total score was 98%. Young, a childhood friend of Stroud’s, was picked No. 1 by the Carolina Panthers in April.

The S2 is used to gauge the decision-making process of a potential NFL player. It’s a newer test that has essentially replaced the Wonderlic. According to S2’s website, the test “scientifically measures an athlete’s game-speed cognitive abilities down to a millisecond level.”

The Go Long report quoted an anonymous NFL executive who said Stroud’s score was like a red alert: “…you can’t take a guy like that. That’s why I have Stroud as a bust. That in conjunction with the fact, name one Ohio State quarterback that’s ever done it in the league.”

Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik says the test talk did not give Houston’s decision-makers any pause.

“For me, the personal interaction with him carries way more weight than any of the test scores,” Slowik says. “If a test score could give you the answer in the evaluation process, it would be very easy. But the reality is the evaluation process is very hard because you deal with humans who are imperfect.

“There’s really a lot of unknown in all of it. What gives you conviction in someone is when you talk to them and you feel a drive, you feel an edge, you feel want-to, you feel grit. And that was C.J. You could just tell from talking to C.J. he’ll do whatever it takes to be good, to be great, and to make sure that the organization he goes to is going to win his whole career.”

Adjustments

The Texans knew they had something special in training camp.

Of course they loved Stroud’s confidence and leadership and the way he devoured his 180-page playbook. But to Slowik, one moment in particular solidified the hope that things were about to turn in Houston.

The Texans were running plays with just five men in protection. If the defense brings pressure, the offense has to think and move fast. That puts it all on the quarterback. When the defense blitzed, Stroud didn’t pick it up, and a defensive back ran by him and Stroud knew he missed it.

The coaches talked to him, and for about a week, it was “out of sight, out of mind,” Slowik says. It didn’t come up in any practice. Then one day, they called the same play, and the defense gave a similar type of pressure.

Stroud made an adjustment, got the ball out quickly and converted on third down.

“That’s really hard for a rookie and a young kid to do,” Slowik says, “and I think that goes to show how much he prepares, how much he cares.

“There’s not many lessons that we coach or give him that don’t stick with him. That play in particular sticks out to me because you could just tell that he takes everything to heart.”

A mother’s concern

Kimberly Stroud can’t watch her son’s games on TV. She has to be there, and she spends most of her time praying. She worries every time he gets hit, so Texans backup quarterback Case Keenum recently promised her that any time Stroud is on the ground and things look iffy, Keenum will check on him and give a thumbs-up on the sideline to assure her he’s OK.

She asked Keenum what happens if he doesn’t have his thumb up.

“Then stand by,” he told her, “I’m assessing the situation.”

Studying film

When Stroud’s mom and sister arrived at C.J.’s house Sunday night, he still was wearing the Nipsey Hussle shirt and designer jeans he had on during the news conference after the game.

The family dined on chicken, collard greens, cornbread, yams, and mac and cheese. They call it Soul Food Sunday.

For a couple of hours before that, Stroud was on his iPad studying game film. It’s the same thing he has done since his days at Ohio State. But on Sunday, they caught him momentarily getting excited as the best game of his career played in front of him.

His “oohs” were for his teammates’ big plays.

Gratitude

That night Stroud and his old coach talked in Kansas City, when Priest Brooks had a list of things he wanted to say, he told Stroud to assert his dominance and always give back to the kids. He thanked him and told him that he helped him, too. And then there was his last message. “Coach loves you as my own.”

Brooks cried and they hugged for a second, and then Brooks hopped on a plane back to California.

“It was a village that helped C.J.,” he says, “and I may not know the whole village, but I do thank the village. I thank the coach who came before me for helping C.J. … I thank the guys at Ohio State behind the scenes helping C.J.

“But at the very end of the day, and I tell the kids this, you guys are the reason why you are where you’re at today. We did help you; yes, yes we did. But we can’t want it for you. Your dad couldn’t want you to be a quarterback more than you did. So at the very end of the day, after thanking everyone, thank yourself.”

ESPN’s Stats & Information contributed to this report.

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