Chasing the Pro Sports Dream: Is Almost Good Enough?<br />

Close call! Curtis catching a pass during NFL training camp. 

All the hard work finally paid off when I got the phone call.  I was preparing for an opportunity that I wasn’t certain would come. When the Dallas Cowboys invited me to training camp, it was the moment I’d waited for my whole life.

Entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent is an uphill battle, but with guys like the Cowboys’  Miles Austin and the NY Giants’ Victor Cruz ascending from obscurity to stardom, I was confident that I could follow suit.  I’m from Texas, so signing with the Cowboys, my life-long favorite team, was the ultimate dream come true.  So many Black boys grow up certain that they will become a professional athlete.

“What do you want to be when you grow up, Johnny?” 

“A football player! A basketball player! A baseball player! A boxer!”

Like so many of our kids, I too had a family and network of people who believed along with me that this could happen. We dreamed it together. And as far-fetched as the dream is—after all, most kids, even talented ones, will not make it to a pro training camp—it became my reality. 

It was an honor to put on that uniform, so I wanted to do it justice by busting my butt every day.  I was making plays and progressing, but the final cut deadlines were quickly approaching.   Yet as fast as the opportunity materialized, there was no comparison for how quickly it was taken away.  There was no cushion to land on when reality came crashing down. Three and a half weeks after signing the deal of a lifetime, I was sent packing and left wondering: now what?

We glorify sports here.  Athletes are rewarded with multi-million dollar contracts, lucrative endorsements deals, and live luxurious lifestyles that rival pop stars.  Who wouldn’t want a glimpse of that?  We see the stories all the time about this brother or that one making it out of the ‘hood through sports. It makes sense that at very young ages we start training our children for athletic success.  We say: “You’re gonna be my little Lebron James” when we put a ball in their cribs or gift them baseball bats and cleats. Hell, my first word was “touchdown” (true story). 

We encourage children to follow their dreams, sure, but there is no denying that the Black community is especially seduced by the idea of sports superstardom.  Sports are seen as a “way out” and the best way to a better life.  Yes, becoming a pro athlete is one way to improve one’s circumstances.  With all the sports rags-to-riches stories, the proof is in the pudding.  But a pro sports career is just that, one way.  As a young Black man who lives this dream, I really believe that the other, more probable routes too need to be emphasized and encouraged in our community.

Curtis Clay through the years

Curtis Clay Football Story

If many of us approached education the way we approach sports, the academic achievement gap between Blacks and whites might decrease. If we gave academics the same intensity and dedication we do athleticism, the same resources and tools, the private lessons, training camps, and fundraisers there would be a cultural value shift in our neighborhoods.

An article I once read, “Touchdowns and Honor Societies” calls this the “athletic/academic paradox.”  I’m all too familiar with this contradiction.  I saw it first-hand when relatives who attended most of my college games failed to make it to my college graduation.  I saw it year after year when teammates on full athletic scholarships would leave college after five years, when their football eligibility expired, with no degree.  Education just isn’t a high enough priority.

Coming out of high school, I wasn’t getting any offers to play college football.  I had the skillset, but was too small and too slow for any recruiters to take seriously.  It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Had scouts been knocking down my door, I probably wouldn’t have focused enough in school.  I decided to play wide receiver at Texas Christian University as a walk-on.  I went in expecting it to be extremely difficult and it was just that.  I had to outwork my competition and prove myself every day or risk being cut.  I slowly started gaining the attention and respect from my coaches and teammates by making plays on the scout prep team.  I went in with the intention of contributing and I accomplished that goal.  I earned a full athletic scholarship and went on to become a four-year letterman.  I was even fortunate enough to be a part of an undefeated team my senior season!

I’m proud to say that in addition to my accomplishments on the field, I was also elected to the team’s Leadership Council and recognized with sportsmanship, community, and academic achievement awards.  Nothing came easy, but anything worth having doesn’t.  My