Chasing the Pro Sports Dream: Is Almost Good Enough?

Chasing the Pro Sports Dream: Is Almost Good Enough?

Curtis Clay, former college football player and Dallas Cowboy for three weeks, gets real about the cost of encouraging our boys to be athletes only

by Curtis Clay, July 30, 2012

Chasing the Pro Sports Dream: Is Almost Good Enough?

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.

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 NFL dream was (and is) still in effect, but you can believe I graduated from TCU with a broadcast journalism degree.

Luckily, I have parents who support me in all my endeavors.  Straight A’s were celebrated just as much as touchdowns.  They encouraged me to take the risk, but expressed the odds of a pro sports career in a way that didn’t deter my football dreams.  I trained all spring and summer during the NFL Lockout without any clue if I’d get picked up.  I was all but ready to go play in Canada when a scout for Dallas told me to report for a physical.  Ninety guys fighting for 53 jobs is tough. But harder when you’re undrafted and many of those spots are already locked down.

I first realized just how cutthroat the NFL was when they released my roommate.  The “reaper” entered our hotel room at 6:00 a.m., turned the lights on, and asked my friend where he needed a flight to.  No emotion. No remorse. Strictly business.  I laid in bed, pretending to be asleep, thankful that it wasn’t my time. My release, a couple weeks later, wasn’t much better though.  After driving 20 miles to the facility for an early morning practice, I was stopped at the door before even getting into the building. To sum it up, they told me “Thanks, but, no thanks.” Sadly, I had several college teammates who had to go through the same thing and it still hurts every time I get a call or text from one of them saying their time is up. 

But, to keep it real, football was not my Plan A, so I felt prepared for a life beyond it.  The reality is that even if I was fortunate enough to play football for the NFL average (3-4 years), I could still end up as a late twenty-something wondering: what’s next?  I believe in my ability, but I am rational and haven’t placed all my eggs in one basket.

Here’s the plan: I’m still training in case football calls again, but I’m also putting myself in a position to be successful in another arena.  I just received my Master’s Degree in Educational Administration and I teach at an elementary school.  Yes, my kids want to be an athlete or an entertainer. I encourage them to pursue that passion but I also ask them what else they want to do and remind them that they are so much more than a singular thing.

Success comes in various shapes and sizes and I am living proof that youth should be made aware of the alternatives.  No matter what your goals are, and regardless of the discipline, one thing remains consistent: you have to believe in yourself and put in the work.  We cannot produce a generation of people who quit every time things get rough.  Glass ceilings are meant to be broken.

Football gave me a platform to tell my story, but my education gave me the competence to articulate my message.  In addition to teaching, I run coaching clinics and am a motivational speaker.  No matter where I am, I try to express that self-belief and a strong work ethic are essential values if you want to go anywhere.  You may not accomplish every goal you set for yourself, I certainly haven’t, but failing does not mean you’re a failure.  Re-evaluate, set new goals, and do that little bit extra. 

My dad used to always tell me, “It takes more to be a champion.”  As a youngster, I was under the impression that being a champion meant never losing.  It wasn’t until a few years ago that I began to understand what he really meant.  Being a champion doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed at everything you do.  It doesn’t even imply that you will always get a fair opportunity.  But champions are those who give everything their best effort.  They are those who lead by example, even when it’s easier to conform or take shortcuts.   Champions are those who continue to believe they can accomplish anything even when the entire world says you can’t. So, yes, be a champion in sports. But more importantly, be a champion in every facet of your existence.

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