HOUSTON — By now, C.J. Stroud knows the routine. His phone buzzes, and when he picks up, he’s met with an automated message telling him he’s receiving a call from an inmate at Folsom State Prison. He’s asked if he wants to accept. He selects 5. He waits.
After a few nervy moments, he hears a voice on the other end. It belongs to his father.
For a while — for almost six years — C.J. would have silenced the call and ignored it. He wasn’t ready. He was still hurt, still bitter. Coleridge Stroud III, prisoner-turned-pastor, went away when his youngest son was only 13, sentenced in California to 38 years after pleading guilty to charges of carjacking, kidnapping, robbery and misdemeanor sexual assault, a repeat offender paying a price for crimes committed decades earlier.
C.J. had grown up calling him Pops, thinking of him as his best friend. Then he was gone, gone in an instant, leaving the family to scrape by, to sweat the bills that kept piling up, to live in a cramped apartment above a storage facility 40 miles east of Los Angeles but a world away.
For years, the son couldn’t forgive. He refused to speak to his father.
It was Dad who had taught him to throw a spiral, who would sit on the bed in their old house and catch passes from little C.J. while he darted around the room, showing off his arm. “Wow, you can throw it pretty good,” Dad would marvel. “Let’s try this outside.” And when they did, C.J. kept flinging it, impressing Dad even more. “Wow, son, you throw a football better than I can.”
But after Dad went away, the money grew tight, the climb harder. C.J. rode the bench his first two years of high school, envious when two quarterbacks from the area — Bryce Young and D.J. Uiagalelei — started receiving scholarship offers in the eighth grade. “Perseverance, perseverance, perseverance,” Kimberly Stroud used to tell her son. “Patience, patience, patience.”
He remembers his first offer. He was a junior. Colorado wanted him. The two of them, mother and son, sat in that little apartment above the storage facility and “cried like babies,” he says.
He visited Ohio State, and when Justin Fields told him, “Come take this over,” C.J. listened. He became one of the best passers in program history, steeled by the hard lessons he’d endured off the field. “My story is different than others,” Stroud says. More lessons would wait. He turned pro, then days before the draft, a report leaked that he’d flunked the S2 Cognition test, a set of exams that claim to “make the undefinable qualities of top athletes quantifiable.”
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At first, he seethed. Then he shook it off.
“What’s a man gonna do to me?” Stroud asks now. “I fear God. I don’t fear no situation, I don’t fear a team, I don’t fear an owner. What’s so bad that’s gonna happen? I’m gonna drop to No. 10? Look at my perspective. I’m gonna get drafted regardless of that dang test.”
He didn’t drop. He went second to the Texans, and eight games in, his play has made a mockery of the S2 test’s viability — if Stroud’s leaked scores were even accurate in the first place. So far, he’s playing as well as any rookie quarterback has in a decade.
As for the test?
“I got down to how it happened, so I got some heads to bust in the offseason,” Stroud says, laughing just enough to make you think he might be serious.
There was this throw Stroud made in his first NFL win, a Week 3 upset of the Jaguars, that gets more ridiculous the more you watch it. He flicked the ball 53 yards, dropping it out of the sky between two cornerbacks and a safety and into the hands of rookie receiver Tank Dell, who never had to break stride, and who, frankly, wasn’t even close to open when Stroud released it.
Plenty of quarterbacks in this league have no business even attempting that pass. Stroud made it look stunningly smooth, almost effortless.
“The post route, right?” Dell says two months later, shaking his head. “Still can’t believe that one.”
Dell says Stroud throws with such touch and anticipation that Texans receivers have learned they don’t even have to watch the ball all the way into their hands — it’ll be in the right spot with the right velocity, rarely forcing them to adjust.
Dalton Schultz, a sixth-year tight end who signed with the team in the offseason, showed up to spring practices anxious to see if Houston’s top pick was for real. A week later he was convinced. He watched Stroud drop a half-dozen deep shots right into the lap of receivers he’d never thrown to. The accuracy was stunning. “I kept asking myself, ‘How did he throw that?’” Schultz remembers. “These were dimes.”
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Glimpses come in practice each week, but Schultz has been most floored with Stroud’s tight-window throws in games, when defensive coverages get sticky and the pass rush muddies up the pocket. The kid keeps meeting the moment.
“It’s stuff you just haven’t seen, not from a rookie,” Schultz says. “It’s one thing to do it during the week, but dude, when he gets to a game and you see him do it every single throw? Again and again and again and again?”
Says Case Keenum, the Texans’ third-string quarterback and a 10-year veteran: “Every week C.J. makes a throw that’s my new favorite.”
First-year coach DeMeco Ryans waited to name Stroud his starter for most of the preseason, wanting to gauge how the 21-year-old would handle it all — the pressures of being a top pick, the daily competition with incumbent Davis Mills, a bad practice, the media spotlight, the locker room, all of it.
Slowly, Ryans started to feel it, a belief building around what the kid could do. Not down the line, not in a year or two, but right away.
“The older players wanted to follow him,” Ryans says. “And that’s when I knew he had the team.”
It’s the little things, like the text messages Stroud started sending to Dell on Mondays, clips of plays he wanted to work on in practice that week, then dial up come Sunday. Soon enough they started a group chat with every receiver and tight end on the roster. If we get this look, Stroud will write to them, then I’m going here with the ball. Be ready.
He hired a personal chef, then started asking his teammates to swing by for dinner darn near every night. Long snapper Jon Weeks, the longest-tenured Texan, likes the talent but loves the humility. “The kid is unspeakably gifted,” Weeks says, looking over at Stroud’s locker, “but he also understands there is some stuff at this level he doesn’t know. He asks questions. Older guys appreciate that.”
In practice last week, while the Texans prepared for the Bucs, Stroud pulled his offensive linemen aside. “You’re the heartbeat of the team,” he reminded them. “You can believe it or not, but I believe it.”
Then on Sunday, with Houston trailing in the fourth quarter of a back-and-forth thriller, Stroud looked at them in the huddle and told them one more thing: “If you just give me a little bit of time, I’m gonna make them pay.”
“He ain’t gonna come like no slouch,” says Schultz. “If he’s gonna do something, that motherf—er is gonna do it.”
What Stroud did Sunday no first-year quarterback has ever done in this league — 470 passing yards, five touchdowns, a 147.8 passer rating, all rookie records — in a scintillating, last-second, 39-37 win. He had just four incompletions after halftime and led a spotless final drive in a mere 40 seconds, hitting all five throws, including a 15-yard strike to Dell with six seconds left to win it. Three days later he was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week.
His play thus far has offered a damning indictment of his reported S2 results, the proof right there, each and every Sunday, that his talent and ability is something a test still can’t appropriately measure. “You don’t pick guys based on a test,” says Ryans, “especially a test we don’t even ascribe to. The most important thing about a quarterback to me is what his teammates say about him. That’s stuff you can’t fake.”
Ask Stroud how he’d evaluate a quarterback coming out of college, and he already has it mapped out.
“I’d never draft a QB who didn’t play another sport growing up,” he says. “I’d never draft a QB without talking to his teammates first. And I’d have to sit down with him and watch film. I would make him explain where the rules stop and where the instincts kick in.”
No tests, he says.
“Look, I can show you my high school report card. I’m not a dumb kid,” he says. “I’m not gonna lie, I was lazy in school, I got what I could so I could play football. But I always had over a 3.0 GPA because that was the standard in my house. That was my mom’s rule.”
Funny, then, Stroud is reminded, that never came up in his draft conversation.
“Because people don’t care,” he says. “People like negativity these days.”
In that win against the Bucs, Stroud became the youngest passer in league history to throw for 450 yards in a game, and one of only six to throw for that many yards without an interception. Eight games in, he has attempted 279 passes. One has been picked off. The “ball-placement specialist” — the label Stroud gave himself during last spring’s NFL Scouting Combine — seems apt. His accuracy is remarkable, especially for a quarterback this early in his NFL career.
Too robotic, some called him amid the draft process, a benefactor of the clean pockets and talent advantage he so often enjoyed as a Buckeye. As a pro, he’s shed every label. It took him half a season. Stroud has awakened a sleepy franchise that before his arrival had cycled through four coaches in three years, moved on from Deshaun Watson and won a grand total of 11 games. Stroud’s immediate success, coupled with Ryans’ fresh approach, has reinvigorated a city that had checked out on its team.
The rebuild is ahead of schedule, and the league has taken notice.
“A top-10 QB,” Robert Griffin III wrote of Stroud on X after Sunday’s win.
“Lamar (Jackson) or C.J. for MVP? That’s the debate,” added Dez Bryant.
“Everyone who said anything negative about C.J. Stroud should apologize IMMEDIATELY!!” Hall of Famer Cris Carter said.
Even with half the regular season remaining, the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year race is effectively over. There’s Stroud, then there’s everybody else.
Eventually, after years of shutting him out, of holding onto that anger, Stroud forgave his father. They started speaking on the phone, Dad wanting to know every inch of his son’s life.
“At first, we were just playing catch-up,” C.J. says. “But now, it’s like when I was a kid again.”
And the more they spoke, the more something stung C.J.: the inadequacies, he feels, permeating throughout the country’s criminal justice system. It was more than his father’s incarceration; Coleridge’s life sentence was a result, in part, of California’s Three Strikes Law, which drastically increases punishment for those convicted of multiple violent crimes. His father’s previous crimes, C.J. says, occurred before he was born.
The stories he heard about Folsom opened his eyes. C.J. started doing his own research, reading up at night about some of the inhumane conditions inmates face; at one prison in Mississippi, Stroud recently learned, rats and roaches were common sightings. It stirred him to speak up publicly after last week’s win against the Bucs.
But privately, this had been brewing inside him for months. Stroud brought it up at a dinner event over the summer, and the response from those at the table, he thought, was telling. “The first reaction from a lot of people who don’t deal with this stuff personally is, ‘Ah, they’re criminals.’ At the same time, I get that. Don’t get me wrong. If someone makes a mistake, if I make a mistake, I’ll lay in the bed I made.
“If you don’t understand why people feel this way, I honestly think you’ve never met somebody (in prison) or you don’t have a close enough connection,” he continues. “I look at the situation in Ukraine, and it’s like the same thing. It’s the same type of principle. We wanna help those guys … honestly, I’m more for helping people in our backyard. We might as well help inner-city kids here. If we can help other people in other countries, I’m all for that. I’m all for everybody. But the issues we need to correct right now are in this country.”
He holds firm on this point, believing it to his core. This started long before his father went to prison; Dad used to encourage him to read up on Rodney King, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. That’s when the fire was first lit, C.J. says, and it only intensified “when it became more personal.”
Coleridge Stroud, his son says, has become a bit of a celebrity at Folsom. He’s turned everyone in his cellblock into Texans fans. He’s able to watch the games on Sundays, and C.J. has an app on his phone that allows him to send photos and videos to his father, a constant stream of updates on his first year in the NFL.
In time, Stroud dreams of a day when his father can watch him play in person. He says he’s praying for an early release.
Three days after polishing off the best performance an NFL rookie quarterback’s ever had, Stroud is scarfing down a quesadilla inside an office at NRG Stadium, getting harassed by teammates for not being 15 minutes early to a meeting, hours shy of meeting LeBron James in-person for the first time at a Rockets-Lakers game.
He’s asked if he could have envisioned all of this — becoming the face of an NFL franchise at just 22 — back in that cramped apartment that sat above a storage facility 40 miles from L.A.
“Yeah, I always did,” he says. “Even when there wasn’t much hope.”
He used to pull up Drew Brees highlights on YouTube to study his footwork. He loved the efficiency of Brees’ release, how there was no wasted motion. “Because of how small he was, he couldn’t make a mistake,” Stroud says. That’s how Stroud taught himself after his father went away, how he climbed from an off-the-radar recruit early in high school to Ohio State to No. 2 in the draft last spring.
He goes back to a quote his older brother, Isaiah, used to repeat. You can pray for anything. You can pray all you want. But if you don’t meet God halfway with your hard work, it really doesn’t matter.
“If you’re given everything right away,” Stroud says, looking back, “you become spoiled. You can kind of get flustered when things don’t go right. And if you get flustered easy, you won’t be successful, not in this line of work.
“I didn’t know what it would look like, or where I’d be, but I always knew what I was going through wasn’t for no reason. I knew I was being prepared for something bigger.”
He’s right. He just knew before everyone else.
(Top photo: Logan Riely / Getty Images)