C.J. Stroud wowed viewers and broke the NFL rookie passing record. Then he did something even more impressive

What C.J. Stroud had to say after he led the Texans to a big win on Sunday was bigger than football. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
What C.J. Stroud said after he led the Texans to a big win Sunday was bigger than football. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

Minutes after coming out on the winning end of one of the most exciting games of this NFL season, after leading his team on a game-winning, 75-yard touchdown drive that began with just 46 seconds left in the fourth quarter and one timeout in hand, after breaking the all-time NFL rookie record for passing yards in a game, Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud didn't immediately talk about any of those things.

First, he needed to speak up about the corruption of the American justice system.

It's a deeply personal issue for Stroud, as his father, Coleridge, is currently serving a 38 years-to-life sentence in California after pleading guilty to several charges in 2015.

"I got to talk to my dad a little bit this week, and I'm praying to God that something can happen that he can get out and come to one of these games, man," C.J. said Sunday. "I've been praying for him a lot, and I know — I didn't want to make this public, man, but our criminal justice system isn't right. It's something that I probably need to be a little more vocal about because what he's going through is not right. He called me this week, and we got to talk, and I'm praying for the situation, and [the] REFORM [Alliance], the people of REFORM are helping me a little bit.

"But just letting it be known, man, it's not just my dad's situation, but the whole criminal justice system is corrupt. I've been watching videos, and in Mississippi some of the prisons have rats and roaches and things like that, and don't get me wrong — criminals, they should do their time and everything like that, but they're still humans, you know what I mean? I just wanted to shine light on that real quick.

"But yeah, I'm really blessed to break the record and really blessed to get the win."

Now, let's pause here for a minute for those of you who like to read things or hear things you want to read or hear instead of what is actually written or said. Stroud did not, at any point, say that criminals should not face punishment; in fact, just to reiterate, he said, "Don't get me wrong — criminals, they should do their time."

Coleridge Stroud pleaded guilty to carjacking, kidnapping, robbery and misdemeanor sexual battery after he forced himself into a woman's car while she was at a red light, demanded that she bring him to a house to buy drugs, at one point touched her between her legs over her clothes and then, after she escaped, evaded police and ultimately jumped into San Diego Bay. No one here is saying that he did not deserve disciplinary action.

We good? Everyone on the same page? Cool.

What I am saying is that while it might not have been the most elegant delivery — chances are Stroud was nervous to leap into such a topic in front of media after just his fourth NFL win — it was remarkable to watch this young man take that leap at all. There are quarterbacks far older than him, with a lot more money in the bank, who wouldn't have the temerity to speak up about anything even remotely controversial, let alone the American (in)justice system, in a postgame news conference.

And we're also saying that Stroud's points — that the criminal justice system "isn't right" and that conditions in many prisons are inhumane — are valid.

There have been an increasing number of headlines bringing attention to men, overwhelmingly Black men, released from prison after decades of being caged for crimes they never committed, their lives stolen from them. Once their freedom is returned, they're given little, if anything, to help them put things back together.

Public defenders have far too many cases, with a recent study showing that they are handling three-to-10 times more cases than guidelines dictate, meaning they can't work effectively for clients, which often leads to life-altering results.

An untold number of American families are still dealing with the effects of the 1994 federal crime bill, which contributed to an explosion in the prison population nationally, in part because of the implementation of three-strikes bills in multiple states. While some changes deliberately targeted Black communities (i.e. significantly longer sentences for crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine use, even though they are effectively the same substance and white people used the drug at higher rates), the overall result has led to BIPOC people being arrested and convicted far more frequently and receiving longer sentences for the same crimes.

California's three-strikes law comes into play for Stroud's father. Coleridge Stroud had been arrested three times previously, but the 2015 incident was his first in more than 20 years, since before he'd met C.J.'s mother and C.J. and his three siblings were born. Coleridge had served as a church pastor and worked for a communications company, but during an appeal in 2018, he said that when his marriage dissolved years earlier, "his life spun out of control and he began using illegal drugs again after more than 20 years of sobriety."

Kimberly Stroud told Sports Illustrated last year that an attorney hired by Coleridge was fighting for his release, arguing that at least one of his past convictions was nonviolent and therefore should not count as a strike under the law.

As to inhumane conditions, well, examples of those are myriad as well. C.J. Stroud mentioned conditions in Mississippi; a 2022 U.S. Justice Department investigation did find roaches and rats, as well as mold and broken toilets at the state penitentiary, and there were 300 deaths there in just over three years. A federal judge this week ordered that Louisiana's Angola state prison be put under federal oversight after the court ruled that inmates received inadequate medical care (the state's department of corrections says it is appealing the decision). Just this year, nine people have died at New York City's Rikers Island jail, where the overwhelming majority of people are awaiting trial — not convicted.

It all means that for many (let's pause again to say many does not mean all), the punishment and its long-lasting effects in terms of mental health, PTSD and broken relationships are far worse than the crime committed.

Talking to the hosts of "The Pivot" last year, Stroud spoke of the anger he felt for years after his father's arrest but also of their relationship now that he is older.

"When I talk to him now, I don't hold no ill will," he said. "I tell him, 'I love you, man.' At the end of the day, you made your mistakes, and I'll make mine. It's not about the bad. Especially being a Black man in this world, we're held for the bad stuff that we do, not the blessings. My dad changed his life for 25 years. Twenty-five years he was a pastor ... I probably didn't have a Christmas or Thanksgiving when I wasn't giving, I wasn't going into the community. I look at the things my dad did that were positive."

None of us is all good. None of us is all bad.

Humans, even ones who have committed wrongdoing, should still be treated as humans.

Stroud knows that. On Sunday, after a dazzling performance in a young career that might be full of them, he seized on an opportunity to spread the word.