(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports illustration)

C.J. Stroud’s path to stardom was anything but smooth

How has C.J. Stroud engineered one of the best rookie seasons by an NFL quarterback? The answer can be found at a storage facility 40 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

Forty miles east of downtown Los Angeles, deep in endless suburban sprawl, is a storage facility that at first glance looks entirely unremarkable. A motorized gate, tall, metal fences and video surveillance cameras protect dozens of padlocked storage units.

You’d never guess that the NFL’s best rookie lived here for three years when he was in high school. You’d never guess that C.J. Stroud used to open the gate for customers who needed access after-hours. You’d never guess that some of college football’s best known coaches passed through the doors of the Strouds’ cramped, two-bedroom apartment behind the property manager’s office.

“Bet you’ve never recruited at a storage facility before,” Kimberly Stroud used to tell them, half amused, half embarrassed.

How has C.J. Stroud made such a stunningly smooth, almost effortless transition into one of the most demanding roles in sports? How has he engineered the best rookie season by an NFL quarterback in at least a decade and elevated the once-woeful Houston Texans into playoff contention?


Those close to Stroud credit the lessons instilled by his father’s incarceration and his mother’s fight to stave off homelessness and financial ruin. They tell stories of a quarterback whose toughest challenges all came long before his pro football career began.

Father and son

The first time Kimberly Stroud realized that her youngest son might be unusually athletic, C.J. was only 3 years old. When Kimberly picked up C.J. at daycare, a woman who worked there pulled her aside to talk in private.

"Oh no, what did he do?" Kimberly thought.

Turns out C.J. had been outside playing basketball on a Little Tikes hoop. He kept dunking on some unsuspecting kindergarteners at least two years older than him. The daycare staffer told Kimberly that she’d “never seen anything like it.”

The response was similar when C.J. began playing junior All-American football a few years later. Willie “Tojo” Munford broke his longstanding policy of coaching only the Alta Loma Warriors’ older teams after watching C.J. throw for just a few minutes. The tall, long-armed 8-year-old effortlessly zipped passes 30 yards downfield, smacking unprepared receivers in the hands or face mask.


“I decided then I was going to take my chances with the little guys,” Munford said. “I’d won a lot of championships with a lot of good quarterbacks by then. None of them threw like that at 7 or 8 years old.”

As C.J. gravitated to basketball and football, he could always count on his dad’s guidance and support. It was Coleridge Bernard Stroud III who taught little C.J. how to make a layup and throw a tight spiral. It was Coleridge who chauffeured him to youth football games and basketball tournaments. It was Coleridge who wiped away his son’s tears after deflating losses and reassured him there would be bigger games ahead.

Munford affectionately describes Coleridge as one of those fathers who was incapable of sitting quietly in the stands on game days. Coleridge would often volunteer to keep the stats, Munford says, just to have an excuse to come down to the sideline to watch C.J. quarterback the team.

For years, Munford insisted that C.J. move within the pocket rather than taking off at the first hint of pressure. Munford wanted to train C.J. to go through his progressions and develop habits that would serve him in high school and beyond.

For years, Coleridge would playfully shout at Munford, “Let my son run the ball!” Coleridge saw no value in molding his son into a pocket-passer when C.J. could run through opposing defenses like a grade-school Michael Vick.


“I tell parents all the time, ‘No one cares who wins the 11-year-old championship,’” Munford said. “I try to coach these kids for success later on. But C.J.’s dad, for four years, just yelled at me. I used to joke with him, ‘Just drop C.J. off and go home!’”

C.J. and his father were so inseparable that Munford quickly noticed when the dynamic changed. Coleridge stopped coming to practices and games during C.J.’s final season with the Warriors. The few times Coleridge did show up, C.J. hardly acknowledged him.

Munford asked his quarterback where his dad was once and only once. C.J. responded that he didn’t want to talk about it, but his withdrawn behavior made it clear to Munford that something was wrong.

Coleridge was in the midst of a drug-addiction-fueled spiral at the time, Kimberly said. She described it as “really, really hard on C.J.” having his father go from his “solid rock” to someone he could no longer count on.

C.J. was only 13 when Coleridge forced his way into the vehicle of a woman stopped at a downtown San Diego traffic light. Coleridge, according to court documents, then ordered the woman to drive to a house so he could buy drugs, assaulted her and then, after she escaped, fled San Diego Harbor Police. The chase ended with Coleridge crashing the victim’s car into a pole, refusing police orders to get on the ground and jumping into San Diego Bay.


In 2016, Coleridge received a sentence of 38 years to life after pleading guilty to charges of carjacking, kidnapping, robbery and misdemeanor sexual assault. The sentence took into account that Coleridge is a repeat offender who was previously arrested three times from 1989 to 1992.

When appealing his sentence, Coleridge highlighted that he had "spent nearly 20 years as a successful businessman, pastor, homeowner, husband and father.” He described himself as having "a drug relapse after nearly two decades as a crime-free, productive member of society."

The appeal went nowhere. Coleridge was gone, leaving behind a family plunging toward financial ruin and a teenage son angry at the world.

For three years, C.J. Stroud and his family lived in an apartment at a storage facility in suburban Los Angeles. (SmartStop Self Storage)
For three years, C.J. Stroud and his family lived in an apartment at a storage facility in suburban Los Angeles. (SmartStop Self Storage)

On the brink of homelessness

The Strouds could no longer afford their comfortable suburban lifestyle without their primary breadwinner. Unpaid bills piled up even after Kimberly scrambled to find work and downsized from a 5,000-square-foot home to a modest condo.


Unable to pay rent and provide for herself and her two youngest children, Kimberly arrived at what she calls “a point of desperation.” She resorted to begging family members to temporarily take in C.J. and his older sister, Cieara. When they refused, Kimberly pleaded with friends to help.

“It was really scary,” Kimberly told Yahoo Sports. “I reached out to so many people, but nobody would help. I’d have lived in my car, but I’m not letting my kids live that way.”

The Strouds were on the precipice of homelessness when Kimberly landed a job as a property manager at a storage facility in Upland, California. The job enabled her, C.J. and Cieara to move into the apartment behind the property manager’s office at a heavily discounted rate.

“It was just a godsend for us, really, truly,” Kimberly said

For a short time, C.J. thought he was done with sports. He was too mad at his dad to continue down the path they had mapped out together.


But when C.J. returned to football and basketball, he did so with newfound focus and determination. He wanted to do whatever he could to ease the burden on his mother. As Munford puts it, "He wanted to make great things happen."

C.J. never complained about the consequences of his dad’s sudden incarceration, not about living at the storage facility, not about wearing hand-me-downs to school, not even about playing part of a football season in cleats he had long since outgrown. When Kimberly saw the blisters on his feet one day, she asked why he didn’t say anything.

“Mom, you’ve got so many other things to worry about,” he told her. “I don’t want to burden you.”

Seeing how hard his mom worked only inspired C.J. to push harder to elevate himself and his family.

“Mom, I’m going to get you out of this,” he would tell her.


For a while, it was no certainty that football would be a path to a better life. At the same time, as other quarterbacks were racking up scholarship offers and committing to top colleges, C.J. endured a disappointing start to his high school football career. He hardly took a meaningful snap during his first two seasons at Rancho Cucamonga High.

Nick Acosta, a savvy but less physically gifted 5-foot-11 junior, edged C.J. in a quarterback battle before C.J.’s freshman season. Acosta threw for 27 touchdowns and just four interceptions that year, led Rancho Cucamonga to a 12-1 record and halted Mission Viejo’s 39-game win streak in the playoffs. That made it tough for head coach Nick Baiz to justify a quarterback switch before the following season.

“It’s really hard to bench a guy who did all that, even though we had a guy as talented as C.J. behind him,” Baiz said. “I’ll be honest. We didn’t know C.J. was going to be the No. 2 pick in the draft someday, but we knew he was going to be a very, very good player.”

For a quarterback as competitive and determined as C.J., sitting as a sophomore was difficult to stomach. He practiced hard and supported his teammates, but Baiz recalls C.J. being “adamant that he wanted to play and that he should be playing.”

For his mom, it was even more frustrating. Kimberly winced at the sight of her son holding up play-call signs on the sideline instead of displaying his talent on the field, especially when other top high school programs were in her ear promising C.J. playing time if he transferred.


“I was so mad,” Kimberly said. “I was going to switch schools, but he was like, ‘No, Mom, don’t do that. I want to stick this out.’”

C.J. began his junior year with no scholarship offers and no serious prospects. Not only had he not yet started a high school game, but also he hadn’t showcased himself to college coaches and recruiting analysts at camps or 7-on-7 competitions. High school and club basketball commitments played a role in that. So did his family’s financial issues.

“He was basically a ghost in that scene,” Rancho Cucamonga assistant coach Tony Wilson said. “I think that played a part in him not blowing up as early.”

It wasn’t until midway through his junior season that C.J. began to flaunt his now-familiar knack for fitting downfield throws into tight windows. C.J. opened the season as Rancho Cucamonga’s starter but injured his ankle in the first quarter of the first game. When he returned, he rallied his team from a shocking 0-4 start to win its league and reach the second round of the playoffs.

There was never enough money for sessions with private trainers or quarterback instructors, but C.J. made do by studying YouTube clips of college and pro stars. As his coaches learned more about his family’s plight, some of them helped out by providing nutritious meals or gear that Kimberly couldn’t afford.


One time, Wilson noticed C.J. struggling to see the play-call signals from the sideline. C.J. admitted he was playing without a contact lens in one eye because he didn’t want to ask his mom to pay for new ones.

“I talked to his mom and got him new contacts,” Wilson said.

In late January 2019, two months after his junior season ended, C.J.’s perseverance finally paid off. Colorado became the first program to offer him a scholarship after assistant coach Darrin Chiaverini came to watch him work out. Chiaverini said he needed only 10 minutes of watching the ball pop out of C.J.’s hand to realize he was a national-caliber prospect.

“I was just hoping we had gotten in early enough to have a chance at the end,” Chiaverini recalled.

He might have, were it not for one stunning week in Texas that changed C.J.’s life and turbocharged his recruitment.

(Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Breakout at the Elite 11

To young quarterbacks across America, there’s one talent competition that matters more than all the rest. The Elite 11 is for high school quarterbacks what "The Great British Bake Off" is for home bakers and "American Idol" is for aspiring singers.

Organizers of the Elite 11 competition study game film and scout regional camps and 7-on-7 competitions to identify the nation’s 20 best rising senior quarterbacks. Those 20 then compete against one another for MVP honors at the Elite 11 Finals.

Although C.J. grew up watching the Elite 11 and dreaming of performing on that stage, he didn’t appear to be a realistic threat to earn one of those coveted 20 spots after his junior season. He was still outside the top 800 in 2020 class recruiting rankings, still overshadowed by the likes of Bryce Young, D.J. Uiagalelei and Ethan Garbers among SoCal quarterbacks. Elite 11 general manager Brian Stumpf is being generous when he describes Stroud as being “on the periphery” at that time.

C.J.’s first chance to audition for the Elite 11 came at the Los Angeles regional camp. He made a name for himself but didn’t get an invitation to the finals. C.J.’s mom scraped up money for him to go to Oakland for a second regional camp a couple of months later. Again, he turned heads but left empty-handed.

“He was so sad,” Kimberly recalled. “He said, ‘I need this for my future.’”

Organizers of the Elite 11 had awarded 14 finals invitations by the end of the last regional camp. They met in Nashville to discuss which quarterbacks were worthy of one of the final six. C.J. was the second-to-last quarterback chosen, Stumpf said. He and his colleagues liked how naturally C.J. moved within the pocket, how determined he was to succeed and how much upside he had.

“I’m not going to sit here and say we knew what he would become, but he was intriguing,” Stumpf said. “He wanted it really bad, and he hadn’t been coached too much at that point. You put his résumé up there, and there wasn’t much on it yet, but we thought, how much better can this kid get versus other guys who might already be closer to their ceiling?”

One day, at the storage facility, C.J.’s phone buzzed. Still on FaceTime with Stumpf, he ran to his mom and interrupted her conversation with a customer to tell her the good news.

“Mom, they invited me!” C.J. said, with tears in his eyes. “Oh my God! They invited me!”

At the Elite 11 Finals, C.J.’s desire stood out among his peers. The rest of the quarterbacks scattered after one of the first sessions of the camp to say hi to their parents or grab some food. The only one left on the practice field an hour later was C.J., who had convinced a few of the receivers on his 7-on-7 team to stay out there and run routes with him.

When the 7-on-7 competition started, organizers placed C.J. on the same team as four other quarterbacks, including Young and Ohio State commit Jack Miller. At first, each guy had an opportunity to lead the team. To everyone’s surprise, C.J. threw so well that he began to siphon snaps away from the others.

At the end of the week, former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer pulled C.J. aside, shook his hand and handed him a trophy. As the cameras rolled, Dilfer told C.J., “I want you to know you shredded it from start to finish. You’re the 2019 Elite 11 MVP.”

Among those C.J. impressed were Ohio State-bound receivers Gee Scott Jr., Julian Fleming and Jaxon Smith-Njigba. The way Stumpf remembers it, “They went back and told [Ohio State coach] Ryan Day, ‘Hey, Jack’s good, but this C.J. Stroud guy might be someone else we want to look at.”

In April, the Houston Texans selected C.J. Stroud No. 2 overall. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
In April, the Houston Texans selected C.J. Stroud No. 2 overall. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Most prized QB on the market

C.J.’s Elite 11 performance elevated him from the best-kept secret in the 2020 class to the most prized quarterback recruit left on the market. Over the next few months, coaches from Ohio State, Michigan, Georgia, USC and Oregon descended upon Rancho Cucamonga.

“In a three-day span, we had Kirby Smart, Jim Harbaugh and Ryan Day in our football office,” Rancho Cucamonga coach Mark Verdi marveled. “As a little high school coach, it was a pretty cool week.”

Those same high-profile coaches also visited with C.J. and Kimberly at the storage facility apartment.

“They all put me at ease,” Kimberly said. “Coach Day acted like he was in a 5,000-square-foot house. Coach Harbaugh took his shoes off at the door.”

C.J. ultimately chose Ohio State. When he moved into his dorm room, Kimberly says he had $10 in his pocket. She remembers crying in gratitude when the fathers of Scott and Smith-Njigba generously took C.J. to Target to buy him a comforter, towels and a few other essentials.

Less than two years later, C.J. became Ohio State’s starting quarterback at the same time as name, image and likeness rules were changing across college athletics. Before long, C.J. had the means to put a down payment on a house for his mom and to fully furnish it.

For years, C.J. refused to talk to his dad. He seethed while experiencing his teenage years without a father and while watching his mom suffer.

But by the time C.J. started college, Kimberly says her son’s anger faded and he began to heal. Now, when he receives the automated message telling him Coleridge is calling from Folsom State Prison, he takes the call.

“He talks to him a lot, makes sure that he’s taken care of in there, has food and stuff like that,” Kimberly said. “When they talk, it’s like they never missed a beat. It’s really incredible.”

Over the past few months, as C.J. has evolved from Heisman finalist to first-round draft pick to the overwhelming favorite for NFL rookie of the year, his platform has rapidly grown. He has sought to use that to assist families enduring similar challenges to the ones the Strouds faced when he was a teenager.

Earlier this month, C.J. and his mom launched a charitable foundation with a focus on single mothers, children of incarcerated parents and criminal justice reform. Kimberly says they’re working on putting together events to buy new football cleats for kids in need and to provide glasses and contact lenses for kids whose families can’t afford them.

C.J. also recently went back to Rancho Cucamonga during Houston’s bye week and shared his story with the youth players in Munford’s program.

“Now I’ve got 11-year-olds coming up to me saying, ‘Coach, did you see what C.J. did on Sunday?’” Munford said. “He gives those kids hope and belief.”