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Dang, but C. J. Stroud had a hell of a year on the football field. As the rookie quarterback for the Houston Texans, Stroud, who turned 22 in October, passed for 4,108 yards (third-most by a rookie ever), and led the league with a 23-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio—the youngest player ever to do that. In one game he threw for an astounding 470 yards and 5 touchdowns. Stroud was named AP’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, the first Texans player ever to receive the award, and he led the team to a first-round playoff win—becoming the youngest quarterback ever to do that. Stroud was a lot of fun to watch—he was poised in the pocket, with a strong arm and a quiet, confident demeanor.

He was a lot of fun to watch off the field too, at least if you like watching soft-spoken athletes who try to make the world a better place—or guys who say “dang.” Stroud says it a lot. Before the draft last year, after word leaked that he hadn’t done so well on a cognition test, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’m about to get drafted regardless of that dang test.” When more than a year later the Texans lost in the second round of the playoffs, Stroud—who had done nothing but win at Ohio State and had thought his Texans could actually make it to the Super Bowl—told reporters one thing was foremost in his mind: “Dang. Dang, man. What if? That’s the worst feeling—just having regrets.”

Stroud, whose full name (Coleridge Bernard Stroud IV) is the loudest thing about him, grew up in Rancho Cucamonga, a city east of L.A. (He’s been called C. J. since he was a kid.) His humility seems to have been passed down from his parents, Coleridge Bernard Stroud III and Kimberly. Once, during a youth basketball playoff game in which he had been lighting up the scoreboard and high-fiving his teammates, Kimberly walked over to the sideline huddle, grabbed his jersey, and threatened to take him out of the game. “Boy,” she said, “you stay humble no matter what.” Stroud’s father was the pastor at a church he and Kimberly founded, and he had taught his son to throw a football and shoot a basketball. “My pops,” Stroud would say later, “he was my best friend.”

So when Stroud was thirteen, he was devastated when his father was sentenced to 38 years at California’s Folsom State Prison after he pleaded guilty to kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery. That was 2015, and as Stroud blossomed into a stellar quarterback—as a five-star high school prospect and then a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist at Ohio State University—his father never saw him play. Stroud IV grew angry with Stroud III, especially because his mom had to scramble for jobs and living space. For a time, Kimberly, Stroud, and his three older siblings lived in a small apartment above the office of a storage facility that she managed.

A few years ago, Stroud and his father began speaking over the phone—and rekindling their relationship. Ever since coming to Houston, especially as he became a local sensation, Stroud has used this developing bond and the media microphone to talk about prisons and reform. The day after he threw for those 470 yards and five touchdowns, he didn’t just talk about strategy and teamwork. “Our criminal justice system isn’t right,” he told reporters, “and it’s something that I need to probably be a little more vocal about.” He talked about his father, how the two had recently spoken, and how he had recently seen videos of the terrible conditions at Mississippi prisons. “Some of the prisons there have rats, roaches, and things like that. Don’t get me wrong—criminals, they should do their time, but they’re still humans, know what I mean?”

Stroud went so far as to get involved with Reform Alliance, a nonprofit working to fix the byzantine parole and probation system, which sometimes keeps releasees trapped in a revolving door between prison and home. He met with the group’s leaders and joined Reform’s Future Shapers Advisory Council. In one game this season, as part of the NFL’s “My Cause My Cleats” initiative, he wore a pair of custom cleats with the words “Reform” and “Free Pops” on them.

As the year went on, the quarterback became a louder presence in the Houston community. Just before Thanksgiving, for the first act of his newly formed C. J. Stroud Foundation, he and Kimberly traveled to a Third Ward H-E-B and handed out vouchers for turkey dinners—as well as gloves, hats, and hoodies—to one hundred single mothers, some of whom got emotional at receiving the gifts. “I can remember us having some troubles back when we were younger,” C. J. told reporters. “To see it kind of come full circle, I just think it gives them hope because at that time, that’s what we needed: hope.”

Stroud wasn’t giving hope just to single mothers—he was giving it to the entire city of Houston, home to one of the most demoralized fan bases in the NFL. Ever since the beloved Oilers left for Nashville, in 1996, Houston football fans, who were already living in the shadow of the Dallas Cowboys, have felt abandoned. The city didn’t get a new franchise until 2002, and then the Texans became one of the NFL’s most mediocre teams. In the three years before Stroud’s arrival, they won a total of 11 games. Their rock bottom might have been in 2021, when they lost 31-0 to the Colts at home, ranked last in the league in points scored, and saw their quarterback Deshaun Watson get accused of sexual misconduct before he was traded to Cleveland.

Which brings us to 2023, when Stroud led the team to a 10–7 record and the AFC South title. Then, while the Cowboys lost in the first round of the playoffs, the Texans won, thanks to another stunning performance from Stroud, who threw for 274 yards and three touchdowns, routing the Cleveland Browns. Afterward, Texans coach DeMeco Ryans summarized the feelings of the entire city of Houston. “C. J. is the reason why we’re in this position. He’s special, a special young man. Special player.”

Dang right!