Tyrus McCloud, left, poses for a photo with Prison Fellowship’s director of communications, Jim Forbes, at a recent Angel Tree Sports Clinic.
Inside Journal: Did you always dream of being a professional athlete?
Tyrus McCloud: I grew up in a poverty-stricken, drugs-and-crime neighborhood, raised by a single mom with six kids. I never liked sports. I was a thief. One day, the high school coach [caught me stealing] and told me I was going to get expelled, but if he could mentor me, then he'd save me from getting expelled. When he started teaching me football, I realized it was going to be a new world for me. That opened my eyes to the possibility that I could get out of my old neighborhood.
In pro football, how important was respect?
You had to earn respect of your teammates in order to be great, so it was very important. I couldn't function without my team. They were like family—we all experienced the same pressures.
What kinds of pressures?
In the NFL, you can't show weakness, you can't show fear. That's why you hear all these tragic stories of guys in trouble for domestic violence or substance abuse, or guys committing suicide. What makes us similar, everyone in this world, is that we all have emotions, fears, insecurities, broken relationships. But when we're taught not to express those things, everything builds up on the inside. Men who are taught to not show emotion or fear aren't able to deal with life's issues in a healthy way.
Just how much pressure was there?
Pressure beyond comprehension. Seeing the Nike endorsements, the commercials, things like that paint a different picture—but the truth is, we were constantly concerned about losing our jobs. After I tore my PCL (leg ligament), the fear of someone coming to take my job while I was in rehab was overwhelming. That'’s the pressure to be a tough guy—smile and pretend like we have it all together.
How can men escape the "tough guy" pressures?
Being able to share your fears and your past mistakes is key. When I started mentoring kids, I decided to share my failures, not my strengths. I could've walked in and said, "I played in the NFL, I've got a wife of 20 years, house, two kids, and a dog," but that's only showing the good side. Truth is, I wasn't very faithful to my wife at the beginning, I wasn't a very good father at first, I didn't know how to control my alcoholism—those things are the truth. Am I still fighting? Yeah. But because you know the real me, you can talk to me and we can help each other.
How did you transition from pro sports to prison ministry?
Like so many other retired players, I went through depression, alcohol, thought about suicide, beat myself up for years. Then … I went through this spiritual rehabilitation period, trying to find my purpose in life. I was working with young adults to mentor them. Then someone said, "I think you'd be great at prison ministry, and God is calling you to this." Well, prison was the last place I wanted to go—I have a brother who's doing a life sentence, and two other brothers who've been in and out of prison. [Taking a job with Prison Fellowship] was probably the biggest step of faith I've ever taken in my life.
What similarities are there in the culture of pro sports and prison?
Many NFL players have similar stories: they come from single moms, poverty, abuse, and their goal in pro sports is getting out of that rough life. When you hear stories from prisoners, it's often the same. But in both places, if you respect each other, it empowers you to take ownership of your life.
And how do you define respect?
My definition of respect is wrapped up in one word: experience. I'm a firm believer your experience teaches you to respect what you're up against. In turn, whatever culture, community, job, relationship, or situation you find yourself in, you will receive respect based on the experience you present.
What advice can you share for readers who want to maintain respectful, healthy relationships?
You can be angry all you want. But at the end of your life, people will remember you as an angry man. Or you can leave a legacy. What do you want people to say about you when you're gone?