College Football
C.J. Stroud had a vision of greatness, and a mother to be 'that constant'
College Football

C.J. Stroud had a vision of greatness, and a mother to be 'that constant'

Updated Nov. 26, 2022 12:20 p.m. ET

Long before he was a Heisman-contending quarterback at Ohio State, back when he was just a child in his very first year playing football, C.J. Stroud got a ride home one night from his head coach. His mother, Kim, met the car as it pulled up, exchanging pleasantries with the coach. Then he dropped a surprise on her.

"I just wanna let you know that your son is one of the best football players I've ever seen — his skill level, his mechanics — all of it."

Kim, a mother of four, was astounded. "Which son are you talking about?"

"Your son — C.J."


"But C.J.’s only 7 years old."

"And I'm trying to tell you," the coach said, "I've never seen these skills, these motor skills, on any kid."

Recounting the story recently, Kim laughed. She herself has never been athletic — "I'm the girl that has two left shoes," she said — nor had she closely followed sports (years later, when Jim Harbaugh would try to recruit her son, she would observe of the Michigan football coach, "All of these people were running up to him asking if they could take a picture with him. I didn’t know who he was.")

It would be several more years before she began to see and believe her child’s ability to play football and basketball was special. She arrived at that truth about the same time the rest of the recruiting and college football world did.

C.J. Stroud: The next Ohio State superstar

The "Big Noon Kickoff" crew explains what makes Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud one of the best in the nation.

But when I showed C.J. Stroud a text from his mother last summer, recommending what I should ask her son — "Maybe how he mentally prepares for games, keeps himself focused and motivated?" — the then-20-year-old quarterback smiled.

He began to tell me about how a recruit not many had heard of going into his senior year of high school ended up right here right now, as a Heisman contender who will guide Ohio State into The Game against Michigan with high stakes on Saturday (noon ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app).

"I think," Stroud said, "it’s how she raised me."


C.J. is the youngest of his parents’ four kids, though Kim has taken care of Isiah, Asmar, Cieara and C.J. by herself for years.

His early life revolved around a church his parents helped build called Life Application Christian Center, headquartered in Rancho Cucamonga, California, at which his father served as pastor and his mother the first lady.

"C.J. and Cieara, my younger two, that’s all they knew was church. We went to church several times a week," Kim said. "We dedicated a lot of our time to volunteering in our neighborhood, in our community. So my children spent a lot of time being selfless and knowing there's a lot, there's a big world out there, and you're not the whole world."

C.J. Stroud (in red) and his siblings, from left: Cieara, Asmar and Isiah. (Photo courtesy of Kim Stroud)

C.J. spent most of middle school helping build the foundation that would become LACC. While both parents are credited with C.J.'s strong bearing in his faith, his father — Coleridge Bernard Stroud, for whom he is named — was the first to put a ball in his hand.

He played youth football for the Alta Loma Warriors and the Pomona Steelers, and as he became better at football, quarterback in particular, coaches told him and his parents he could earn a scholarship.

But while his football talent became increasingly obvious, his love for basketball remained.

"I wanted to play basketball so bad," Stroud said.

He continued to play hoops into high school, leading the Rancho Cucamonga Cougars to a CIF Division II runner-up finish in 2018 as a point guard. This is remarkable because Rancho Cucamonga wasn't a basketball powerhouse, a fact Kim didn't know when she decided to send him to school there.

"He was just a dynamic basketball player, and he loved it," Kim said.

But the time commitment and money needed to play high-level AAU basketball was a little beyond their reach as a family pastoring a church.

"So Rancho Cucamonga High School is known for their football stars," Kim said, "but they're not really known for anybody in basketball. So when I sent him there, I didn't know that. But I thought, C.J., you're that amazing 7-year-old. You can make anything good. Just make the best out of the basketball team.

"But because of that, I think he didn't get the exposure that I think he would have gotten if he would have gone to some of the other schools around us, like a Mater Dei or something like that, where they have the top-of-the-line coaches and different things."

Rancho Cucamonga football coach Mark Verti sees an upside in Stroud sticking with basketball for years, though. He believes C.J. is the personification of why coaches tell parents to let their kids play more than one sport through high school.

"I think that's why he’s such a good QB in football. I think you see his basketball vision on the field," Verti said. "He’s a good passer in basketball. He could see people opening up. That vision he got in basketball, helped him out in football and just having that touch and having that awareness all around him."

C.J. Stroud's high school football coach says his love for basketball helped him as a quarterback. "I think you see his basketball vision on the field." (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)

In time, Stroud accepted football as his calling.

"I had to do what was best for my career," he said, "because I want to play professionally one day."

In math class as a high school freshman, Stroud’s teacher asked him what he wanted to do with his life.

I want to be an NFL quarterback.

His teacher picked up a dry-erase pen and walked to the whiteboard to write some notes.

At least a million boys play 11-man high school football every year. Of those one million, 11,050 earn scholarships to play FBS football.

Of those 11,050, just 224 are drafted into the NFL each year. Just 1,696 men make one of the 32 53-man rosters in the world's best football league.

Stroud's math teacher wrote a number on the whiteboard: 0.078.

That's your chance of playing in the NFL. 

But Stroud didn’t see an impossible obstacle. He saw a path. 


In February 2019, Stroud ranked 860th among 2020 recruits. By August 2020, he’d rank 42nd — just a few spots shy of earning a five-star label. His ascent started with a quest to win Elite 11 MVP.

During her son’s high school years, Kim described herself as something of a chauffeur to camps.

C.J. would make sure he was registered, and that all interested parties at networks 247 Sports and Rivals knew he was attending. He systematically worked from the regional competitions to The Opening Final in 2019 in Frisco, Texas, at The Star where the Dallas Cowboys train.

But as a basketball mom in the beginning, Kim was under a different impression of what they were doing when they first set out to attend camps where recruiting analysts and coaches might see C.J.

"We used to go to tournaments all the time," Kim said. "So I'm just thinking that they’re camps where he’s still developing his skills. But I honestly didn't even know he was working towards this Elite 11 competition until the very last camp that we went to in Oakland."

There, he told her he needed to secure an invitation to The Opening Final. 

"I'm surprised you're not already invited," she said.

She took a moment to familiarize herself with Elite 11 and what winning the competition might mean for her son.

Elite 11 bills itself as the nation’s premier quarterback competition. Founded in 1999 by Andy Bark, the competition is, at its core, a talent search. Staff features Super Bowl winner Trent Dilfer, quarterbacks coaches Quincy Avery, Jordan Palmer, Charlie Frye and Yogi Roth, among others. And their goal is to identify the best high school quarterbacks in the country going into their senior year. 

Kim thought the Elite 11 was just another football skills camp. But she soon came to understand what winning the competition might mean for C.J. (Photo courtesy of Kim Stroud)

Beginning each winter, Elite 11 and The Opening partner to put on six to eight regional competitions across the country to find, evaluate and invite 200 of the best high school football players in the country to Frisco for The Opening Final.

Twelve to 24 of those players are quarterbacks, and they, too, arrive in Frisco for a final competition called Elite 11 Finals to find out which of the nation’s best high school quarterbacks, according to evaluators, will be named the year’s Elite 11 MVP.

Previous Elite 11 Finals alumni include Justin Fields, Trevor Lawrence, Andrew Luck, Jameis Winston, Matt Leinart and Tim Tebow, among others. Like graduating from Harvard University or earning Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America, earning an invitation to the Elite 11 Finals is a tremendous predictor of future success — let alone winning MVP.

With this knowledge, Kim didn’t become nervous for her son, but more aware of how talented he was as a quarterback.

However, when the regional camp in Oakland ended, C.J. wasn’t happy. He did not believe he played to his best.

When Kim asked him point-blank how he thought he did, he said, "I don’t know." While working, though, just days later, she caught sight of her son careening toward her, glasses on his nose and a Wichita State Shockers shirt on.

"Ma!" he said. "They invited me! Oh my god! They invited me!"

He was the last of 20 quarterbacks invited to the 2019 Elite 11 Finals. 


"Well, I get to Frisco and the first thing I did was pray," C.J. told me. "And I was like, ‘God, whatever you want me to do this, let me do it. And I'm gonna give You all praise, and just give me confidence.’ And that's what He did when I went out there."

He was placed in one of four "tribes" where he needed to not only show his ability on the field but off the field as a leader, motivator and capable facilitator for camp counselors. He was chatty with teammates, creating friendships and bonds in between workouts by simply wanting to know them. Those friendships quickly translated into success at the Star.

His tribe, Team Savage, included future Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne and future Buckeyes quarterback and teammate Jack Miller, who has since transferred to Florida.

Quarterbacks go through a simulated Pro Day performance, a series of tough throws meant to mimic the Pro Day each of those quarterbacks hope to have after three years of college football. At the end of the performance, each quarterback is given a score, with 50 being perfect.

Stroud went last in his group following Young, who put up a score of 45, which led the competition to that point.

It wasn’t just one dime Stroud dropped into a shoebox some 40 yards downfield. Every pass he threw was nearly perfect. Elite 11 director of player personnel Joey Roberts was in awe.

"Literally every single ball he threw was right on the face mask," Roberts said. "Proper footwork, proper rhythm, proper drop and the ball finishing. And as more people came onto the field and more coaches are getting excited, he was able to be consistent."

He ended the day with a perfect score of 50 — a record at Elite 11 Finals. Stroud’s was the first and only perfect score in the history of the competition.

"I’ve been dreaming about this my whole life," Stroud told Elite 11 following his performance.

"The best part about the C.J. Stroud performance may have not been the on-field C.J. Stroud performance," Roberts said. "It was actually his tribe literally rallying behind him. You may not have even known that they were competing."

Later, during the camp, Stroud led Team Savage to a 34-6 win in the championship game against the Driplomats.

At its conclusion, you can see Dilfer slyly take Stroud aside in a documentary series about Elite 11. He put a hand on Stroud’s shoulder.

"I want you to celebrate with your team," Dilfer told him, "and I want you to know you shredded it from start to finish.

"You’re the 2019 Elite 11 MVP, man. I’m so proud of you."

"And after that," Stroud said, "I go into my hotel room. I go to sleep. I wake up the next morning, getting ready for 7-on-7 on Saturday, and I get a ring on my phone and it's Coach (Ryan) Day. And he texts me he's like, ‘Hey, C.J., I want to introduce myself. I'm head coach at The Ohio State University.’"

Stroud had walked into The Opening with a handful of FBS offers from teams including Oregon, Washington State, Baylor, Michigan State, Utah, Colorado and Kansas State among others.

By September 2019, Stroud said, he was receiving nearly 450 unread text messages a day from coaches. One of the schools to offer a bit later turned out to be That Team Up North.

"Michigan was a team that highly recruited C.J., as well," Kim told me. "Coach [Jim] Harbaugh came to one of C.J.’s football games, and he stayed for the whole entire game."

But Harbaugh made enough of an impression on the Strouds that they used one of C.J.’s official visits to travel to Ann Arbor. Even though the Strouds didn’t choose Michigan, Kim remains fond of Harbaugh, and Harbaugh remains fond of the Strouds.

"Even at the Heisman ceremony last year," she said, "Coach Harbaugh was taking pictures of our family. He told us, ‘I just want to take pictures of greatness.’"

Instead, on Oct. 8, 2019, Stroud received his scholarship offer to play quarterback at Ohio State. In August 2021, he earned the privilege to start.

I called Kim last summer and asked what it means to know her son was right about himself, that she was right to trust him to lead her and his family on this journey through high school football, recruiting and a camp circuit that ended with him playing quarterback at one of the most storied programs in the sport.

"He doesn't come from a background of quarterback coaches and paying money for your son to be great at a certain position," she said after a pause. "C.J. is purely just one of those kids that worked hard. And he's been that way since he was little. He could have been playing video games or whatever. But instead, he was just a real determined person.  

"He deserves this. It’s an amazing blessing, and we praise God every day … that’s how I feel."


Kim Stroud has spent the last two years learning how to be a parent to the starting quarterback at The Ohio State University. 

"I wish they would write a book to all quarterback moms, or college football moms, when they first start in this journey because there's really nothing out there," she said. "You're just kind of winging it with a lot of other parents who are just kind of winging it, too."

"When he got to be the starter that's when I really realized the magnitude of his position," said Kim, shown here with sons C.J. and Isiah. (Photo courtesy of Kim Stroud)

She sensed it in his first season in 2020, but when Stroud became The Guy in 2021, Kim came to understand just who her son was to the Buckeye faithful and the sport.

"I never knew and no one really explained to me how Ohio State is and the legacy of their football program, as well as the huge responsibility, kind of the weight that's placed on these kids," she said. "When he got to be the starter that's when I really realized the magnitude of his position, and how much exposure, how every little thing he does is ridiculed or praised.

"And so I went through that stage of being angry, and defensive before coming to understand that it's like a religion to them. I mean they eat, breathe and sleep the Buckeyes. That took a lot of getting used to."

Her resolve was tested when the Buckeyes had their first loss to Michigan in a decade last November — a game they will try to avenge Saturday.

Following Ohio State’s loss, she tried to perform her usual ritual of finding the Ohio State buses to kiss her son and tell him that she loves him. But, with her daughter Cieara in tow, they couldn’t find those buses in the snow for some time.

As she was being stymied, trudging through snow, her daughter implored her not to cry. But Mama Stroud couldn’t help it. She hurt for her baby, for the pain she knew he must be in.

When they located the buses, her son dutifully stepped off of his to meet her.

 "Are you OK?" she asked.

"I'm good, Mom," he responded. "I'm good. We all did our best, and that's all we could have done." 

And that was enough. That settled her. He was her quarterback, too, assuring her that they’d strap up for The Game next season and make a run at the Wolverines in Columbus in 2022. 

"I’m sure it hurt," Kim said. "No, I’m sure it did, but he took it. But from his attitude, I found my grace."

Each one of these moments she’s experienced as a parent, from the mean things people say about her child online and in print, to the losses to Oregon and Michigan in 2021, have taught her how to be a parent to a star player. And she’ll need those lessons in just a few months' time.

C.J. Stroud is likely to hear his name called in the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft. FOX Sports’ NFL Draft analyst Rob Rang rated Stroud as the second-best quarterback available in 2023, just behind reigning Heisman winner Young and just ahead of Heisman hopefuls Hendon Hooker, Stetson Bennett and Bo Nix.

And before then, there will be nearly four months of draft workouts and analysis, including some maybe not-so-nice things said about her baby boy.

"I haven't been there," said Kim, referring both to the draft itself and having a child who might be selected in it. 

"But I will say I will just continue to support my son and continue to be that constant in his life."

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RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The Number One College Football Show." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to "The RJ Young Show" on YouTube.


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