Six-year-old Storee Elle Walton had a goal: The Memphis, Tennessee-born first-grader wanted to cover a black college football game. So much so that at the age of just 3, she would ask her mother, Tanyel, a Tennessee State University alumna, if she could take pictures with her phone at games.
On Sept. 14, Storee took photos and captured special moments of the 30th annual Southern Heritage Classic football game and halftime show in Memphis.
She first attempted her goal at last year’s event, but the game had its first cancellation because of bad weather, including lightning.
“Last year, I was sad,” Storee said.
But this year was a game-changer.
Storee no longer needed to use her mother’s iPhone. She was on the field among a gang of other photographers covering the game, shooting with her Nikon camera purchased by her grandfather, professional photographer Thurman Hobson. Storee, working her way up and down the sidelines — accompanied by Hobson, whom she calls her “grandman” — did not go unnoticed.
Every few minutes, from working media to cheerleaders, Storee was asked to take photographs.
“Photography makes me happy, and doing everything my grandman teaches me to do is so much fun,” Storee said. “The band was my favorite part. All of the people were nice, and other photographers took pictures of me.”
Her stage for the Southern Heritage Classic was the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, where Jackson State defeated Tennessee State 49-44. Jackson State’s Sonic Boom of the South band emerged as the fan favorite during the much-anticipated halftime show.
The crowd of more than 48,000 and the 90-degree Memphis heat weren’t obstacles for Storee, who took more than 600 photos. Storee and her parents are building her new Instagram page to highlight her work.
Storee’s first experience with a camera was at the hand of Hobson, when she was only 1 year old. Four years later she took pictures at her church, and she earned her first payment of $25 after photographing a father and son during service.
“Legacy is important in family. I’m blessed to be able to help transfer a skill set I’ve been using over 50 years to my granddaughter and see her take an interest in providing a form of creative expression for others,” Hobson said. “I love watching her enjoy and experience photography, especially during historical events.”
FAYETTE, Mo. — Perhaps you’ve heard of Antoinette “Toni” Harris. Earlier this year, the 23-year-old became what is believed to be the first woman to accept a scholarship to play football at a four-year college — not as a kicker, as other women have done — but as a position player.
Harris, a free safety, signed with Central Methodist University, a school with 1,000 undergraduates that plays in Division I of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). She’s arrived on campus three weeks ahead of camp to get extra time with the strength and conditioning coach. And, like everyone else on the team, she’s hoping to see some playing time when the season starts on Aug. 31.
Fayette is a dot on the map between St. Louis and Kansas City, a four-block town surrounded by cornfields and soybean farms. On a sweltering Sunday morning in July, the women at Savory Bakery are serving coffee and tea as the radio pipes in The Platters singing “The Magic Touch,” a song that hasn’t seen the Billboard charts since 1956.
We’re two blocks from town, in the center of Central Methodist’s campus, with Harris, head coach David Calloway and defensive backs coach LaQuentin “Q” Black in Calloway’s office on the second floor of Brannock Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus. Harris’ hair is pulled back into a tight ponytail. She’s wearing a “Women are Dope” T-shirt and has a diamond stud in her left nostril. She stands only 5 feet, 7 inches tall, but her 165-pound frame is rock-solid.
She didn’t play for her high school varsity team and only sparingly during two years of junior college. Her demeanor isn’t that of a sports star but of a wide-eyed college student. But Toni Harris is famous.
“There have been so many women — I can’t even count, like over probably 100 or 200 — that contact me every day, whether in middle school, high school or getting ready to go to college, that want to play [football] at the next level,” she says. “They say I’m an inspiration and ask if I have any tips on how they can become better football players. I tell them to just keep pushing and working hard, and just never give up believing in yourself.”
The world discovered Harris over the course of 60 seconds on Feb. 3. During Super Bowl LIII, Toyota debuted a commercial featuring her and her quest to play football. Tens of millions of viewers saw Harris running, training, lifting weights and driving a Toyota.
“They’ve said a lot of things about Toni Harris,” intones narrator Jim Nantz. “They said she was too small. They said she was too slow. Too weak. They said she’d never get to the next level. Never inspire a new generation. Never get a football scholarship. Yeah, people have made a lot of assumptions about Toni.”
Harris then looks into the camera and delivers the closing line, the one she proudly says she wrote herself, the one that sums up her remarkable journey.
“I’ve never been a big fan of assumptions.”
It would have been easy to write off the young Harris when she was growing up on the west side of Detroit. Placed in foster care at the age of 4, she ended up in three different homes by the age of 15.
“You don’t really see anything wrong with it until you’re older,” she says. “I wanted to see my mother and I wanted to know who my father was. But I was always one of those kids who was very optimistic. I had my faith and believed in a lot of things that were positive.”
Harris met her biological father, Sam Clora, four years ago. He is now a part of her life, as are her nine biological siblings (five sisters and four brothers). But her birth mother, Donyale Harris, with whom she always maintained a relationship, died in a car accident this past spring.
One of Harris’ obstacles was simply getting onto a football field. She became infatuated with the sport when was 5 years old, watching her older cousin Demetrius and the Westside Steelers win the national Police Athletic League (PAL) championship.
As Harris remembers it, what she saw on the field that day was a happy, teary-eyed family. “After that, I kind of fell in love with the game of football and never put the ball down.”
With no PAL team willing to accept her, she picked up the game on her own, watching others and playing in neighborhood pickup games. She finally talked her way onto the junior varsity squad at Redford Union High School in suburban Detroit. She was the only girl on the team and played wide receiver and cornerback. (She was also a cheerleader, which is, ironically, how she suffered her worst athletic injury, a bruised knee.) But in the midst of transitioning to senior varsity, she was booted from the team.
“The athletic director [Mike Humitz, who passed away in January] told me he didn’t want to let me play,” Harris recalled. “He said, basically, football was a man’s sport and I shouldn’t be out there. And he was being really sarcastic. He was like, ‘So what’s your next sport? Boys’ basketball? Men’s wrestling?’ ”
Actually, Harris did have a plan: playing in college. She enrolled at the University of Toledo intending to walk onto the team. But fate dealt her another blow. In her freshman year, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“The chemo was really hard to handle because my body went from 170 pounds to 90 pounds,” she says. “The chemo was worse than the cancer was. Because of the radiation I had lost the back of my hair and my body was very weak, and most of the time I wasn’t able to go to school. At first, I was gonna stop playing football, but then I was like, you know, if I can beat this, then what else can I overcome? And so just after the chemotherapy, that’s when I decided to go back to football and try to gain back my weight.”
We can’t help but ask how she absorbs these gut punches. She’s taken so many.
“I think God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers, and I feel as though I’m one of God’s stronger soldiers,” Harris says. “So I feel like I can overcome anything that’s thrown my way.”
Harris enrolled at Golden West College, a community college in Huntington Beach, California, south of Los Angeles. There, she was thwarted in her efforts to play football when head coach Nick Mitchell turned her down.
“She tried out for the team [as a wide receiver and defensive back], but didn’t make it,” Mitchell said in a phone call with The Undefeated. “I didn’t think she was ready for the collegiate level. It had nothing to do with her being female.”
Harris then tried women’s soccer, but it didn’t scratch her itch for football. So she signed up at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) while still enrolled at Golden West and pursued (and ultimately earned) two associate’s degrees simultaneously: one in social and behavioral sciences, the other in criminal justice. At ELAC, she badgered head football coach Bobby Godinez to put her on the team. And, eventually, he caved.
But Harris didn’t just want a uniform, she wanted to play. After everything she’d already been hit with, how much harder could she get slammed on the field?
“She wouldn’t accept no as an answer,” Godinez says on the phone with The Undefeated. “[But] my ‘no’ was out of fear. Having a daughter myself, I was nervous about what the repercussions could be. You have injuries at a high, high level in this sport. But I did tell her that if she sticks around and she proves that she belongs, things could change.”
Harris never missed practice, never missed a meeting, never missed the weight room.
“She was very, very persistent with her goals, and she wouldn’t give up,” Godinez says. “And when it came down to it, her teammates were the ones who said, ‘This girl belongs here.’ ”
That moment came in Week 2 of her first season. As Godinez recalls, “A defensive lineman approached me and said, ‘Coach, give her a jersey, she deserves it.’ ” Harris rarely got on the field that season but still got a scholarship offer from Bethany College, an NAIA school in Kansas. She elected to stay at ELAC, and as a sophomore she played in three games, in which she broke up a pass and made three tackles, including one for a 24-yard loss.
She put those highlights on video and sent them off to four-year programs in the hopes of catching a coach’s eye.
“I don’t even know how many schools [I sent to],” Harris says. “Probably over 200.”
The timing couldn’t have been better. Harris’ highlight video went out right before the Super Bowl and the Toyota commercial. Suddenly, the media was championing the young woman who was challenging stereotypes and defying assumptions. Radio hosts talked about her. Good Morning America and The Today Show featured her in prime guest spots.
The gamble to stay at ELAC had paid off. Now she had scholarship offers from five more colleges — one a Division II school in the NCAA, the others in NAIA.
But only one of those coaches impressed her: Calloway at Central Methodist. He’d been there before the hoopla, emailing her, phoning her, recruiting her. And he’d always been straight with her.
“He wasn’t one of those coaches who was promising you things,” Harris says. “I think what attracted me to this school, to this coach, was him telling me, ‘You’re gonna have to work for your spot.’ ”
Calloway was a four-year starter at Langston University in Oklahoma, graduating in 1997, and has spent 21 years coaching at the collegiate level. At Central Methodist, he faces an uphill battle. Since he took over as head coach in 2016, the Eagles have gone 8-24. But judging from all of the thank-you notes from former players and students pinned to his corkboard, Calloway is a patient and supportive coach who has generated a reservoir of goodwill.
Calloway leans back in his swivel chair and we ask the obvious question: How did it feel to make history? We’re surprised to hear Calloway say he figured some other female athlete had already done it.
“[Making history] never crossed my radar,” Calloway says. “I assumed somebody had already kicked or something.”
In fact, several women have kicked for four-year schools since Liz Heaston did so for Willamette University in 1997, becoming the first woman ever to score in a college football game. Others include Ashley Martin at Jacksonville State, Katie Hnida at Colorado and New Mexico, and April Goss at Kent State. But not one received a scholarship to a four-year school at the Division II level or higher until 2018, when Rebecca Longo signed to kick for Adams State in Colorado. (Shelby Osborne, a defensive back, signed with Campbellsville University in Kentucky in 2014, but she was not initially on scholarship.)
And now Harris is “the first female incoming student to receive a football scholarship as a position player,” says Jennifer Saab, director of communications at the NAIA.
So if Calloway didn’t intend to make history, why did he recruit Harris? He said he sees his role as giving young people opportunities, not just to play football but to graduate. He views Harris as a budding talent, one with skill, an aptitude for the game and an eagerness to develop.
Coach Q agrees. “Her feet are really good and she’s quick out of her breaks,” he says. “When you’re bringing someone on in the [defensive] back end, you want someone that you feel can lead and take charge, and I haven’t seen anything different from her. We’ll see if she’s coachable once we get her on the football field and in the meeting rooms, but so far, so good.”
If Harris takes the field this season, isn’t she bound to run into guys, big guys, who don’t think she belongs there?
Calloway doesn’t seem concerned.
“[Think about] what she’s been through in life,” he says. “Football’s probably not gonna be that tough when all is said and done. Having beat cancer at a young age, and then growing up in foster homes and then maintaining a great attitude through all of it, I think that’s gonna help. That’s what I [see] from a character standpoint. When she puts her mind to things, she can get stuff accomplished.”
Harris has what it takes to withstand any pushback on the playing field, Calloway says. “You read on social media, ‘I will run her over,’ ” he says. “She’s not gonna just sit there and let you run her over. She has more sense than that. She understands she’s on the field with 21 other guys. We’re putting her in position to make proper tackles.”
When the hits come, Harris is convinced she’ll be ready. “I don’t feel like it’s out of the norm for me to be playing with men,” she says. “I mean, [former NFL wide receiver] Trindon Holliday was 135 pounds and 5-6, and I’m much bigger. … Football is about being mentally strong. Are you mentally ready when somebody catches a pass on you? Are you mentally ready to get over that and go to the next play?”
It remains to be seen whether Harris will be on the field against Clarke University on Aug. 31. Calloway makes it clear that she’ll be fighting for her position with a three-year starter and another junior college transfer.
But, as Harris has demonstrated before, competition only feeds her drive.
“I don’t expect anything to be easy,” she says. “It’s never going to get easier. If anything, it’s going to get harder every day.”
That’s probably true, especially if she follows her dream to play in the NFL. If she doesn’t make it to the pros, would she consider playing in one of the women’s semipro or amateur leagues around the country?
“If they made a women’s NFL, then yes,” she says. “I know people play recreationally, but I want to get paid to play just like anybody else. I want a career. So if they don’t plan on putting in a WNFL then I’ll be seeking other things and other ways to make money.”
After meeting Harris, we try not to assume she’ll do it all — take the field on opening day, intercept a pass. And we try not to fantasize that one day she’ll live her dream and put on an NFL uniform.
It’s not easy, because she’s so easy to root for.
The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. The problem is that its structure is designed to regulate the freedom of athletes to turn pro in primarily black sports but not in white ones.
And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.
Earlier this week, the NCAA implemented what was immediately labeled the “Rich Paul Rule,” after the man who represents NBA players LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, John Wall, Ben Simmons and 2019 first-round draft picks Darius Garland and Darius Bazley. The new regulations require that agents interested in representing players who are considering declaring for the NBA draft now must have a bachelor’s degree, be certified with the National Basketball Players Association for at least three years and take a comprehensive in-person exam at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Paul, who never attended college, is one of many agents affected by this rule — but unquestionably the most prominent.
The NCAA’s move was instantly lambasted as hypocritical and vindictive. “The world is so afraid of ground breakers.…This is beyond sad & major B.S.,” tweeted comedian Kevin Hart. James, Paul’s biggest client, longtime friend and confidant, could only laugh at the NCAA’s energy, saying, “Nothing will stop this movement and culture over here.”
Chris Rock explained the context for the NCAA mandate years ago. “We’re only 10% of the population,” he said on 2004’s Never Scared. “We’re 90% of the Final Four!”
Only basketball must adhere to the new NCAA mandate. The actual text doesn’t mention race. Nevertheless, the writing is not just written on the wall, it’s been carved. It’s a “race-neutral” rule that isn’t race-neutral. This comes with historical precedence that the NCAA knows all too well.
One of the worst-kept secrets in sports is how top-tier college football and basketball programs directly benefited from desegregation. Before integration, the vast majority of top black athletes had no choice but to attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Once the larger and richer predominantly white schools began to integrate, HBCUs couldn’t compete. But there’s been a parallel development too: The graduation rates for black athletes at top sports programs remain consistently and embarrassingly low.
Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, found that, overall, black male athletes graduate at higher percentages than black males who are not involved in sports. But that’s not true for the NCAA’s wealthiest leagues: the Power 5 of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.
“The [NCAA] has claimed in television commercials that black male student-athletes at Division I institutions graduate rates are higher than black men in the general student body,” the report says. “This is true across the entire division, but not for the five conferences whose member institutions routinely win football and basketball championships, play in multimillion-dollar bowl games and the annual basketball championship tournament, and produce the largest share of Heisman Trophy winners.”
Black men made up 2.4% of the Power 5 student population but 55% and 56%, respectively, of its football and basketball teams. Of those numbers, 55% of black male athletes graduated in under six years, compared with 60% of black men in the overall undergraduate population and 76% of all college graduates.
“Over the past two years, 40% of these universities have actually had black male student-athlete graduation rates that have declined,” Harper said. “We’re supposed to be getting better, but actually 40% of these places have gotten worse.”
Meanwhile, the debate over paying college athletes is sharply divided by race. Most whites are against “pay to play,” while most blacks strongly support it because the current system exploits a largely black athletic base.
In the NBA, the sport is still primarily black. (The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that during the 2015-16 season, 81.7% of NBA players were people of color and 74.3% were black.) But black athletes have significant power and influence over everything from where they play to who coaches them to the structure of their contracts.
This shifting power dynamic is beginning earlier and earlier too. Bazley skipped college last year to become a million-dollar intern with New Balance. R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball, both touted as 2020 lottery picks, are taking their talents to Australia for a year before declaring for the NBA draft. Hampton has already inked a shoe deal with Li-Ning.
As Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel noted, the new rule’s standard doesn’t apply to college hockey players or baseball players, who can be drafted out of high school but can choose to attend college if their draft placement doesn’t appeal to them.
If this wasn’t about a young black man who achieved his success out of the mud and then empowered other black men to recognize their worth in spite of an organization that has for years manipulated their talents for the organization’s gain, if this wasn’t about yet another American institution attempting to police black mobility and freedom, then it’s difficult to see what the actual reasoning is.
This brings the discussion back to Paul and James. It’s often been said there is a Jay-Z lyric for any situation in life. Perhaps the most fitting here is a bar from Jay’s 2001 album The Blueprint, which entered the Library of Congress in March: All I need is the love of my crew / The whole industry can hate me, I thugged my way through, he pledged on “All I Need.” In essence, this has been the motto for Paul, James and the two other members of their inner circle, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims.
When James cut ties to agent Aaron Goodwin in 2005, eyebrows raised and many said that the young basketball phenom had risked his career before it truly tipped off. At the time, it was easy to understand why, given that Goodwin had helped the 2003 No. 1 overall draft pick obtain a bevy of endorsements, including Bubblicious chewing gum, Upper Deck trading cards, Sprite, Powerade and, most gaudy of them all, a seven-year, $90 million shoe deal with Nike. Few believed in James’ vision when he turned to three of his childhood friends to chart the course of his career on and off the court.
“James’ switcheroo a youthful mistake,” the Chicago Sun-Times wrote.
“I will promise you really ugly things will happen,” said former NFL player turned financial adviser Jim Corbett. “This is a big mistake, a bad decision that is going to cost LeBron.”
— bomani (@bomani_jones) August 7, 2019
Which leads us to another Jay lyric, this one from 2009’s “Already Home”: And as for the critics, tell me I don’t get it / Everybody can tell you how to do it, they never did it. Thanks to the friends he entrusted with his career nearly 15 years ago, James is not only the most powerful player in basketball history but also a player in Hollywood, fashion, education and politics.
Money and power elicit respect, as elucidated by Kimberly Jones. But they also open the door for fear and angst. President Donald Trump took shots at LeBron on Twitter last August after the launch of his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, saying it was hard to make “LeBron look smart” and weighed in on the NBA’s most contested debate, saying he preferred Michael Jordan over James — which Jordan quickly rebuffed. The two were labeled “mob bosses” by an unnamed Western Conference general manager last season after public attempts to move Anthony Davis to the Lakers (a move that eventually happened).
Rich Paul is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power. And to the image of an industry that is still dominated by white males and has long exercised fiscal and moral authority over black athletes.
Basketball altered its rules to make it harder for three players who made the game look too easy (i.e., they dominated the white players too much): Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Maybe the NCAA didn’t implement this rule with Paul as its sole motivation. Just like maybe the NCAA wouldn’t be so open to criticism if it made the education of players a higher priority.
Unfortunately, the NCAA addressed a perceived problem while never addressing its own. Sometimes sports really is a reflection of life.
Tracy Morgan’s sharks don’t have names.
“Are you crazy?!” he asks me, jutting his head back in mock dramatic fashion at the idea of such a silly question. And then comes the isn’t-it-obvious? tone familiar to anyone who has heard Morgan’s deadpan delivery: “They’re sharks!”
Still, he’s enamored of them. Proud even. He smiles as he points out a hammerhead, a whitetip and a Japanese leopard shark. A puffer fish coexists in that same tank; he’s the first fish to greet us as Morgan uses a remote control to turn the security system off and open the doors to the pool house to reveal the shark tank in the backyard of his palatial, 31,000-square-foot estate in suburban Alpine, New Jersey.
He smiles as he looks over at me. Nearby, there’s a swingset and play area for Maven, his 6-year-old daughter, a barbecue grill area that only he can touch and a pool that would rival that of any five-star vacation compound.
“My babies swim in here,” he says of the house his fish live in, “and my family swims out here,” he says, pointing at his pool.
Morgan, who will host the 27th annual ESPYS show July 10 on ABC, smiles again.
It’s one of the last times he smiles during my time here. For much of our conversation this day, Morgan, who became famous for his ability to make people laugh, is reaching for tissues as we sit next to one another in matching leather recliners in his office, unapologetic about the tears that continually fall from his eyes.
We’re only a few weeks removed from the five-year anniversary of a crash that nearly took Morgan’s life. He had to learn how to walk again. He had to learn how to talk again.
He had to learn how to find, and be, funny again.
“My face was this big,” he says, measuring a space big enough for three Tracy Morgan-sized heads to fit inside.
The accident was horrific. But he’s been coping with trauma since he was a small child. Like many sports superstars, he understands what it takes to return from a devastating injury.
2019 has been Morgan’s comeback year.
Yes, he’s been working steadily since a triumphant return 14 months after his accident to host Saturday Night Live, the show that made him famous.
But 2019 is where the payoff begins.
His TBS series The Last O.G., which he created with Jordan Peele, is some of his best work ever. Morgan plays Tray Baker, a recently sprung ex-con who is surprised to see how much Brooklyn has changed during his 15-year stint in prison, with chain coffee shops, yoga studios and white people inhabiting the old haunts where Baker once worked as a petty drug dealer.
The series launched as the network’s biggest original TV debut last year, came back for a successful second season and was recently renewed for a third. The funny wasn’t a surprise — this is Tracy Morgan, after all — but the show’s depth was revelatory.
“A lot of times as a writer you’re scared of playing with the tone too much because people, admittedly, tune in to a show because they want to laugh or they tune in to a show because they want to see dragons. Very few of us ever think consciously, ‘Oh, I’m going to tune in to that show because I want to laugh and cry,” says comedian and actor Diallo Riddle, who wrote on season one of The Last O.G. “But I think that Tracy had such a good relationship with his audience and such a good relationship with the truth. Even old white people in rural communities can watch that show and watch black men in Brooklyn and be like, ‘I love Tracy Morgan!’ ”
The good news doesn’t stop there. Later this year — Morgan beams every time he mentions this — he’ll begin filming his yet-to-be-announced role in the highly anticipated Coming to America sequel that is set to hit theaters sometime next year. Eddie Murphy is an idol, and now he’s also a friend.
And this week, of course, the 50-year-old Morgan will host the ESPYS, perhaps his biggest audience since the Saturday Night Live gig in October 2015, 16 months after a crash that nearly took his life.
“I still remember the time I saw Tracy after the accident and you just go, ‘I’m so happy he’s alive.’ That’s all you could say,” Riddle says. “I’m so happy he’s alive because he kept grinding, and then to go into a third season of the show and to be hosting the ESPYS? … The ESPYS is a beast of an undertaking. It’s not easy physically or mentally. And the fact that he’s hosting it, given where he was, is incredible.”
Back inside his home, Morgan is wiping away a fresh set of tears.
I ask if his ability to be emotionally open is a result of his accident or if this is who he was before June 7, 2014. We don’t generally give black men license to feel like this — not without it being some sort of indictment on their masculinity.
His life has been painful, far more than one person should have to deal with, really. And Morgan allows himself to be, well, human.
“My dad survived Vietnam … he came home a junkie. He didn’t go there that way, [but he] came home that way. That was his terror, seeing babies dying in villages, and he expressed those to me,” Morgan says. “I didn’t understand it because I was a kid in [his] prime in high school, playing football, but I didn’t know what his struggles. … He had demons. You go to war, nobody wins.”
Certainly not Jimmy Morgan Sr., who died of AIDS when Tracy was 19. Morgan also talks about how much he looked up to his Uncle Alvin, the cool uncle who played college football and who died of the same syndrome.
That kind of trauma can be crippling. Somehow, Morgan discovered comedy.
“You find it in that pain,” he says softly. “Without no struggle there’s no progress. People don’t know. ‘How did he get that funny?!’ My father and my mother breaking up when I was 6. My oldest brother being born with cerebral palsy. … Him having 10 operations by the time I’m 5. My mom’s by herself, struggling to help my brother with them Forrest Gump braces on, him screaming, she trying to teach him … I seen all of that.”
“You know why I became famous?” he asks quietly. “Because the kids of the playground could be mean. When they be mean, you go get your big brother, your big brother got your back. … I couldn’t do that. I go get my brother, he come, hey, he crippled. They start laughing. So I had to learn how to be funny to keep the bullies off my a–. All of my life, turned into business.”
Then, as if tossing it over in his head for a bit, he chases all of that heft with some lightness: “And plus, I learned in high school, when you funny, you get the girls. You might not score, but they be all, ‘Where Tracy’s stupid a– at?” he recalls. “They want you around, you make them laugh! My biggest audience is female. Same motivation. I’m married now, but I still want to make the girls laugh. Y’all got the world on your shoulders. At the end of the f—ing day, if you can make her forget about all that s— for an hour, you the man.”
“Great comedians — which Tracy is one of the great comedians — their comedy comes from pain,” says director David E. Talbert. “And the great ones allow themselves to access that, and then they share that.”
Morgan’s first taste of fame came in 1993 via HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, which was hosted by Martin Lawrence. Back then, it was a must-watch series, introducing and amplifying many now-famous black comics like Chris Tucker and Bernie Mac.
His childhood best friend Alan always told him how funny he was and that he should really make a go at pursuing comedy. Morgan, who was born in the Bronx and reared largely in Brooklyn, took workshops and eventually was working the local comedy club circuit. Comedy was his love, but he still had one foot in the hustle game.
“I was selling crack [when] my friend Alan got murdered, my best friend,” Morgan shares. Losing Alan made him focus.
“I come home, my youngest son is 2 years old. … Told him, ‘I’m gonna do comedy. …’ By all means, [my first wife, Sabina] could’ve said, ‘No you ain’t m—–f—-, we got three kids. What you going to do is go get a f—ing job.’ She never did that. She said, ‘Pull the trigger, Tracy.’ ”
“Four months later, I was on Def [Comedy] Jam.”
And then, another painful memory: “She passed away three years ago. Cancer.”
Morgan was almost gone too.
On June 7, 2014, a Walmart truck driver who had been awake for more than 28 hours was going 20 mph over the 45 mph speed limit in a work zone on the New Jersey Turnpike. He crashed into a limousine bus carrying Morgan and a small group of friends and colleagues. Morgan’s friend James McNair died, and Harris Stanton and Ardie Fuqua were hospitalized. Morgan himself was listed in critical condition and was comatose for two weeks.
The driver, Kevin Roper, was indicted on charges of manslaughter, vehicular homicide and aggravated assault. He later accepted a plea deal that dismissed the charges in exchange for entering a pretrial intervention program. Walmart settled for an undisclosed amount of money.
Morgan’s life changed that day. He came out on the other side appreciative. Attentive. Spiritual, yet spirited.
“When bad things happen to you, that’s when you grow. It was painful at the time,” he said. “But now you look back on it and you go, ‘Wow.’ So this story is not just for me. It’ll be for the young people who want to achieve anything in their lives. You can’t give up. I got hit by a truck!”
But before he could do the work physically, Morgan’s road to recovery had to start with forgiveness.
“You have to learn to forgive yourself before you can forgive anybody. OK, you had a setback on the field. But a setback ain’t nothing but a setup. Because when you come back better, you going to do something that ain’t been done,” Morgan says. “Don’t you ever let no doctor, nobody, tell you you can’t. They said no, I broke every bone in my face. On this side of my skull you could see my brain. … I was scared. I didn’t know if I was ever going to walk. That’s when I had to put the work in. …”
Morgan begins to cry again.
“Ugh. Damn. Excuse me.”
I tell him to take his time. Soon, he begins to tell a story of sitting in his wheelchair and watching his infant daughter scoot around in her walker.
“I don’t want her looking at me like this; she ain’t understand what’s going on. I’m working, I’m working hard, because I want to walk again, I want to play with my daughter, I want to chase my daughter. That was my motivation. I wanted to chase my daughter. I didn’t care about show business. I wanted to chase my daughter,” he says, wiping away fresh tears. “And I worked so hard for a year just to get back on my feet. And I don’t care what athlete you are, you better pick a motivation, something near and dear to you. Something that you would give the world for. And you better go for it, don’t let it be over. I put the work in for a year, and then the triumph, like we was talking about. I saw my daughter — she was 14 months — and I seen her take her first steps. It made me get out my wheelchair.”
I ask him to clarify: seeing his daughter take her first steps motivated him to attempt to take his own first steps?
“She took her first steps and I got up, and my wife started screaming. She said I was going to hurt myself because my femur was crushed. And I was like, ‘F— that,’ and I stood up and I took a step to my daughter. I took a step with my daughter,” he says. “That was four months after I got hit. The rest of the year, I just started working. It wasn’t just physical, it was cognitive — I didn’t even know my name. I had to learn how to talk again.”
Drying up the last tears with a new piece of tissue, he says, “It was a bad accident.”
This is who Tracy Morgan has always been.
In 2008 he co-starred alongside Ice Cube in First Sunday, a comedy written and directed by Talbert, who was a top-grossing playwright before he directed Morgan in what was his directorial debut.
In that film, Morgan played LeeJohn Jackson, best friend to Cube’s Durell Washington. Together they were portraying petty thieves who concoct a rather desperate scheme to steal $17,000 from a neighborhood church in order to pay off a debt for Durell’s ex-girlfriend — to not do so would mean that she and their son would relocate to a different state.
After Morgan auditioned for the role, he and Talbert went out for lunch.
“He started telling me about his relationship with his mother, which is a complicated relationship,” Talbert recalls. “I knew that if I could access that, then he could really dig into the character.”
“And I remember when he was about to do his big scene with Loretta Devine. And he says, ‘Today I’m going to cry because real actors cry! Richard Pryor cried!’ That’s all he was screaming all day! The scene singing ‘Happy Birthday’ with Loretta Devine, he was just telling everybody, ‘I’m going to cry! Real actors cry!’ ”
Talbert gave Morgan some advice before they dug into the scene: “I said, ‘Tracy, the thing about emotion is you have to try not to cry, but it moves you so much that you can’t help but to cry.’ And I said, ‘So I want you to try as hard as you can not to cry. And as she’s singing to you, I want you to think about all those birthdays that were missed.’ ”
That scene is one of Morgan’s favorites. By the time Devine gets to the last few notes of the song, she pulls Morgan in close for an embrace. The camera zooms in on his face, a mixture of bewilderment and sadness. Tears are streaming down the sides of his nose.
It wasn’t just good acting. It was real life. When Morgan was 13, he left his mother’s home to live with his dad in the Bronx. He and his mother went years without speaking.
“Loretta Devine started singing. And Tracy, I saw him. [He] wasn’t playing the character anymore. He was the little boy thinking about his own relationship with his mother. And slowly as Loretta started to sing, he was welling up and just the most genuine, authentic tear fell. I yelled, ‘Cut!’ I only had to do one take of that scene,” Talbert says. “It was beautiful. It was perfect. I only did one take, and he said, ‘D, excuse me for a moment.’ And he went to the back, and about 15 minutes later he came out and I said, ‘You OK?’ He said, ‘I just called my mother and I told her she missed out on a real actor.’ ”
Since the accident, Morgan and his mother have reconciled.
As we’re wrapping up, I remind Morgan of a joke I once heard his friend Chris Rock tell in a stand-up routine. Rock observed that he was the only black man in his tony neighborhood and shared all he had to accomplish to afford to live on the street. One of his neighbors is a dentist, Rock said, before landing the punchline: “Know what I had to do to afford this house? Host the Oscars!”
Morgan breaks into the hardest laugh I’ve heard from him this day. He has a similar story.
“Just last week I had some rich white man jogging in front of my gate. So I’m coming out my gate, and he’s looking at my house. And he’s looking at me …”
“So what do you do?” the jogger asked him.
“And I said, ‘About what?!’ ”
Morgan and I both break out laughing.
“I had to justify why the f— I live here … but you know I start f—ing with him,” Morgan says.
“You know the McDonald’s box the french fries come in?”
“I make those. You know the straw you drink the Coke [out of]? I make those.”
Morgan laughs at his own story.
“And he started laughing. … In your mind, you got to justify why I’m here.”
Tracy Morgan is here — and hosting the ESPYS.
“That’s going to be fun. Because everybody knows that Tracy Morgan thinks outside the f—ing box. … Buckle up, kids. It’s about to get wild and woolly.”
As a young boy, John Urschel would amuse himself for hours solving puzzles and breezing through math workbooks. By the time he was 13, he had audited a college-level calculus class.
He was also no slouch on the football field. A two-star prospect out of high school in western New York state, Urschel was a low-priority recruit to Penn State. He worked his way into the starting lineup and later became a two-time All-Big Ten offensive lineman. He won the Sullivan Award, given to the most outstanding amateur athlete in the country, as well as the Campbell Trophy, recognizing college football’s top scholar-athlete.
Urschel completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics while at Penn State. He even taught a couple of math classes while playing for the Nittany Lions. After college, he was drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL draft and signed a four-year, $2.4 million contract with the Baltimore Ravens.
Urschel loves football — the fury, the camaraderie, the adrenaline rush — and he enjoyed knowing that he was playing at the highest level. But he loves math, too, and he wanted to pursue that passion as far as his ability would take him.
Urschel got a taste of how difficult it could be to do both when he suffered a concussion during his second NFL training camp. The brain injury kept him off the field for a couple of weeks. It took longer than that for him to regain the ability to do math again. Still, the following spring he passed the qualifying exam that allowed him to enroll in a full-time doctorate program in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It was a great achievement, but it also meant he had two demanding jobs. By his third year in the league, he was spending more time taking stock of his life. What did his future hold? How long would his body hold up to the brutality of football? How good a mathematician could he be if he devoted himself to it full time?
He was fine financially. He earned $1.6 million over his first three years in the league while driving a Nissan Versa and living with a roommate. His big expenses were math books and coffee. He estimates that he lived on less than $25,000 a year.
In the end, he retired from the NFL at age 26 to pursue becoming a mathematician. Urschel, now 27, has about one year left before he earns his doctorate at MIT. After that, he has his sights set on a career in academia.
Urschel chronicled his uncommon journey in a new memoir, Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football, co-written with his wife, Louisa Thomas. The Undefeated recently talked to the former lineman about his new book, his view of college sports, the safety of football and his twin careers.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why did you write this book?
I really wanted to write something that conveyed mathematics in a very beautiful light. The publisher kept pushing me to put more of myself in it. At the end of the day, the final product is a memoir that also describes my relationship with both mathematics and football.
What do you hope people take away from it?
I hope they take away a number of things, not least of which is that it’s OK to have multiple interests, it’s OK to have multiple passions, that you don’t just have to be one thing. Also, I hope people take away a newfound appreciation of mathematics that might feel a little different than sort of what they experienced in school.
Who do you see as your primary audience for the book?
First of all, I would really like to reach middle school to high school kids who may be athletes but might have some interest in academics and STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] in some sense. Second, I would say anyone who simply enjoys football and math, because there’s a lot of both in this book.
Did you ever feel pigeonholed coming up?
Yes, I think I was, but I really didn’t pay too much attention to it. These things might bother some people, but I just usually viewed these things as an opportunity to change people’s mindsets.
Do you think there was some skepticism because you’re a football player, that this guy can’t be so good at math?
There initially was some skepticism, which I think was healthy. I completely understand why there was skepticism, and I think it was a reasonable thing.
Do you consider yourself a genius?
What is a genius anyway?
I don’t know, and that’s why I don’t really consider myself one. Listen, I’m someone who is very good at math. I’ve been very good at math ever since I was little. A lot of hard work has gone into me being at the place where I am in mathematics today. With respect to football, I was a decent athlete. I don’t consider myself an extremely good athlete. I considered myself extremely hardworking.
Were you ever discouraged from pursuing high-level academics while playing football at Penn State?
I didn’t get any pushback from my teammates. I did get some pushback from Penn State football early on. But I do want to clarify the sense in which I got pushback, because I think I got pushback in a very good way. It wasn’t like they were saying, ‘Oh, John, this is going to take up way too much of your time.’ It was more of them saying, ‘John, let’s not take such a hard track so early on. Let’s move slow and steady, because college courses are a lot tougher than high school classes, and you think you are good at math from high school, but college is different.’ After my first fall semester, the academic advisers really picked up on the fact that, yeah, they don’t need to worry about me.
Do you think college athletes should be paid?
Of course they should be paid. That’s not an unbiased opinion. I’m extremely biased. Something is fundamentally wrong with the system. That’s obvious. But what’s the answer? I don’t know. Should all sorts of football players be paid? Certainly not. I don’t think the football players at, let’s say, the University of Buffalo are being exploited. Sorry. Does this football program make money? But we look at the Alabamas of the world and, well, clearly these football players are really contributing a lot and they’re the source of a great deal of revenue. How can we give them more? Because I do think they deserve more, but the right way to do it is sort of uncertain to me.
What do mathematicians do?
What a mathematician does is he uses the tools of mathematics to try to solve very complicated and important problems in this world. In some areas of mathematics, mathematicians try to solve fundamental ideas in physics. In some areas of mathematics, mathematicians are trying to understand and perfect those things in machine learning, which have great practical importance on our world. You have mathematicians who are working on Wall Street. The only thing they’re making is money, but they’re making quite a lot of it. Mathematicians work for Google. They work for Amazon. They’re the people who help come up with the technology and the algorithms in your iPhone.
How did the fear of concussions and the prospect of CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] factor into your decision to retire from the NFL?
Very nominally. It is something you have to take into account, but the risks were something I had been aware of for a large part of my football career. But I also wanted to create more time for mathematics. I wanted to spend more time raising my daughter and I wanted to be in good overall physical health. You know, I want to be able to walk around when I am 60.
Did you really live on $25,000 a year while playing pro football?
Yeah, maybe even a little less than that.
You’re kidding me. How is that possible?
I’m still a very frugal person, and frugal might not even be the right word. Even people around me will tell you, it’s not like I’m attempting to save money. I don’t do things like budget. I do the things I enjoy and I buy things that bring me joy. The things that bring me joy are typically like math books, maybe coffee at a coffee shop. Yeah, I guess luckily for me, both of those things are incredibly cheap.
So, no bling for you. No big Land Rover.
No, no. My car was a used Nissan Versa I bought in college. I kept it my whole career, although I’m not that sad to say I did let the Versa go because, well, I’m in Boston now. What do I need a car for?
In what ways do you miss football?
One of things I do miss about football is being on a team, being close with a bunch of guys, going through the whole deal of pursuing a common goal.
How do you replace the rush that you derive from football?
Yeah, that’s just something you can’t replace. You’re just not going to get that feeling from mathematics. As much as I love math — and there’s many amazing, beautiful things about math — you’re not getting that from mathematics. You’re getting a very different feeling, but it’s also quite amazing: this feeling of fighting against the unknown, this feeling of sort of trying to sort of go where no man has gone before, this idea of trying to solve problems that no one has solved before.
Why are there so few African Americans in math?
You look at, let’s say, all of the elite mathematicians at MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Cal Tech, Princeton, and maybe there’s like one or two African Americans. It’s not because these places have decided we just don’t like hiring African American mathematicians. The fact is that there’s just not many of us. And the sort of root of this, I believe, is not anything that happens in Ph.D. programs. The large part of the damage is done before a student even steps foot on a college campus. The large majority of American mathematicians in the United States, they are Caucasian, they are male and they generally come from pretty good backgrounds. And, I mean, it’s a sobering realization that there are brilliant, brilliant young minds being born into this country, but either they’re being born the ‘wrong’ gender or the ‘wrong’ color or being born into a household that doesn’t have the same opportunities as some other household. And these brilliant minds are being lost. I do believe a large contributing factor is sort of educational inequality.
One final thing: Would you allow a child of yours to play football?
I would, in high school. But not before then. There’s a big focus on college football players, NFL players and health in a number of ways. But the thing that people don’t talk about enough is young kids playing tackle football, contact football, before their bodies and brains are even developed. And that’s something that me, personally, I’m not a fan of. But in high school? Certainly. I think football is not for everyone, certainly not, but if it’s something that you think you’re interested in, I think it’s an amazing sport.
NEW YORK — Kyler Murray beat one of the best marketing departments in the world to the punch.
Last November, in the thick of his Heisman Trophy-winning season at the University of Oklahoma, the 21-year-old phenom quarterback posted a photo on his social media accounts so recognizable that it didn’t need a caption. Murray re-created Bo Jackson’s iconic 1989 Nike ad down to every detail — the marbled backdrop, flexed muscles, shoulder pads and a wooden baseball bat propped up on strong shoulders.
In a creative way, Murray illustrated the undeniable connection between him and Jackson, two generational dual-sport athletes. Jackson is the only player in history to be named an All-Star in football and baseball, having played in both the NFL and Major League Baseball from 1986 to 1994 (three years before Murray was born). Yet, unlike Jackson, who became the face of Nike’s cross-training division in the late 1980s surrounding the launch of the brand’s timeless “Just Do It” campaign, Murray decided to focus on one sport. “The young man from Oklahoma,” Jackson said in January, “should just go with his heart.”
He ultimately chose football despite being selected as an outfielder by the Oakland Athletics with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2018 MLB draft. Murray agreed to a contract with the club that included a reported $4.66 million signing bonus and permission to play football at Oklahoma for one more year. During the 2018 college football season, he started at quarterback in all 14 games for the Sooners, hoisted the Heisman after throwing for 4,361 yards and 42 touchdowns and leading the team to the College Football Playoff. A month after declaring for the NFL draft, Murray took to Twitter to announce that he’d be “fully committing” his life and time to being a pro quarterback.
On the eve of the draft, before the Arizona Cardinals selected Murray with the top pick, Nike made it official, signing the dual-threat quarterback from Bedford, Texas, along with 26 players (and counting) as part of the brand’s 2019 class of NFL rookies. At Oklahoma, Murray wore Nike on both the baseball diamond and gridiron, before the school’s football program switched to Jordan Brand uniforms last year. In celebration of the new partnership, Murray rocked a Great Gatsby-themed 1-of-1 pair of Air Jordan 1 lows onstage at the draft, featuring “Nike K1″ on the tongues of each shoe.
“We admire the energy and commitment that Kyler Murray brings to the game on and off the field, and we’re excited to welcome him and the entire rookie class to the Nike family,” a brand spokesperson told The Undefeated. “We feel strongly that their dedication to the game will continue to inspire the next generation of athletes.”
Kyler Murray’s custom Air Jordan 1 Low for tonight’s draft. The green light post is a symbol of his dreams and what he hopes to accomplish in his career. pic.twitter.com/RdnkM4nbvp
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) April 25, 2019
Roughly 40 percent of the players in the NFL are endorsed by the multibillion-dollar sportswear company. And now Nike might just have its next superstar athlete in Murray. Within several hours after the announcement that he’d been signed, Murray appeared in his first Nike commercial — a one-minute spot depicting his journey from playing three sports as a kid to reaching the NFL.
“I think he’ll understand once he gets an opportunity to be on Nike’s campus, all the things that will be afforded to him,” free agent and five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh told The Undefeated at Nike’s New York headquarters ahead of the draft. “The most important thing I would tell him is, ‘Just go out there and focus on your task at hand with being a professional, and everything else will fall in line for you.’ ”
Suh’s evaluation of the young, highly touted quarterback? “He’s definitely elusive and very athletic,” Suh said. “I haven’t had a chance to truly watch him play. Maybe this year I’ll have an opportunity to hit him.”
— Kyler Murray (@TheKylerMurray) April 24, 2019
Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay, another Nike athlete, has watched Murray quite a bit. And the two-time Pro Bowler and 2017 first-team All-Pro selection is already impressed.
“I think he’s gonna be a killer in this league,” Slay told The Undefeated. “I can just see his competitiveness — how he operates, how he carries himself … He’s a baseball guy, so you know he got a strong arm. And the thing about baseball players is they got great vision. To see that little ball, hit that little ball and catch that little ball at a fast pace. How this game is … I think it’s made for him.”
The 5-foot-10, 207-pound Murray reminds Slay of two veteran NFL quarterbacks. “He’s a more athletic Drew Brees,” Slay said, “and you can see him as the next Russell Wilson.”
Wilson — who just became the highest-paid player in the NFL after signing a four-year, $140 million contract extension with the Seattle Seahawks — is also endorsed by Nike. He and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. are the only Nike athletes in the NFL to have their own cleats and signature lifestyle shoes. In 2017, after Beckham Jr. signed the richest NFL shoe deal in history, Nike delivered the Special Field Air Force-1 Mid “OBJ.” He also recently teased another signature sneaker that’s on the way. And on the red carpet at the 2018 ESPYS, the Seahawks star debuted his Nike Dangeruss Wilson 1. Maybe Murray will eventually join Beckham and Wilson and get the Nike signature treatment.
“He’s gonna have his own shoe,” Slay said, “sooner or later.”
Until then, the ads will keep coming — only now he has a brand behind him to do them. The marketing possibilities surrounding Murray already seem fruitful, especially if he lives up to the dream he shared in his debut Nike commercial.
“Honestly,” Murray said. “I want to be the best that ever played the game.”
Willie Taggart is a “see something, say something” kind of guy, and his good deed for 200 football campers this week is a testament to that.
The Florida State University head coach, who was hired last December, happened to come upon Florida State’s Junior Noles football camp that was held Monday to Wednesday of this week. The camp for students entering first through eighth grade cost $230 and included an FSU football camp T-shirt, but it didn’t include lunch, according to the Miami Herald.
Taggart, a Palmetto, Florida, native who himself played at Manatee High in Bradenton, wasn’t having that. According to a tweet from Palm Beach Nole, Taggart approached a man running the camp, which ran from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., and inquired about lunch for the kids. When told that lunch was not included, Taggart jumped into coach mode, telling the man: “That’s not happening. Get on the phone and order some food for these kids.”
Pizza arrived soon afterward, the tweet says, and on Tuesday Jimmy John’s and ice cream were on the menu — all courtesy of Taggart.
“I believe Willie himself paid for lunch for three days for over 200 kids out of his own pocket,” Palm Beach Nole’s tweet said. “Real talk. He didn’t have to do it, no parents expected it, but this is the way he is, just a genuine, really good human. I couldn’t be more proud that he represents FSU.”
Taggart, the 11th overall and first African-American head coach in the program’s history, takes the reins previously held for eight seasons by Jimbo Fisher, now the head coach at Texas A&M. Since being hired, Taggart, 41, has made an immediate impact. His program has one of the youngest coaching staffs in Division I football; eight of Taggart’s coaches have an average age of 44.4, signaling a new era. Also noteworthy: Seven of the eight assistants are African-American, creating a pipeline for minority head-coaching candidates down the road.
His move was noticed, and applauded, by the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an affinity group dedicated to creating opportunities for minority candidates, scouts and front-office personnel.
“You have to be committed. That’s why Willie Taggart is a very, very admirable person,” said John Wooten, chairman of the FPA, which was formed in 2003 and named after Pollard, the first African-American coach in NFL history. “The minorities that get the opportunities as head coaches or athletic directors have to take it upon themselves and have to be committed to going out and finding the young minorities who are in various positions around the country in order to build those kinds of pipelines.”
With his good deed, Taggart, widely known as an ace recruiter, not only filled bellies but also may have solidified the program’s recruiting class for the next decade or longer. Palm Beach Nole (tweeting from @Jroc1738) is sold: “Wow!! That’s my coach!! @CoachTaggart you did a wonderful thing! #DidSomething”
When actor Keith Powers’ starred in the 2015 film Straight Outta Compton as Dr. Dre’s younger brother Tyree Crayton, he used the Rodney King verdict as a prominent backdrop. Channeling the anguish he and many felt of lack of consequences of the four cops filmed beating King, the part was more than a notion for Powers. The 25-year-old is cousin to the late, King — the police brutality victim who inspired the 1992 L.A. Riots. The part hit close to home.
“I don’t think Dre or Cube even know that was my cousin,” said Powers to The Undefeated. “To this day, it’s something powerfully connected to me and forever impacts me.”
Powers, also known for playing Ronnie DeVoe in BET’s miniseries biopic The New Edition Story, now stars in the Freeform drama Famous in Love from author Rebecca Serle and Pretty Little Liars showrunner I. Marlene King, which airs on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET.
The fictional show follows a group of actors and the ups and downs they endure in Hollywood where loyalty, trust, jealousy, fear and love are all tested. Powers’ character, Jordan Wilder, is the young superstar that everyone wants to meet and be… but lies from his past are catching up to him fast.
Acting was not the Power’s first claim brush with fame. When pursuing scholarships to play college football, he was getting recruited by JE Model agency in San Francisco, which later led to him signing with the esteemed agency, Wilhelmina. As a model, he’s walked the runway for Calvin Klein during Milan Fashion Week in 2014 and he is featured in GQ editorials and campaigns for brands like Guess.
Building on that momentum, Powers quickly found his way into acting where his film credits grew to include House Party: Tonight’s The Night, MTV’s Faking It, AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead and Netflix’s Reality High to name a few.
The oldest of four shared how the most challenging part about acting is how it’s not always based on whether you’re good or not, but how the network is casting to sell tickets or get more viewers. The Sacramento native still practices and prepares but recognizes that he has to keep faith and “trust the process” as NBA player Joel Embiid would say.
Powers’ favorite athlete period is Muhammad Ali, his basketball fandom is for Lebron James, but not necessarily the Cavaliers, and he once met NBA player Nick Young backstage at a fashion show earlier in his career.
Describe yourself during basketball season?
I’m yelling but I have moments where I’m really quiet because I’m stressed out. But I’m usually more stressed during football games when I’m watching my [San Francisco] 49ers.
If you could be any athlete, dead or alive, who would you be?
That’s tough, but I’d say Muhammad Ali. He’s a hero. I love what he stood for and the confidence he possessed. Ali was so vocal in sports and politics. I was also thinking of two others—LeBron James and Michael Jordan—but who doesn’t want to be them? LeBron is my favorite athlete but it doesn’t mean I like the Cavs. If the Cavs lose and LeBron’s stats are good, I’m happy.
Who is your favorite superhero?
This may sound strange [and he’s not really a superhero] but The Joker. There’s something unique about how he thinks. He’s so messed up in the head but also so intelligent and understands the reasons why he became a villain. The Joker is the epitome of not trying to impress people.
What is your favorite album and why?
KOD by J. Cole. It’s an album that speaks to this generation and was needed. My favorite track is “FRIENDS.” He’s keeping it real with his friends and telling them that they don’t need to do drugs to deal with their problems, and that there’s better ways to deal with them.
Have you ever been star struck?
When I walked the Calvin Klein runway for Milan Fashion Week I got to meet a lot of celebrities backstage like Future and Swaggy P [Nick Young]. What was kind of cool about meeting [Young] was that he knew who I was from watching this [basketball comedy] show series I used to be on called “Sin City Saints.”
What would you tell your fifteen year old self?
Keep faith and “trust the process” as Joel Embiid would say. I’ve gone out for jobs that I didn’t get and I remember being sad and frustrated, but when I look back now, it all had to happen that way in order for my path to clear up for certain successes. Life is never going to work out the way you think but you have to keep faith that it will all work out. I’ve seen a lot of actors quit because it didn’t happen at the pace they wanted. They could be superstars now but quit too soon. I don’t want that to happen to me so I just keep going on this marathon.
What was your first major purchase?
Last April I bought a house in LA.
Craziest lie you ever told?
I have a couple but I do remember one when I was in second grade. We had a project about where we are from and for some reason I said that I was born in Chicago. I got in a lot of trouble for it, and I still don’t know what made me lie about that.