HOUSTON (AP) — C.J. Stroud’s rookie campaign has been so remarkable that he’s turned around the Houston Texans and restored hope among fans in a city that had all but given up on this franchise after three dreadful and often embarrassing seasons.

The polished quarterback and first-year coach DeMeco Ryans have the Texans — winners of just three games last season — a victory away from reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2019.

It’s the kind of moment Stroud couldn’t even fathom when his father went to prison when he was a teenager.

“I was hopeless for a little while,” he told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this season. “I didn’t know if I was gonna make it out or be anything.”

What pulled him out of that negative space was watching games and hearing his favorite athletes share tales of their struggles and how they made it to the other side.

“And I was like, man I can do this, too,” Stroud said.

He’s been in the spotlight for a few years now after starring at Ohio State before being drafted second by the Texans last year and blossoming into one of the league’s top quarterbacks quicker than most anyone predicted.

But he still considers himself a private person and it’s sometimes difficult for him to open up about the struggles he’s faced since his father Coleridge Bernard Stroud III went to prison in 2016. He received a 38-years-to-life sentence after pleading guilty to charges of carjacking, kidnapping and robbery in a drug-related incident and remains incarcerated at California’s Folsom State Prison.

After Stroud’s biggest game of the season in November, when he set a rookie record with 470 yards and five touchdowns in a win over Tampa Bay, when asked a question about the record, he first spoke about his father and the need for prison reform.

It wasn’t easy for the 22-year-old to show that side of himself, but he did it for all those kids going through situations like his who might have also lost hope.

“I don’t like people in my business, but same time being vulnerable as a man is just as honorable as being private,” he said. “I was raised a little bit to not let people see you down, but to also have an idea of being vulnerable, and I kind of learned that in the later years of my life.”

“And for me, I just wanted to be vulnerable in that aspect,” he continued. “Just to let people know not only am I product of it, but you can become something more than that for those kids that are going through the same things.”

Few teams go from league laughingstock to playoff contender in just one season and the process is much more difficult with a rookie quarterback. But most everyone associated with the Texans agrees that this rookie quarterback is so special that he immediately raised the bar within the franchise.

“You can tell he cares a great deal about winning,” offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik said. “He cares a lot about the organization being successful. He cares a lot about his fellow teammates being successful. How much energy he devotes to that I think just shows through the course of conversation.”

“There are not many conversations that anyone on this team has had with C.J. where you would say he’s not present,” Slowik said. “He’s a very present person and he’s very emotionally and mentally invested … on a personal level and what we’re trying to do football-wise.”

Though Stroud hasn’t often spoken publicly about his father’s situation, he’s been helping with his legal fees and his appeals process since he started making money from football.

Stroud was too young to understand many details of the situation when his father went to prison. Now, he believes he had ineffective legal counsel at the time and is trying to get him released sooner than his earliest parole date of 2040. The elder Stroud received a longer sentence for this crime because he had a conviction 20 years earlier.

“I learned about what happened and things that he pleaded to that he really didn’t do,” Stroud said. “He was kind of like bamboozled into making a decision (when) he wasn’t really in his right mind. And a lot of times people who have substance abuse issues and things like that, they don’t need jail, they need rehab and help.”

Stroud has joined with billionaire Michael Rubin’s REFORM Alliance to help promote prison reform and donned cleats dedicated to the cause during the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats game late last year.

While Stroud’s thoughts are often with his father, when they talk, his father urges him to focus on football and his life outside instead of what he’s dealing with in prison.

“He knows that I have a lot on my plate, and he respects that, and he just likes to be filled in on what’s going on,” Stroud said. “I talk to him about stuff I probably don’t talk to a lot of people about just because he’s my dad. He knows me for real.”

When Stroud was at Ohio State, most of his games were on national network television so his dad — or Pops, as he calls him — got to watch him play often.

Most people, the NFL schedule-makers among them, figured the Texans were in for another bad season so they weren’t given any nationally televised games this season. For the elder Stroud, that meant he couldn’t watch his namesake play live. He could only catch highlights later or check stats to see his son’s progress in a season where he’s thrown for 3,844 yards with 21 touchdowns and just five interceptions despite missing two games with a concussion.

But that could change this week after Houston’s game at Indianapolis was moved from the early slot on Sunday to a nationally televised prime time game with a playoff spot on the line.

For now, that’s the only way his father will get to watch Stroud play. But the quarterback has gotten positive reports from lawyers working on his father’s case who believe they’ll eventually get his sentence reduced.

“They’re really hopeful,” he said. “It’s been (everything) from getting out really soon or getting the sentence cut more than three quarters. So, it should be pretty soon.”

He refuses to accept that he’ll never be able to gaze into the stands and see his dad sitting there cheering him on.

“I don’t really think like that,” he said. “I think my dad can come watch me play soon. That’s how I’m thinking, positively. And I know by the glory of God and his grace we’ll be seeing each other soon. And that’s the hope. That’s what I’m praying for.”

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