Amid tragedy, Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud continues to count his blessings

Following the weekend death of former OSU quarterback Dwayne Haskins, Stroud, who recently inked his first NIL deal, said he’s entering into the new college season embracing the moment

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Ohio State University quarterback C.J. Stroud practices on the first day of spring football for the Buckeyes at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center in Columbus on Tuesday, March 8, 2022.

Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud hasn't really concerned himself with the weight of expectations, which remained true as he prepared for the new college football season fresh off of a 2021 campaign in which he passed for 4,435 yards and 44 touchdowns, leading OSU to an 11-2 record and finishing as a Heisman finalist. But for Stroud, that idea rings particularly true following the Saturday passing of former OSU quarterback Dwayne Haskins, 24, who died after being struck by a dump truck while walking alongside a South Florida highway.

“With everything going on this week, man, just count your blessings and don’t worry about the future,” Stroud said by phone on Monday. “That will always be my mindset, and even more so now. All of the talk, I try not to listen to it, and I try to remain as humble as I can and [keep] my faith in God. I definitely put in the work to be great, and if that’s God’s plan for my life, so be it.”

Stroud said the news of Haskins’ death initially left him reeling, and he spent most of Sunday alone with his thoughts, dwelling on the conversations shared between the two and the advice passed down by Haskins, who was selected 15th overall by the Washington Commanders in the 2019 NFL draft, spending two years with the team before signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers in January 2021. “I think his career was just set to take off, so it’s just sad to see,” said Stroud, who extended his condolences to Haskins’ family. “It’s something I have a soft heart for. Losing people in my life has been really tough for me, so I can only imagine [what Haskins’ family is going through].”

In the aftermath of Haskins’ death, Stroud said OSU team leaders, including Head Coach Ryan Day, reiterated the importance of maintaining an open dialogue and allowing space to grieve — continuing a necessary focus on mental health brought into vivid relief by the statement released in March by former Ohio State offensive lineman Harry Miller, who medically retired from football, citing his own struggles with depression. “I was planning on being reduced to my initials on a sticker on a back of a helmet,” wrote Miller, who also detailed his return to the football field following one suicide attempt, the scars on his wrists covered with athletic tape. “[The scars] are hard to see, and they are easy to hide, but they sure do hurt. There was a dead man on the television set, but nobody knew it.”

“Our whole team here, especially with me being the leader, I try to text my guys often and make sure they’re doing fine. And not just on the field, but also off, because I think off the field is more important,” Stroud said. “We’re not just football players. We’re first and foremost young men. And I think when you have the weight this football thing puts on you … it can get overwhelming. A lot of us, we play football, and we’re also the breadwinners for our family, and that’s a lot of pressure, as well. So, I definitely try to make sure my teammates are fine, and they do the same with me.”

Some of the financial pressures on players have been eased by the opportunities now available to college athletes to sell their name, image and likeness (NIL) rights, a still-developing market created by a combination of shifting state laws and NCAA rule changes that went into effect in July 2021. Stroud, for his part, has yet to publicly announce any NIL deals, though he said he recently signed his first, which should be made public in the coming weeks.

“I know the work we put in, and I can speak for every college athlete in America: football, baseball, basketball, soccer, women’s volleyball — anything, you name it. Everybody works hard, and we deserve to be paid,” Stroud said. “You wouldn’t invite a comedian over to your bar or whatnot to perform and then not pay him, and I think it’s the same thing when it comes to being an athlete.”

Regardless, the NIL system has come under fire in some circles, with Clemson University Head Coach Dabo Swinney recently drawing headlines for comments he made regarding the establishment of an NIL market, in which he claimed the practice “devalues education” while simultaneously defending the record contracts being handed out by schools to college coaches. 

“None of us set markets on what we do. It's a free market we live in, if anything,” said Swinney, who compared the financial gulf between the head coach and players with the pay structure of a corporate airline (“The head of Delta probably makes a lot more than the people who are checking your baggage in.”). “It's just that our jobs are so visible and so public. I can tell you this: None of us got into coaching to make money, but I don't apologize for being successful.”

“I mean, that’s his opinion. Do I think it’s wrong or right? I don’t know. I just know that in my life, and what I’ve been through, I think this is what we deserve,” said Stroud, who grew up in a single-parent household and welcomes the ability granted by his NIL deal to assist his mother, recalling all of the sacrifices she made in raising him. “It’s all about what you’re willing to do, too. I take my education very seriously, as well. I’m not just doing deals. I’m doing my homework. … And I have the grades to back it up. 

“I think anything in life is all about what you’re willing to sacrifice and the work you’re willing to put in. If you’re willing to keep up your grades and still work these NIL deals, then you might as well do it, especially when you perform on the field. These coaches, they’re not going to coach us if they’re not getting paid. So why shouldn’t we get paid, as well?”