Leveling the playing field

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What is it like to be a professional athlete? Ask the question, and CJ Stewart will give you an honest answer. That’s the thing that radiates most about him. On this day, just like any other time somebody asks that question, Stewart speaks from the only place he knows – his heart.

The answer, every time, in case you want to know, is that he didn’t quite make it all the way. His professional baseball career ended before he ever made it to “The Show.” After playing himself up from instability, a lack of support and doubt, Stewart was drafted by the Chicago Cubs. It was a dream come true. The only dream he ever dreamt. When he was eight years old, while watching the Cubs with his grandfather on the Chicago-based superstation, WGN, Stewart proclaimed to anybody and everybody who would listen that he would one day play at Wrigley Field.

CJ Stewart had all the tools and gifts that a baseball player craves. The speed. The arm. The bat. The instincts. He had his first workout with the Cubs in the 9th grade and was drafted right out of high school.

This is where the story goes off the rails, if only briefly. The rings around Stewart’s failure as a baseball player are many – that’s the truth talking again. After being drafted, he ended up attending Georgia State University, and then DeKalb Junior College in Atlanta. Although he failed out of both schools, he was drafted again by the Cubs. After officially signing that coveted professional contract, he played for two years before being released.

Admittedly, there was so much he didn’t understand about the developmental process. The game was larger in scope than anything he had ever imagined. It was more than just picking up your glove or bat and running onto the field. The truth, as honestly as Stewart will paint it, is that he failed to reach his full potential as a professional baseball player because he lacked core values, discipline and accountability.

This is where the real story of CJ Stewart begins. To hear Stewart’s first-hand account, the game of baseball is an amazing teacher. Buried behind the beauty and passion of America’s Favorite Pastime is that lesson anybody who has ever played the game – on any level – gets to reckon with – failure.

Noted sportswriters George Vescey once wrote of baseball that it is “a sport that acknowledges daily failure.” We all know the drill – how in baseball a .300 hitter fails 70 percent of the time. To put it into perspective, in his 18 years as one of baseball’s most revered hitters, Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle came to bat almost 10,000 times. He struck out nearly 1,700 times and walked about 1,800 times. If you take into consideration that a player will average about 500 at bats a season, the numbers show that Mantle would have played seven years without ever hitting the ball.

So the devoutly religious Stewart ended up walking away from the game without ever really walking away. A short time after his departure from the playing field, he saw the greater good in crafting a story that would define him as a person who could live a life of significance and teach others to do the same.

“I grew tired of being me,” he says, reflecting on those days that followed his exit of the game.

If you can properly put the pieces into a box, a disenchanted moment can and will afford you that “epiphany” moment, of this CJ Stewart is certain. The new course of his life started with his desire to give young baseball players the mental and physical tools they needed to achieve their goals on the diamond. It started with that desire and evolved into AT-BATS, a proven, trademarked, comprehensive system of professional training and development – a process-focused methodology designed to improve baseball performance through identifying and improving specific areas in the development process.

AT-BATS, which he methodically perfected over the past 14 years with the support and guidance of mentors Bill Mclellan and Pat Alacqua, helps guide young players through the developmental process he never knew. Falling under the banner of the company he created, Diamond Directors, the success of AT-BATS can be seen in the success of some of his early students – vaunted Major Leaguers like Jason Heyward, who just signed a monstrous contract with the Chicago Cubs, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ one-time League MVP Andrew McCutchen and former Cubs’ outfielder and free agent Dexter Fowler, to name just a few.

“Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel, not just to be as good as someone else but to be better than someone else. This is the nature of man and the name of the game.”
– Ted Williams

It only takes 15 minutes of watching your local TV news to see just how fast the moral compass in our society is deteriorating. Watching night after night forced Stewart to come to grips with a striking assessment – the statistics didn’t give young Black males a shot at a significant life.

CJ Stewart was one of those young men. He knew first-hand what it felt like to have so many barriers in the way of your dream. It wasn’t until a good friend and mentor, Stan Conway, asked him the question that would not only change the course of his career, but his life as well – “What else do you want to do in life?”

While he reserved time to let the question sink in, the answer was right in front of him. In his daily interactions with young kids striving for baseball excellence, he saw an opportunity to raise the level of his game by helping level the playing field for select young Black males who might not otherwise have a chance.

“It was a very vulnerable time for me,” Stewart says. “Stan not only listened, but he also acted. He came to me a few weeks later with the seed money that my wife, Kelli, and I needed to get started on our dream.”

In the summer of 2008, Kelli and CJ Stewart created L.E.A.D. to help level the playing field for disadvantaged, Black boys in Atlanta. L.E.A.D. stands for Launch, Expose, Advise and Direct. Its vision is to help develop Ambassadors who will lead their City of Atlanta to lead the world. The organization helps launch student-athletes toward educational opportunities after converting their raw talent into the skills required for entry into college athletic programs.

L.E.A.D. also exposes teens to service and local enrichment activities in order to instill a sense of responsibility, belonging and investment. It offers the key requirements for building a civically engaged individual and directs them toward their true promise by using the historical journeys of past baseball and community legends as the road map.

A L.E.A.D graduating class

“The key takeaway is that every young man will walk away with the personal implications of standards and consequences, and the importance of establishing and applying core values,” Stewart says. “Too many of our young men are being raised in homes and schools where they make their own standards and they’re not held accountable for anything. We spend so much time chasing test scores that we neglect to set a foundation of core values and standards that lead to greater accountability and, ultimately, greater success.”

L.E.A.D. approaches the process like a farmer who seeks to reap a harvest, but never prepared the soil for seed. “We fill these voids in the lives of our young men,” says Kelli, who serves as L.E.A.D.’s executive director. “By no means are we saying we develop young men into perfect Ambassadors; we do, however, cultivate and nurture the development of Ambassadors who grow to become disciplined and accountable due to the framework of standards, consequences and core values that we establish from our first interaction.”

Ask CJ, and he will tell you that L.E.A.D. is a 100-percent reflection of his background and experience, whether it’s implementing the things that worked well for him or introducing aspects of development that he needed but didn’t have.

=“L.E.A.D. gives our young men an opportunity to walk in my shoes and go much farther than I did,” he says. “The issue is that young, Black boys are viewed negatively by so many in society. The majority of the messages and images they see about themselves include prison, poverty and death. Living that reality each day, it’s easy to feel as if your life has no value.”

That’s why the Stewarts named their program model Pathway2Empowerment. Through various programmatic activities, they combat that messaging so that young men begin to understand their value and, consequently, can value others, their community, etc.

Along with accountability, one of the biggest assets of L.E.A.D. is that it teaches core values. Too often, we hold students accountable to values they do not even know the definition of – a practice the Stewarts say we must end now. To stop ambiguity in its tracks, they define the organization’s core values for young men as:

  • Excellence – to fulfill expectations
  • Humility – to think about how you can use your talents and gifts to serve others (it’s not all about you)
  • Integrity – to do the right thing, even when it’s the hardest thing
  • Loyalty – to demonstrate consistent support to an individual or organization
  • Stewardship – to protect opportunities
  • Teamwork – to bring your strengths and weaknesses to a group situation for the purpose of achieving a common goal

“In the beginning, we had some very brave young men who stepped out with us as the pioneers of this organization,” CJ recalls. “I remember most of them being very determined and committed, but they were also skeptical. We had to prove ourselves year after year. We had to show them that they could count on us to be there the next year.”

“If people refuse to look at you in a new light and they can only see you for what you were, only see you for the mistakes you’ve made, if they don’t realize that you are not your mistakes, then they have to go.”
– Steve Maraboli

One of the biggest growing pains that L.E.A.D. has experienced has been differentiation. The motive behind the work L.E.A.D. does is much different than what people are accustomed to when they think of youth development organizations.

L.E.A.D. likens itself to a military academy. The young men and women selected to join military academies will be the ones leading platoons and covert groups on special missions and military campaigns. These select groups are trained a lot differently than those entering the military at large. They have a different job to do and different expectations to go along with it.

To be fair, the state of the Black community, as it pertains to male leadership, is in crisis mode and has been for far too long. Through L.E.A.D., Kelli and CJ Stewart are developing young men who will grow up to be the husbands, fathers, community leaders, politicians and business executives who fill the leadership deficiencies that exist in today’s communities.

“We don’t need another cook or janitor, though these are honorable positions, we need leadership that is being groomed to earn positions of power and influence in this city, so the Black community is properly represented at the tables of decision-making,” Kelli says. “More importantly, we need leadership that is being groomed to understand the accountability and responsibility that comes with this power and influence. This is what L.E.A.D. is doing in the lives of the young men in our programs. Not being able to communicate this properly through messaging has been quite frustrating.”

To be fair, L.E.A.D. is working on many levels and continues to grow as a powerful force in the Atlanta community. It works because the Stewarts understand what it takes to cope with and overcome poverty. They have become experts in the field of player development, especially as it pertains to developing Black athletes, those of whom know that they must earn their opportunities by being ten times better than white counterparts because of conscious and unconscious bias.

And as you would expect, L.E.A.D. also uses baseball as a teaching tool, including teams that are coached by dedicated teachers in Atlanta Public Schools. “Failure is an inherent part of baseball,” Stewart says “It can ultimately lead you to success in the game. Today’s young men live in a paradigm where failure means generational detriment. Through baseball, we can tangibly demonstrate to them the role that failure plays in development, using our games as the testing ground for the core values that we’re teaching them.”

The workings of L.E.A.D. have captured the attention of the Atlanta sports and business community. For example, the Atlanta Braves have been a faithful supporter of L.E.A.D. since 2009. In addition to financial support, each year, L.E.A.D. hosts a top shelf baseball clinic experience at Turner Field for more than 300 students from Atlanta Public Schools. This exposure allows it to place its Ambassadors on a first class platform as they welcome their peers to the stadium. In fact, the Ambassadors run the clinic.

“Through baseball, we can tangibly demonstrate to them the role that failure plays in development, using our games as the testing ground for the core values that we’re teaching them.”

“Strategic partnerships are vital to successful outcomes,” the Stewarts say. “As such, we don’t just partner with anybody. On the programmatic side, we are proud to partner with Atlanta Public Schools, Odyssey Atlanta and Growing Leaders. From a development, enrichment and mentoring perspective, we partner with Georgia’s Own Credit Union, Elizabeth Baptist Church, the Braves, Regency Centers, The Delta Upsilon Boule’ and Belk. Each of them is a multi-year investor through their gifts of time, talent and treasure.”

In the treasured time that L.E.A.D. has been giving back to the young, Black men in the Atlanta community, there is one story the Stewarts love to tell regarding the work it does.

Joseph McCrary entered the L.E.A.D. organization as a junior at Redan High School in DeKalb County; he is an inaugural member of the Ambassador Program. That summer, the L.E.A.D. Ambassadors were invited to the corporate headquarters of longtime partner, Mizuno, for Career Day.

Among the many departments that the Ambassadors were exposed to was accounting, an area where McCrary showed a lot of aptitude and passion. After graduating high school with honors and enrolling at Savannah State University on academic and athletic (baseball) scholarships, he went on to graduate Magna Cum Laude, as well captain the baseball team that won the NCAA Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Championship.

Upon graduation from Savannah State, McCrary accepted a job with Mizuno. Today, he works for The Home Depot and remains a committed supporter of L.E.A.D. He’s graduated from being a program participant to a gainfully employed donor.

“It’s not just a home run story; it’s a grand slam story,” CJ says. “Because Joseph has scored, we all score. It stands as to why we do what we do. It’s significant people giving of their time, talent and treasure to empower others to become significant. It’s what L.E.A.D. is all about.”

L.E.A.D. is a 501 (c)3 nonprofit organization operating in Atlanta, Georgia. L.E.A.D.’s mission is to empower an at-risk generation to lead and transform their City. Through their year-round Pathway2Empowerment Programming, they are inspiring and equipping Black males to earn positions of leadership in business, education and government.

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