Author, athlete, inspiration Chris Sain, Jr. helps city youth
A star athlete in high school, Chris Sain Jr. had lofty dreams of one day playing professional football.
Like most urban youth, he thought sports would be his ticket to the good life. But it seems God had other plans, aligning his passions with a different purpose and planting him back in his hometown to serve a much nobler cause. Sain, Jr., a social innovator, educator, and mentor to Grand Rapids’ inner-city youth, credits God’s grace and guidance, along with a combination of book smarts, street smarts, and common sense, with helping him escape the hustle and hopelessness of the hood.
As a former Michigan State University
walk-on, once he accepted his fate with football, he went on to earn two degrees by age 24, start his own nonprofit, and make a career out of coaching, counseling, and mentoring youth.
Sain, Jr., now 30, does a variety of community outreach through his faith-based organization, Grand C.I.T.Y. Sports
, and also works as retention coordinator at Grand Rapids Community College
. As a young urban professional and social entrepreneur
he travels the country speaking at detention centers, prisons, schools, colleges, churches, sports programs, and graduations.
He recently added author to his résumé and busy schedule. Sain, Jr.’s memoir, “Dumb Athlete
,” recounts growing up in inner city Grand Rapids, struggling as a walk-on player at Michigan State University and making sense of his toughest life lessons.
He will have a book signing June 6 at LINC Community Revitalization, Inc.
and has planned a 100 Urban School College Bound Scholar tour for the fall.
Sain, Jr., frank and forthcoming in the pages of “Dumb Athlete,” shares what anyone can do to make it out and make a difference, especially kids growing up in impoverished communities or juvenile detention, when they focus on being a product of their expectations rather than their environment.
“He’s an accomplished young man in terms of not just his athletic ability but his spiritual maturity, his willingness to give back to others and to share his life experiences, the ups and the downs, in order to make the youth that are coming behind him better and more prepared to deal with some of the challenges of life,” said Cle Jackson, senior community liaison for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan
in Grand Rapids. Jackson met Sain, Jr. during his run for the school board and provides sponsorship for Grand C.I.T.Y. events.
Growing up, getting out of the hood
Growing up, the fear of being labeled a “dumb athlete” lingered in the back of Sain Jr.’s mind. He spent most of his early life consumed by football and how to become a pro player, yet felt inadequate when he admitted that was his career ambition.
He learned in eighth grade that academics could sideline his athletics. And while he maintained a solid GPA, a few missteps led to missed educational opportunities. His biggest fear became his biggest motivator; hence the title of the book.
“They say perception equals one’s reality,” Sain, Jr. writes. “I tried hard to ensure no one perceived me as dumb. I walked through life, or most of it, believing a football player was who I was. It was not until I realized football is what I do, not who I am, that my transformation began.”
Sain, Jr. grew up on Grand Rapids’ southeast side near Martin Luther King Jr. Park. In his book, he said his love affair with football and the PlayStation
and NBA Live
kept him off the streets. Spending his weekends traveling the state to visit his older brother Jay, who was serving 19 years in prison, also left an impression.
“I lost my close friend to gun violence and I had an older brother in prison,” Sain, Jr. said. “I didn’t know how I was going to get where I wanted to get, but it was around 13 or 14 that I said ‘I’m definitely not going down that path.’”
His parents were married while raising him but often argued. Sain, Jr. speaks of the misconceptions of a two-parent household in his book. They divorced in 2004, but he credits them for being his biggest role models and supporters, encouraging him to work hard and become the first in the family to earn a degree. His mom, Glorie, attended every one of his basketball and football games since he was 8 years old. His father told him from a young age high school was a prerequisite and college was mandatory.
A two sport athlete at Ottawa Hills High School
, as college approached, Sain, Jr. admits he overlooked Division II schools and the chance for a free education out of arrogance.
Sain, Jr. wanted to play at Michigan State University and be on television every weekend. College scouts told him he could earn a scholarship. Unfortunately, no one told him he needed to do well on the ACT.
He waited until the last day to take the ACT and scored poorly. As a result, he went on to make the team as a walk-on, but realized that one test had costly consequences. He lost out on scholarships and playing time. He also found himself nursing a shoulder injury and struggling in math.
“One of the things in urban schools is, no one was pushing college, pushing the ACT,” Sain, Jr. said. “It was a huge setback in my journey, so now I want to make people aware of the steps to be a student-athlete. I had to work ten times harder.”
To help local students avoid his mistakes, Grand C.I.T.Y. Sports runs a free football camp for at-risk high school sophomores and juniors that combines traditional football training with ACT prep, life skills classes and professional development workshops among other things.
In June, Grand C.I.T.Y. and GRCC will host a student-athlete workshop conference “So You Want to be a Student-Athlete?” featuring college and professional athletes at GRCC’s Ford Field House.
Trading notoriety for noble work
After two years at MSU, Sain packed it up and returned home. He spent a semester at GRCC to regroup and deal with family issues, then played his final two years on a scholarship at Saginaw Valley State University and graduated in 2007.
Once he realized his competitive football days were numbered, Sain turned his competitive nature to excelling in college. He started to connect with advisors and counselors who could help him and took advantage of tutors, office hours and the library.
He credits his temporary setbacks and learning to tune into God’s plan for his life for giving him a new vision. Perseverance, a commitment to excellence and faith helped him fight through physical pain, depression, and self-pity, Sain, Jr. said.
Sain, Jr. earned his bachelor’s degree in social work and entered an accelerated master’s program at Wayne State University. Among the youngest in the program, and the only young black male, he graduated in May 2008 with a degree in clinical social work.
He once told himself he would write a book if he lived to see age 18. Nearly a decade later, Sain, Jr. was commuting an hour each way to work on the 80-90 Toll Road in northern Indiana. He was working two jobs at Berrien County Juvenile Center
and as a mentor to student-athletes at Notre Dame
, along with driving to Grand Rapids for events with Grand C.I.T.Y. and to campaign for Grand Rapids Public Schools
Board of Education. On Feb. 20, 2011, Sain, Jr.’s car flipped over on a wet, slick interstate. He said he felt grateful to survive.
In his book, Sain, Jr. admits he was living a harried life and believes God intervened to slow him down. Physically, Sain, Jr. walked away unharmed. Mentally, he was shaken. The accident prompted him to ponder his purpose, start writing his story and move back to Grand Rapids.
Before long, he found himself sitting in an office on the third floor of Grand Rapids Community College’s Student Center as coordinator of student retention and success. Sain, Jr. said he has a love for sports, education, and his community and takes an innovative approach to injecting hope into students and keeping them in school.
“You cannot be at a community college and not be connected to the community,” he said. “When you love what you do and do what you love, you never feel like you are working.”
He is part counselor, part friend to the students who visit his office, maintaining an open door policy and allowing students to visit any time. Sain, Jr. knows many of them through Grand C.I.T.Y. and does his best to stay relevant and relatable.
“If education is the key to liberation, they need to see someone who looks like them when they get here,” Sain, Jr. said. “Instead of taking lunch breaks, I work out daily at the Ford Field House and invite students via Facebook and Twitter to join me, teaching them the correlation between fitness, good health and academics.”
Also a motivational speaker, Sain, Jr. travels throughout the country to tell his story and encourage youth who feel helpless and hopeless to set goals, resist the temptations of evil and rise above the expectations of their families, schools and communities.
His struggles and successes molded him into a man of faith who understands the power of being a positive black male role model. Sain, Jr. said his greatest accomplishment so far has been choosing to live for Christ. He married his long-time girlfriend, Corinthia, in 2012 and has a stepson.
Plagued with poverty, crime, and adults in prison, the inner city is designed to kill vision and ambition, Sain, Jr. said. The temptation of drugs, gangs, and violence are very real.
Dispensing simple wisdom such as “Stay true to yourself” and “If no one else believes in you, believe in yourself,” Sain, Jr. dedicates the book to “all those who made a decision to be more than what society expected and predicted.”
“After reading the book, my hope is that readers walk away feeling inspired, motivated,” he said. “I want kids to know it’s okay to dream again and go after what it is you want in life. With hard work and perseverance, anything is possible.”
Marla R. Miller is a social activist, entrepreneur and freelance writer for UIX Grand Rapids. Learn more about her background and work at marlarmiller.com