Former NFL football player Tyrus McCloud wasn’t sure what to expect last spring when he took over the reins of the Zion Lutheran School football program.
McCloud, who played at Nova High School and went on to play two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, started spring practices with just five athletes. As time passed, he convinced more players to come out and had a 17-player roster this fall, of which nearly half (seven) were middle schoolers. Only six players on the team had played tackle football previously.
McCloud said his first-ever head coaching stint was one of the toughest jobs he’s had, and also opened up to the team stressing his “failures” rather than his successes. Among the transgressions was a drinking problem. He recounted a story where he sat with former Ravens Pro Bowler and future NFL Hall of Famer Ray Lewis one day and Lewis told him he’d stopped drinking because he wanted to become a star player.
Zion Lutheran began the year with two straight losses to Berean Christian, 21-0, and Canterbury (St. Petersburg), 14- 6, before finishing the year on a five-game win streak.
The Lions defeated City of Life Christian Academy (20- 6), Northwest Christian (60-0), Scheck Hillel Community School (38-19), Faith Christian (70-28) and Palmer Trinity (48- 0) as it outscored the opposition, 242-88. It marked the first winning season since 2007 when it went 7-3.
McCloud, 39, of Coral Springs, played linebacker for the University of Louisville Cardinals, was drafted in the fourth round of the 1997 draft with the 22nd pick (118 overall) by Baltimore Ravens. He played in both the 1997-98 seasons with the Ravens and was briefly with the Miami Dolphins in 2001.
Among the other challenges McCloud faced was having two younger inexperienced coaches on staff. McCloud came on board last April for spring practice and called coaching this season was “very intriguing.”
“The biggest transition we had was trying to engage the athletes to get them to maximize the talent,” McCloud said. “We had to give the coaches a vision and then we had the support of the administration.”
McCloud has been the South Florida Field Director for Prison Fellowship Ministries for the past 12 years. The nonprofit organization aims to restore broken bonds between prisoners and their families while protecting their children from following in their footsteps. He had a conversation with Zion Lutheran Athletic Director Mitch Evron, who spoke of challenges with the athletes.
“He said there are some issues socially, economically, spiritually and mentally,” McCloud said. “He said he might have to scrap the program, and I saw it as an opportunity to give these kids a little bit of life and move it forward.”
McCloud also said the players had to overcome fear since they had never played before. McCloud said at one point in the spring, they had 23 players but seven quit because the game was too physical for them.
“That was the identity that was there and we had to put them in position to like the game, have fun and maximize talent,” McCloud said. “That was the hard part of putting the pieces together.”
McCloud said the biggest point he needed to make with his team was drawing on his own weakness. He said it was more than being a finalist for the Butkus Award in college or reaching the NFL.
“I didn’t talk about my strengths, I talked about my weaknesses,” McCloud said. “I spoke of the things I failed at, the things I could have done better at, as it relates to football. Ray Lewis and I were drinking one day as rookies, and Ray was saying how we need to stop. He said he wanted to be a legend and he decided to separate to be better and not keep drinking, and I didn’t do it. I spoke to them about the pain of my past in order for them to really draw into the passion of why we need to play and the focus to move on.”
“It was very humbling to open up like that to the kids, probably beyond humbling,” McCloud added. “A lot of the things I shared with those guys, I never shared with anybody in my life. The only person that knew about that story was me and Ray. I had to do some soul searching. I couldn’t watch them get beat up and defeated. It was therapy for me too because I had to open those scars up. I never even told my wife about it and we’ve been married for 16 years.”
McCloud was the defensive coordinator at Calvary Christian in the spring of 2012 and has been involved as a youth football coach in programs around Broward County. He said the core five kids (Don Andrew Hanson, Chris Judge, Rashad Witty, Ruben Monroe and Josh Forde) who came out last spring were “hoping and believing” that there would be a team and they stayed the course. The players recruited fellow classmates and they were able to field a team and defeated Palmer Trinity, 40-6, in the spring game.
“I think it says a lot.” McCloud said. “We wanted to make it exciting for the school and bring some life to the program,” McCloud said. “They have sent a message to everyone this year. I believe that with the talent in Northern Broward County that Zion can be an elite program in the future.”
“This is going to rank up there with the things I do,” McCloud said. “When I deal with the home school kids, inmates and doing camps … You see the smiles on the faces of the kids. You see the kids at Zion where coaches walked out on the kids in the middle of the season. This will rank in my Top 2.”