Inside Track: The ultimate team player
Former high school standout athlete Chris Sain Jr. develops nonprofit sports program for at-risk youth.
When Chris Sain Jr. was a kid growing up in southeast Grand Rapids, sports weren’t just his hobby — they were his way to stay out of a life of crime, or worse, a life cut short.
So when his football career came to an end after college, Sain and several of his friends from high school, including NFL linebacker David Harris, devised an idea to provide that same opportunity to at-risk youth in the city, and Grand C.I.T.Y. Sports Inc. was born. The nonprofit hosts a number of youth camps, workshops and awards an annual scholarship to GRPS high school seniors.
“We saw a void in our community in terms of what we had been missing at that age — young, black positive role models for the youth in our community,” Sain said. “So, because sports was so intertwined in the Grand Rapids communities and in our own lives, we decided that would be the catalyst for how we bring about change here.”
Sain played football and basketball at Ottawa Hill High School and accepted an offer to walk on the football team at Michigan State University. A shoulder injury limited his ability to get on the field, so Sain refocused his energy on one thing he could control — academics.
Though he’d always been a good student and had a strong work ethic when it came to the classroom, Sain said he realized he would have to use the same mentality he had in the weight room and on the practice field and apply it to his education.
“I stepped up my game in the classroom, my grades improved and that’s what opened up these different opportunities for me as my football hopes and dreams passed me by,” he said.
CHRIS SAIN JR.
He completed his bachelor’s and earned a master’s degree in social work from Wayne State University. With his playing career now in the rearview mirror, Sain wanted to help other athletes achieve their goals. So, he reached out to Galen Duncan, director of player personnel for the Detroit Lions, to ask how he could one day find himself in that role.
Duncan told him the best way to get his name out there is to have experience working with student athletes, so Sain took a position working with student athletes at the University of Notre Dame while running Grand C.I.T.Y. remotely. At Notre Dame, he worked with future NFL players Jimmy Clausen, Manti Te’o and Golden Tate and future WNBA All-Star Skylar Diggins. But after some time, he began to question if his efforts could be better allocated back in his hometown.
“I realized that these Notre Dame students, who were awesome young kids, would be well-off with or without Chris speaking in their lives,” Sain said. “And being from Grand Rapids and already having a desire to be closer to run Grand C.I.T.Y. locally, I thought my journey and life experiences may be more beneficial to the (Grand Rapids Community College) student body.”
So Sain moved back home and took a job with GRCC, where he now works as coordinator of student retention, in tandem with his work building Grand C.I.T.Y.
Sain said a standard workday for him consists of doing work for Grand C.I.T.Y. from 6 to 9 a.m., working his day job at GRCC until 5 p.m. and going back to the Grand C.I.T.Y. grind from 5 p.m. until he goes to bed.
“There’s a lot of overlap with GRCC and Grand C.I.T.Y., so I have some autonomy with the work tying in,” Sain said. “I have access to the students, the youth out there and can help them to be a part of our events and give back to the community.”
In the nearly 10 years since he founded Grand C.I.T.Y., Sain said his strongest memory was the first time the organization donated 500 turkey dinners to deserving Grand Rapids families.
“I used to think that football was the most important thing, but the first time we gave away those turkeys, that felt better than anything I’d done on the field,” he said. “As athletes, we’re trained to chase that high that you get from making a big play, and you think nothing can replace that. But the look on their faces, the gratitude and appreciation you feel, that’s when I realized we might have something here.”
While the primary focus of Grand C.I.T.Y. is providing Grand Rapids’ inner-city youth with an outlet via organized sports, Sain also puts an added emphasis on encouraging the importance of education and giving back to the community. One of the organization’s cornerstone events is a free football camp for at-risk high school sophomores and juniors that incorporates study prep for the ACT.
The inclusion of an education aspect in Grand C.I.T.Y.’s total vision is reflective of Sain’s own view of the importance of academics. Sain said one of his biggest fears growing up was being seen as a “dumb jock,” which was the impetus for his first self-published book, a memoir: “Dumb Athlete: How My Biggest Fear Became My Biggest Motivator.”
“From the time I was a little kid, I knew I was gifted in sports but didn’t want to just be known for that,” Sain said. “I never wanted someone to come to a game and see me in street clothes because I wasn’t academically eligible. So because of that fear, I got high marks in high school and that translated to an actual passion for education.”
He has since self-published a second book, “Finding Real Love in the Love & Hip Hop Era,” and has a third in the works. Sain said he always had a natural love for reading, but when his childhood friend and neighbor died at the age of 13, he made a promise to himself to write a book about his own life if he lived to see 17.
While he didn’t get around to writing the book until a few years after his 17th birthday, Sain said he stayed true to the message he wanted to get out — that there was a way to avoid the death and violence that could waylay children growing up in the inner city.
“In the environment we grew up in, death and prison was a reality, and sports got us away from that,” he said. “It was great to have sports as an outlet, it was something positive and prosocial to give our all to and be all-in. For me, it was the saving grace, and I can tell stories about guys our same age who had been lost to gun violence. And I’m sure enough, that had I not been at practice or running some drills at (Martin Luther) King Park, we would have been in those same situations. It was huge for us then, and it’s huge for the young men we help today.”
As he looks toward the future for himself and Grand C.I.T.Y., Sain said he hopes to get the organization to the point where he can provide full-time employment for the student volunteers who have dedicated their time to the organization.
“We started with helping these students in the community, but we also want to help those who have helped us so much,” he said. “We want to operationalize the whole thing, so that it becomes something we can sustain on a day-in, day-out basis.”