Terry Crews is a multihyphenate to the nth degree. He’s an actor, artist, break dancer, former NFL football player, father, husband, and best-selling author.
His newest book, Tough: My Journey to True Power, came out last month. Within, he shares deeply personal stories about his journey to success and aspects of his life that have both surprised and informed him. What can be learned from this gregarious jack of all trades? Lots.
“Growing up in Flint, Michigan, during the General Motors boom was like growing up in Palo Alto today,” Crews says. “GM was the number one corporation in the world and people were making lots of money…people were buying homes and cars, and life was really, really good…then it all stopped. I was born in 1968 and the gas crisis started in the ’80s, so right around the time I was 11 or 12 years old, stuff started to change in a big way.”
Crews bore witness to the decline of manufacturing first-hand.
“As a kid, there used to be smoke pillars all over the city. The auto manufacturing factories and people would burn foreign cars. If you had the nerve to bring a Toyota into the city limits, it would get burned,” added Crews. “The factories started to close; people got into drugs, because that was the same time as the crack epidemic. A lot of people know about opioids now, but in the 80s, the crack epidemic was horrifying, man. And the city basically turned. It was like The Walking Dead. Friends of mine were immediately hooked on drugs and strung out, and people were unemployed. Entire neighborhoods were gutted.”
Looking for an out(let)
Flint became the city with one of the highest homicide rates, so Crews had to find a way to survive. Unfortunately, home wasn’t a safe haven for him as a teen.
Crews’s father was a violent alcoholic and domestic abuser, and his mother was “addicted to religion,” Crews says, which created a toxic mix of conflicting views and instability.
“We weren’t allowed to play sports, go to the movies, anything…so my imagination was everything. I would draw like crazy and paint to escape.”
Thankfully, Crews had a teacher at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan who helped him believe in his own talent.
At 14 years old, on his own volition, Crews started lifting weights in hopes of pursuing a football scholarship. He walked on at Western Michigan University and received a scholarship in his second year that led him to a seven-year career in the NFL.
Seeking higher ground
“Growing up in Flint with the gangs and the drug dealers, you quickly learn it’s kill or be killed,” Crews says. “Then you get to the NFL and it’s still kill or be killed, you know?’
That sentiment remained when Crews left the NFL to pursue an acting career in Hollywood. Crews realized there are things people could use to bait and trigger him to be reactive and demonstrate poor behavior. But, in time, he realized, there’s a better way—a higher path.
“There’s a way forward that doesn’t make me a statistic. There’s a way forward where I don’t have to compete. I can get into a whole ‘nother place—a much better and healthier place. And once I found that, because it’s kind of hidden, you feel like there’s no mistake. It’s the best way forward.”
Some people think toughness is about throwing punches. And Crews says young Black men often feel powerless to triggers, but once you embrace that self-empowerment, self-actualization, and mindful awareness of action versus reaction, an entire world of positivity and opportunity open up. Toughness is the ability to be sensitive and vulnerable.
“True power is all about controlling yourself—your emotions, your feelings, your physicality, your everything. You have to learn how to control yourself.”
This year’s Academy Awards scandal between Will Smith and Chris Rock comes to mind.
“I do want to bring up the Academy Awards thing because there was a day I was Will Smith. You could say anything to me, and I’d jump up, and that was it.”
All ships rise
In Crews’s book, Tough: My Journey to True Power, he talks about the barriers, roadblocks, and challenges that fueled him to succeed: “You can’t do that. You can’t do that. You can’t… It was all can’t, can’t, can’t…I was like, ‘Well, what can I do?’ I challenge the culture of can’t in-depth in my book,” says Crews. “There are so many restrictions that were placed on me at first as a Black man, then as a man, then as a big man. Assumptions were being made that frustrated me. People had preconceived notions about the things I was supposed to do and be. I kept asking myself, Why?
Crews is known for being vocal not only with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Me Too movements, but also for breaking his silence about domestic abuse, rape, and the code of silence that permeates Hollywood.
He doesn’t shy away from the most sensitive social and cultural issues. He has strong feelings about how to navigate the world peacefully and successfully as a Black man, husband, and father.
He’s hoping to be a voice for other men to relate to—for men to be more open about being vulnerable with their feelings and mental health. When there are more open dialogues about therapy and gender equality, we all benefit.
If there’s one thing you take from Crews’s book, a modern-day masculinity zeitgeist, if you will, it’s to find comfort in shared experience.
“I am the most grateful man in Hollywood,” Crews says.. It’s impossible to separate me from the gratitude I have. I’m thankful to be able to share my life with men, and let them know they’re not alone.”
When asked how Crews is going to measure a life well-lived, he thinks deeply on his past, present and future.
“I’m gonna tell you to be a leader. You have to serve the most people. For me to be considered a great dad and husband, I have to serve my family. That’s a whole different mindset than ‘owning’ your family, which is what I used to do. Shared love and joy is the metric. That’s the measure of true success for me.”
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