CJ Stewart Of LEAD Center For Youth On How He Overcame Significant Adversity To Achieve Success

An Interview With Maria Angelova


Once you believe it, you can change, and belief comes from experience. The critical change construct that I have created for my life begins with conviction and ends with change. This really gets the heart and the head involved in overcoming adversity. Even if you can clearly see the problem, you can’t change it unless you have conviction.

Sometimes it appears that top-level athletes were simply born set up for success. But the truth is, many world-renowned athletes had to overcome great adversity to achieve the success they currently enjoy. Simone Biles is one example. Simone’s biological mother could not care for her, and Simone was placed in foster care. Serena and Venus Williams are other great examples. They were born and raised in Compton, California, a city renowned for its high poverty rate. Peyton Manning had neck surgery that left him unable to throw a football. He recovered, however, and won an MVP award, set the single-season touchdown record, broke the career passing touchdowns record, and played in a Super Bowl. What exactly is the mindset of an athlete who can overcome adversity to achieve some of the highest levels of athletic success? In this interview series, we are talking to top-level or professional athletes who were able to overcome significant challenges to achieve success. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing C.J. Stewart.

Stewart is a former Chicago Cubs outfielder. He and his wife, Kelli, co-founded L.E.A.D. Center For Youth in Atlanta, a sports-based youth development and education organization. Their mission is to empower an at-risk generation to lead and transform Atlanta by using the sport of baseball to teach Black boys how to overcome crime, poverty and racism. The Stewarts also train some of the country’s top baseball athletes through their other organization, Diamond Directors.

Thank you so much for joining us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and the story of how you became a professional athlete?

It all started with watching baseball with my grandfather from a young age. I’d be sitting on the floor. Harry Carey was the play-by-play commentator. It was hot. We’d be drinking Coca-Cola, the loud AC in the background. No talking, just watching.

At the time, nobody in my poverty-stricken northwest Atlanta neighborhood was talking about playing organized sports, but my mom signed me up for baseball. My first coach was chairman of the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education, which was a really big deal for a kid living in poverty. Today, I still benefit from that access to power.

Baseball legend Hank Aaron lived in the community, and sometimes, even civil rights leader Coretta Scott King would be at the games.

I had my first workout with the Chicago Cubs when I was 14 years old. They drafted me my senior year of high school, but I also got a scholarship at Georgia State University, so I decided to pursue an academic degree before MLB. At the time, I knew I had to leave my house because of the situation there. I had to focus on becoming a professional baseball player.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

The theme of my life and career is “at the point of contact.” God has put so many great people in my life. What’s surprising to many people is that even though I was a professional baseball player, I didn’t love baseball. I was really looking for the opportunity to be significant.

If I knew the amount of work it would take to become a professional player, I might not have done it. I had to sacrifice in many other areas of my life since baseball was the priority. Now, as a coach, I’m doing everything I wasn’t willing to do as a player — reading, resting, eating well, maintaining healthy relationships.

The lesson here is to understand what you’re getting yourself into. To make it, you have to be committed and disciplined.

You are a successful athlete. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Vision: My dad told me that for anything you want to accomplish, you need to see it with clarity first. Close your eyes, picture it, then you can do it.
  2. Courage: There were times when I was afraid to say out loud that I wanted to be a professional baseball player. Growing up in Atlanta with so many powerful civil rights leaders, it felt silly to say I wanted to play baseball. Everyone else wanted to be doctors, lawyers and engineers. Having the courage to say “I want to play professional baseball” afforded me the opportunity.
  3. Repentance: This means changing and going in a different direction. Two years into my professional career, I had the self-awareness that there was not much more that I was willing to give the game as a player — mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. It was really easy for me to go in a different direction.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or takeaway did you learn from that?

My freshman year at Georgia State University, I was playing behind an All-American center fielder, Jason Taylor. Everything was so overwhelming. Taylor got hurt very early in the game, and the coach said, “Courtney, you get ready to go in?” My response was: “For what?”

The lights were bright, and the crowd was rowdy. I prayed that the batter wouldn’t hit the ball to me. Of course, the ball came my way. I ran toward it, and I was in a position to catch it, but instead of catching it, the ball actually bounced off my head and into the outfield wall! Can you believe that?

The kicker? I didn’t even know we were playing nine innings until the sixth. In high school, we’d always played seven innings.

People should accept nervousness. Don’t go out there with the intention of doing something stupid. If it does happen, at least it’ll be a funny story.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that might help people?

We’re in the final stages of launching a certification process for sports-based youth development practitioners. The certification is significant because it will educate and empower people to use the best practices we’ve developed at L.E.A.D Center for Youth. Our certification will give coaches the tools they need to understand how to have a trauma-informed, healing-centered approach to developing youth, positioning them as true professionals.

To be successful is to really understand the phases of development. Even though L.E.A.D. focuses on baseball and tennis, this certification will be transferable to every sport and to children of all ages and from any background. There’s nothing out there like this program for youth coaches and we’re excited to offer it virtually and in-person.

What do you do to prevent injuries during your workouts or during your competitions?

It’s the basics — resting, stretching and eating right. Those three things are so key.

What type of workout regime has helped you to rehabilitate from injury?

Band exercises are really important. As a kid, I didn’t have access to weights and things like that. Everything was bodyweight training, like push-ups. As I got into professional baseball, everything was lifting weights. Now, it’s back to the basics — bodyweight and band exercises.

I also became an avid runner during the pandemic. I didn’t really like running, but to boost my mental health, I started doing things I didn’t love to develop grit. This year, I’ll even do a half marathon.

It’s expensive to be healthy and stay in shape. It’s not only a challenge; it’s also a luxury because of the amount of money and time involved.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of our interview about how athletes overcome significant adversity to achieve success. Can you share your story of one of your greatest challenges or struggles?

One of my greatest challenges was going to Georgia State University. I came from an all-Black high school, and while I had exposure to white teachers, I didn’t have white peers.

I never felt comfortable in college, and I never had a strong sense of belonging. If I’d gone to a historically Black college, I would’ve had more support and been more successful.

That said, I intentionally chose Georgia State because I didn’t think I could go pro without a white coach advocating for me. That was really hard.

What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?

I don’t know how I kept going. Faith helped, and I now realize I was on a journey to where I am now. Fortunately, I had enough talent and enough people recognizing it that I received so much grace when things were hard.

Can you please tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and achieve massive success? What did the next chapter look like?

I got into coaching because I didn’t want to go back to school. I knew being a professional coach would be an easy transition. All I have to do is make kids laugh and feel good — and throw some balls, of course. I also liked competing against other coaches because it pushed me to be the best.

Even for the coaches who have been doing this a long time, there are always ways to improve. After five or six years, my wife, Kelli, challenged me to write down everything I knew about hitting. I started reading and documenting the progress of my players, and I was really enjoying that this started setting me apart. I was getting more and more recognition.

A decade into coaching, I was coaching a white middle school student whose dad was a real estate developer. He helped show me my worth. He said you’re a good coach, but your rates are too low. He also pointed out the decline of Black players in baseball, saying I wasn’t doing anything about it. This white man challenged me, and I owe him so much for that.

Based on your experience, can you please share five actionable pieces of advice about how to develop the mindset needed to persevere through adversity?

As a coach, I’ve created a paradigm that’s five steps to dealing with any adversity — conviction, connection, consensus, collaboration and change.

  1. Conviction:

You have to firmly hold a belief that you can overcome whatever stands in your way. For me as an athlete, I did what it took to overcome poverty and make it as a professional baseball player.

At L.E.A.D., our mission is to empower an at-risk generation to lead and transform their city of Atlanta by using the sports of baseball and tennis to teach Black youth how to overcome three curveballs that threaten their success: crime, poverty and racism. I know they can overcome them, because I did.

2. Connection:

Starting with conviction allows connection with others at the heart. When people can see your passion and your confidence, they connect with it. As a child, some of the connections I made early on playing baseball are relationships that supported me and helped me overcome adversity and achieve my dreams. And I’m still very close with some of those mentors today.

As a mentor to youth at L.E.A.D., my goal is to inspire and equip Black girls (tennis) and boys (baseball) with the empowerment they need to live sustainable lives of significance and overcome their circumstances. It starts with a connection.

3. Consensus:

Personal conviction and connection with others leads to consensus, and then it’s time to get to work. This is the stage where you set a shared goal that you’re working towards.

At L.EA.D., we’re not just coaching sports. We’re coaching youth through trauma and we’re enriching their lives through year-round programming that includes activities along our four pillars of focus: athletics, academics, civic engagement and commerce.

4. Collaboration:

The more of the right support you have when overcoming your adversity, the more likely it is that you’ll be successful. As a youth baseball player, I was invited to play travel ball with my friends who lived outside my community of Bankhead, and I got those opportunities to have experiences with peers who were different from me — racially, socially and economically. Collaboration with diverse communities is another crucial step to overcoming adversity.

Atlanta is #1 in racial income inequality. The mayor of Atlanta is dedicated to “moving Atlanta forward,” and as an industry leader in sports-based youth development, me and my colleagues at L.E.A.D. are proud to be on the Mayor’s team. We’re working to break barriers and create a brave space for the advancement of Atlanta youth. This includes bringing together student athletes in the Buckhead and Bankhead communities through touch points throughout the year. We host two to three camps every year where both communities participate in an intentional way. Through our programs and bringing these communities together, Black youth have been coached to coach Buckhead children at these touch points and throughout the year in paid, esteemed positions.

5. Change:

Once you believe it, you can change, and belief comes from experience. The critical change construct that I have created for my life begins with conviction and ends with change. This really gets the heart and the head involved in overcoming adversity. Even if you can clearly see the problem, you can’t change it unless you have conviction.

I did a 40-day challenge for myself. I asked myself each day: “What do I worry about? What do I cry about? What do I dream about? What brings me joy?”

Ask yourself those questions. After 40 days, if you haven’t overcome your adversity, you’re not putting in the work to make a change for yourself.

I’ve seen these five steps work in my life and in the lives of at-risk youth. I know they work.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

My wife, Kelli and I are working to continue our movement everyday, developing Black youth into Ambassadors who will lead their City of Atlanta to lead the world.

L.E.A.D. Center for Youth is a 501 ©3 nonprofit organization operating in Atlanta, Georgia whose mission is to empower an at-risk generation to lead and transform their city of Atlanta by using the sports of baseball and tennis to teach Black youth how to overcome three curveballs that threaten their success: crime, poverty and racism.

We are changing lives by using sports as a tool for social justice and empowerment, particularly for marginalized youth. Our movement provides opportunities for at-risk Black youth in economically disadvantaged communities to overcome these curveballs through mentorship, education and access to resources.

By harnessing the power of sports, we are inspiring positive change and creating a brighter future for generations to come.

What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?

I’d invite people to learn more about us at our website, L.E.A.D. Center For Youth, visit me on Instagram @iamcjstewart or visit my blog.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.

About The Interviewer: Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl. As a disruptor, Maria is on a mission to change the face of the wellness industry by shifting the self-care mindset for consumers and providers alike. As a mind-body coach, Maria’s superpower is alignment which helps clients create a strong body and a calm mind so they can live a life of freedom, happiness and fulfillment. Prior to founding Rebellious Intl, Maria was a Finance Director and a professional with 17+ years of progressive corporate experience in the Telecommunications, Finance, and Insurance industries. Born in Bulgaria, Maria moved to the United States in 1992. She graduated summa cum laude from both Georgia State University (MBA, Finance) and the University of Georgia (BBA, Finance). Maria’s favorite job is being a mom. Maria enjoys learning, coaching, creating authentic connections, working out, Latin dancing, traveling, and spending time with her tribe. To contact Maria, email her at angelova@rebellious-intl.com. To schedule a free consultation, click here.



Maria Angelova, CEO of Rebellious Intl.
Authority Magazine

Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl.