One of the simple realities of the average professional athlete in today’s age is the fact that a very large percentage of them grew up under less than ideal circumstances, coming from underprivileged backgrounds in one form or another. Many of them are driven to turn to sports as a respite from the rest of their lives, at an escape, or as an outlet. Or simply as a way out.
You can find a number of stories speaking to that reality on any NFL roster, including the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the wide receivers room alone, you can look at their starting wide receivers, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, and speak of their upbringing and how that might have contributed to their decision to pursue football as a career.
The Steelers’ Coty Sensabaugh, a free agent cornerback that they signed in this offseason, is yet another player whose path toward football could also be tied to similar themes. Speaking recently with the team’s website, the sixth-year veteran said that he grew up playing football, and “I feel like it kept me out of a lot of trouble”.
A common story that we hear from players growing up in impoverished backgrounds is that in their communities, there were largely two options. You either participate in sports and focus on school, or you turn to the streets and gangs. A lot of players had to make this decision. Some of them no doubt tried to walk the line between the two.
I’m not necessarily going to try to peg Sensabaugh into this narrative because quite frankly I don’t know a ton about the circumstances specific behind his background. I know that he grew up in Kingsport, TN, which is not the wealthiest area in the country, and that he had an older sibling who died of leukemia when Coty was 11.
But he also grew up on the same street as his cousin, Gerald Sensabaugh, who was the among the first in his family to make it out. And he did it the same way. Gerald was a fifth-round draft pick in 2005 by the Jaguars and he carved out an eight-year career for himself at safety with 14 interceptions and 411 tackles over 84 starts.
Coty described his older cousin as his football inspiration. “He taught me how to become a better football player, a better man, [how to be a better father], how to be a better husband. All around just how to be a better human being”.
The first of his family to actually make it in the league was an older cousin by the name of Teddy Gaines. A seventh-round pick in 2002, he didn’t record any stats, but he was in multiple organizations and played in NFL Europe.
Both he and Gerald Sensabaugh are now in the coaching ranks, so that is another trait in the gene pool. Perhaps someday after Coty retires, he will find that he has the ability and the desire to follow in their footsteps yet again.