By Tim Covi
Photography By Ross Evertson
For anyone who followed football through the 1990’s, Tyrone Braxton, or “Chicken” as he was known back then, is a household name. He played for 13 seasons (12 with the Denver Broncos) and was a star on the defensive line. He lays claim to the 4th all-time interception return record and two Super Bowl rings. For a 12th round draft pick, he defined perseverance, and he’s still doing it.
Since retiring in 1999, Braxton hasn’t dallied. He started two companies, finished his Bachelor’s degree, and is now going back to Metro State in the fall to start a Master’s of Social Work degree. With his eyes turned toward his legacy and what he can do to help others, Braxton is working with incarcerated youth in a Colorado Detention Facility. We talked to him about his second life since football and the changes he’s working to create in society.
So you were playing football for years—12 seasons with the Broncos. And now you’re coming out of that and you’re starting all over. You went back to school and got a degree. You’re working with youth in prison. What’s that been like?
You know the last 8-9 years after I retired from football I started my own couple companies. Had a pretty successful trucking company that we closed down a couple years ago. But then, once I got rid of my trucking company…I came to realize “what do I really want?” Yes, I can do a lot of things I want, but what makes me happy? Even though football made me happy, it felt like something always was missing. You know? And I think I found it working with these young kids. Beause when you get involved with them and you can see what type of home life they’re coming from, it shows that we’ve got a lot of work to do in our society. You know? … A lot of these people never learned how to work. Their parents never worked. Dad might be in and out of prison; they’re not involved in their life. Mothers keep bringing different guys home all the time and then they treat ‘em bad—abuse, neglect. Not a lot of love, affection and protection. You know that’s what I call it: LAP. Love, affection and protection that kids need in those certain years.
I mean there’s so many reasons why that happens, but it shows just that as society we’ve still got a lot of work to do in all those different angles and in my personal opinion we’ve got to work on the family life. … It’s not always blaming it on the schools and teachers and everything else. To me it starts at home.
I read that you went back to school and you had made a promise to your mom that you were going to finish your degree. What was your upbringing like? Does that play a role in what you’re doing now?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. And my thinking is all your life’s memories and actions, regrets, accomplishments—that’s why we’re here right now. My Ma raised five kids on her own. She never was on welfare; she worked two jobs. So she wasn’t around. And by time I graduated high school, both my older brothers was in prison. And going and seeing those guys, I was like ‘Badamn! I don’t know what I want out of my life, but I don’t want this.’ So that made me realize; I basically learned from their mistakes. You know, 18, 19 years old these guys in prison. Which is happening every day all over our country still now.
So that’s definitely a reason why [I started this work], because I can relate to so many of these young guys now. A lot of them are being raised by mothers, grandmothers; not being raised by men. They’re not learning how to be a real man. Or the man—you know, I got a kid whose father taught him how to cook up crack. You know? That shows you what type of learning is going on out there. So…growing up, my mom’s like “You see these two hard jobs I’m working?” I’d go help her at her second job cleaning office buildings at the Madison Urban League. She said, “You don’t want to do this for the rest of your life? Get an education.”
How did you get off that path? You said your brothers ended up in jail. So what was the break for you? What did you do differently?
Luckily, you know, another main point—a lot of these kids don’t have a positive male role model in their life. I was fortunate enough to have a high school football coach. He helped a lot of us out, guys from our little neighborhood who got bussed to this nice white high school. And we, good athletes, a lot of us got scholarships to go to college to get out. And he was telling us “Look man, the odds of any of you guys making it to any professional sports are slim to none. But the main thing is get a free education; go on and be a productive citizen.” And I believe that whole heartedly. So that was my goal when I went up to North Dakota State. I’m going to get a free education and make something.
So tell me about the work you’re doing now. You’re working with youth who are incarcerated?
Yes. I’m actually at a detention center—Gilliam. It’s for the state of Colorado. And it’s just a youth detention center. … [The] majority of the time these kids are tagging and stuff like that, get in trouble with the law, then go back home. So we’re at that point where, we’re just trying to make ‘em realize “Look. Yeah this is fun. You’re having fun. This place ain’t that hard. But you’re 15, 16, 17. There’s guys who’ve been there on their 18th birthday—[at that point] you’re separated from these kids and you’re going to county jail. Now that’s a hell of a birthday present so we try and stress—look, you better try and get your stuff right. Because now, once you get that adult felony, your life changes as far as income level [and] what type of position you can get anywhere.
What are the biggest changes that need to happen in the prison system? What would change the path for people?
You know, to me, like I said earlier it starts at home. It starts with the family. I mean the prisons—you can only do so much. The more kids that come in, [they’re] going to graduate up into the prison system. And I think it needs to be curbed down here; slow that trend. Because once you get up there, you know, it’s a different ball game. They don’t think rehabilitation. And that’s what I like about the juvenile system. They call it rehabilitation. We do treat. We do rehabilitation, mental processing, mental health counseling. You get up there [past] 18 and you’re in the county or federal penitentiary; ain’t no counseling! They don’t care. Good luck when you get out.
Do you think sports can play a role in rehabilitation? For guys in particular it seems like that’s a big aspect of how we learn to interact.
Absolutely. You got that male role model who’s authoritative. He’s the coach. And he’s telling you, “Look. Hey. Ain’t gonna be no foolishness on this field. You’re not gonna be fighting over here.” He’s going to tell you the right, the proper—and that’s what I loved about football, too. Because it teaches you not just how to play the sport, but life. About dealing with adversity, commitment, dedication, perseverance. All those things that you need when life throws things at you. Or you can give up and quit, which we get a lot of [at Gilliam]. It happens at school; the work gets too hard, they’re too embarrassed to raise their hand and they sit there and they just shut down. And you can see it. You [have to] keep them engaged. So…you can see these types of things in sports and athletics. It shows ‘em, look, there’s no quitting. You gotta keep going and that gives them confidence. Once they feel good, then “Okay, Okay. I worked hard at this. I accomplished this. Maybe there’s other things I can work hard at and accomplish.”
If there’s a message you could send to the community, what would it be?
It’s really two-fold. I think the most important thing, and a lot people don’t realize [it]: education is the key. And two-fold, meaning, education is the key, and then how do we get these parents of the kids who are not engaged in school, active and participating and making sure when their kids come home from school they’re doing their homework first before they get on the computer and the X-Box and the Play Station. Because one thing’s not lacking from all these kids who are in [Gilliam]. They’ve all got the iPhone, the computer, the Play Station, the X-Box and all this stuff. Okay, but where’s books at home? Well you’ve got to read the books, do some math. •
*Tyrone also said he’s proud of his two older brothers, who worked their way out of the system into good careers. His older brother Reggie is now in college getting his degree. “I commended them both. And that’s my point … We’ve got to give them the opportunity to be able to contribute and help out, and feel good about themselves, too. We all make mistakes,” he said.