It’s easy to write a Throwback Thursday post when it’s a rivalry week, but on a week like this, when we’ve only met Virginia Tech once before, it’s a little bit more of a challenge. This week I am going to head down the road a bit from Virginia to West Virginia, and write a little Throwback Thursday story about West Virginia native, Chris Yura.
Growing up in the midst of the sprawling Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, one would think the only school looming on the horizon for Chris Yura would be the University of West Virginia. But when his beloved West Virginia Mountaineers played the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the 1988 National Title game, it was another school that caught Yura’s eye — Notre Dame. Chris took a sharp turn when he hit his fork in the road, and followed the mystique and lore of the Fighting Irish to play fullback on their squad, enrolling in the College of Arts & Letters.
“I remember the first time I saw Notre Dame play was in the National Championship game in 1988 when I was 8 years old. I grew up 20 miles outside of Morgantown and we didn’t have cable television (in fact, we only had two channels growing up), but we did get the national title game. I remember how excited everyone was that WVU was in the national championship game, but even more so than that, I remember how excited everyone was that our opponent was Notre Dame. After that game Notre Dame took on a whole new life for me. ND wasn’t just a football school, it was a legendary place. I respected Notre Dame very early on in every aspect.”
“Being from a small state I learned very quickly that in order to be noticed by colleges I needed to work harder than everyone else and produce on the field. The mountains in West Virginia were a great tool for me. They were great for agility and training leg strength. I trained in the woods and was lucky enough to excel at the high school level and began to receive offers from colleges including Notre Dame. I was one of the first players from my high school football class to commit. Notre Dame called and made me an offer right after signing day in February of my junior year.”
“My home state was not happy with me. My older brother Jon was a linebacker for the Mountaineers and everyone thought I would follow in his footsteps when, in my junior year, I was named the best player in the state. When I committed to Notre Dame I received some pretty bad backlash from the state. Players would punch me when we were piled up after a play. People in the crowd held up angry signs. Even some of the parents made comments to me about my decision. Notre Dame just meant so much to me I could not imagine going anywhere else and it did not matter to me what they thought.”
“The first time I went campus I was in awe. I remember going to camp at ND after my sophomore season and that’s where I first received some recognition from the coaching staff. Sitting in front of the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center and watching these huge guys show up for camp left quite an impression on me. I wasn’t really all that big or anything but I worked hard and made them notice me. The Notre Dame coaching staff cares about getting the best players they can get and about getting quality student-athletes who will do something after college. Fortunately for me I performed well enough at camp and got offered a full ride to the school. Driving home my dad and I were both in awe … like, did that really just happen?”
“Notre Dame becomes something that is always a part of you. Every time I go back to campus I feel very connected, as if I had never left. There is a real emotional connection to the University. I care as much about ND now as I did when I was there.”
Okay, let’s cut to the chase ... What was Yura’s favorite moment from his time at Notre Dame? As I’ve talked to guy after guy, telling their stories of their time at Notre Dame, this is by far the most difficult question. Here is what Chris had to say.
“It is extremely hard to select one memory as my best Notre Dame football memory. There are so many moments that you remember. The first time I walked out of the tunnel and onto the field at Notre Dame Stadium; that was incredible. It was quite an accomplishment to get the opportunity to play as a true freshman, to get the chance to play in the home opener ‘Kickoff Classic’ against Kansas in 1999. You get such a sense of awe seeing the fans, the spirit of the crowd, walking out of the tunnel, the feeling of being on the field for the first time, and knowing the responsibility of what you have to do. I don’t think I ran faster in all my life as I did on that opening kickoff. But at the same time you are so nervous. A few short months ago you were playing with high school kids, and now you are facing guys who have three and four years under their belt. You’ve been training in camp and feel prepared for the job, but nothing truly prepares you for that moment.”
“We were undefeated my senior year going into the FSU game (on the road in Tallahassee). On the first play of the game Arnaz Battle caught a touchdown pass. Putting points up on the board so quickly like that and beating FSU at home to remain undefeated was an unforgettable moment for sure. From a game perspective, that was my favorite game. So many people thought we were untested and to go into Tallahassee like that to beat them was incredible. There are plenty of little memories that stay with me as well, like the fake punt against Boston College to get the first down, but everything about that FSU game was memorable. And not all memorable moments were winning ones. When we played Nebraska, stayed with them the whole game, but then lost in overtime. Even though it was gut-wrenching to lose on one play like that, we knew we had played our hearts out and gave it our all – that’s something I’ll never forget.”
“A lot of my favorite memories are off the field. The weight room was one of my favorite places, one where I felt the most at home. Such wonderful friendships were forged in the weight room — Gerome Sapp was my workout partner my freshman year. We had 6 am workouts, and we had to be there 10 minutes prior to the start time or we’d be punished. I lived out in Carroll hall, so in order to be up and ready in time to walk all the way across campus I had to get up at 4:40 am and leave the dorm at 5:20 am. All of my roommates were sleeping because they didn’t have class until 8 am. The mental toughness that is created from those situations, the friendships that are formed, the relationships with the coaches (my favorite strength coach: Mickey Marrotti) … those last a lifetime.”
“They are not just your teammates or your friends … they are individuals who will sacrifice for you to make you successful, and you would do the same thing for them, no questions asked. It was a big contrast for me compared to what I was used to in high school. What I saw at Notre Dame was there weren’t any stars – we were all equal and all on the same level. We didn’t really feel a great deal of competition, but rather we all worked together towards what either became everyone’s success or everyone’s failure. I really felt that I was a part of a cohesive unit, I felt that we were working together as a team, and that was a really amazing thing. A lot of Notre Dame players were the best player from their high school, city, or state; it was pretty much up to them to carry the load prior to college ball. But at Notre Dame we played as a team. The commitment level in high school was not across the board. At ND, everyone is working so hard, no individual stood out – we were united. Hard work with a group of people all buying into the same concept creates such a strong brotherhood and camaraderie – win or lose you all become successful.”
What is Chris Yura up to now you ask?
“Like anything in life, I don’t think anyone knows where they are going to end up. You end up where God wants you to be. I definitely believe there is a purpose behind all things. All of the experiences I had leading up to Notre Dame, being at Notre Dame, and life after Notre Dame all somehow fit together. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be a strength coach. I attended a training camp that was held at WVU back in the 1980’s and I got this training booklet and did the workouts every day from when I was 12 years old. I loved that part of football. It was impactful to me and you always want to be impactful to others in your life.”
“When I graduated from Notre Dame I wanted to go on and get my masters degree, but before that I decided to go into personal training for a while. I got a job at the Four Seasons hotel in Miami through an alumni connection. They did a cheesy promotional photo of me, in a tuxedo shirt with a dumbbell in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other, which ended up running on the front page of the Miami Herald. As a result of that photo I got a call from Ford Modeling and was offered a job modeling in New York City.”
“When I was at ND, the guys used to tease me that I looked like an Abercrombie model, but then when you get approached like that to model in New York City for a top modeling agency, what could they say? It was crazy.”
“I didn’t know anything about modeling but I knew I wanted to get as many life experiences as possible and wasn’t sure if I really wanted to pursue strength coaching so I seized the opportunity and moved to New York City to model for Ford Modeling agency. I thought to myself, ‘Why not?!’ I learned about all different walks of life, I learned what it was like to live in a big city, and I got the chance to volunteer with charities in the city which exposed me to urban poverty. I also learned a great deal about the fashion industry.”
“I began to see the relationships between clothing and people. I thought about “The Shirt” back at Notre Dame. How the money raised from “The Shirt” project does so much good for students in need at ND. How clothing has this unifying effect on people. You see it in many other things like pink breast cancer awareness clothing. What I was also seeing is that sourcing and materials were coming from third world countries, exploiting people and using materials that were harmful to the earth. So even though “unifying” clothing was doing good things (i.e.: breast cancer awareness and “The Shirt”), it was being harmful as well.”
“What if clothing could be more sustainable? What if you could make clothing and help people in the process? I began to do some research into how clothing was made and what happened to the factories in the Carolinas after NAFTA. In 1997, 40 percent of the clothing we wore was made in the United States. Now it is around 2 percent.”
“I started to wonder what happened to these vacant factories. I did some research in the New York City public library and at the Fashion Institute of Technology Library, learning about what fibers would be better to use, how to produce clothing with less chemicals, fewer pesticides in the cotton, without using child labor. I started to learn about all of the environmental impacts from the production of clothing. Being from West Virginia, a coal state, I saw what the aftermath of the coaling industry. It is something I’ve cared a lot about since I was a kid because I love the state I am from. West Virginia is one of the prettiest places on earth with incredible natural beauty, but when the extraction of natural resources is not kept in balance it can produce very negative effects for the people and environment. I also was exposed to reality of poverty in the United States from an early age and wanted to find a way to create jobs in my home state with an environmental progressive mantra. I started to see potential in clothing industry to create jobs domestically with innovation and more sustainable fibers. The light-bulb went off and I felt that this could be a great business idea and something I could bring back home.”
“Living in New York City, I was in disguise as a model and trying to start a clothing business. I started making contacts and cold calls: can I come work in your factory? Can I learn more about your business? I moved to North Carolina and worked in a factory putting labels in t-shirts. I started learning about recycled fibers and where 100% recycled fibers could come from. I learned about all of this cool technology and that there were a lot of domestic resources that I could tap into.”
“The Appalachia/Tennessee/Carolina region had so many resources. I got some really great breaks, wrote a business plan, got some interns from West Virginia University to help me out, moved back home into my parents house in 2009 (right when the recession hit) and told my mom and dad that this could be really great, could create jobs, and make a difference. They knew I was going to work hard and give it my all. My dad had been let go from his job so in order to help me get the capital that I needed to start my business they took out a third mortgage on their house and I started buying the materials to make one single shirt.”
“A university group who does education in sustainability became interested in what I was doing and was willing to buy 1,000 shirts from me if I was able to make them from recycled products. The challenge was on and it worked. With the help of interns who are now a part of my full time staff, who were willing to take a chance and learn this domestic apparel business, I was able to take on the investment, have paid off the lien on my parent’s house, and have been in business for four years now.”
“I truly believe that God has a plan for you; you just have to trust that you are where you are supposed to be. A green clothing line in West Virginia? Come on!”
“I knew that there were vacant factories out there and that people wanted to work — especially in these regions. The people who lost their jobs at the factories in the Carolinas and Tennessee, they didn’t want to lose their jobs. The work had been shipped off to China and the Dominican Republic and they had no say in the matter. There is so much greed in the fashion industry. What if you took away the greed and replaced it with principles that matter and with sustainability? That is exactly what we did in creating SustainU.”
“In 2009, we sold 10,000 shirts that first year, and this year (2013) we’ll sell over a quarter of a million. Next year, hopefully, we’ll sell a million shirts. This will create more green jobs and just keep giving back. People have realized that once we ship jobs overseas we become a shell economy, so growing jobs domestically is very important right now. The biggest honor for me was when we got the license to sell Notre Dame apparel. The licensing department at Notre Dame has been extremely helpful to me in supporting my cause. They’ve been behind me completely. I held off on reaching out to them until we were strong enough as a business to support the demand of the Notre Dame family, and that the business was where we wanted it to be before we put it in front of the Notre Dame alumni and fans. I am so proud to be able to make a 100 percent recycled, USA made Notre Dame t-shirt.”
“People are really in tuned into what we are doing as landfills are becoming full, and it makes sense because we can actually make things from these recycled products and create jobs all at the same time. To be able to make something in America out of recycled materials is incredible. To be able to make this with environmental stewardship makes so much sense for us.”
“We should not be exploiters of this world. We should all be looking into how we can reinvest in the infrastructure that we have abandoned. We only have two percent of people in the United States wearing American-made clothing so we have a lot of room for growth. This is very exciting for me. How does this become scalable? How do we grow? The scaling of all of this has been a lot more feasible than I ever imagined. As we produce more our price becomes more affordable. We have a very unique offering in today’s marketplace but I hope that more clothing companies get into this market as well. As other companies are looking to enter our market we are being looked to for advice and counsel. So many people don’t know that there are companies in the United States that CAN do this. It is a very exciting time for me. Lots of challenges are ahead but it’s the perfect time to invest back into the American economy. Being able to make Notre Dame products is the icing on the cake for me. I stand for the same values and principles as the University that I love. As an alumni and a former football player I want to be able to give back to the school who gave me the tools to get where I am today.”
Check out Chris’ clothing line at SustainU.
Want to read more of Chris’ story? Check out my second book, The Men We Became, MORE Echoes From the End Zone.
Cheers & GO IRISH!