Here to stay: Josh Drayden on the importance of sports in social progress

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There are many numbers by which Cal football cornerback Josh Drayden has been defined by throughout his life: 3.46, 20 and 35, to name a few. But he is not the first.

He is not the first in his family to strike out on a path rarely traveled, nor the first Black student athlete at Cal, nor the first to exemplify greatness as a community member, teammate and friend.

But he certainly won’t be the last.

One of 1,084 Black students out of the total 31,348 undergraduates that comprise UC Berkeley, Drayden is part of one of campus’s smallest minorities, making up 3.46% of Cal’s population.

“That number is staggering, but at the same time you could probably look at every other big institution in the nation other than HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) and you find the same discrepancy,” Drayden said.

Donning a backpack embroidered with his number 20, carrying cleats as well as books, Drayden finds himself among an even more niche group of scholars — the kind that stack just-after-sunrise classes on top of sunrise workouts, have playoffs and midterms in the same week and put in 18-hour days without seeing a dime. Although few could claim such dedication to a sport and academics simultaneously, Black student-athletes have become the demographic majority on the gridiron. In the Pac-12 alone, 35% of all football players are Black, edging out white players by 2%.

How can one exist as such a small portion of a student population and such a large portion of a different kind of student population simultaneously?

The answer, of course, lies in years of racist ideologies, practices and structures designed explicitly to disadvantage people of color by discouraging them from the classroom among most other spheres of life in our country. One could trace back the underrepresentation of Black students in the UC system to the overrepresentation of modern-day colonialism and Western ideology that has prized accumulation for some on the condition of extreme dispossession of others.

But as Josh Drayden would tell you, he wasn’t recruited to play the blame game.

“We’re in this space where we’re not the biggest number, but how can we make the most out of it and how can we keep progressing forward?” Drayden said.

Well aware of the socioeconomic and political struggles seemingly ever-facing the Black community, Drayden’s goal is to promote the advancement of current and future Black generations by standing as an example of the pursuit of academic and athletic excellence.

“Being Black in America, you know, it’s different. We have different struggles, different influences that we just have to overcome,” Drayden said. “If you go about it in a way where you’re positive about it and you’re looking at it like, OK, I can be a pioneer for other Black athletes or other Black students instead of always taking it in and looking at it with the glass half empty, I feel like you can get way more out of your experiences.”

Through his own circumstances and by educating himself on the realities of Black lives in the nation, Drayden is especially equipped to make change by both recognizing and accepting histories and advocating for futures absent of harmful binaries. “I’m not saying that people don’t go through stuff, which they do. Everybody does. Even non-Black athletes, non-Black students — everybody goes through different things. So I just say no matter what it is, good or bad, I just kind of try to stay positive, be a leader, be a good influence on my community back home.”

As an accomplished athlete and one of Cal football’s set pieces on the gridiron, Drayden is naturally a forthright believer in the power of sports in accomplishing this objective of betterment.

“It’s like an avenue for a higher education,” Drayden said of college football. “We realize that doing good at this sport and doing what we love can also provide different opportunities.”

Drayden cites the generous communal work of NBA superstar LeBron James and Black quarterbacks, such as recent Superbowl LIV MVP Patrick Mahomes, as national examples that Black communities can turn to in search of citizens breaking down racial barriers. “Just having that platform is one thing, but being able to use it to uplift and continue to progress throughout the community — that’s something that we as athletes have to take responsibility,” Drayden said.

On a micro level, it was Drayden’s mother that continually encouraged him to lead by example by setting the precedent herself. A first-generation college student hailing from Mississippi and a former U.S. military member, she and her husband — also part of the military — showed Josh and his brother Jalen firsthand what it looks like to shatter molds as a family of four.

Both Josh and Jalen are Division I college athletes in the Pac-12 and are paving the way through service for future aspiring Black athletes, just as their parents taught them — testament to the idea that walking the walk indeed instills confidence in others to do the same.

“I feel like every accomplishment I’m making, it’s not just me that’s making them, it’s all the people that helped me get here that’s making them too,” Drayden said. “And then it’s all the people that are going to come after me that are going to be able to look at me and be like, ‘Oh yeah, if he could do it, I could do it.’”

For Drayden, Black history is not something archaic or final; it is a collection of brave stories from those who dared see the future of the Black community for its potential and tend society to achieve it.

“I try to look at everybody, every person on the same plane. You can’t ignore the struggles and things that minorities go through. I’m Black, I’ve had my struggles; I know my family’s had their struggles, and we can’t ignore those,” Drayden said. “So for this month, and this really should be the whole year, we should start recognizing that more, and figuring out how we can close that gap and the deficiencies, not just in high school, college, corporate, but just in all facets of the American lifestyle.”

As for the foreboding statistics, our hyper-racialized society and those who doubt the positive influence that each forward stride in the Black community brings?

“My job isn’t necessarily to worry about it,” Drayden said. “It’s to prove whoever thinks that I can’t do it wrong.”

Emily Ohman covers baseball. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @emilyohman34.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Joshua Drayden is a defensive end. In fact, Joshua Drayden is a cornerback.