February 27, 2014
Former NFL Player Signs Up for the Open
By Candice Case

"I have no expectations. I want to see how I do in my age group. I’m not necessarily concerned with a ranking, but to get a baseline and build on it for the following year."

Photos courtesy of Candice Case

Clarence Sutton is a former NFL player and he’s signed up for the Open. 

“I have no expectations,” he said. “I want to see how I do in my age group. I’m not necessarily concerned with a ranking, but to get a baseline and build on it for the following year.”

Sutton will compete in the Masters 40-44 Division. He started CrossFit last December after his friends, Jason and Amy Bright, opened CrossFit Northlake in Charlotte, N.C., and invited him to a class. Despite his athletic background, Sutton found the workouts challenging and said he’s learning proper technique and functional movement for the first time. 

“I almost feel like I’m starting over,” he said. “I never knew anything about squatting below parallel.”

Sutton competed in track, specifically 400-m hurdles and decathlons, and played football at Appalachian State in the mid-90s. He was drafted in 1996 by the Chicago Bears and was preparing to sign on with the Kansas City Chiefs when he walked away from the game.  

“I knew I couldn’t sustain (playing football) and be successful in the long term,” Sutton said. “I had the money and this was my opportunity to follow my heart.”

Working with at-risk kids has been his passion. The second youngest of five children, he’s been surrounded by siblings all his life. His mother began taking in foster children when he was young and eventually adopted one of them. Traveling the country playing football gave Sutton the opportunity to visit inner cities and connect with kids in gangs.

Some of his family and friends thought he was “out of his mind” for leaving the NFL, but Sutton would not be deterred. He settled in Charlotte in 1999 and began laying the foundations for his current endeavor, Carolina Therapeutic Services, a private agency providing services and community resources to families and children.

Although Sutton’s current position takes him away from the daily hands-on involvement, he treasures the relationships he has formed with the children.

“I’ve taken kids to their proms, thrown the football around with others, and delivered presents at Christmas,” he said. “We get letters of success from kids who have gone on and made something of their lives. It makes you feel good and I want to maintain those relationships.”

Now that he’s established his work in helping families, Sutton can focus more on his competitive nature and his goals in CrossFit. It still amazes him that he can “be next to a pregnant lady and by adjusting the weights, we can go just as hard in the same workout.”

He’s convinced CrossFit is good for him physically and mentally.

“I can come to class, lay it all on the line, and then I’m able to deal with the rest of my day,” Sutton said. 

As a former collegiate football player coach Jason Bright understands athletes like Sutton. He knows how to motivate them and help them achieve their goals.

In addition to the normal class workouts, Bright invited Sutton to train with the Northlake coaches and the gym’s potential regional competitors as a means to challenge him.

“It’s great to coach others with a similar background,” Bright said. “I understand what makes them tick and why they keep coming back. Clarence only knows one speed and that’s wide open. It sometimes gets him into trouble in long (workouts), but that’s how he’s wired from his ball days.”

While “cardio has never been an issue with Clarence,” Bright was surprised Sutton picked up more technical skills such as kipping pull-ups, toes-to-bars and double-unders in a week. Sutton remains dedicated to attacking his weaknesses and stays after every class to work on some skill, knowing it will bring him closer to his CrossFit goals.

“I want to see how I compare to people in my age group in the region,” he said. “I’m not interested in competing against a 20-something-year-old. After this year, I may set my sights beyond the region, but right now, I want to see where I fall in the Mid Atlantic. It feels great to be back in a competitive environment and I’m just ready to maximize this CrossFit experience.”