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 WVU. But when his beloved Mountaineers played the Fighting Irish in the 1988 National Title game, it was another school that caught Yura’s eye — Notre Dame. Yura was a USA Today honorable mention prep All-American, ranked 73rd among the top 100 national players by the Chicago Sun Times, and a Kennedy Award winner as the West Virginia player of the year in 1997. Chris followed the mystique and lore of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to play fullback on their squad and he enrolled in the College of Arts & Letters. What does a Fighting Irish bruiser do with this varied background? Well, he founded SustainU, a company that produces athletic wear and collegiate apparel made completely from recycled materials. What path takes a young man from playing fullback and earning a sociology degree to producing a green clothing line? Come walk the journey with Chris Yura.
Q: How did you become interested in playing football for the University of Notre Dame instead of becoming a WVU Mountaineer?
A: “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?”
“The friends that I made at Notre Dame were from all over the country. Many of us came in as freshman not knowing a single soul. One of the things that makes ND so great is the diversity among the student body. The only other football player at Notre Dame who was from West Virginia was Bobbie Howard. (I met Bobbie at the football camp I attended at ND when I was in high school. Bobbie graduated before I was a freshman.) He made a big impression on me. He was very excited that there was a kid from West Virginia at camp. He was very welcoming and was a great advocate for the University, as well as being a great representative of the state of West Virginia. He left big shoes to fill but it was a tremendous experience.”
“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.”
Q: What is your best Notre Dame football memory?
A: “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.”
“It was really important to the coaches that every player knew they were an equal. Whether you were a first string quarterback or a walk-on, everyone’s effort and contribution was extremely important and a high level of production was expected from everyone. By doing this you eliminate the egos. If you let yourself not perform to your highest level you not only let yourself down but your teammates as well. I think training in this manner translates well onto the field. We had first round draft picks come out of that team, but for us as a team we never looked at anyone as a “star.” And those guys never felt they were better than everyone else. If I blocked for Julius (Jones), I was just as happy as if I was making the running play myself.”
“It is a refreshing feeling. In so many sports the focus is on the individuals. Football really is a team sport. You can see how one person’s block can either make a play happen or make a play NOT happen. Our coaches were very adamant in pointing this out, to make everyone see that everyone needs to do their part in order for a play to work. This was drilled into our heads and it was a huge takeaway for life after football. If you work for a company, every person’s job is crucial to the company’s success. In my business, some days I spend my time on the phone in conference calls, and some days I spend my time on the line tagging and bagging t-shirts. Both jobs are equally as important. There is no hierarchy here; we all need to pitch in to make this work. When you manage people like this, your employees see that they are an important part of the process even if all they are doing is packaging t-shirts for the consumer.”
Q: What was it like playing for Tyrone Willingham? And Bob Davie?
A: “I only got to play for Willingham for a year. From an engagement standpoint he was a super engaging guy. He was invested in all areas of the team. He would come out and run and catch balls at the beginning of practice. He brought in assistant coaches who formed a great supporting cast for him and who really supported and cared for us. My time with Coach Willingham was very positive and I’m glad that was my last season. We had so many great players on that team. I had some elbow injuries during my sophomore year and started dislocating my elbow repeatedly and so I was limited as to how productive I could be. At that point blocking was my biggest strength. To be a fullback and have your left arm taken away from you causes you to have to relearn how to do things. I could no longer take a handoff. This was another great learning experience for me: know your role. Know what your role is and that it is important. Take the limitations that you have and do your best. For me it was to block – that is what I did to help the team.”
“Coach Davie was the same way, he wanted production. In order to be productive you have to find a way to stay on the field. We had a great coaching staff that helped me find a way to stay out on the field.”
“I really liked Coach Davie a lot, too. He played at Youngstown State and he was familiar with kids from West Virginia and the way that we were raised. Kids from West Virginia may be from a small state, but it is a small state made up of strong individuals. I remember the first day he came in. He said, “I don’t want fine china, I want Tupperware.” That statement really stood out to me. I knew exactly what was required and expected of me. I needed to stay healthy, or get healthy, so that I could be productive. For me, his attitude towards toughness was spot on because he expected excellence and he rewarded excellence. So did Coach Meyer. He wanted you to be the best player you could be. It was proven time and time again on the field: if you were willing to work hard and be productive you were going to get a chance to play.”
“They switched me from safety to fullback and special teams after my freshman year. I spent a lot of time with Urban Meyer working on special teams. He saw my work ethic and what I could offer to the team. That I would do whatever it took no matter what my size. Size really is a relative thing and leverage is the name of the game. That group of coaches really knew how to bring out the best in us. I respected Coach Davie as a person and I really enjoyed playing for him. Having two years with Coach Meyer helped me develop a great deal as a player. He likes guys who are willing to give 110 percent all the time and it’s a great plan for heading into the rest of your life.”
“Effort is a choice, talent is not. I love being able to look back at a situation and being able to say that I did everything that I possibly could have done. There never was a day when I didn’t. Knowing that is extremely satisfying. I have no regrets. No “woulda, coulda, shoulda” moments. And I take the same approach to my business. There are days where you have disappointments, but as long as you worked as hard as you could have then you will still have peace with the situation.”
“Having that internal determination helps when you face the road blocks and keeps you humble in your successes. I’ve been in business (SustainU) for four years now and we’ve grown so much, but all of the disappointments we’ve been through have been great learning lessons. Even if it doesn’t work, as long as you’ve given it your all, it’s all good.”
It’s like a mountain; just take it one step at a time. If you doubt yourself at the beginning, you’ve already failed.
“Our strength coach, Mickey Marrotti (now at Ohio State), would always push us until we could go no further. Push us so hard that it would take away our mental limitations. If you have no gauge as to when you’ve reached your goal, you just keep going. It’s a great tool to be used and be taught. It can be taught if you’re willing to give the effort no matter how great or small your talents.”
“My Dad was a Child Psychologist for years and then went into Forensics. He knew no limits.”
Q: In the 2001 Fiesta Bowl (against Oregon State) – Did you have any idea how good Oregon State really was?
A: “We knew that Oregon State was going to be tough. We trained very hard going into that game — maybe too hard. We were hitting at practice every day and quite a few of us were pretty worn down by the time we got to game day. (We didn’t hit as much during the weeks of that season as we did during the weeks leading up to the Oregon State Game under Coach Davie). Between the season wearing us down and the hard practices going into Arizona we may have been a bit overextended. Going into that game we felt confident in our abilities, but we just weren’t able to produce.”
“I’m not sure that we thought that Oregon State was THAT good. Before it was announced that we were playing them we didn’t even realize that they were in the mix, let alone that talented. The only teams that we had both played were Southern Cal and Stanford, and we beat USC pretty handily that year. It’s difficult to compare schedules. They had a lot of guys from the Junior College system that year and they had a lot of fresh players. I remember feeling that a lot of us were just really beat down by the time we got to that game.”
Q: What was your biggest challenge as a Notre Dame student-athlete? How did Notre Dame prepare you for life after college?
A: “You are not just asked to compete on the field but in the classroom as well. I really enjoyed that challenge, academically, to be put in the same classes as kids who had this incredible intellect – the kids at the tops of their high school classes. The minute I stepped onto the field at Notre Dame I got so much faster because the competition was so much faster. My brain had to evolve to being faster and quicker. In the classroom the same thing happened. You are suddenly in class with these very bright students and they push you to get better and better.”
“I remember feeling that everyone else knew so much more than I did academically. I asked my roommates what their SAT scores were and they had these crazy high scores. I had never even heard of anyone scoring so highly on those college entrance exams. We had a great tutoring network at Notre Dame and I found myself becoming more studious and organizing my time better. I learned that I enjoyed writing, which I had never done much of previously. I did better than I had ever thought possible and it was only the first semester my freshman year. I evolved so much in the classroom.”
“They held us to the same standard academically that they held us to athletically. They had the infrastructure and support system in place to make this work. If you have enough talent to get into Notre Dame you will be successful both on and off the field. For me it was a challenge but I was more than ready to accept the challenge. I became a much better person based on the people with whom I surrounded myself. This really set me up for success in life not just after football but after Notre Dame.”
“The smarter the student-athlete is off the field, then the smarter they are on the field. If you learn the strategy in the classroom, it absolutely translates onto the field because football is such a strategic, thinking game. This made us a better team all-around and helped us to perform better on the field. I think that is such a huge part of the concept of the student-athlete at Notre Dame. I hope they never stray from that mantra. Notre Dame does a great job at setting up its student-athletes up for success both on and off the field, because let’s face it, football does not last forever and you need to have something to fall back on after your football career is over.”
“Notre Dame does a great job of choosing people who will represent the school well both on and off the field. You need to be a Notre Dame man (or woman)- there is no separation between who you are on the field and who you are off the field. You are a student-athlete: it’s all one being, and that is very unique about the culture at Notre Dame especially when you look at what other schools expect out of their student-athletes.”
Q: Where did life take you after football?
A: “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.”
Q: What advice would you give current student athletes?
A: “Football is an amazing medium, but what else are you in school for as a student-athlete? Football was a way for me to get where I am today. People in my company make fun of me because I use so many football analogies (all the time), but everything we learned on the field is all relatively the same in terms of how you go about the challenges in your life. Notre Dame prepared me for not only talking about the glory days of football but also to be a productive person in society.”
“My advice would be that if you are not taking a class right now that you feel really passionate about, find one. If there is a topic that you do feel passionate about, look and see where that could potentially lead in your life and where that can lead you to your future.”
“I can point exactly to the classes in my sociology major which sparked the ideas that have led me to where I am today.”
“If you don’t have a class like this, then change your schedule – find it and see where your passion might lead you further you in life. Whatever job you end up in, you should feel passionate about it.I know guys who make a lot of money but are miserable because they hate what they do. If you have passion for what you do, you will be successful in life and you will be impactful on others.”
I’d like to give a big thank you to Chris for stopping by the blog. It was an absolute pleasure to walk through his journey with him. Stay tuned for many more great stories in the “Where are they now?” series! If you enjoy this series, you can also read more stories in my new book, “Echoes From the End Zone: The Men We Became” available for purchase on August 1st.