Dance like nobody’s watching.
Presumably a cliche sentiment, indeed. Yet, these four words impart a metaphorical reminder to exist in celebration of the present, and expel the fear of judgment.
And so, even as a sold-out stadium of 77,622 fans looked on, J.Michael Sturdivant honored this old adage — by doing a little dance in the endzone.
The moment — which the Cal wide receiver now recalls as the best feeling of his young career — arose in the opening minutes of the second quarter, on a sunny afternoon in South Bend, Indiana. It was then that Sturdivant’s long, seamless strides conquered Notre Dame defensive coverage and harmonized with quarterback Jack Plummer’s 18-yard heave out of a shotgun formation. The surrounding sea of green jeered as the football arrived perfectly in Sturdivant’s hands. Infused with confidence and excitement, the redshirt freshman unveiled a bit of swagger as he busted a celebratory move.
Since clinching the first touchdown of his collegiate campaign, Sturdivant has continued to lead the charges for the Cal receiving corps. Flashes of lightning speed, a lengthy build and a particularly disciplined adeptness distinguish Sturdivant’s game on the gridiron. With a starting role in each of the Bears’ six matchups thus far, he has amounted 29 receptions for 341 yards and three touchdowns. Striving for a greater role, Sturdivant is the first to recognize the potential within himself.
“I try to be as dynamic as possible,” Sturdivant said. “Once the ball is in my hand, anything is possible with me, so that is what I want everyone to see on Saturdays.”
Achieving breakout feats on the field is new to Sturdivant this season, yet his poise and athletic prowess may shroud the 20-year-old in a veteran disguise — natural, one may denote. Maybe that’s because he is. The successor of an excellent athletic genepool, Sturdivant was destined to trounce his own achievements in the sporting world.
Flashback to the suburbs of Overland Park, Kansas, circa the early 2000s, and find that the staggering excitement pervading the game of football once paled in comparison to the youthful chaos and freedom of the schoolyard.
“When I was super little, I didn’t like football. I just wanted to run around at recess,” Sturdivant smiled and shook his head.
Even surrounded by a lively Kansas City Chiefs community, it was not yet the football on the turf that charmed the youngster. But rather, young Sturdivant found incentive to watch the NFL only as the Chiefs would hold a promotional deal: two Big Macs for the price of one whenever the defense coerced a sack. Hey, whatever it takes.
Nonetheless, his father, Michael Sturdivant, who recorded an acclaimed career as a wide receiver at Virginia Tech, preceding a brief professional football stint, never sought to groom his only son towards football. Likewise, his mother, Melodie Sturdivant, a track and field Hall of Famer at Bradley University, specializing in the 400 meters, echoed a similar sentiment. Rather, the pair was simply eager for their son, as well as two daughters, Camille and Crystal, to push their limits physically, while experiencing the mental and social benefits of youth involvement.
“We just wanted to get them off the couch, get them exercising, and do something constructive. We are both believers that sports help in other things other than sports, it’s a good teacher of life,” his father said. “We wanted our kids to participate in sports so they could pick up some of those lessons.”
And so, beginning his athletic endeavors at 5 years old, on a coed soccer team, Sturdivant piloted a plethora of sports in his early years. When soccer no longer piqued his interest, he gravitated towards competitive swimming. But, later repelled by the the cold pool temperatures, Sturdivant tried his hand at baseball … and basketball … and track … and even took gymnastics lessons with his sister.
His father, the designated football guy of the family, reminisced on the lovely moment he knew to finally sign his son up for flag football.
“One day he jumped off the arm of the couch, and elbowed his sister in the back of the head. I told him from that day forward, ‘You are playing football,’ ” his father said.
“He cried and cried and cried. We enrolled him in flag football, and his first day of flag football was like he’d been doing it for 20 years, he just absolutely took off. From my perspective, he just hasn’t looked back since.”
In just a few short years, it is safe to say Sturdivant was developing into something special.
“When I thought he was going to be pretty good at (football) in fourth grade … the opening play of every single one of his fourth-grade games was a jet sweep, and he scored on it every single time,” his mother recollected foundly.
“(The other teams) knew it was coming every time and they still couldn’t stop it,” his father chimed in.
And unstoppable he remained. The young aspiring athlete transcended through junior high, splitting his time between football and track. Once skeptical of his size and speed, as compared to the Virginia Tech players he had seen growing up, Sturdivant found a footing of confidence in high school. It was then that he prothesized visions of a Division I football opportunity.
The family’s relocation to Flower Mound, Texas, during his sophomore year of high school marked a new era of football for the budding star. The football culture at Marcus High School was an intensified edition — a program that fashioned Sturdivant within a process of ownership, discipline and excellence served as a gateway to the next level. With 34 Division I offers awaiting, including LSU, Oklahoma, UCLA and Texas A&M, it was time for a big decision.
So what brought Sturdivant to the Bay?
“Jay is a very cerebral kid,” his father explained. “He is emotional in the things that he believes in. One of the things he believes in is some sort of connection with people.”
Sturdivant found just that with the Bears. Through long phone calls with wide receiver coach Burl Toler III and instantaneous companionship in the players committed before him, Sturdivant felt such a connection. Echoing an emphasis on its academic distinction, Cal proved the environment in which he could thrive both on the football field and in the classroom.
“Of course, I want to go to the league,” he explained. “I just really want to be successful in life. There are a lot of stories of people who had all the tools and just didn’t make it happen, but I am confident in my abilities … so I really just want to reach my potential and want to do everything that I am capable of doing and live a life that I love and can look back on and be proud of myself for.”
Meanwhile, off the field, those close to Sturdivant would describe him as a happy-go-lucky kid. With anime and Fortnite occupying his minimal free time, the Cal receiver strives to be a light in this world, always looking for ways to include quality, fun people in his life. And through it all, his individuality shines through.
“He has become a fashion guy, he likes to think that he is very fashionable, but he has got his own taste and it is a little different, kind of quirky,” his father said.
“He is kind of a life of the party kind of person once he gets comfortable and feels like the people that he is around are authentic. He likes to have a good time, he likes to have fun,” his mother said.
As for his teammate and road trip roommate, Jeremiah Hunter knows Sturdivant’s spunk better than anyone. He pins Sturdivant’s best qualities as his animated personality and dance moves.
“When he scores, we all wait to see what he is going to do,” Hunter said. “It is probably going to be something funny.”