From Oregon To The NFL, Northeast Portland Native JJ Birden Never Forgets Where He Comes From

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You can always count on JJ Birden to come through in the clutch.

In the last year, JJ Birden has remained dedicated to his extensive family and post-NFL (Cleveland, Dallas, Kansas City, Atlanta) career business aspirations, which includes various speaking engagements, sharing a unique journey, breaking down his best-selling book as an “opportunity trainer” and networking non-stop through a very active schedule. Even when I approached JJ about working on this quick interview for Portland, he agreed with the following disclaimer:

“I’m in the process of moving into a new house and my daughter is getting married…but yes, I would love to share my story.”

That’s only part of the story for JJ Birden, clutch player at all.  Here is the rest, in his own words.



The first thing that comes to mind about growing up in Portland is the bus ride.

When I was young, I was getting into trouble and was a pretty rough and tough kid and my mom wasn’t having that. She was working hard to make ends meet, so I became part of the busing system the city implemented to balance out races in some schools. I would take the bus from Northeast Portland, 13th and Killingsworth, all the way out to Lake Oswego, where I started elementary school.

I was in 6th grade when I started.

It was a tough time, but it also made a lasting impact on me.

Looking back today, I am thankful for that time and experience. I’m thankful that my mom did that for me, even though it was such a pain and I’m very thankful for the great education I received in Lake Oswego at such an early age – from elementary, to middle school and then high school. Man, it’s interesting to listen to kids talk today about how hard they have it and they really don’t have an idea…I had it rough, but that stirred something in me. It made me tougher and smarter.

I owe that to how I grew up and who I learned from.

My family and cousins and then the teachers in Lake Oswego all played a big part, as much as my time spent growing up in Northeast Portland. But the influence and lessons from the coaches in my life, didn’t come until later. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school when I started considering going out for sports and to run track and any time I tell people that, they wonder why didn’t I play school sports earlier?

Because I couldn’t get home…

It’s that simple. After school sports programs cost money and time and I didn’t have either one. The busing system didn’t include after school activities and transportation, so I was on my own if I needed to get home. I would have had to go from Lake Oswego, to Downtown Portland to transfer, and then take another bus out to Killingsworth. Think about that for a second. It was crazy and I knew something had to change, so that’s when I started running track and field. I got some rides here and there from coaches and during my Junior year, the high school would call a Radio Cab for me to get me home after school and practice. It helped that I was also going out for the football team then too. The transition from track and field to football was also a chance for me to push myself. I knew once I saw some practices and watched some games that I could do it, despite being undersized. That’s where I learned about commitment, hard work and what it takes to compete together. It’s funny…even now during my speaking engagements with corporations, or groups, executives…those are points I share with them from my nine seasons spent as a 5-foot-10, 157  pound wide receiver in the National Football League. I am proud that the foundation was laid at Lakeridge. But it’s funny, because even when I started playing football the NFL was the furthest thing from my mind. I saw the game from the fan perspective, but never did I once think that I would play at that level.

I remember after one game, my Uncle was like, “Yeah, you’re going to play in the NFL”. I thought it was crazy. No way.

During my Senior year of high school, I was getting recruited for track and field because I was a hurdler and could also jump. At that time I was about 133 pounds, so schools like Boise State, Washington State and USC showed interest, while smaller programs wanted me to play football for them. I decided to attend the University of Oregon on a scholarship and competed during my Freshman year, while also taking that time to evaluate the football program, watch practices and once again to see what it would take to play Division 1 football. I knew the risks and what it would take and I liked my chances.  During the track season, I started secretly watching the football practices. I wanted to evaluate the talent and see if I was good enough to play. Once I realize yes I could play, I went down on the field and stood near the goal post hoping head coach Rich Brooks would see me. He finally did, walk up to me….

Coach looked at me and said, “I know who you are. Do you think you can play in the Pac-10?”

I was offered to “walk on” for the team, as not to put my track and field scholarship in jeopardy. However, I had a burning desire to prove people wrong.

Coach looked at me and said, “I know who you are. Do you think you can play in the Pac-10?”

I knew I could. It was a burning desire to prove people wrong. I was offered to “walk on” for the team, as not to put my track and field scholarship in jeopardy.

That moment really opened the door to the football and eventually the NFL.

But once again, that wasn’t even on my radar. Injuries hit me during my college career, from breaking my arm against Nebraska and then severally injuring my ankle against UCLA. It was a different story in track and field. I was all Pac-10 and an All-American as a Senior and qualified for the Olympic trials in 1988, but when the NFL rookie camp invitation came my plans changed. The hard work from the combine paid off when the Cleveland Browns took me in the 8th round of the NFL Draft. And despite tearing my ACL my third practice in, ending my track and field career, and spending my rookie season on injured reserve, I used my setback as an opportunity to grow and eventually played 9 years in the league between the Browns, Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons.

It’s fun to look back on that time in Portland, Lake Oswego, Eugene and then around the NFL. That’s the story I share with people today as a speaker, author and managing my own Isagenix health and wellness team. Not only that, but I have 8 children (3 of my own and then 5 we have adopted) and 3 five of them are getting married this year, so you can imagine my schedule. It is pretty crazy.

It’s interesting to think about professional football and Portland and what that might look like. I believe Portland is a football town, but only with a dome or venue to resist the elements. That would be great, but it also has to be the right person to help open the door to the NFL. During my playing days, I always thought about “life after the NFL” and if I would want to be involved.

Being a coach did not appeal to me, but something in a front office or team level intrigued me.

I like the idea of making a difference and growing something.

That’s what I love about what I do now. I have the chance to speak and tell my NFL story to people, to either build them up in their personal lives and business. And the best part is, I am impacting lives.


Connect more with JJ Birden on Twitter, YouTube and his official website


Wendell Maxey
Wendell serves as Managing Editor of Portland Sports and operates Wendell Maxey Consulting. For the past 13 years, Wendell has worked in sports business in the US and Europe and currently partners with Scorers 1st Sportmanagement, NBA Shooting Coach John Townsend, Full Court Peace, Champions Basketball League, GC Hoops and Portland Sports.
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