Catching Up With The Buffs: Mickey Pruitt Gives Back In Work With Chicago Public Schools
BOULDER — After a standout career at Colorado and a five-year NFL stretch that included a Super Bowl ring with the Dallas Cowboys, Mickey Pruitt had multiple opportunities to follow a career path in football.
But in the end, Pruitt followed a different road. He returned home to Chicago to give back to the place where he grew up.
Now, 21 years later, Pruitt is still happy with his decision to work for Chicago Public Schools and help provide the same opportunities for thousands of youngsters that he enjoyed.
"I've been blessed to be here this long," said Pruitt, who has risen through the ranks and is now the Deputy Executive Director for Sports Administration for CPS. "My mom and dad were teachers in Chicago Public Schools and this has always been my home. There are a lot of student-athletes I've seen and talked to that are now grown men and women with successful careers, good families, things like that. It's been very gratifying to be a part of that."
Buffs fans will remember Pruitt as a member of Bill McCartney's first recruiting class in 1983, a group that established the successful foundation of the McCartney era that ultimately led to Colorado joining the nation's list of elite programs.
A four-year starter at strong safety (1984-87) for the Buffaloes, Pruitt was a three-time All-Big Eight selection (1985-87) and also a member of the 1980-89 All-Decade Big Eight squad. He finished with 332 career tackles (a CU defensive back record that stood for 14 years), was a member of the CU All-Century team selected in 1989 and was a national finalist for the first Jim Thorpe Award in 1986.
But if there is one moment in his career that Buffs fans remember, it is his sack of Oregon's Chris Miller in 1985 that cemented a 21-17 Buffs victory in Boulder. Pruitt dumped Miller with the Ducks facing a fourth-and-goal in the waning minutes of the game and Colorado holding a four-point lead.
"That (recruiting) class of '83 was his team, his guys," Pruitt said of McCartney's plan. "They were going to be the guys who would help build the University of Colorado."
Indeed, just three players from the 23-member '83 class actually played as true freshmen. But a year later, most of them received their initiation in a difficult 1984 season that saw the Buffs finish 1-10.
"He kind of threw us to the wolves," Pruitt said with a chuckle. "But I think that was his plan. We had to grow up in a hurry. We took our lumps but we learned from it. We learned how to work hard and we learned what it took to win. When 1985 came around, we were like, 'We're ready. Let's go. It's our turn now.'"
Indeed, the heart-stopping win over the Ducks, which improved CU to 2-0, not only doubled Colorado's win total from the previous season, but also set the tone for a 7-4 finish — the Buffs' first winning season in six years — and a Freedom Bowl bid.
It proved to be one of the most important seasons in the entire McCartney era. Coming in Mac's fourth year in Boulder, the Buffaloes needed a turnaround and Pruitt and his teammates delivered, setting the stage for the successful run that followed in the late 1980s and early '90s.
"That class was tight," Pruitt said. "It was a close-knit group and we wanted it. We had a mixture of guys from all over the country. We had guys from Texas, from Florida, from Chicago, from Denver, from California, from Detroit, New York. We had people from everywhere and made it work. It was like a family. We were growing up together and we wanted to leave something for people to remember."
That is exactly what those Buffaloes did. In 1986, they ended a 19-year losing streak to Nebraska with a resounding 20-10 win in Boulder, leading to a second-place finish in the Big Eight and a Bluebonnet Bowl bid. In 1987, Pruitt's final season, CU finished 7-4 for the Buffs' third straight regular season winning record.
"I think we set the foundation," Pruitt said. "Coach McCartney put Nebraska in red letters and none of us will ever forget that."
After his CU career, Pruitt played three seasons with his hometown Chicago Bears, then two more in Dallas, where he picked up a Super Bowl ring in 1992.
After that, he followed the "natural" football road and gravitated toward coaching. He worked two seasons as a graduate assistant in Boulder under Rick Neuheisel, then spent two seasons as a defensive backs coach in Hawaii when Buffs assistant Fred Von Appen took the head coaching job there.
Then, he was ready to take a job with the Bears in player personnel before a chance meeting with a CPS official convinced him to consider a job in public schools. He accepted the offer — and two decades later, he is still there.
"It's one of the things that I wanted to give back to where I came from," Pruitt said. "My parents were teachers, my sister was a teacher in public schools and my brother (Tony, who played basketball at Colorado) and I grew up in Chicago Public Schools. You're working but you're giving back to where you came from. It's been a chance to help a lot of kids have the same opportunities I did."
As Pruitt has climbed the administrative ladder, it has gradually meant less daily contact with students. But he still gets out when he can — and those meetings he has had over the years with those youngsters are still resonating.
Just recently, he received a call from a former student-athlete he helped mentor nearly 20 years ago.
"I don't change my phone number," Pruitt said. "He just called and said, 'Hey, I haven't talked to you in a long time. I wanted to reach out and tell you thank you for everything you did for me. You made a big difference in my life.'"
That young man he helped years ago now has a successful career and family life.
"It's not something you think about growing up, but when you get involved in the process as an adult, you realize how important it is," Pruitt said. "When you get a call like that, it feels good because you know you made an impact."
Like every other sports administrator in the nation today, Pruitt is dealing daily with the obstacles created by the coronavirus pandemic. Chicago Public Schools is the nation's third-largest district, encompassing more than 700 high schools and elementary schools. The schools are currently playing some sports — swimming, tennis, cross country — but others are on hold.
"It's crazy," Pruitt said. "You're dealing with a lot of information that seems to change almost daily and you just try to make the right decisions."
But he also still keeps up with his former teammates such as David Tate, Solomon Wilcots, Rodney Rogers and John Nairn, and they all follow the Buffaloes' fortunes. Last fall, a number of players from those mid-1980s teams made a road trip to Arizona State to watch the Buffs collect a win over the Sun Devils.
"Our connection from that era is great," Pruitt said. "A lot of us still talk all the time and we stay in touch. We've lost some guys from that group, and I think that has made us even closer. It's such an important part of your life … you don't want to lose that connection."