Being a father isn't just an important role for Terry Crews — it's his "purpose." But there's one line his kids know not to cross.
"The biggest rule ever is never, ever, ever, ever interrupt my workout," the actor and America's Got Talent host laughs.
The former football star has made headlines for his strict fitness regimen. Last year Crews told Yahoo Life that he's in bed by 9 at the latest so he can start his day with a 4 a.m. morning workout that might last two or three hours. It's his "me" time, and because he hits the gym "super-super early," he usually doesn't run into the other members of his household. When he does, however, he finds it distracting.
"I told my kids, like, 'unless the house is on fire, don't ever, ever interrupt my workout,'" says Crews, who shares five kids with wife Rebecca King Crews. "So I'm doing my workout. I'm on the treadmill, the whole thing. We have this little gym and my son peeks his head into the window like, 'Hey Dad, I gotta interrupt you.'"
Crews was fuming — until he got off the treadmill and saw that there were indeed fire trucks outside the house. Recalling the moment now makes him proud.
"I said, 'You know what, son? You did good,'" he tells Yahoo Life. "He followed the rules to the letter."
Sacred workout time aside, Crews — who today releases his new graphic novel for middle-schoolers, the cleverly titled Terry's Crew — doesn't consider himself particularly strict as a parent or grandparent (his 12-year-old granddaughter calls him "Grampy," for the record).
"Generationally, it's usually that the older generations wanted you to do what they wanted you to do," the former Brooklyn Nine-Nine star says. "What I want is what my kids want to do. Like, my goal as a father is to get you to where you get to what you want in your life, and to help you in any way possible so that you can be the best you possible."
Crews's dad, he says, wanted his son to serve in the military. "They have a picture that they want you to fulfill — things that they haven't done," he reflects. "And I think that's always been a mistake."
His own son is 17 and has no interest in sports. Though Crews played for the NFL before finding fame as an actor, he sees no point in trying to project his love of sports onto his son.
"Whatever you want to be and what you want to do, I want to help you do it," he says. "And that goes the same with my daughters, and it goes the same for my wife. Being a husband, it's my job to help you reach your goals. And that to me makes a great father, makes a great leader, makes a great man."
Crews says he's "put off" when the role of the father is diminished, or when people say things like, "You don't need a dad."
"I always felt like I needed mine," the Everybody Hates Chris actor says. "And I know my kids need me and I want to be that voice and that protector and that support."
As a youngster himself growing up in Flint, Mich. amid the decline of the auto industry and the rise of the crack epidemic, Crews's own biggest challenges were trying to stay out of trouble in a "very lawless atmosphere" and finding a place for himself as a "multihyphenate" with a passion for art — just like the tween protagonist in Terry's Crew.
"There were many, many times I got yelled at in the streets and called a white boy by the way I talked," he says. "There were times I had to really dumb myself down to pretend. I have to say … that was my first acting job, because you have to act tough. I would go to school and I remember having my portfolio and my art, the whole thing, but I would hide it. I was a big nerd and I wanted to talk about nerdy things — you know, Star Wars and physics, all the stuff I love. But when you're in that set … you really dumb yourself down so you don't stand out, because that was always the threat to other people. They were like, 'Oh, you think you're smart, huh?'"
Being good at football gave him more acceptance and respect, he says, noting that "people tended to not mess with people who look like they could be in athletics."
Illustrated by Cory Thomas — "I was tempted to do it myself, but sometimes you gotta leave it to the pros," says Crews, who would have needed to clear his work schedule for six months to do the artwork — Terry's Crew shows how the young, fictional Terry navigates these challenges while trying to make friends at his elite new school. But while there's a lot of overlap between the actual Terry (who credits his own art education with saving him) and his alter ego, the actor admits that he's "not as nice as book Terry."
While the fictional Terry is bullied, the younger Crews was often the guy punching down. Growing up, it was common for his peers to roast each other and give each other nicknames that were sometimes good-natured, but oftentimes just made people "feel really bad." Dubbed "Electric Lips" on account of a keloid scar he got after putting a plugged-in electric socket (which then exploded) in his mouth at age 2, Crews "was ready with a putdown for everybody" who might come after him. "I was always looking at flaws of people and what thing was wrong with them," he says.
One day on the bus, he targeted a kid whose pants were too small.
"And I laid into this kid in front of the whole bus, and people started laughing," he says. "But the kid was embarrassed. He wasn't coming back [with an insult] and you could just see him just sinking down. And I just would not stop."
Crews credits his friend Beth with calling him out on the bullying, a moment that he recreates to a certain degree in his book.
"I really, really thank God [that] I got some really people who believed in me enough to tell me that that's not the way to go," he says.
Wellness, parenting, body image and more: Get to know the who behind the hoo with Yahoo Life's newsletter. Sign up here