BY THE GRACE OF GOD – King University Alumni Story
“It is such an honor,” Cylk says after learning that a flag was going to be flown over the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. in celebration of his birthday. A certificate reads, “This is to certify that the accompanying flag was flown over the United States Capitol on February 1, 2021. This flag was flown at the request of the Honorable Tim Burchett, Member of Congress, in honor of Cylk Cozart’s birthday.”
Cylk said that it meant so much to him that he was being recognized and that his work both professionally, as well as in the community was making a difference and that people notice. Burchett is the former mayor of Knox County, Tennessee, and the U.S. Representative for Tennessee’s 2nd congressional district, based in Knoxville, Tennessee. Cylk would also like to acknowledge his friend Randy Webb who was instrumental in working to get the flag flown.
It was in the Great Smokey Mountains, near Knoxville, that Cylk was born on February 1, 1957. Cylk liked growing up close to Knoxville, which is a smaller city, very manageable, but still large enough to provide numerous activities and things to do. From an early age, it was evident that Cylk had athletic prowess. He became a football and basketball star, though it was on the hardwood where he rose to the next level. “Basketball is a parody of life,” Cylk says. “You learn how to play basketball, you learn how to socialize with people, you learn that people have different perspectives that might not be like yours and you even learn about business. I’m in love with basketball and for what it did for me.”
Along with being an athlete, Cylk was a volunteer firefighter, joining at the age of 14. “I didn’t think we’d go into dangerous situations,” Cylk recalls. “I always had this desire to help people,” he says. One night there was a fire nearby and Cylk jumped on his bike and raced over to the scene. It was in an area that fire trucks couldn’t get too so he arrived before the fire department. There was a fire raging, smoke cascading into the night sky. Without regard for his own safety, Cylk approached the basement door of the house, opened it, and called out to anyone inside that their house was on fire.
Cylk entered the burning home to alert the family inside and saved multiple members that might otherwise have been trapped by the flames. As they were exiting the home the fire department arrived. It was the first time that Cylk understood the fulfillment you get from helping people. “That was my first experience, people can help each other,” Cylk said. This has been a reoccurring theme in Cylk’s life. He has always made the effort to help someone if he saw they were in need. It is part of the fabric of who he is and how he wants to live his life. “I believe it starts with family,” Cylk said. “I was raised by kind, God-loving people. They raised me to think, what can I do to help people?”
In high school, Cylk was a star. And it would be through a basketball scholarship that he would enter college. Initially, Cylk attended Montreat-Anderson College, in Montreat, North Carolina, for this freshman year, and then transferred to King.
He was recruited by Coach Nida who played an important role in his development as a player and person. At King, Cylk was also a star. It was as if the basketball was a part of him and whenever he got out onto the floor, there was nobody that could stop him. He had a stellar career and dreamt of playing in the NBA. He would be inducted into the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame and receive the Larry Smith Award. Even though he hadn’t been drafted, Cylk had always been unwaveringly positive. He always believed in himself and wasn’t afraid to take chances. He played in the National Basketball Association Entertainment League for the Utah Jazz (NBAE) where he was a three-time three-point shooting champion, and when the opportunity to try out for the Denver Nuggets Summer League team came about Cylk joined 700 others for a few days of performing at the highest level that he ever had before. Over the first two days, 45 were picked on one day and 45 got selected on the second day for a total of 90 out of 700 earning a second tryout. Cylk was one of them. On the last day of tryouts, Cylk seriously hurt his foot and had to go into a cast.
After months of rehabilitation, Cylk realized that the injury hadn’t healed properly, and it was apparent that his chances of a career playing in the NBA were more than likely gone. Cylk was devastated but determined to somehow get himself better and in condition enough to compete at that high level. He moved to Miami, Florida, and began working out, running on the beach, and trying to get himself healthy enough to try out. As it turned out this was a move that would alter the course of his life.
One day he was out on the beach working out when a man approached him and asked if he’d ever considered modeling. Cylk was humbled but unconvinced that it was something that men did. The scout assured him that men did it and that it not only could become a lucrative job but could lead to other opportunities.
Cylk decided to give modeling a shot and realized that he was good at it. The camera liked him and before long the jobs began coming to him. As the scout had explained, modeling was only part of what it means to be a model. Cylk was asked if he’d ever considered auditioning for a movie. Since he was a young boy, he imagined himself being in the movies. His mother recalls his first acting role came in a rendition of “The Three Little Pigs.” At around the age of fourteen, he had even made a checklist of all the things he planned on accomplishing as an adult. Acting in the movies was on the list. Cylk had always been willing to take a shot at an opportunity. He was never afraid of failure. If it doesn’t work out, then you can always just try again.
He landed a job acting in his first movie in 1983, “Blue Skies Again.” It was a small part, and he says, “I was an unknown then and so I roomed with another guy who was also unknown. His name was Andy Garcia,” Cylk said. That’s how it was for the guys when they were starting. You took what you could get, roomed with whoever they put you with, and did your time and while you were there you learned as much as you could, networked with as many people as possible, and did the best you could.
Cylk did great work on the film which opened the door to other auditions and parts. He got work in Miami and then New York. In New York Cylk acted in off-Broadway plays. “When I was doing plays, I remember that first line, it was a comedic line and how everybody laughed at it and it sent a vibration through my body,” Cylk said. “I got this big roar.” The energy was electrifying and Cylk was in his element. But to make it in the film industry, you had to be out in Hollywood, and so that is where he went. But getting to Hollywood was one thing, ingratiating himself into the Hollywood culture was a whole different level. “I knew if I was going to make it I had to network,” Cylk said. And one place people went to get to know the Hollywood insiders was a basketball club played every weekend at Fairfax High School. “Guys went and played ball,” Cylk said.
Cylk got involved in pickup games. There he met numerous both up-and-coming and already household name actors including George Clooney, Arsenio Hall, and Denzel Washington. Cylk and Denzel were on the same team and it was Denzel who took Cylk under his wing and showed him the ropes. He was more or less a mentor. One day they were resting in between games and Cylk explained to Denzel that he needed to start going to parties to land some gigs. Denzel asked him, “How many times have you been to a party and been offered a job? That isn’t how it works.”
Cylk understood what he was saying. You go to the party to socialize and get to know each other. “You go to the party to have a good time, and that is it,” Denzel said. Cylk listened and learned, and the more he learned the more confident he grew. Another afternoon they were in the gym and Denzel pulled Cylk aside and told him that a script had come through the pipeline and for him to come and hang out and talk about it. Cylk met up with him on a movie set and Denzel provided him with his own trailer. “How do you like this dressing room?” Denzel asked.
“This is bigger than my entire house,” Cylk said. Denzel then told him about the script that had come in. It was a sports movie called, “White Men Can’t Jump.” Cylk then asked him if he could get in a scene and Denzel gave him the entire script. Denzel explained that he was cast for the role of Malcolm X in his autobiographical film and so he recommended the part of “Sidney ‘Syd’ Deane,” for Cylk. “You have a meeting two days from now with Ron Shelton,” Denzel told him. Ron Shelton had directed “Bull Durham” starring Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner and “Blaze” starring Paul Newman. This was a big deal. Cylk was nervous but it was the kind of challenge that he welcomed and the arena where he could “play ball,” was where he thrived.
“I remember that day walking into the room at the studio and there were about fifteen people in suits from 20th Century Fox. Cylk met Ron Shelton and Shelton explained that there was another actor on the way who would be auditioning as well, as the second lead role opposite me. After a few minutes of waiting the door flew opened and Tom Cruise of Top Gun fame appeared. The audition began with them reading the script. They then had to put the script down and ad-libbed. This was where Cylk was at this best. He did the audition without a hitch and as he and Cruise were leaving the room together, Cruise said, “I’m not really a basketball player.” Cylk found that funny since he had taken the time to come down to the studio for the audition.
The next day Cylk returned to the studio to do another reading with another actor. Again, Cylk had arrived at the audition first. The second actor to audition turned out to be Keanu Reeves known for his role in “Speed,” with Sandra Bullock. They both read the scripts and then performed the ad-lib. After the reading Ron had them go out back where they had a basketball hoop set up. Cylk and Keanu proceeded to play one-on-one. Ron could tell that Keanu didn’t look like a natural basketball player. They went at it for a few minutes until Keanu accidentally hit Cylk in the head. “Alright, that’s enough!” Ron said deciding to end the game before someone got truly hurt.
Cylk was still in the running for his role but Ron decided that they needed to find an actor that had a basketball background. Ron informed Cylk that was going to fly to New York to audition John Cusack for the part. This didn’t work out and they continued looking. Back in L.A., the studio met with Emmy Award winner, Woody Harrelson, known for his work on the television show “Cheers.”
“Woody and I hit it off right off the bat,” Cylk said. They were standing opposite each other reading the script at first and then both threw their script down and began ad-libbing. “It started with Momma jokes,” Cylk recalls. “Denzel called me every day to hear how it was going.” The experience was what Cylk had been looking for, “I was in heaven,” he said about the auditions, and the travel and getting to meet the Hollywood stars. Woody was cast for the role of Billy Hoyle, the former college basketball player who makes his living by hustling streetballers.
One evening not long after the audition with Woody Harrelson, Cylk gets a call from Ron Shelton. “Let’s go to dinner,” Ron says. They meet up at a restaurant and Ron informs Cylk that the studio wants to go with one of their contracted actors, Wesley Snipes, for the role of Syd Deane. They reasoned that Snipes had just made a film for them, New Jack City, and it had made over $50 million on a $10 million budget, and so he was a safe bet.
Cylk, though not given the lead, was cast for another part in the film, Syd’s friend Robert. After Snipes was cast in the lead role, he called Cylk on the phone, “You’ll be in my position one day,” he said. And he was right. Over the next decade, Cylk’s resume continued to grow with every new role. “Once you get to a certain level, they pick you,” Cylk said now a veteran actor. He has acted in such films and television shows as “Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper,” “Reasonable Doubt,” “In the Line of Fire,” “Walker, Texas Ranger,” “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Blue Chips,” “Eraser,” “Conspiracy Theory,” “16 Blocks,” and “Eagle Eye,” to name a few. Cylk has acted in over 40 films and 20 television shows. His films combined have grossed over $1 billion dollars.
In 2020 Cylk made his directing debut with “Ball of Confusion,” a documentary about the history of basketball and its global impact. “I named it ‘Ball of Confusion,’ because the world we live in now is a ball of confusion. Through basketball we learn how to deal with the trials and tribulations of life, the pressures, and negativity,” Cylk said. He also discussed how basketball was first invented as a pastime for football players during the winter when it was too cold to be outdoors. Naismith originally invented the game of basketball not for money but as a means for athletes to get exercise. “He’s rolling around in his grave right now,” Cylk said with a laugh.
He thinks back to his time at King and how the school and coach Nida helped to prepare him for the challenges of the competitive world of professional sports and Hollywood that he faced later in life. Cylk is also in the process of putting out his next film, “Inherit the Land,” based on the book by Gene Stowe. The film discusses the true story of two white sisters who wrote identical wills leaving the majority of their estates to a black man and his daughter. The story explores the complexity of the Jim Crow South and details the famous court battle that ensued. Cylk is such a great humanitarian and creative thinker, and he lives his life with enthusiasm, careful attention to detail, with the aspirations to do what he can to make this world a better place.