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#74 Adam Ulatoski is a Longhorn benchmark. Adam is a team player both in sports and his professional life, but his story for the TLSN site is more personal. It is about a young man who is nominated by his teammates three years in a row as the most “Tenacious” player on the team. A moniker earned the hard way through herniated disc, back ailments, elbow injuries, and knee complications.
Adam’s last year as a Longhorn was in 2009. We met each other in 2015 over coffee. As we shared football experiences , I had this feeling there was something very special about Adam, but I could not articulate my intuition. On June 5, 2018 Adam and I met again for breakfast, and the answer I could not articulate in 2015 was now very apparent . Adam Ulatoski owns a special place in the history of Longhorn football. Including his 2005 Red shirt year Adam is one of the only players at Texas who blocked for two of the best quarterbacks in UT history -Vince Young and Colt McCoy. He is also one of the only Longhorn players that participated in the best 5 year record every in Texas football with a 57-8 won loss record. In addition Adam came closer than any Longhorn to being a part of three national championship games. One of those attempts was cut short by destiny. In 2008 on the last play of the game (Texas Tech) ruined a Longhorn National Championship bid, but history honors Adam for two journeys to the National Championship game- As a red shirt against USC and a starter against Alabama.
The article below was written by Colt for The Players Tribune. The full article is in the link below, and the text has been saved just in case the link is lost. The images have been added by Billy Dale to add dimension and reference to Colts article.
QUARTERBACK / WASHINGTON REDSKINS
While I was playing at Texas, I had this little tradition to get my head right before a big game.
As the team went out for the coin toss, I would find a place on the sidelines where I was alone, take a knee and for a few moments I’d just be present in my surroundings. I’d look at all the fans in the stands. I’d look at the band all dressed up and jumping around. I’d take a few moments to thank God for the opportunity in front of me. And then I’d look at my teammates, all of them standing there with this focused intensity, ready to compete. I’d take a mental picture of everything happening, and feel this tremendous sense of joy and pride to be there in that moment, as part of this thing that is so much bigger than me.
Once I took that time to acknowledge what was going on around me, my focus shifted entirely to my job and what I had to do. The noise from the crowd and the band became secondary. I didn’t get swept up in my emotions or the setting. For the next three hours, it was all about executing what I had prepared for that week – and my entire life up to that point, really.
Even though I was prepared, it was never easy. It’s been a few years since I suited up in burnt orange, but I still remember the nerves I felt leading up to the big games. I especially remember how tough it was to deal with them as a younger player, like many of you are.
My second collegiate start came when I was just a redshirt freshman playing against #1 ranked Ohio State. We’d just gone undefeated and won a national championship, and the expectations couldn’t have been any higher on myself and our team. What I remember maybe even more than the game itself was the pressure I felt beforehand. It was just nuts. In the months leading up to kickoff, that game was all people could talk about. It was brought up during every conversation I had, whether it was with a student, professor or the waiter taking my order at Trudy’s. I felt overwhelmed. I was only a 19-year-old kid from a town with a population that wasn’t big enough to fill up a single section of our stadium, but I somehow found myself in control of this thing that meant so much to so many people. I didn’t know how to deal with it.
But here’s the thing I learned eventually: The pressure doesn’t go away. It’s always there. You’re at Texas — the expectations never ease up. So what I discovered over time (and what you will as well) is that the pressure is a good thing. Eventually I learned to feed off of it. I even craved it, because it pushed me to be the best version of myself.
Now I feel for you guys as Notre Dame comes to town, because I remember how long it took for me to develop that mindset. I was lucky enough to be in school before social media blew up the way it has. I’m sure you have plenty of people telling you how great and terrible you are at all times as soon as you open your phone. Try to shut off that noise. Regardless of how much pressure you feel heading into Sunday, remember that the only thing you’re entirely in control of is your performance. I’m telling you now what it took me years to learn and accept: If you go out there and play to the very best of your ability, that’s all you can ask of yourself. And more times than not, it will be enough to win.
I’m entering my 7th season in the NFL, and when I look back on my college days, sometimes I think about some bad plays I made or ones I wish I could have back. But most of all, when I look back on my time as a Longhorn, what I remember most is just how fun winning was. I remember listening to Coach Brown’s postgame speech after a big victory, and then the entire team singing “Texas Fight!” together at the top of our lungs. I remember that feeling of walking to class with my teammates and having everybody we passed throw up their horns and congratulate us. I distinctly remember the pride I felt, but also the pride other people felt because of our performance. When we won, we lifted up the entire campus. And I remember wanting to have that feeling all the time. Our entire team did. I wanted to win for our school, I wanted to win for our coaches and I wanted for my teammates. That was part of what made us great.
The work to achieve that winning feeling never stopped. Every day of practice was a legit competition. We used each other’s talent as a resource to get better. I was out there trying to throw against the likes of Earl Thomas, Aaron Williams, Michael Griffin and Aaron Ross — guys who would go on not to just play in the NFL, but become very good NFL players. Practice was so difficult that the games were just fun because we finally got to unleash all that competitive energy we built up on some other team.
When we won, we lifted up the entire campus. And I remember wanting to have that feeling all the time. Our entire team did.
As time went on, we all felt like we grew together. We wanted to see each other get drafted and achieve our dreams, and we all pushed each other to get to that point. Those bonds never break. To this day, I love checking in with my old teammates and talking about old times.
We reminisce about bowl games, 45-35 and the great run in ’08-‘09 when we only lost one game. We laugh about things that happened in the locker room and in the dorms. And we thank each other, even without directly saying it, for being a vital part of the period of our lives when we became men.
Someday, many years from now, maybe you guys will get together and look back on your time at Texas. And you’ll reminisce about some disappointments from last season, when you lost some close games, but won some big ones. Then you’ll remember that season opener against Notre Dame, when you all realized just how talented you were, and showcased it in front the entire nation. You’ll look back and take pride in how you lifted Texas football out of the lean years and defined a new era of greatness. In some ways, I’m jealous of you. You have so many memories just waiting to be made.
I’ve gotten to know Coach Strong, and I really believe in what he’s building. He values the same things that helped Mack Brown make this program great – a strong belief in family, close relationships with his players and a deep love for this University. When I was in school, I felt so proud to play for Coach Brown, and I can see that Coach Strong has instilled a similar pride in all of you.
I like where our program is right now. I really do. I had the opportunity to work out with a few you this summer, and it made me feel even better about the team. The talent is there. I see flashes of the same greatness that I was fortunate to be around while I was on campus. Yes, people have been frustrated with the results the last couple of years — and rightly so. But if you look closely, you can see that we’re turning a corner. You have the opportunity to erase a lot of bad memories for every person who feels a little bit of pride when they see burnt orange.
You have the opportunity to erase a lot of bad memories for every person who feels a little bit of pride when they see burnt orange.
I don’t need to tell you that Notre Dame is good. You saw that last year, and I’m sure you’ve been hearing about how good they are just about every day since then.
But on Sunday, last year won’t matter. Not one lick. Your record right now is 0-0. Everything is ahead of you.
Trust that your coaches are going to have you prepared. Trust your reads and your instincts. These games are why you were recruited to play here, so don’t try to be a superhuman version of yourself. Be the player you know that you are. You made it to Texas because you’ve played very well in a lot of games throughout your lifetime. This is just another opportunity to showcase what you were born to do.
Before kickoff on Sunday, find a quiet place on the sideline. Take a knee and look around the stadium. Breathe in the air and appreciate the atmosphere. And take a moment to collect your thoughts, say a little prayer and remember how blessed you are to be playing the greatest game on earth at the greatest school on earth.
Then get on your feet, strap on your helmet and go show those boys how we play ball in Texas.
The article below was written by Michael for The Players Tribune. The full article is in the link below, and the text has been saved just in case the link is lost.
QUALITY CONTROL COACH / UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN
When Texas is playing good football, it just seems like the world is a better place.
It’s hard to describe exactly. It’s almost like there’s this warm feeling all throughout campus, Austin, central Texas and the entire state. There’s a definite buzz of positivity. The grass is greener, everyone is happier and sweet tea just tastes that much sweeter.
You hear plenty of theories around the state about why the Longhorns suddenly stopped winning a few years back. It’s been analyzed and reanalyzed up and down by every person who has an opinion about football. But I think that, ultimately, none of it really matters. I’m not here to discuss what went wrong, or whether “Texas is back.”
What I do want to talk about is what this program means to me — because it means a lot. It means just about everything.
I was fortunate to spend eight years playing defensive back in the NFL. It’s something I’m very proud of and that I’ll always be thankful for, but — and I tell this to every young man I meet who has similar ambitions — it was a job. From the moment you’re drafted to the day you retire, there is always a business element attached to playing in the league. Even though you spend your whole life dreaming of making it there, a lot of things become much more complicated once you’re in the NFL. From the outside, you only see the money, the nice houses, the flashy cars and the endorsements. But once you’re immersed in the actual pressures of the job — the injuries, the benchings, and the reality that, at any moment, your career could be over — your perspective changes just a bit. Your relationship with the game changes.
In college, things were a lot simpler. It didn’t matter whether you were a five-star blue chip, or a two-star guy like myself — everyone was treated the exact same. You slept in the same dorms, ate the same food and were held to the same standards. The coaches might have made the decisions in terms of scheme and playing time, but it was the guys you lived with — and grew up with — who you really answered to.
When I close my eyes and think back to that time in my life, the first image that pops into my mind is the DB room. Oh man, the hours I spent in that room. I can see Quentin Jammer right there at the front, quietly watching film. When I was just a redshirt freshman, he was one of the guys I looked up to. He was also the person I never wanted to disappoint.
Coaches at college programs get a lot of focus (and blame) from fans and the media, but what gets lost is how crucial veteran leadership is to the growth of players. Yeah, if I ever screwed up during a game, I knew Duane Akina, our DB coach we give me an earful. But during those practices and games, it was guys like Quentin I didn’t really want to let down. If I was supposed to be behind the line before we started a drill, I knew I better make sure I was behind that line or otherwise those seniors would be all over me. We all knew what we expected out of each other — and it was that standard that led to us producing the best defensive backs in the country for the better part of a decade.
When I first enrolled at Texas in 2001, I was a track guy. I liked looking pretty in my uniform and grabbing interceptions. But tackling? That wasn’t for me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was a pretty selfish, one-dimensional player.
Four years later, I was a starter on an undefeated team playing in its second consecutive Rose Bowl. The final play of my career, it was fourth-and-two with USC leading us 38-33 late in the fourth quarter. The Trojans were on our 45-yard line and we needed to prevent them from getting a first down in order to keep our national championship hopes alive. When the ball was snapped, they handed it off to LenDale White, one of the most physical running backs in the country. And with the help Brian Robison, Tim Crowder, Rod Wright and the other guys up front doing the dirty work, I got an open shot at LenDale and stopped him just short of the chains.
And I think most college football fans know what happened from there.
That was a play I couldn’t have made when I first arrived at Texas. Not just physically, but I also wouldn’t have had the aggressive attitude andinner fire to do that. That play was possible because of a lot of work that had gone on behind the scenes to mold me as a player and as a person. It was possible because of a mentality ingrained in me that we would not and could not lose.
Over time, I think that edge — that mentality — slowly left our program.
And the biggest reason why I decided to rejoin the Longhorns as a quality control coach last year was to help bring it back.
If you went back to when I was 18 and told me I would be a football coach one day, there’s no chance I would have believed you. To me football was more of a fun game than a life-long career.
But after I retired and was living in Dallas, it felt almost strange not to be involved with the game. I didn’t just miss being around football, I missed being in Austin and with the Longhorns every day. I met my wife there, and we had always dreamed of going back one day. It was Charlie Strong who first encouraged me to get involved with the program. I have him to thank for inviting me back. Then when Tom Herman took over last December, I met with him in his office and we discussed a plan for how I could best help the program. It involves a lot of different things but I was all in and now love what I’m doing.
Here’s what I can say for certain about Coach Herman: You will not find another person more focused or more dedicated to winning. He’s a really smart and detail-oriented person who probably could have found success in a number of fields, but decided to pour his talents intofootball and the young men who play it.
What I appreciate about him most is that he’s a players’ coach. I don’t mean that in the sense that he’s going to love you all the time — what he understands is that that’s not the best thing for every guy. There are a hundred different kids in this program with a hundred different personalities and needs. Tom has shown that he knows that reaching a young person requires a different approach for each kid. And he’s going to find the right buttons to push with each player and you’ll come out of his program as a better player and person than when you arrive. Now that I’m a parent myself, I really appreciate that about him and his staff.
Myself? The younger version of me needed to be pushed and yelled at a bit in order to learn. I remember when we were playing Oklahoma State early in my career, there was a receiver on their team who was talking trash. So after I broke up a pass in a physical manner, I decided to step on his back a little on my way back to the huddle. But I never made it back to the huddle — Mack Brown pulled me off the field immediately and said, in very clear terms, “If you do something like that one more time, you’ll never play here ever again.”
And that was exactly what I needed. I was involved in a lot of plays throughout my college career, but that particular play is the one that makes me feel most embarrassed because I was only thinking about myself. I was happy that I made a play, not that our team had. And that that’s the kind of mentality you can never let exist in a successful program.
As I matured into my junior, senior years I watched how the guys ahead of me operated. And gradually the coaches let me take charge and become a leader. I realize now that if I had maintained that selfish attitude when I became a starter — even if I was really good — it would have eventually been passed down to the guys below me. And that’s a problem that can’t be fixed through schemes or techniques — that’s culture.
A winning culture isn’t something that gets created overnight. It’s much easier to lose than it is to develop. Sometime in the last decade, I think Texas lost that culture of accountability. We became more scared of losing than committed to winning.
That’s what Coach Herman and this staff are changing. Every message is clear, it’s about doing your job, being accountable and playing for the man next to you. I absolutely love what we’re preaching to these kids and the approach the staff takes. It reminds me so much of what Coach Brown built here in the past and in just a few months with Coach Herman, I see it developing again. The culture is changing.
Want to know the worst feeling? The complete opposite feeling of when Texas is playing good football?
Wearing an Oklahoma jersey.
Just awful. Embarrassing. Gross.
There were more times than I care to remember when I was in the NFL that I would lose a bet with a teammate over the Red River Rivalry game and be forced to wear that awful jersey. I had to wear quite a few college jerseys of teams other than Texas during my NFL career. Later on in my career, when Texas started really struggling, it always kind of served as a reminder of how the program was slipping. I remember when I was a sophomore and we only won nine games. It felt like the world was ending. Today, we don’t have a single kid on our roster who has ever won a bowl game. That’s something that seemed unimaginable to me a decade ago.
A big part of my job — the part of my job that I enjoy most — doesn’t have much to do with football. I spend a lot of time with our players just talking about life and my experiences. We’ll grab food or walk to class together and I get a sense of what their lives are like. There are a lot of things different now than when I was in college. The whole social media thing has made it pretty easy for outside influences to filter in negativity to kids who are at an age when it doesn’t take much to feel negative as it is. So that’s a different kind of challenge. But I also recognize that a lot is the same. They have the same hopes and fears as any college kid. A lot of the players occupying the DB room today remind me a lot of myself at different phases of my college career. So it’s nice to be able to offer them the advice I think I would have needed when I was their age.
That’s all to say that, in being around these kids, I’ve seen firsthand that they’re doing the right things. I see guys like DeShon Elliott and P.J. Locke and they’re doing the things that Quentin Jammer and Rod Babers asked of me, and that I passed down to underclassmen. As a coach, as an alum and as a mentor, that’s really nice to see.
Texas is a huge school with a lot of passionate fans, so the impulse is always going to be to react to a single result and wonder whether the program is back to where it once was. But that’s just not how it works. What we’re trying to build here — what we had here — took much longer than one game or even one season. Because there’s simply no quick fix for excellence. There’s no one game that’s going to signify that we’re back.
We took a step back in our season-opening loss to Maryland but grew from that. There are no moral victories of course, but USC was a real turning point for this young team from a maturity standpoint. Now we’ve won our first two Big 12 games and are heading into OU as a much better team.
The Sooners are a team we all have circled on our schedule. It’s the greatest rivalry in college football. The game’s played on a neutral field, crowd split right down the middle and it’s surrounded by the Texas State Fair. We even have a countdown clock in our facility that lets you know when that game is coming. It seemed so far away for so long but now it’s just hours away.
Saturday will be a great challenge as, despite the Iowa State loss, we still know Oklahoma is an amazing team. It’s an opportunity for us to compete at the highest level and to take a huge step towards getting back where Texas belongs: Among the elite of college football.
MICHAEL HUFF / CONTRIBUTOR
Article in the Alcalde
Charles and his daughters Mackenzie (left) and Makaila (right) dance to “Hit the Quan” in the Gymboree below their condo; Ryan Nicholson
Jamaal Charles has it all—money, accolades, a loving family—but he’s still working on immortality.
The mention of melted, yellow, non-denominational cheese in a bowl has Jamaal Charles feeling nostalgic for another time: when he had both of his original knee ligaments, when he ate whatever he wanted, when queso preceded every Tex-Mex meal. Those were the halcyon days.
We’re in Charles’ living room, in Leawood, Kansas, surrounded by his offseason distractions: a pair of DJ turntables and a pile of Playstation controllers. President Obama had just famously visited Torchy’s Tacos in Austin, and Charles is daydreaming of the liquid gold.
“I bet he tore that up,” Charles says, grinning ear-to-ear. “He’d probably like to get that shipped in. Torchy’s, when you gonna let me franchise one out here?”
But that’s all this is now: a dream. If some athletes treat their bodies like temples, on the verge of a comeback from another devastating injury, Charles has decided his is a pristine Buddhist monastery perched atop a mountain. That is to say, no more queso. He’s vegan now.
Six months ago, Charles fell as millions watched. On Oct. 11, after taking a red-zone handoff from his quarterback Alex Smith and cutting back into the Chicago Bears’ defensive line, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. It seemed to spell doom for the Chiefs’ season, their prized offensive weapon writhing in pain on the grass. Instead, a two-headed monster known as the 24-year-old running backs Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware stepped into Charles’ shoes, as Kansas City rattled off 10 straight wins to end the season and earn a spot in the AFC playoffs.
The pain and rehab, the missed playoff games, and the indignity of watching not one but two upstarts prove to be capable replacements for Charles—perhaps rendering him irrelevant—doesn’t seem to phase him on this rainy mid-March day on the Kansas side of the Kansas City suburbs. In fact, he doesn’t seem worried at all.
But the cheerful, four-time Pro-Bowl running back, who is now a revved up, rebuilt machine sitting in front of me, almost walked away from the game. Just four years earlier, he’d torn the ACL in the opposite knee. He’d had enough; he was about to turn 29—the winter of life for a running back—and that last rehab was difficult. He had to take pills to offset the pain he felt getting off the trainer’s table every day during the 2011 offseason. Charles says he was seriously considering retirement.
That seems reasonable enough. He has money: He’s earned $34,162,500 in salary from the Chiefs, according to Spotrac. Judging by the humble accommodations that have been his in-season home for the last six years, most of the eight figures he’s made hasn’t been squandered. He has a beautiful family: a wife, Whitney, whom he met after a track meet his freshman year at UT, and two daughters, Makaila, 5, and Makenzie, 4, born 11 months apart.
Standing on the precipice of either a cushy early retirement or months of rehab followed by the daily grind of punishing helmet-to-helmet hits and the risk of re-injury to his knee, Charles states that he intends to win a Super Bowl with the Chiefs and retire as one of the greatest running backs of all time. And that presupposes him beating out the youngsters to reclaim (and keep) his spot in a now-crowded backfield. In an era when NFL players are retiring early to preserve their future health, why not choose the easy way out?
“One more shot,” he says, much more seriously now, his grin fading. “When I leave I want to be known as Jamaal Charles, phenomenal football player, inspiring to kids and adults. I’m going to take advantage of this one more shot.”
His entire life, scouts have tagged Charles with the same pejoratives: undersized, limited, not particularly physical. Those words are, in the parlance of the hyper-masculine world of football, euphemistic for one word: weak.
The man facing me in his condominium, shoveling fruit salad from a Styrofoam container into his mouth, is not, in a word, weak. He stands, by my estimate, at just under 6 feet, his arms slender but sinewy under a navy blue Puma T-shirt that falls just above a shiny Louis Vuitton belt that holds up a pair of fitted, faded G-Star jeans. His trademark braids are tied in the back and fall just over his shoulders. He speaks softly, and with a distinct Gulf Coast drawl—not quite typical Texas, and with a dash of Cajun. He dots his sentences with pleasantries like “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am,” and words like “again” contain three syllables instead of two.
With the content of his speech—and his condo—Charles walks a thin line between confidence and demureness, teetering between hubristic aplomb and charming humility. His modest apartment where he typically only lives in during the NFL season is decidedly the inverse of an episode of MTV Cribs, yet there are images of Charles from all phases of his career lining every wall, and an extra one airbrushed in the lining of a navy blazer he eventually puts on. His former Longhorn teammate and roommate Quan Cosby teased him when, after he signed a $28 million contract extension in 2010, he bought a baby blue Lamborghini, to which Charles replied, “I only got one!” He says he doesn’t worry about splitting carries with West and Ware next season as long as it benefits the Chiefs, but also mentions lofty goals, like entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he retires, which will require him to shoehorn into his remaining career a couple more prolific seasons. That won’t happen if he’s in a timeshare.
Growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, Charles never anticipated reconciling this type of nuance in his life. Born two days after Christmas in 1986, he was raised by a trio of women in his mother, aunt, and grandmother. Early on, he was diagnosed with a learning disability, due to his difficulties speaking and reading.
Today, Charles lets out a knowing chuckle when he misspeaks. He’s not embarrassed or shy about the fact that, despite being a thoughtful person, the barrier between his brain and his mouth is an obstacle the former hurdler and sprinter has never completely cleared. As a child, it was obviously much worse. He was teased when he was placed in special education in elementary school. That humiliation begat glory when during a trip to the Special Olympics in middle school, he entered a couple events and returned home with a fistful of ribbons.
“I was smoking people,” Charles says. “I got to go home to my mom and tell her I won something. Finally in life I won something.” The trend would continue into high school, where Charles was a track star, winning the 5A state titles in the 110m and 300m hurdles his senior year at Port Arthur Memorial. But it was in football where he really stood out.
Bob West, who was the sports editor of The Port Arthur News from 1972 until his retirement last year, spent his earliest years on the job covering a local running back named Joe Washington. He went on to set every rushing record in the area before a stellar career at Oklahoma and a long NFL life.
“I didn’t expect to ever see a back as good as Joe Washington,” West says, “and I didn’t until Jamaal came along. It was obvious … we’ll see this guy on Sundays.” Charles broke Washington’s local rushing record and committed to UT, where again, his speed and lateral movement immediately set him apart from the competition.
Greg Davis, offensive coordinator at Texas from 1998-2010, says he only needed to watch Charles’ high school tape for a couple minutes before deciding to recruit him. When he showed up at practice in the fall of 2005, it became apparent that the true freshman would be taking handoffs from Vince Young as soon as the season began.
Two or three practices in, still in shorts, Davis says, he told his offensive staff, “We gotta get this guy ready to play. He’s too talented.”
Charles is helped off the field after tearing his ACL during the third quarter on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015, at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri; Keith Myers/TNS via ZUMA Wire
Charles showed up dauntless on the field, with fellow freshman Cosby remembering one of the first conversations with his new roommate centered around his record-breaking high school track and football career back in Port Arthur. Cosby alerted Charles that, at Texas, especially with the program at the height of its powers as it was in 2005, everybody on the field was a potential All-American.
“He never brought it up again,” Cosby says, “and he worked as hard as anybody out there.” Charles earned himself major playing time, splitting carries with Selvin Young and Ramonce Taylor as the Longhorns stunned the college football world en route to a national championship in January 2006.
The most difficult part of being a student-athlete at Texas, especially as a freshman, wasn’t shedding tacklers or picking up the blitz. For Charles, even conducting a simple postgame interview was frightening, and the more playing time he got, the more reporters looked for him after games. It led some, even those who knew him well, to confuse his quietness for slowness.
“I had all those gifts in me,” Charles says. “Most people never saw it.”
Some still don’t. “He probably didn’t finish on the dean’s list, but in terms of football he was on the dean’s list,” Davis says when we speak on the phone. UT-Austin doesn’t have a dean’s list, but on Nov. 21, 2006, three days before Davis, Charles, and the rest of the Longhorns would lose a 12-7 game to Texas A&M, Charles beamed as he learned he was named to the Academic All-Big 12 team.
Charles walks gingerly through the third-floor hallway of his building, and at one point he almost braces himself on a slick black table. Perhaps sensing I was just behind him—that’d be the “awareness” attribute found in the Madden video games—his hand hovers over but never touches the surface. Confident as he is, only five months removed from knee surgery, that he will reclaim his starting job, lead the Chiefs to a title, and retire a Hall of Famer, the man in front of me still has a ways to go.
But then, Charles says, he’s fought through injuries his entire life: numerous ankle injuries that sidelined him at Texas, shoulder surgery during the 2010 offseason to fix problems dating back to high school, and, of course, the two rebuilt ACLs. Heading into the 2008 NFL draft after his junior season, he’d have to prove he could stay on the field.
Charles was typecast as too small to carry the ball 250 times per season, and his NFL scouting profile listed his negatives as “not a particularly physical back” and a “willing, but limited pass blocker.” Still, he ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at the Combine and rushed for more than 1,600 yards his junior season. As the draft began on the evening of April 26, 2008, Charles was sure he’d hear his name called early. Five times Roger Goodell said the name of an NFL team followed by the words, “running back from … “ and five times he made instant millionaires out of people not named Jamaal Charles. The last time it happened that day, part of a string of three running backs drafted in a row, the Titans passed up the chance to reunite Charles and Young in Nashville.
Surely round two would be different. He was better than most of these guys. Two teams plumbed the depths of Conference USA and the Big East, grabbing players from Tulane and Rutgers. When round three rolled around, the Lions, perhaps the worst drafting team of the aughts, whiffed on Charles for a player named Kevin Smith. The Chiefs selected Charles in the middle of the third round with the 73rd pick in the draft.
Charles cried as eight running backs had their names called before him—four of them no longer in the league—while silently locking the teams that doubted him in a vault of revenge, only to be opened once the Chiefs found them on their schedule. Oakland. Carolina. Dallas. Pittsburgh. Tennessee. Chicago. Baltimore. Detroit.
“Every team that passed me up and I play ’em, I’m like … I’m about to kill the day,” Charles says with a smirk. “I’m going to destroy them. I still hold that chip on my shoulder. What you think of me, I’m still better than any running back you have on your team.”
But the experience, Charles says, beyond motivating him, kept him humble. Realizing that most people, even some prolific football players, don’t get $600,000 signing bonuses at 21, he checked himself. “To stay joyful, to stay humble,” he says, “I sucked it up. I took that in.”
Charles spent his rookie year behind Larry Johnson before taking the All-Pro’s job in 2009, rushing for 1,120 yards on only 190 carries. His breakout season was 2010, a year in which Charles came up just 65 yards short of 2,000 total yards from scrimmage, leading the Chiefs to the playoffs and earning himself that substantial contract extension in the process. During a week-two game against the Lions in 2011, Charles tore his left ACL and missed the rest of the year. It looked like the Chiefs had made a mistake, that perhaps Charles was as incapable of staying on the field as many had suggested.
“It was a bump,” Charles says, “but I signed up for this sport.” It was actually a bump up, as the Chiefs running back returned to rush for more than 1,000 yards in each of the next three seasons, including 1,509 in 2012, his career high. In 2013, Charles scored 19 total touchdowns, gained 1,980 yards from scrimmage, and was named first team All-Pro for the second time in his career. He missed only two regular-season games out of the next 53 the Chiefs played after his first ACL surgery, coming to a halt, of course, during the Bears game in 2015.
Charles and I head over to Rye, an upscale fried chicken joint that shares a parking lot with his apartment building, for a change of scenery and a photo shoot. He wonders aloud if the biscuits and gravy are vegan before quickly snapping back to reality.
“Nah, I don’t need to eat.” Charles has a personal chef, of course, and even if the gravy is vegan, those biscuits can only help derail the comeback train.
Heads turn as Charles poses for pictures and shakes hands. As a group of polo-clad, middle-aged men walk in, most notice the only person in the building who has scored five touchdowns in an NFL game. One man in the pack simply doesn’t recognize Charles, or celebrities don’t faze him.
“You just walked past Kansas City royalty,” his friend says to him, shocked.
“I talked to DJ the other day,” Charles says, as we walk the sidewalk outside his building with his daughters. “He got paid.” He’s referring to 33-year-old fellow Longhorn and Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson, who, one year after a devastating achilles injury, had an All-Pro season in 2015. A week prior, Johnson inked a new $21 million deal to stay in Kansas City.
“Does DJ’s great comeback season inspire you … ?” Charles laughs and cuts me off. He’s already come back once; he’s confident he can do this. He’s past inspiration for 2016, looking even further ahead, even if he has mentioned multiple times that he’s looking at this one day at a time.
“It’s not even about that,” he says. “Guys are still getting paid at what, 32, 33?”
I mention Matt Forte, the Tulane running back drafted ahead of Charles in 2008, now 30, and who just signed for three years and $12 million with the Jets.
“Yeah,” Charles says, gripping his daughter’s hand. For the love of the game is a nice sentiment, and Charles’ decision to give it one more try isn’t strictly fiscally motivated. Still, he’s also repeatedly stated another purpose to me throughout the afternoon, and the reason he quit track after his sophomore season at Texas in order to focus on football: to provide for his family.
Carey Windler, an orthopedic surgeon who served as team doctor for Texas men’s athletics from 1986 until last year, says that 30 or 35 years ago, Charles wouldn’t even be thinking about his next contract. It’d already be over for him.
But orthopedic surgery has thankfully evolved since then. Years ago, a torn ACL was simply stitched back together; now, it’s replaced with a completely new ligament, either from elsewhere in the knee or from a cadaver, and the outpatient procedure can be completed in as little as 90 minutes. This time around Charles opted for two stem cell replacement treatments, something he didn’t do for his left knee. The rehab has changed too. No longer is the knee kept immobile for four to six weeks following surgery. Charles notes that even the rehab equipment at the Chiefs’ facilities varies greatly from what he used in 2011-12.
But the one barrier on the road back to greatness that is impossible to remove is kinesiophobia, or fear of movement. Windler says it affects all athletes returning from a major injury. The memories of the snapping ligament, the pain of recovery, and the long, arduous rehab stick with athletes when they return to the field, often hindering their ability to let loose.
“Jamaal was in great shape, and then out of the blue, something happens,” Windler says. “So they recover, but there’s this phobia of reinjury. It takes time for that to extinguish.”
Charles’ condo walls are mostly decorated with photos of his family and himself. But there’s also a signed portrait of Adrian Peterson, bearing the inscription: “Just think, we could have been in the same backfield at UT???” Peterson also tore his ACL plus his medial collateral ligament in 2011, and ended up winning the NFL MVP the following season. Peterson and Charles, who ran track against each other in high school, pushed kinesiophobia out of their minds once. Charles still has to prove he can do that again, with his first test looming in September, when the NFL regular season begins.
“There are some athletes who make us look really good, and some,” Windler says, “make us look even better.”
Two weeks before I met Charles, he found God. Again.
During Pro Bowl weekend in January, Whitney Charles heard of an event called the The Increase, held over four days in Colorado Springs, and convinced Jamaal to attend the Christian conference along with hundreds of other NFL athletes and their wives. After a long cycle of sermons, workshops, and worship, the final day was an opportunity for those who wanted to get baptized.
Charles was baptized as a child, but beyond mandatory church attendance, the whole “saved” thing didn’t mean much to him until recently. As a rookie with the Chiefs in 2008, he was enthralled by the debauched athlete’s life: namely money, jewelry, and women.
“I wanted to be called [by God] when I wanted to be called on,” Charles says.
Seated at the far end of where the baptismal was taking place, Charles wondered aloud if this was that time, even though everyone ready to take the plunge wore swimsuits while he and his wife were in the clothes they’d worn all day.
“The spirit was talking to me,” Charles says, his hand fluttering over his heart. The calling was loud and clear, and he was baptized for the second time on the spot. “I felt reborn again—I have a new body, a new mind, and a new spirit now.”
Over the last two weeks, the Playstation controllers have gathered dust and his turntables have remained unplugged. Charles opens a small brown box on his kitchen countertop, eager to see what’s under the flaps. He pulls out a stack of medium-sized religious texts, more substantial than Chick tracts but less bulky than a pile of Bibles.
“I used to play a lot of Madden online, Grand Theft Auto, get on the turntables, try to spin,” Charles says. “I stopped playing video games to read more about Jesus. I never read like that in my life.”
The first Chief to attend the conference, he has a couple teammates ready to sign up after this offseason. It’s the least Charles can do, he says, as he hopes to leave his mark off the field in the same way he has on Sunday afternoons. He wants to be an inspiration to anyone who feels lost, like he was.
“They can see a spiritual man in the locker room,” Charles says. “They don’t have to see what I saw when I came into the locker room.”
He also has come to grips with the notion that that Chiefs locker room won’t be his for long, even if he does come back strong in 2016. West and Ware were extended with identical two-year, $3.6 million contracts on Mar. 31. The cheaper, healthier, younger versions of Charles proving to be capable replacements for the veteran led to offseason speculation that the Chiefs might be better off without him at all. Even Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk said, in an interview with The Kansas City Star, “Why does Kansas City keep Jamaal Charles when you saw Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West? For what reason?”
Charles says he told Ware and West during the season that their goal is to take the starting Chiefs job from him, and that, if he was ever back on the field with them, he’d try to snatch it right back.
“It’s helping your brothers out, and they’re my brothers. But if your shoes are called for, you gotta take advantage of that time, man,” Charles says, “because you don’t know when that opportunity is going to come up again.”
And that’s been the theme of much of our interaction today: his legacy, and more specifically the unique position he’s in this offseason to decide how the world will remember Jamaal Charles. Sure, he’s concerned about how he’ll be viewed in the pantheon of great running backs. If he retired this offseason, his 5.5 yards per rush would rank No. 1 all-time for a running back since the NFL and AFL merged in 1966, better than Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, and even his old pal Peterson. Creeping into the conversation even more frequently is his desire to be remembered as an inspirational figure: to kids who are told they are too small or not smart enough, to nonbelievers, to future fathers.
“I want to break a generation of … ” Charles trails off. “I want my daughters to have a father they can look up to. I didn’t see that when I was raising up, and I always wanted that.”
Cradling Makenzie in his arms as he heads back upstairs for the night, Charles is focused on family. Tomorrow he will wake up and climb that steep mountain toward immortality again, and as painful and frustrating as it may be, he’ll do it again the next day too. He came back once before, and until proven otherwise, he says he will reach the top.
“Knowing him and his work ethic, he’ll come back just as strong,” Cosby says. “Someone out there is going to say he’s done. He’ll find that and use it. He’s different.”
Photos from top:
Photo by Ryan Nicholson
Charles is helped off the field after tearing his ACL during the third quarter on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015, at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri; Keith Myers/TNS via ZUMA Wire
Charles and his daughters Mackenzie (left) and Makaila (right) dance to “Hit the Quan” in the Gymboree below their condo; Ryan Nicholson