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 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
Cary Michael Cox:
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