JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- DJ Chark said he has never felt fear on a football field.
Going across the middle to make a catch. Outdueling a cornerback for a jump ball. Running full speed down the sideline to cover a punt. Never a doubt he would make the play.
Heading to the pool or the beach? That brought on a different emotion for the Jacksonville Jaguars receiver.
That’s when he was afraid.
A couple of months after he was drafted by the Jaguars in 2018, he finally decided to do something about it. Instead of being in fear of the water, of sinking to the bottom, of panicking and drowning, Chark signed up for swimming lessons.
“I never had a problem with wanting to learn. I always wanted to,” Chark said. “It was just I wasn’t comfortable with friends or family trying to teach me. Honestly, I felt I had a fear of the water, so I was like, I don’t trust my family enough to just throw me in there and save me.
“So I was like, if I’m going to do that, it’s got to be a professional, somebody that knows what they’re doing. Somebody that teaches people for a living.”
That turned out to be Mo Eaton, the regional sports and aquatic director for the First Coast YMCA. She already had a connection with the Jaguars because she has been working on the game-day stats crew since the Jaguars’ inaugural season in 1995, so it was only natural that she got paired up with Chark.
Over the course of several months, Chark progressed from not wanting to leave the shallow end of the pool to putting his face in the water, to learning to float and tread water, to being able to swim the length of the Olympic-sized pool at the Winston Family YMCA.
Eaton said Chark was a great student and was eager to learn, but it was a little rough at the beginning, as it generally is with adults who don’t know how to swim.
“It’s a little more difficult because we as adults are set in our ways,” Eaton said. “We know what we’re comfortable with. We’re not as brave. The kids are more willing to try things where we are reserved. And he was truly afraid.
“Even when he walked in, his body was very tense. You could tell he was very unsure. So we just kind of walked in and we talked about LSU football. Didn’t even talk about swimming. Really just got his mind off it and we were walking around. You could see him relax a little bit.”
Eaton put Chark in a flotation belt, got him using a pool noodle, and did several other things designed to make him more comfortable. The last thing she did on that first lesson was have Chark jump into the deep end of the pool.
“That’s when I really knew he was truly afraid, because he hung on to the ladder and he kept looking at me like, ‘Are you sure?’” Eaton said. “And, to me, that was the biggest thing for him, is to know he could jump in and get back up. Even though he was tall enough, there was that true fear of going under and, ‘Am I going to come back up?’”
Chark said there was no traumatic experience as a child that kept him from learning how to swim. He said his parents tried to teach him to swim, but all he wanted to do was play in the water and he never took the time to learn as he got older.
It wasn’t until he reached middle school that he realized he didn’t know how to swim.
“There’s been times where a lot of my friends would be in the pool and they’d go in the deep end and I stayed in the shallow end because I didn’t trust it,” Chark said. “And if my feet aren’t touching the bottom, I don’t want to be in it.”
Chark said he was always open about not knowing how to swim and was never embarrassed to tell anyone. He was so open about it that at least one teammate -- second-year linebacker Leon Jacobs -- has begun taking swimming lessons at the same YMCA.
Eaton said Chark also has been a bit of an inspiration for some of the children taking swim lessons at the YMCA. Chark was in the pool at the same time there was a safety-around-water class, and there was one child, 5-year-old Diego Roberts, who was having a tough time. He got in the pool, but he was clinging to Eaton and wouldn’t let go, and Eaton thought the 6-foot-3 Chark could be some help.
“I said, ‘Here’s my friend Mr. DJ,’” Eaton said. “Diego opened up.”
Chark was able to get Diego to kick his legs and helped him work his way around the shallow end of the pool.
Chark also attended Johnson YMCA’s Splash Bash, which was held to encourage people to come and get swim testing and sign up for lessons. Diego came as well.
Diego wouldn’t let go of one of the instructors and only did so when Chark -- who wasn’t planning to get into the pool -- agreed to borrow a bathing suit and jumped in.
“Whenever DJ’s in the water he’s, like, not nervous,” said Diego’s father, Antonio Roberts. “He [Diego] just felt so comfortable with him after he showed him around and I was saying they must be just like kindred spirits.”
Chark said he felt connected to Diego as soon as he helped him in the pool the first time.
“When I went over there and met them all [at the group class], he was the one that was the most scared to get in the pool,” Chark said. “And Mo just told me to see if I could get him in the pool. So I tried and he did and I kind of understood the fear. And so I just stayed with him the whole day and pretty much carried him around the pool, let him kick his feet ... and then it just developed after that.
“I guess he kind of understands that I’m just not going to push him to do anything he don’t really want to do, but also I’m going to try to take care of him. I guess since we had that connection at the pool the first time, he just feels comfortable doing it.”
Chark feels comfortable in the pool, too, now that he knows he has finally learned how to swim.
“I’ve still got to brush up on my skills. It’s been a while since I just hopped in a pool since then, but I feel good knowing that I can do it,” Chark said. “If I go to a pool, I don’t mind going to the deep end just because I know I can do it now, and that was something big for me, because not knowing how to swim kind of just put a damper on any water activities.
“It’s like now I’m open to more things. One day I want to go snorkeling and stuff like that. I still want to get a little better at being an efficient swimmer, but I can move forward toward that instead of not being able to do that at all.”