PORT ARTHUR, Texas -- The little boy with the soft eyes and easy smile couldn't stop crying. He wept inside that dilapidated, three-bedroom house, wondering how cancer could take his grandmother's life. Grandma was always so strong, so sure of herself, so capable of handling anything that came her way. That's how Mazelle Smith Miller set such a fine example for the 32 grandkids who always found their way into her home. She didn't take any crap from anybody.
The little boy thought about this often. He was only 8 years old, a second-grader who was known for drawing his grandmother's adoration, but he knew even then all that she had done. He walked outside, tears still streaming down his face, and noticed a bright light surrounding the house. The way Jamaal Charles describes it, it was as if his grandmother was providing one last reminder of what she'd meant to so many lives.
There had been so much love surrounding that house -- from family dinners to relay races between cousins to football games in the streets -- that had been a source of strength for Jamaal. He still had his grandfather, Oscar, and plenty of strong role models, but he felt the need to make a vow to himself: I'm going to keep this family together, and I'm going to do it through football.
It has been two decades since Charles, now a three-time Pro Bowl running back with the Kansas City Chiefs, made that promise. He thought about the audacity of that oath recently as he sat on the porch of that same house this past June. Charles was just hours removed from finishing the first day of the annual youth football camp he holds in his hometown, so he already was in a good mood. Thinking about all the twists and turns his life has taken over the past 20 years only made him happier.
Today, the 27-year-old Charles is the biggest star on a Chiefs team that has won seven of its past eight heading into Thursday's road game with the Oakland Raiders. He has rushed for more yards (6,515) than any runner in team history, averaged more yards per carry (5.5) than any back in since the AFL-NFL merger and overcome every last bit of skepticism he's ever faced.
"One thing I took from my grandma when she passed away was that she was always like a guardian for everyone," Charles said. "She inspired a lot of people with the way she carried herself. The only thing I can go by is how I inspire people by the way I play. ... I wanted to inspire little kids to look at me and do [things] the right way."
This season has given Charles another opportunity to preach that message through his play. He suffered a high ankle sprain early in a Week 2 loss to Denver and missed Kansas City's win over Miami the following week. But since his return for a 41-14 Monday night victory over New England in Week 4, Charles has produced 794 total yards and 10 touchdowns in helping the Chiefs surge into a first-place tie with Denver in the AFC West. It's not unusual for mild high ankle sprains to sideline players for up to to four weeks. Charles sat for seven quarters.
Success and resilience is nothing new for Charles, who most recently burned the Seattle Seahawks for 159 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a 24-20 win this past Sunday. "Patient running backs can make their offensive lines look right," Seahawks safety and University of Texas teammate Earl Thomas said. "That's what Jamaal Charles does. He's a great running back." Added Chiefs head coach Andy Reid: "Jamaal can do so many things, but what makes him great is his heart. He has a great desire and love for the game."
The heart Charles displays is obvious on Sundays -- the way he dashes by hapless tacklers or launches his body into blitzing linebackers -- but it's the way it impacts those around him that is so rewarding. As he walked down a quiet street in his old neighborhood, strangers appeared out of nowhere to celebrate his success. A red sedan stopped in the middle of an intersection, with three teenagers who raced over for autographs. A lanky man riding a 10-speed bicycle peddled over to shake Charles' hand. Two women strolled out of separate homes upon hearing the commotion, smiling at the sight of a favorite son back in their midst.
These people know how dangerous Port Arthur can be for a kid who carried ambitions as lofty as Charles'. The tallest structures in the town are the ominous oil refineries that drive the local economy and greet visitors as they drive into town. Drug abuse and street gangs infected the neighborhood where Charles grew up.
"I didn't know that I could leave Port Arthur," Charles said. "I didn't know what was out there for me after high school."
That mindset served Charles well as he spoke to the hundreds of kids who gathered before him as his football camp concluded. In the innocent eyes of those eager children staring up at him, Charles could see the same hopes and dreams he harbored at their age. He didn't use that time to go into all the personal details that have shaped him, but the camp counselors who surrounded him knew that story well. Charles earned every bit of his superstardom, largely because of the people who loved him most.
Those campers didn't know how crestfallen he was when he dropped into the third round of the 2008 NFL draft. They couldn't imagine the way he felt when people questioned whether his 5-foot-11, 199-pound frame could last in the league or how hard he worked to rebound from a torn ACL in 2011. Every step of the way, Charles relied on his family to keep him moving forward.
"I'm always amazed by the things that he achieves, and I'm always so proud of him for reaching the levels that he has," said Jamaal's wife, Whitney. "It's amazing because I don't think either one of us could have ever imagined where he would be."
Family and sports have been the two most critical factors in everything Charles has accomplished. His single mother, Sharon, raised him, but his entire family factored heavily in his upbringing. His grandmother set the expectations, and as he said, "She didn't play. If those streetlights came on and you weren't in the house, she was going to find you. ... I had a strong grandma, and she raised me real tough."
But there was also a soft side to Charles' grandmother, who always doted on her youngest grandson. "She was big on that with Jamaal," said Arlene LeBlanc, Jamaal's aunt. "I don't care what it was, you could hear her telling Jamaal, 'You can do it, Jamaal. You can do it.' And he gravitated to that."
Charles received just as much love from LeBlanc. When teachers discovered that he had a serious reading disability in third grade -- his struggles to grasp basic punctuation marks led to problems comprehending text -- she read bible verses with him every day after school. Still, Charles struggled with embarrassment about the disability. "I'd try to hide from some of my friends that saw me going into [special education] classes, because I didn't want them to see me," Charles said. "I took regular classes as well, but once somebody sees you during those [special ed] classes they'll always talk about you."
Charles grew up competing with his three older brothers -- including Shanderrick Charles, who played running back at SMU -- but he needed plenty of patience to make a name for himself. When he played football in the sixth grade, he once complained to LeBlanc that the coaches weren't using him because they thought he was too dumb to understand the plays. Even when Charles was using his breathtaking speed to generate 4,107 rushing yards and 50 touchdowns in his final two seasons at Port Arthur's Memorial High, he faced doubters. A classmate once claimed that his disability would keep him from going to college.
Aside from being underestimated, the only constant in Charles' life has been his willingness to forge his way beyond the skepticism. Some might consider his biggest accomplishments at Texas to be helping the Longhorns win the 2005 national championship as a freshman and finishing fourth on the school's all-time rushing list. Those people wouldn't know how Charles went from being a shy kid uncomfortable with speaking in public to one whose eyes lit up upon hearing his selection to the Big 12's second-team all-academic squad.
Charles earned that academic honor the old-fashioned way: by rarely missing class, sitting in the front row of lectures and grinding with tutors after practice. "Jamaal was a kid who didn't speak very well when he got to Texas, so some people said, 'He's not very smart,'" said Mack Brown, former Texas head coach and current ESPN analyst. "He was really smart."
Texas turned out to be a mix of joy and disappointment for Charles. He loved running track, but Brown asked Charles focus on football after his sophomore season. There also were frustrations within Charles' family that he wasn't utilized fully at Texas, where much of the offense was built around quarterback Colt McCoy. After Charles gained 1,619 yards as a junior, he entered the draft expecting to go as high as the late first round. He fell to the 73rd overall pick.
When the first day of that draft passed, Charles didn't complain openly. But as he drifted in and out of the party at his lawyer's house, his disappointment was such that he cried long after everyone else left. "It was horrible," said Bob West, Port Arthur News columnist and longtime family friend. "[Eight] running backs came off the board before Jamaal. ... I know somehow the word got circulated that maybe he's not tough enough. When he got to Kansas City, [the talk] was that he's going to be a change-of-pace guy. He can't be an every-down back. He can't do this. And I am just sitting there shaking my head thinking, 'You guys are crazy.'"
The questions about Charles' abilities continued throughout his first two seasons in Kansas City. He carried the ball just 67 times as a rookie. A year later, new head coach Todd Haley cemented Larry Johnson and Kolby Smith ahead of Charles on the depth chart. Prior to a Week 2 game against Oakland during that 2009 season, Haley listed him as inactive.
That indignity left Charles sitting alongside players who had little chance of sticking in the NFL during that contest. As Whitney said, "It kind of whipped him into shape." Added Charles: "That's when it really hit me. I told myself, 'I shouldn't be up in this press box. I should be on the field playing with my teammates. I said I never want to be inactive again."
Charles hasn't been listed as inactive for a game when he was healthy ever since. The Chiefs gave him the starting job after releasing Johnson later that season and watched him rush for 100 yards in each of his final four games, including a team-record 259 yards in a season-ending win over Denver. Charles made his first Pro Bowl the next season and another in 2012, one season after tearing his ACL. But the biggest testament to Charles' resolve came late in that 2012 season. On Dec. 1 of that year, teammate Jovan Belcher committed suicide after killing girlfriend Kasandra Perkins, Whitney's cousin.
That morning, right as Charles was preparing to head to a team meeting at the Chiefs' facility, he learned there was trouble at the home Belcher and Perkins shared. Then everything hit with seismic impact. The tense drive with Whitney to the scene. The sight of medical staffers wheeling Belcher's dead body into the same hospital where doctors had told Jamaal and Whitney that Perkins had died from nine gunshots. The dread Jamaal felt after consoling his wife for hours and then accepting that he still had to work the next day.
Charles slept for roughly four hours at the team hotel that night. He didn't turn on the television or take phone calls, and he definitely didn't want to play the Carolina Panthers the next afternoon. For a man who had relied so much on family his entire life, the cruelest blow was something that still haunts him today: the belief that Perkins would be alive if he hadn't introduced her to Belcher in the first place.
It says plenty about Charles' mental toughness that he gained 127 yards in a 27-21 win over Carolina. He wept uncontrollably in the locker room after dedicating that game to Perkins, whom he viewed as a little sister.
"I don't think I talked at all [after the game]," Charles said. "I was just thinking, 'Play football and go home with family.' Everybody else [on the team] was going home and just being regular, but I had to deal with it."
As he always has in the past, Charles leaned on his family to push through that pain. Amid the sleepless nights, he talked often to his aunt Arlene and did his best to be a rock for Whitney and their daughters, Makaila and Makenzie. Already reclusive with the media, Charles vanished even further from the public eye. The only thing he didn't do was let that pain hinder his play on the field.
Reid's arrival in Kansas City in 2013 trumpeted the start of a new era for the Chiefs, one that saw Charles become an all-around threat. He rushed for 1,287 yards, caught a career-high 70 passes and scored a league-high 19 touchdowns, including seven receiving scores. Observers who saw Charles only as a breakaway threat marveled at how he ran through the tackles and thrived in the passing game. Those who knew him best thought something else: It's about time he was appreciated for everything that he could be.
That appreciation includes the two-year extension worth $18.1 million Charles got from the Chiefs in July. "The reason Jamaal does what he does on Sundays is because he does it on the practice field," Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith said. "He works through injuries. He takes a lot of pride in being a good teammate. He's extremely talented, but it all starts with the want-to."
That same pride shows up in the five scholarships Charles annually gives to students with learning disabilities who attend Texas. It's there when he returns home to Port Arthur and sees all his longtime supporters. It was also there when Charles directed his summer camp. He jumped into drills with kids, laughed when they tumbled over tackling dummies and did his best to offer them the same advice his grandmother often gave him: You can do it.
After the session ended, Charles hung out with relatives and friends, eating barbecue and savoring the time they had together. Before long, he was back at his grandmother's old house, which he bought and plans to renovate in order for his children to see where his dreams first started.
"I want to be able to tell my daughters it's not easy [to be successful]," Charles said. "Daddy had to grind to get it."