COMMENTARY: Charles still a Chief as he leaves

Published 1:08 am Thursday, March 2, 2017

By Vahe Gregorian

Kansas City Star

As Chiefs general manager John Dorsey last February assessed Jamaal Charles’ progress from reconstructive knee surgery, he punctuated it with a term he reserves for those he reveres.

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“I mean, the guy is an extremely talented player. Love him to death, love how dirty tough he is,” Dorsey said then. “I mean, yeah, he’s a Chief.”

That’s still true, and it always will be — even if practically speaking, Charles no longer is as of Tuesday.

The team he infused with a running style both majestic and fierce released him after back-to-back injury-ravaged seasons made his future at 30 more of a risk than the Chiefs wanted to take with a $7 million salary figure looming over this last year of his contract.

They may or may not come to regret the decision, which to many had become a foregone conclusion between natural questions about his future durability and an apparent disconnect between the camps that led Charles to post a blog late last season challenging the way the Chiefs had portrayed the circumstances of his latest knee injury.

But the fact that the announcement comes on the very day the Chiefs reached a six-year, $78 million deal with safety Eric Berry is a fine reminder that the Chiefs, like every team, face many complicated decisions to reconcile about the best ways to spend their money.

It wasn’t one or the other, of course, but it is all part of the Rubik’s Cube reality of what Dorsey — an economics and political science major at Connecticut — likes to call the “fiduciary responsibility” of the job.

Just the same, it’s a shame.

Even decades after the golden years of fandom when you might reasonably hope your favorite players would stay in one city — your city — for their entire careers, some athletes become so entwined with why and how you identify with a team that it’s depressing to see them go.

There is so much to admire and even love about Charles, and it only starts with his Chiefs-record 7,260 career rushing yards and 5.5 yard-per-carry average that is the best in NFL history among running backs.

It’s more about how Charles came by those numbers, numbers that eclipse immortals of the game such as Jim Brown (5.2), Gale Sayers (5.0) and Barry Sanders (5.0).

It’s about sincerity, which seems in short supply these days.

First, there is the pure sincerity in his relentlessness on the field, a trait that honors the game … even as his unyielding way gives pause to worry about his future as we learn more about the nature of head injuries and knowing Charles has absorbed even apparently sub-concussive hits that left him experiencing flashbacks from childhood and “light buzzes” around his eyes in a 2014 game against San Diego.

Because of moments like that, and the mystery of how many other such psychedelic episodes football has inflicted on him, it wouldn’t be so bad to see him retire now without ever wearing another NFL uniform other than the one he’s been in since the Chiefs drafted him from the University of Texas in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft.

That’s also because he’s such an easy man to care about, one who acts and speaks from the heart as much as he plays with that guiding him, one who felt compelled to be baptized anew last year and found himself thereafter rededicated to time with his family.

You can see his soul, too, in the gratitude running backs Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware — a pair who helped make Charles expendable — feel for Charles’ encouragement and tutelage.

That nurturing presence helps explain why even a 2016 rookie defensive lineman Chris Jones felt the need to take to Twitter to call Charles “one of the most inspirational individuals” he’d ever known.

But maybe what really will make Charles enduringly endearing to Chiefs fans is how this all came about from humble roots in Port Arthur, where as a child he was bullied because of a learning disability.

In elementary school, he became afraid to raise his hand in class, because people would laugh at him, said aunt Arlene LeBlanc, with whom he would live during his adolescence.

He often cried himself to sleep as a young child, asking, “Why me?”

But through a combination of special education classes and reading the Bible aloud to Aunt Arlene, structure and calm began to come to Charles.

Then there was that day in 1996 when his class went on a field trip to the Special Olympics, where Charles won multiple events in a competition that divides kids with intellectual disabilities and cognitive delays into equitable groups by age, gender and ability.

That’s what led to a surge of new emotional strength that propelled Charles into an elite athletic level, and it explains his ongoing allegiance to and support of the program that was most visible when he agreed to administer the athletes’ oath at the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles.

Charles began by saying he had been asked to talk about courage but couldn’t without “talking about fear.”

“People made fun of me. They said I would never go anywhere,” he said. “But I learned I can fly. …

“When I competed in the Special Olympics, I found out just how fast I was. I stood high on the podium, getting the gold medal in track and field. And when I found out just how fast I was, I was blessed with a new confidence.

“The confidence turned to courage, the courage to be the best that I can be every day.”

Asked by The Star later that summer about his speech, Charles said, “I was just trying to inspire people and give back to the people who are going through things in life. That’s what it’s about, man.”

All of that and more is why “he’ll always be a part of the Chiefs family,” as CEO and chairman Clark Hunt put it in a statement on Tuesday that also hinted at his inevitable future in the Ring of Honor.

After all, he’s a Chief … even as he leaves for now.