User ID: Password:

August 11, 2009

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS - Kam Chancellor survived childhood in a rough Norfolk neighborhood and wants to help young kids there do the same

By: Jimmy Robertson

Kam Chancellor wants to play in the NFL and then use his salary to rebuild an old Boys and Girls Club in a rugged area of his hometown.

The shabby building sits on the corner of a crime-infested neighborhood known as Park Place in the western portion of the city of Norfolk. It used to be a Boys and Girls Club, a thriving one at that. But for so many, it was much more than that. It was a safe haven, an escape from the cruelties of a harsh world not of the makings of the ones who frequented there. It was a home. A home for innocence. A home for dreams. A home for hopes.

It’s no longer a home, overcome by the world’s burdens. Like many things these days, it became an economic casualty.
Most would glance at the building and simply see it for what it is.

Kam Chancellor gazes longingly at it and sees it for what it was – and what it could be.

“When I go home, people always ask me about it, people on the streets,” said Chancellor, a native of Park Place and the neighborhood’s top success story. “Especially the older guys. Some of the older guys I used to look up to when I was little now look up to me. They’re like, ‘Don’t forget us, Kam.’

“I want to do it for them and for the kids. The kids don’t have anything to do. I see them walking around all the time or riding bikes. They just look bored. A lot of them get into trouble because they don’t have anything to do.

“So I want to open it up and put a lot of stuff in there. I want to have programs for them and have overnight stays and camping trips. That’s how it used to be.”

The aching desire in his voice is unmistakable. It’s what gave him pause to consider leaving school early and getting paid handsomely by some NFL team in dire need of his talents.

It wasn’t that he wanted the dollars for himself, but rather for use to help a blighted area become a brighter place. He wants to help the adults. He wants to help the kids. He wants to help his own mother, a single mother who has worked two jobs seemingly forever while raising six children – a heroine in her own right.

But he decided to put those dreams on hold for one more year.

“I was going to let him come to me, but he didn’t really say a lot about it [about going pro],” said Karen Lambert, Chancellor’s mother. “I knew then he was going back for his senior year.”

For Chancellor, there is first business to concern himself with in Blacksburg. There are degrees and championships to pursue.
Then he’ll get on with his life’s real pursuit.

A cousin named Rico introduced him to the game. Like so many young kids in Park Place, Chancellor and Rico were walking down the street, looking for something to do. Good or bad was irrelevant. Rico offered a suggestion – one that may have ultimately saved their lives.

“I still remember the day,” Chancellor said. “We were walking down the street, and he said, ‘Kam, do you want to go play football?’ I thought he meant backyard football, so I was like, ‘Yeah.’”

Rico escorted him to James Monroe Elementary School, where a large group of young children were putting on pads and helmets and getting ready to practice. The two of them asked the coach if they could join, and a nice coach told them absolutely.

“We get there and the Park View Vikings were practicing and I see a whole bunch of people and a whole bunch of teams,” Chancellor said. “From that day on, I kept going out there. I liked the coach and I started liking football more and more. The first year wasn’t all that great, but after my first year, I started getting good.

“When I was little right when I started playing in rec league, I used to hang with older dudes because I was big for my age, and I used to do what they did. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t have anyone to look up to, so I was trying to follow people outside on the streets. When my cousin told me about the football thing, that’s when things started to change. Football and basketball kept me from going bad.”

Not long after that day, Chancellor started embracing his athletic talents. He picked up basketball, the game of choice in rundown urban neighborhoods. He also gave track a run. The busier, the better. After all, more time spent at practices meant less time for tomfoolery out on the streets. Heck, Lambert, his mother, even put him in karate for a brief spell.

His mom never hesitated to let him or any of her other five children play sports, no matter what it cost. She has worked two jobs for a long time, and even though she recently got laid off from a job delivering parts to different places, she still works the ticket booth at the parking garage at McArthur Center and drives a shuttle bus at Norfolk State when school is in session.

Lambert always found a way to pay for the essentials while also scraping up enough to fund her children’s endeavors. She relied heavily on her two oldest daughters to watch over her four sons, one of whom is Kam, the third youngest. But she always managed to find a way to go to most of his games.

“I tried to go to every game,” Lambert said. “I wanted him to see how much I supported him. And I always tried to talk positive with him. I wanted to keep him from the negative. There is so much negative around.”

“It was hard for my mom,” Chancellor said. “She always managed to do it, but it was hard for her to, like, get us gifts for Christmas. Or stuff for school. We’d all get one pair of shoes for school and maybe a couple of outfits. That had to last us.

“We moved a lot, too, all there in Park Place. We were in an apartment and then a house. Then back to an apartment and back to a house. The apartment was a three-bedroom and all the boys were in one room. We had two bunk beds and we were all in one room. That was rough.”

Despite being blessed with a terrific mother, Chancellor still needed a male role model in his life. After all, two of his brothers are younger, and the one older brother is just two years older. His father is not in the picture.

“I’ve seen him once and that was it,” Chancellor said.

Enter Kumasi Johnson, who played a leading role in Chancellor’s childhood. Johnson never expected to be in such a role. After all, he was a simple barber, running a local barbershop that his grandfather started. He simply cut hair – including Chancellor’s and his siblings – collected his money and minded his own business.

But Johnson, with Lambert’s permission, gave Chancellor a job as a 10-year-old, assigning him odd jobs such as sweeping up the hair, cleaning the clippers and taking out the trash. He earned a little money for his efforts, but occasionally he’d ask for more.

“I asked him one time what he was doing with his money,” Johnson said. “Of course, he can’t lie. He told me he had bought food for his brothers and sisters. I told him, ‘Kam, that’s all well and good, but you can’t go to school and try to study when you’re hungry.’ But that’s just Kam. He was always looking out for his family.”

Chancellor received more than just money from Johnson. He received an education in life. After all, people talk and try to solve the world’s problems in a barbershop.

“He [Johnson] gave me some wise words and I started staying away from bad people who were doing bad things,” he said. “I stayed away from that path.

“He always told me to stay away from clowns and to watch my company. I liked working there. They used to throw some hard jokes at me because that’s all you do at a barbershop – joke and tell stories. That’s what made me stronger.”

Chancellor's size, strength and speed make him a perfect fit in the Hokies' attacking defensive scheme.
Thanks to the guidance of his mother and his role model (Johnson), Chancellor ultimately became immersed in his academic and athletics endeavors. He paid little heed to the shenanigans going on in the streets of Park Place, though the unfortunate deaths of some good friends served as the ultimate and constant reminder.

He made good grades, and by the time he got to Maury High School, he played the quarterback spot for head coach Dealbert Cotton. At 6-foot-4 and with a nice arm, he played it well, too.

A finger injury, though, cost him half of his junior season. And while he threw for 1,000 yards and played free safety in spells, he and his coach found recruiters being rather miserly with scholarship offers. In fact, only JMU’s Curt Newsome, now at Tech, showed him any love.

“It was kind of crazy,” Chancellor said. “I mean, I was OK in high school. I wasn’t bad.”

Bryan Stinespring knew this. Tech’s offensive coordinator had his finger on the pulse of Tidewater recruiting and knew all about Chancellor – and loved his raw ability as a quarterback.

But in recruiting, you have to be 100 percent sure. So Stinespring waited, and in the meantime, during the first half of his senior season, Chancellor started microwaving the competition, shredding defenses with his passing and running at will in Maury’s spread attack.

Then came the offer from Virginia Tech.

“I always thought he could play quarterback here and I recruited him as a quarterback,” Stinespring said. “But he was injured his junior year and there wasn’t a lot of film to evaluate. Everything was a projection with Kam. I did feel he could play quarterback here, but I couldn’t guarantee it.”

Surprisingly, Chancellor did not pounce on the Tech offer. He pondered going to JMU anyway.


“Yeah,” he said, with a smile. “I didn’t know anything about Tech. When you’re coming out of high school, you’re sometimes afraid to try things or go away. I guess because this program was so big, I was scared I wasn’t good enough or wouldn’t fit in.

“I thought JMU was just right for me and that I would go there. Then my coaches at Maury told me that Tech would be a better place for me. It’s a great program and they saw in me that I could be successful.”

His days at quarterback ended, though, once he got to Tech. In fact, one look at him and the defensive staff immediately snapped him up, winning an important intra-staff battle.

Since then, he’s played three different positions in three years, starting first at cornerback and playing as a true freshman. During his sophomore season, the staff moved him to rover, where he excelled, registering 79 tackles and an interception. Then they moved him again before last season, shoring up the critical free safety spot in Tech’s scheme.

Last season turned out to be a major adjustment for Chancellor. The coaches defended his play and justifiably so, but given the role, his numbers dipped. He recorded 52 tackles and two interceptions, though he finished the season with an outstanding game in Tech’s win in the Orange Bowl.

“I’ve had a pretty good career here,” Chancellor said. “I think it could have been better last year. Maybe I took a step backward, but I finished strong. I had to start trusting my instincts and speed and technique a little more. But I felt like I did that in the bowl game, and really, the last four games of the season.”

Which has him excited for this season – and the future.

He only fleetingly considered leaving school and heading to the NFL. Sure, he wanted to pursue that dream of helping the youngsters in Park Place, but he’s also loyal – to both his teammates and himself.

“I wanted to be the first one in my family to graduate with a college degree, but my sister just beat me to it,” Chancellor said.

“She graduated last semester from Delaware State. But I still want to get a college degree [in human development, which he’ll get next spring] and I’ll be the first male [in his family] to get it.

“I also wanted to stay for my teammates because I like this group of guys and I feel like we can win the national championship this year. I feel like everyone is serious about it and putting in everything they’ve got. We’ve taken steps every year since I’ve been here and I think we’re ready.”

“We talked about it and he told me, ‘I’ve got to get that paper [diploma],’” Johnson said. “I thought to myself, ‘That’s my boy. You’ve really grown up now.’

“I admire him a lot. I really do. He didn’t have a father and he’s shown you don’t have to do the bad things that other kids do. You can still make something of yourself.”

That doesn’t mean Chancellor won’t let his mind wander about the future, particularly with his mom working two jobs and trying to make ends meet, though as she says, “He owes me nothing.”

And particularly, he’ll think about the kids at Park Place, meandering around the streets, ever ready to embrace whatever life throws their way, good or bad.

He knows the odds aren’t in their favor.

But he plans on changing that. That old Boys and Girls Club raised and saved a lot of kids years ago.
It will again. Chancellor is going to see to it.