Jamaal Charles did not seem a likely candidate for the most spectacular heel turn in Kansas City sports history. But yet, here we are, and maybe that’s fitting. His career, until now entirely with the Chiefs, is full of bizarre twists.
He was once a healthy scratch in the same season he rushed for 259 yards in one game. He was the best running back in the AFC the year the Chiefs were the worst team in the NFL.
He was the most efficient running back in NFL history for a team that often had no clue. Once, he had fewer carries in a game than Peyton Hillis, which Romeo Crennel explained by saying Hillis was hot. Hillis had five carries in the game.
The first time Jamaal Charles’ knee tore, it happened on the sideline in Detroit, as he crashed into the Lions’ mascot. The second time his knee tore, the doctor had to do a follow-up surgery. He’s played in two postseason games. He had just nine carries in one, and a concussion in the other.
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Charles is a star, with $40 million in earnings, so nobody is going to feel sorry for him, but his football career has been nine consecutive years of he-deserves-better-than-this.
Which makes this week’s news impossible to cleanly digest here in Kansas City.
Charles is now a Denver Bronco, which would be enough for a day, but this was unscripted sports’ equivalent of Hulk Hogan ripping off his Hulkster shirt and joining the Outsiders.
Because when Neil Smith won a ring with the Broncos, he never said stuff like this:
“I always wanted to play for Denver,” Charles said. “Growing up, John Elway was one of my favorite players.”
He wasn’t done.
“They say it’s a business,” he said. “But it’s personal as well.”
Charles still wasn’t done.
“I’m just happy I get to play (the Chiefs) twice a year,” he said.
If Charles is angry, or even bitter, that is his right. He gave the Chiefs more than he got back, his best years surrounded by Scott Pioli’s dysfunction. The one year Charles was still a star, and on a team capable of winning a playoff game, his head bounced off the cement turf in Indianapolis after his third carry.
He was forced to take a pay cut by the Chiefs’ current leadership, and has made it clear he feels unfairly treated after his last knee surgery.
But as understandable as those personal feelings might be, he had to know that his reputation among Chiefs fans and people in this city was unassailable. He was one of the team’s ultimate sympathetic figures, the incredible talent who worked so hard was beloved by all.
For some of those fans, that last part will be a little different now. Even the least reasonable among us can understand that teams are businesses, and athletes are businessmen.
But nobody wants to break up with their girlfriend, then see her move in next door, date the arch nemesis, and tell everybody who will listen this is how she always wanted it.
Now, other than the least reasonable among us, we can all understand that nobody did anything wrong here.
Charles did not want to take a second pay cut, this one massive, and who could fault him for that? The Chiefs did not want to pay a big salary to a player they saw as situational and an injury risk, and who could fault them for that?
The Chiefs had to act in their own interests, without regard to how Charles would take it. Charles had to act in his own interests, without regard to how Chiefs fans would take it.
If the biggest mistake anyone made here was Charles speaking his mind while trying to ingratiate himself to his new team, then nobody made a mistake here.
Whether he intended it this way or not, Charles actually did Chiefs fans a favor. He is on the highest level of Chiefs stardom, sharing the top shelf with only Eric Berry, Derrick Johnson, and Tamba Hali among his current generation.
Watching him in another uniform was always going to be difficult for Chiefs fans, and watching him play for the Broncos would’ve been nearly impossible. Do you root for him to do well, but in a loss? How bitter should you remain about the fumble at the end of the Thursday night game two years ago?
Charles is making this easy. He’s a Bronco now, and proud. He will embrace his new team, his new city, and this new part of his career. Good for him. The Chiefs have their own stuff going on.
We know how this will end. Shortly after Charles’ career is all over, he will accept the Chiefs’ invitation to return to Arrowhead Stadium, where they’ll put his name on the ring of honor, show his highlights on the video screen, and give him the loudest and longest and most deserved ovation of his life.
Because Charles is right. It’s a business. But it’s personal as well.