Jamaal Charles’ replacement stepped to the microphone, the camera lights shining in his face.
This was the first time Charcandrick West had been brought to the daily media session at the Chiefs’ practice facility, and it was the latest sign that he has come a very long way in a short amount of time.
You’d have a hard time finding a player in the Chiefs’ locker room who is happier to be here than West, a running back who has gone from undrafted free agent to practice-squad player to NFL starter in just 17 months. None of this good fortune is lost on him, which explains in part why he is always quick to smile, always quick to laugh, and always eager to entertain.
“Yeah, he would definitely be an energy-giver,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said, employing one of his favorite terms of endearment to describe West, a 24-year-old out of Abilene Christian. “He works his tail off, he’s humble as can be and he’s a good kid all the way around.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Toward the end of West’s first media-room experience, he was asked about the origin of his unique first name. He turned toward the reporter and grinned.
“How many Charcandricks do you know in the world?” he responded to chuckles. “I like it; it’s different. I’m probably the only Charcandrick in the world. It’s nice to be something.”
Asked if he ever queried his parents as to why they would give him such a unique name, West broke into what his stepfather, Toccara Ford, calls “that million-dollar smile. “No,” he said, “I was trying to learn how to spell it.”
The room erupted into laughter.
“That’s one of his special features; that’s him,” Ford said later. “He’s got a big heart. One day he told me, ‘I wish everybody could be happy and get along.’ I told him, ‘Well, everybody you come in contact with, just bring their day up,’ and he has. He’s a special kid.”
A self-described “goofy” dude, West is upbeat for a reason. A number of factors — a high school illness that threatened his football career, for instance, and the recent death of a beloved mentor — have converged to make him someone who is truly grateful to step into an NFL locker room every day.
“My road to get here is not like a typical one,” West said. “I didn’t get drafted. I started at one school, had to go to another one. I had a lot of situations where I could have just gave up, but I just stuck with it and followed my dreams.”
West does not cut an imposing figure. At 5 feet 10 and 205 pounds, he’s one of the smallest players on the team, a fact that explains his nickname among teammates: “Tidget,” a mash-up of “tall” and “midget.”
Those who know West best call him “Moosey,” a nickname given to him by his maternal grandmother.
“Because he was such a big boy at birth,” West’s mother, Demetrice Ford, said. “She said he looked like a big moose. He was an 8-pound, 10-ounce boy.”
Demetrice said West’s first name is derived from his biological father’s name. But when he was growing up in Cullen, La., it was Ford, West’s stepdad, and Ford’s best friend Dante’ Coleman who helped cultivate Charcandrick’s passion for football.
“After my mom got married to my stepdad, they started a little pee-wee football team,” said West, who used to dream of being a major-league shortstop. “My mom wouldn’t let me play before that, but once (Ford) came along, they worked with me, got me into football, and it turns out I was pretty good at it.”
West’s first team was the Cowboys, named after Coleman’s favorite NFL team, and they went undefeated two years in a row. West was a star running back, but his two mentors never let him get a big head.
“We saw he had a special talent, so Dante’ used to be on him so hard,” Toccara Ford said. “He’d be his biggest critic. What everybody else saw was a great game, Dante’ could always find the thing he could have done better, because the guy knew football. Together, we’d always bring him back to earth.”
People used to think Ford was crazy when he trailed West on his bike as the youngster jogged through the neighborhood, or when they’d spend hours playing the “pushup game,” where they’d catch 100 balls a day and do 10 pushups per drop.
But the process taught West the benefits of hard work; it was during these sessions that Coleman taught West to be mentally tough.
“He knew how to drive me; he knew how to get to me,” West said.
Coleman was also someone West could go to whenever he needed to talk.
“With a kid, it takes a village, and sometimes you have to come at them in different ways,” Toccara Ford said. “Sometimes I’d tell Moosey something, then ask Dante’ to tell him the same thing, and that would be the thing that made him listen. He was more of a guardian angel for him.”
When West got to Springhill High School in Louisiana, he continued to star on the football field. But his identity as a football player would soon be threatened by the toughest test of his young life.
One morning in November 2006, West woke up with a fever, stiffness in his joints and a rash. It appeared out of nowhere; he’d even played a football game the day before — he was the rare freshman on the varsity squad — and scored three touchdowns.
West’s parents took him to a hospital in Shreveport, La., but when doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him, he ended up at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, where he was bedridden for 21 days.
During that time, West lost a lot of weight — he says he dropped from 185 pounds to nearly 120 — and battled a fever. There were times he felt like giving up, especially after he absorbed the one-two punch of not hearing from his biological father’s side of the family and being told by doctors that he might never play football again.
West’s mother, Demetrice, had always been a tough woman, and she refused to let her baby give up on life at age 14. She’d make him get up and stay active, whether by bathing himself or simply standing outside.
“He laid there and cried and didn’t want to go anymore,” Demetrice Ford said. “And I said, ‘Son, you’re lying here, and God put you here for a reason. This is not the end.’ ”
Ford, meanwhile, stewed over the reality that his stepson might never play football again. It infuriated him as much as it demoralized his son.
“Charcandrick was the one that had to be there with me and keep me strong,” he said. “Moosey was my Superman. He was just so tough, and for him to be down like that was tough for me.”
Eventually, West got better — doctors never could explain why, or what had come over him — and he was allowed to go home. He gained his weight back in time for track season the following spring ... but then he got sick all over again.
At that point, the Fords consulted a specialist in Shreveport, who diagnosed West with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, an illness that can lead to complications and treatment-related side effects that can contribute to premature death.
But the family finally had a plan of attack, and West — who began taking injections and medication — has been fine ever since. He returned to the football field for his junior year, and he did well enough to earn scholarship offers from Arkansas and Louisiana State. Both schools wanted him as a cornerback, but West believed his future was at a running back, so he opted for Louisiana Tech.
He’d never enroll there, however: His efforts to make himself academically qualified in time for the 2010 season fell short. So West opted to enroll at Abilene Christian, then a Division II program. He starred at the Texas school, scoring 35 touchdowns and rushing for more than 2,000 yards as a three-year starter. He was signed by the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent in May 2014.
When the Chiefs saw enough in West to keep him on their practice squad for the 2014 season, his entire village beamed with pride. Among the most proud was Coleman, West’s old mentor, who’d been having serious back problems and had started to lose a lot of weight.
“Dante’ was the type of person where if something was wrong, you’d never know,” West said. “He wouldn’t take off work unless it was for a football game.”
Constantly in pain, Coleman nevertheless made plans to accompany West’s parents to the Chiefs’ season opener in Houston last month, provided Charcandrick made the team.
“He was proud to say, ‘Hey, I was a part of that,’ ” Toccara Ford said.
One morning this summer, West snapped awake at the sound of his phone buzzing. It was 6 a.m. on July 21, and his mother was calling him. He thought this was odd; he always called her in the morning, not the other way around.
When West answered, his mother was crying. Dante’ is dead, she said. He’d awakened that morning feeling hot, and after he was taken to the emergency room, his heart stopped beating. He was only 35.
“She told me, and I didn’t believe it until the next day, really,” said West, who was training in Dallas at the time. “So I went home and just dealt with the situation. You don’t understand how tough it was. I mean, he was a guy that put the football in my hands.”
West placed his No. 35 Chiefs game jersey in Dante’s casket during the funeral. When the Chiefs opened training camp a short time later, he reported with a heavy heart. He quietly decided to dedicate this season to his lifelong friend and mentor, which also meant playing each snap like it was his last.
“He said he was going to use that as his fuel,” Toccara said. “He learned in dealing with Dante’ that tomorrow isn’t promised, so you have to take advantage of your time while you’re here. Make your mark, seize the day.”
West quickly emerged as one of the breakout stars of training camp. His pass-catching skills helped him stand out among the backup runners, and his enthusiasm for football and drive to get better — cultivated back home by Ford and Coleman — caught the eye of his coaches.
West impressed them enough to hold onto his job as the team’s top personal protector on punt coverage, and the team was confident enough in him to part ways with veteran backup Cyrus Gray, a former special-teams captain and favorite of assistant coach Dave Toub.
“He’s tough, tough as nails,” Toub said of West during training camp. “He will stick his face in there on any-sized guy. He’s an ankle-biter and a tackler. He gets in there and is a real good tackler, real good, solid blocker as a personal protector, and he is smart and knows our stuff.”
West made the Chiefs’ 53-man roster out of training camp, and when his old college number — 26 — became available before the season, he considered switching to it until he realized that his current number, 35, matched Coleman’s age when he died.
“It was a sign,” West said.
West still thinks about Coleman often. In his weekly game plans, he sometimes scribbles the words “I got you,” to let Coleman know he’s thinking about him. Every night, he prays and asks Coleman to watch over him.
“Dante’ was more of a guardian angel for Moosey,” Toccara said. “And he still is.”
Things have broken West’s way since he dedicated this season to his departed friend and mentor. Starting in week three, West usurped Knile Davis, a third-round pick in 2013, as the Chiefs’ second-string back, and he has gotten the lion’s share of the work ever since.
During last Sunday’s 18-17 loss to the Chicago Bears, West received a majority of the snaps when Charles went down. His parents were in attendance, as were Coleman’s wife and two kids.
“Me actually being able to play some and them seeing that, with his son and daughter here … I’m doing it for him, honestly,” West said.
On their way home from the game, Toccara and Demetrice talked about the changes they’ve noticed in their son. He’s stronger, more serious, than he used to be.
“Especially since the Dante’ stuff,” Demetrice said. “He takes life in a different perspective now. He’d always want to be silly and goofy and joking around, but he’s not doing a whole lot of that anymore. He’s become a real man now.”
If pressure of being a starting NFL running back is getting to West, he isn’t showing it. He’s still lighting up rooms wherever he goes, with a positive energy that Reid hopes will extend to the football field on Sunday in Minneapolis, where the 1-4 Chiefs will try to save their season on the road against the Vikings.
It is the opportunity of a lifetime for West, and he is treating it with the respect it deserves. He plans on going 100 mph Sunday, because if there’s anything he learned from his high school illness and Coleman’s death, it’s that tomorrow isn’t promised.
“Just to wake up every morning, it’s something to be happy about,” West said. “We all know life brings problems, but you’ve just got to stay happy.
“Dante’ would be proud I never gave up ... I know he’s up there watching over me. He’s got a big part to do with all of this.”