Vahe Gregorian

Before he could fly, Jamaal Charles had to overcome childhood fears and disabilities

Jamaal Charles participates in Special Olympics events around Kansas City, where he plays games with kids and then signs autographs.
Jamaal Charles participates in Special Olympics events around Kansas City, where he plays games with kids and then signs autographs. Special Olympics Missouri

Whether it was in the ways he moved or thought or read aloud, Jamaal Charles was always in a hurry.

Even when he downshifted to walk, it typically was by bouncing along up on his toes.

“Like he was trying to take off or something,” said Grant LaPoint, a senior patriarch of Charles’ family, which sprawls over the Gulf Coast of Texas.

But as Charles struggled through childhood, nothing suggested he would thrust to this sort of liftoff.

As the Kansas City Chiefs prepare for the NFL season, Charles, 28, again is a linchpin of all that’s possible for them — and a symbol of all that’s possible, period.

Before Charles showed world-class potential as a sprinter at the University of Texas, ran for the most yards in Chiefs franchise history and averaged more yards a carry, 5.5, than any NFL player ever, a learning disability eroded his confidence in all that he did.

In a town battling the typical tolls of poverty, without his father in his life, Charles ultimately took flight because of a nurturing extended family, plus teachers and friends in special education classes. Classes that led him to what he considered a life-changing opportunity to compete in Special Olympics at age 10.

“In classrooms, I felt I was the last one in the back,” Charles said in a series of recent interviews with The Star in which he offered a rare glimpse into his childhood challenges.

“When I got in the classroom, people didn’t want to be my friend. But when I stepped on the field, everyone wanted to be my friend.”

jamaal
Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles David Eulitt deulitt@kcstar.com


As an awkward, sensitive child, the youngest of four boys in his immediate family and the runt of what was then 32 cousins, Charles at times would cling to his mother, Sharon.

Mostly, though, he gravitated to his maternal grandmother, Mazelle Miller, the backbone of the family, whom he still considers his guardian angel years after she died.

Mazelle was the one who sensed something wasn’t right for Charles before anyone else did.

“I pray to her to this day,” he said, “to watch over me and my family.”

jamaal-baseball (2)
Jamaal Charles as a young baseball player Special to The Star

The house of Mazelle and Oscar Miller, where Charles and his mother lived for a time, was the place around which a gaggle of grandkids created track meets in the streets and played any sport you could name in the yard and driveway.

In that environment, Charles could be himself: a character, silly and clowning, telling corny jokes or doing imitations like the one of Michael Jackson dancing to “Billie Jean” in the talent shows his cousins would create.

Other times, Charles wasn’t as sure of himself.

Charles got teased because he turned to the female figures in his life. Or maybe he turned to them because he was being picked on.

Whatever the case, a smothering cycle of anxiety and doubt hovered over Charles into his teens any time he was outside the family.

“You were the guy that nobody wanted around,” Danny Gorrer, a childhood friend who also went on to the NFL, told Charles during a recent roast of the star running back in Port Arthur.

jamaal-friend
Jamaal Charles poses with close friend Danny Gorrer, who now plays for the Baltimore Ravens. Bart Bragg Special to The Star

Now everyone could laugh because it was so long ago and Gorrer is so obviously fond of Charles.

Then, though, this was a painful reality.

Inside the extended family, it wasn’t so bad that Charles’ brothers and the cousins he considered siblings might call him a whiner or a crybaby. After all, they weren’t wrong.

“I definitely was a baby,” Charles said, smiling.

They’d call him “Ja-Millie” — at least until their grandmother heard them. Then she’d yell, “Don’t call my baby Ja-Millie,” and shoo everyone else outside to console him.

Charles’ true anguish came from outside the home, where he frequently was mocked by those who thought he was slow or dumb because he had trouble speaking and reading.

It didn’t help that his teeth weren’t nice and his clothes were worn and that the more abuse he absorbed, the more he withdrew.

“He was afraid even to raise his hand in school,” said Arlene LeBlanc, the aunt with whom Charles lived during his adolescence, “because people would laugh at him.”

After Mazelle Miller died when Charles was 8, and with no father around and flux in his mother’s life causing them to move frequently, Charles remembers feeling like he didn’t know who he was.

Charles would try to heed what his uncle, Robert LeBlanc, would tell him about his father.

“Your dad made a decision, and we’re going to go on with life. I just say, ‘Be the better man. Regardless of the situation, be the better person.’

“Because God has given you the strength to handle a lot of things.”

But often as a young child, Charles cried himself to sleep and agonized, “Why me?”


Around third or fourth grade, Charles was steered in and out of regular classrooms into what he called “certain classes.”

Stealthily, hoping no one would see, he’d make his way to the resource room for several periods a day.

“That was how I really started knowing something was different about me,” he said. “I knew something was wrong then.”

Something, it turned out, that could be solved.

Something that became a springboard toward becoming who he is.

Of all that went into navigating this maze and rewiring how he processed information, fundamental to the equation was Charles simply slowing down his anxieties.

“He was very unsure of himself at first,” said Vicky Conner, one of his special education teachers. “You have to let (special education students) know we all have challenges.”

In Charles’ case, the greatest one was that “he’d just run right past” punctuation, LeBlanc recalled. He couldn’t recognize periods and commas, reducing sentences to chaos, and he faced frustrating moments in learning how to tame it.

But it helped to have a sense of camaraderie in the classroom with the special-needs students.

“Nobody was really the same. Everybody was good at something,” said Charles, who remembered Conner as “a special lady to me” and added that Conner and others who helped him and his classmates provided amazing patience. “God’s going to bless the people like that.”

Beyond the intense dedication and support he found in school, Charles also benefited from extra work at home with Aunt Arlene, whose house Charles would frequent even before coming to live there most of the time from seventh grade through the end of high school.

jamaal-arlene
Jamaal Charles and his Aunt Arlene, with whom he spent much of his childhood in Port Arthur, show off their matching Mardi Gras shirts. Bart Bragg Special to The Star

Late at night, or after football or track practice, Charles would sit at the foot of her bed.

They’d read the Bible together, out loud.

With her gentle inspiration, free from the judgment of peers, Charles could make mistakes and correct himself and take his time.

Sentences started having structure, and everything started to change.

“That’s how he got his confidence,” she said.


The eerie lights of refineries dominate the night sky of Port Arthur, a town of about 50,000 in which you can still see fading signs for the old Kansas City Southern railroad.

As it happens, Port Arthur was founded in 1895 because of that railroad. The town’s Kansas City-based founder, Arthur Stilwell, believed he should connect Kansas City to the Gulf of Mexico as a business venture.

Known as it might be as a hub of the oil business and as the hometown of singer Janis Joplin and football coach Jimmy Johnson, Port Arthur has absorbed hard times in recent years. On a recent Saturday, its downtown was so desolate it appeared virtually abandoned, even as people in town talk about the promise of new enterprises ahead.

The city’s entwined troubles of poverty, drugs and street gangs made it a place full of trapdoors that Charles had to overrun on his way to rushing for 4,107 yards and 50 touchdowns during his last two years of high school.

Despite the constant movement in his life, Charles was sustained by the bedrock of broader family, a legacy of generations most recently handed down by the example of Mazelle Miller.

After she died, much of her spirit was transferred to the house of Uncle Robert, 57, and Aunt Arlene, 54, the fourth of 10 children and the one most wired like her mother. That meant an emphasis on family fun, but no nonsense either.

Arlene and Robert helped Charles and his numerous cousins get their start in sports. They started a local track club in the 1990s that still is thriving. Robert also coached Pop Warner football.

jamaal-robert
Robert LeBlanc, who is married to Jamaal’s Aunt Arlene, helped raise his young nephew Jamaal Charles during Charles’ youth in Port Arthur Texas. Bart Bragg Special to The Star

Safe to say that early on Charles wasn’t an obvious track man or the best player on his football team — or even in his family.

It wasn’t just that older brother ShanDerrick was a natural athlete who went on to play at Southern Methodist and seemed NFL-bound before suffering a back injury.

It also was that his cousin Rashante, who would go on to play women’s basketball at LSU, was quarterback of their Junior Bees flag football team.

Charles played center, and their favorite play was the one where he’d block down the sideline for Rashante.

“I was slow. I had to work for my speed,” Charles said. “Everybody thinks I was just fast. I had to work. I was tired of looking at people’s backs.”

It took an improbable scenario to create, or at least stoke, an athletic breakthrough for Charles.

Under the umbrella of the special education program, Charles and his classmates didn’t get to take field trips like the rest of the kids who used to go to Six Flags “and the fun places.”

“The only one we took,” he said, “was to the Special Olympics.”

As he remembered that day in 1996, Charles recalled winning the 100-meter dash, the 200, hurdles and the long jump. The Special Olympics groups competitors, who include kids with intellectual disabilities and cognitive delays, into equitable groups by age, gender and ability.

Charles’ experience at that event in nearby Beaumont is what led to a heart-rending speech at this year’s opening ceremonies for the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles.

“I was just trying to inspire people and give back to the people who are going through things in life,” he said during Chiefs training camp this month. “That’s what it’s about, man.”

Charles administered the athletes’ oath with a preamble that was poignant in itself: that 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 this summer at the games. “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.”


Charles zoomed between his Chiefs teammates and several hundred children during his free football clinic in June in Port Arthur.

In addition to the Jamaal Charles “Youth Matters” Family Foundation event, which was orchestrated by Arlene LeBlanc and dozens of family members, Charles was in town to attend the roast in his honor.

jamaalscamp2
Jamaal Charles hosts an annual kids camp in his hometown of Port Arthur, Texas. The yearly event attracts attendees from around the region. Vahe Gregorian vgregorian@kcstar.com

Even if he largely remained shy outside the home through his youth, Charles ultimately had the strength to let his personality emerge more — and let his athleticism speak for him too, winning a track championship at Texas before being drafted by the Chiefs in 2008.

He has a cherished family of his own now, with his wife, Whitney, and two young daughters, and he seems to know no apprehensions.

If you watched his Special Olympics speech or how he turned the tables on those roasters in June, you saw someone comfortable in his own skin and who speaks with the eloquence of the heart.

“He hasn’t let the NFL change him,” said his cousin RaNysha, a former track star at LSU and now a social worker, “and that’s what we appreciate most about him. He’s so humble, and he appreciates where he comes from.”

All at once, RaNysha paused to point out Conner, Charles’ special education teacher.

She had come to say hello to Charles, whom she hadn’t seen for a few years but still follows closely.

Until then, Conner hadn’t known that Charles’ foundation designates money toward five annual scholarships for learning-disabled children in the school district.

Or that he’d been second-team academic All-Big 12 at Texas.

“I’m getting chills,” she said.

All because teachers like Conner, a loving family and a heart yearning for acceptance helped Charles harness what was inside and take off.

“It’s not about judging people. It’s about expressing yourself in your own way,” Charles said, reflecting on his journey. “Everybody’s different. That’s just life. I don’t think anybody in the world is the same, even twins.

“I am who I am. God made me who I am. He made me to have a learning disability, so I accept it. He made me to be this person I am today with all the (accolades) …

“I don’t judge what God did to me. The things I went through in life, I went through for a reason. He gives certain people certain things.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

Related stories from Kansas City Star

  Comments