CHARLOTTE — All Sean Chandler really wanted to do was bring his buddies over after school to play.
That’s what regular 11-year-olds do.
He didn’t realize at the moment that it probably wasn’t a great idea, since home at the time was a homeless shelter in Camden, N.J.
“We were supposed to go to the pool that day, but we ended up at the shelter,” he said. “We were in there playing tag and stuff, and running around, and somebody told my mom. It was bad.”
Chandler, the third-year safety and special teams player, laughed as he recalled the memory of what was both an obviously more complicated, and yet simpler time.
There’s nothing normal about growing up from place to place, bouncing from a relative’s house to some other room elsewhere, and from time to time in a homeless shelter. Or shelters, plural.
That was the experience Chandler and his sisters and his mother had, a constant procession of moves that didn’t slow down until he was in high school. So when you grow up in that kind of continuous uncertainty, the momentary reprieve of being a regular kid for a minute is the kind of thing you latch onto. It becomes the kind of thing you can laugh about now, at a safe distance, if only to maintain perspective.
“It’s good to normalize it,” Chandler said. “Because it’s not normal at all.”
The 25-year-old isn’t what you’d call an NFL star. He’s a backup safety and a personal protector on the punt team and a handful of other unglamorous things. But he’s created a niche for himself here, and a cult following in the locker room because of a few specific qualities that his bosses value and his teammates respect.
As he spoke to a reporter recently, a group of players walked by, and veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson stuck his head in and said: “Tell ’em about it Champ. Tell ’em who’s still the Champ,” invoking Chandler’s childhood nickname.
Chandler shows up every day. He works. He’s meticulous in his detail. He puts everything he has into every day. And this preseason, the results have been more apparent than ever.
Chandler made big plays by the handful in training camp and the preseason, with his forced fumble in the fourth quarter of the Steelers game just the most recent one. But for head coach Matt Rhule, the reaction to that play was what was telling.
When Sean Chandler makes plays, people celebrate.
“He’s in there the fourth quarter of the last game, and he knocks the ball out, and the whole team runs out on the field because they respect the way he practices and plays,” Rhule said. “I think a lot of that is due to his character and who he is.
“Some people are broken by adversity, and some people are built by adversity. He’s someone, he’s gone through hard times, and he’s allowed that to build him instead of giving him an excuse to not achieve. That’s who he is.”
It was not an easy route to get to this point, even though this point is still a somewhat tenuous existence. If you’re not a starter on offense or defense (and even if you are sometimes), your employment can be a week-to-week proposition. Chandler admitted that he still gets anxious on cut day. His rookie year with the Giants, he sat in his hotel room waiting for the phone to ring. But in the NFL, they don’t call you to tell you that you made the team; they only call you if you didn’t.
“No call is a good call,” Chandler said, even though staring at a phone that’s not ringing is its own kind of stress. “I think it was like 5 o’clock that day; I kept checking the website and this and that, and waiting for the call, but no call. With this business, you never know, you hope you put all the good film you can out there, and you come out on top.
“You know, that’s what you’re in the business for. To come out here and work every day and stay consistent and put it in God’s hands.”
To make it in what can be a cold and cruel business, that’s the kind of attitude you have to have. But it’s not the kind of thing that comes easily to children, especially the ones for whom nothing comes easily.
Chandler admits it wasn’t always easy or comfortable for him to talk about the way he grew up. When he was emerging as a football star at Camden High, there was a newspaper story about him that ended up on a school bulletin board. He has the kind of cheerful demeanor and upbeat personality that suggests that life is good. Still, when classmates realized that he had experienced homelessness, their reaction and his were different.
“Everybody is coming up to me, like ‘You were in a shelter?’ and I was like ahhhh, I didn’t want everyone to know at that time. But it is what it is.”
With time, his feelings changed, and when asked recently if he was willing to discuss, he eagerly agreed.
“It’s something I’m getting more comfortable talking about now, because people need to hear that you can come from certain circumstances and still make it out,” Chandler said. “If you keep pushing and keep driving and keep getting one percent better every day, in every aspect of your life. The way you do anything is the way you do everything.”
When he talks, Chandler slips easily into football clichés. A lot of them, actually. But the things coaches say to apply to blocking and tackling and practice are things that can help you when you’re trying to survive in an environment that’s not conducive to thinking about the future. When you’re living in a shelter in Camden, N.J., the challenge is getting through Friday. Then Saturday. Then Sunday. Dreaming about anything bigger seems unrealistic.
According to U.S. Census Department figures, 36.4 percent of the citizens of Camden live in poverty, making it one of the poorest cities in America. It’s actually improving, because in the last decade it was the poorest.
“It’s on the uphill now,” Chandler said. “But at the time I was there, it was pretty rough.”
Of course, homelessness is not a problem that’s isolated to poor cities. According to numbers provided by local non-profit Roof Above, 3,100 people in Charlotte are experiencing homelessness, as of July. That number includes 370 families, which include 1,100 people. It happens everywhere. In a place that doesn’t have the resources of his new hometown, it makes it even more difficult to escape.
“It was tough,” Chandler said of Camden. “Not a lot of people make it through circumstance like that, but I did, and I wear it on my shoulder every day. It’s kind of what drives me.”
Despite such a bleak background, there’s a relentless optimism that shines from him. You leave a conversation about living in a shelter feeling better than you feel like you should, because of the way he talks about it.
For every story of the difficult times, there’s an immediate pivot. Sean Chandler’s not going to let a temporary condition define him, or what’s possible.
“But my childhood was some of the funnest times of my life,” he said. “I met some good friends then I still talk to today. A couple of my friends I met in the shelter, they still hit me up to this day. I saw a couple of them during the offseason — a couple of guys who grew up to be good men, coming from those circumstances.
“I’ve gone back and talked to schools. In my city, there are kids in worse situations than I was in. So I’ll talk to them and give them some inspiration. I know it definitely helps them in their daily life.”
That kind of perspective is not common. Chandler’s quick to give credit to his mother, Latonya Woodson, for instilling that kind of attitude in him, and leading them to stability.
“It sounds hard, but I can definitely say my childhood was fun,” he said. “My mom sheltered me from those negatives we were dealing with on a daily basis. She did the best she could, and I definitely praise her on that each and every day.
“I have the utmost respect for her getting up going to work each and every day. I get my drive from her. She never complained, even to this day she’s never complained, and I love her for that.”
By the time Chandler reached high school, they found a place they could call home, and for those years, things were stable. At that point, he became an inspirational football story, as a kid from Camden who stood out on the field, and earned a scholarship to Temple.
There, he helped Rhule and his staff turn around a bad football team, a task that seemed easy by comparison. Along the way, Chandler told his teammates his story, moving a group of young men to tears, and showing them what was possible.
Rhule clearly admires the kind of person Chandler has become, in addition to the kind of football player he is. The Panthers signed him off the Giants practice squad last season, eager to add his spark to a young team that’s building from the ground up.
“I will say the longer I’ve done this job, be it college or pro, the more you have to recognize that everyone’s gone through something in their lives,” Rhule said. “So when people have the courage to get up and share with the team, I think it helps bring the team together as we learn more about each other.
“Sean was a person at Temple that helped us turn that around, with who he is as a person.”
Making it to the NFL is an incredibly rare thing, an accomplishment to be celebrated in any instance. Making it to the NFL when you had to live in a shelter in Camden, N.J., and came out of the experience smiling and lifting up others is rarer still.
It takes a special kind of person. A person like Sean Chandler, who has a particular quality, a character trait that you’re not born with, one that has to come from somewhere.
“It takes some getting used to,” Chandler said, summing up the experience of not having a home the same way one would describe a minor inconvenience on the way to work, like a hole in your sock or a traffic jam.
“Because one day you could be here, and the next you’re somewhere,” he said. “It’s like with this business, honestly. You could be here today and tomorrow be living somewhere totally different. At the end of the day, you’ve got to get comfortable with change. That definitely helped me to this day. Just to keep pushing, you’ve got to get comfortable with change. It’s always going to turn out for the good in the end. Keep pushing and hope for the best.
“Resilience. That’s the word I was looking for, resilience. That’s all it is.”