Chiefs' Charles right back at it as league's best big-play back
Jamaal Charles became fast by running away from imaginary attack dogs as a kid
If he reaches 750 carries at current rate, Charles will have the highest YPC ever
Lacking motivation early in career, Charles got a jolt by being benched one game
The secret is out. We now know how Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles became such a fast runner. It was because of his grandfather's fowl obsession.
During part of his time growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, Charles was raised by his grandparents Owen and Mazell Miller. After Mazell died, Owen became something of a recluse, and he couldn't bring himself to leave the house.
But he had a craving for chicken, and almost every night he would send Jamaal down the block and around the corner to a Church's restaurant for a two-piece box with a biscuit. It often was dark when Jamaal headed back home, and his imagination sometimes would get the best of him.
"I used to think somebody was always chasing me," Charles said. "Or I'd hear dogs barking. One dog was on a leash, but it always barked like it was a crazy dog. I was like, I've got to run past this one as fast as I can. I was always scared. Ever since then, I've tried to act like I'm running away from people chasing after me."
The only place where people chase Charles now is on the football field -- and he is an elusive prey. Through the first five weeks of the 2012 season, he has rushed 103 times for a league-leading 551 yards, including a 91-yard touchdown -- the longest run from scrimmage in team history -- that helped the Chiefs to their only victory, a 27-24 win in overtime in New Orleans.
But here's the number that really grabs your attention: 6.0. That's Charles' average yards per carry for his career. If he had a minimum of 750 carries (he has 602), that would be the highest average in league history -- better than Hall of Famers Jim Brown, Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and any other NFL back.
Charles' high average (5.3 through the first five games this season) isn't something new. During his three seasons at the University of Texas, he rushed 533 times for 3,328 yards -- a 6.2 average -- and 36 touchdowns.
But the reason he averages that much is a mystery even to Charles himself, who didn't realize the statistic was a big deal until other people started talking about it.
"I'm not the strongest person on the field. I don't break tackles or anything," the 5-foot-11, 199-pound Charles said. "I just run with a purpose and run with a passion, I guess. It just feels good to get the ball and run."
Charles, who will be 25 in December, didn't feel like that a year ago. In the second game in 2011, he was lost for the season when he suffered a torn left ACL. After surgery by Dr. James Andrews, Charles went to Pensacola, Fla., for two months to rehab. He then returned to Kansas City for November and December, but, even though he was around his teammates, he felt like an outsider.
"Whether the team is winning or losing, you're not a part of it," he said, "so you're like, Dang, I didn't contribute to helping my team. It just hurt. It was like everybody forgot about you."
Once he returned this season, it didn't take Charles long to remind people who he is and return to the form he had in 2010, when he rushed for 1,467 yards -- second only to Houston's Arian Foster, and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. That season, he became the first player in NFL history to hit the 1,000-yard rushing plateau in fewer than 200 carries.
Except for the second game this season, when he ran six times for only three yards against Buffalo, Charles hasn't looked like a running back coming off of knee surgery. He has rushed for 87 yards against Atlanta, a whopping 233 against New Orleans, 88 against San Diego and 140 last Sunday (125 in the first half) in a 9-6 loss to Baltimore.
"I was stunned by what I saw against the Ravens last week," said former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, who is now an analyst for CBS and has been studying tape of the Chiefs in preparation for Sunday's game in Tampa. "I've never seen a team run through that [Ravens] defense the way they did."
Charles' 233 yards against the Saints and his 259 yards against the Broncos on Jan. 3, 2010, are the two highest rushing performances in Chiefs history. He also had 55 receiving yards against New Orleans, joining Brown as the only players in league history to have at least 225 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards in one game.
Including his catches, Charles had 39 touches against New Orleans and 33 against Baltimore. Until this season, the most times he had ever touched the ball in an NFL game was 27. But he's not worried about his durability or getting fatigued.
"When I was in college, the most I carried the ball was like 40 times," he said. "I carried the ball a lot when I was in high school." (Port Arthur Memorial, where he broke the Port Arthur city rushing record set by former NFL running back Joe Washington.) "I know the NFL is not high school, but anybody who knows me from my hometown knows I can carry the ball a lot. I don't think the carries are going to wear me down or kill me. Whatever I can do to help my team win, I'm always down for that."
Charles didn't have such a high level of passion for football when he came into the NFL as a third-round draft pick in 2008 after displaying his speed for teams at the Combine with a 4.38 40. He admits that during his rookie season, he lived from paycheck to paycheck and didn't always display a high work ethic.
Reality hit Charles like a Ray Lewis helmet to the solar plexus early in 2009, when first-year head coach Todd Haley made him inactive for the second game of the season, the home opener against AFC West rival Oakland. A humbled Charles watched the game from the press box at Arrowhead Stadium, thinking that he deserved to be on the field.
A few days later, he told Haley that he never wanted to be benched again, and that he was ready to do whatever it took to play in the game.
"That reality hit me like bam!" Charles said. "It opened my eyes up and I started coming to work and working hard. I realized it wasn't about the money, because the money is going to be there. [Now] I'm just out there playing football for the love of the game. I'm trying to be the best running back that plays the game."
After backing up Larry Johnson in his rookie season and for most of 2009, Charles became Kansas City's starter when Johnson got hurt late in the '09 season. He closed out the season with an eye-popping string of 143-, 154-, 102- and 259-yard rushing performances in the final four games.
"He's a special talent," Gannon said. "I think it's his speed, his quickness to the hole. He's got very good vision. I think he's a little more physical than you think. The other thing that's impressive is he's not afraid to run it up inside. Obviously, you'd like to use his speed on the edge, but he does run downhill between the tackles."
When he was younger, Charles also was a standout in track and field. As a high school senior, he won state titles in the 100 and 300-meter hurdles. In 2003, he earned a bronze medal at the World Youth Championships. He continued to run track at Texas until after his sophomore year, when he decided to focus just on football.
"Since then," he said, "I've just been trying to be the best I can be."
If there's one part of his game that Charles would like to improve, it's ball security. He fumbled twice in a Week 4 loss to San Diego, losing both of them, and coughed up the ball again against Baltimore, though the Chiefs recovered that one.
Charles has been working on ball-protection drills during practice. For example, he'll run through a gauntlet of players who try to punch the ball out of his hand.
"I think that's the only downfall I have, just holding on to the ball," he said. "That's the biggest thing right now. One of my goals is to protect the ball for the rest of the season."
Maybe Charles needs to imagine barking dogs are close to him when he carries the ball. When he runs scared, he runs fast -- and that makes it difficult for opponents to catch him, much less knock the ball loose.