Robert Chancey shouldn't be here. He seems to know this. Look at the smile on his face. Look at the way he runs from the field to the sideline and back again, always at full speed. Chancey, a Bears fullback, is as vain as a pawnshop guard dog. You can catch him from time to time scoping his surroundings in utter amazement. Is this really happening?
NFL players do not materialize from thin air. But here is Chancey, with no college playing experience, only three years of high school ball, working his way into the Bears' backfield rotation. "Experience comes with time," says Glyn Milburn, the veteran Bears kick returner, "but Robert's got something intangible. He's a guy who goes 100 percent all the time. You do that, you succeed."
Chancey, 26, knows this well. Seven years ago, as a senior at Stanhope Elmore High in Millbrook, Ala., he was one of the state's top prospects in football and baseball. Although physical contact was his first love (as it is for most big running backs), money was a close second. Four games into the football season he left the team to concentrate on playing baseball. In June of the following year he was offered a $108,000 signing bonus as the Baltimore Orioles' sixth-round draft pick. "You're 19 years old, and the money looks like so much," says Chancey, who had been recruited for football by, among others, Auburn, Florida State, Nebraska and Notre Dame. "I'd never had that kind of money. It was like, Where do I sign?"
In two years as a rightfielder for the Gulf Coast Orioles of the Rookie League, however, Chancey couldn't solve one major problem: how to hit a curveball. "In the minors you have to put up with a lot," he says. "It was never easy."
Chancey batted .236 with the Orioles, then spent parts of two more seasons in baseball, one with the independent Beaumont ( Texas) Bullfrogs and another with the New York Mets' Rookie League club in Kingsport, Tenn. In the summer of '96, angry, frustrated and out of options, he started thinking about those good ol' Friday nights in Millbrook—darting through a pack of linebackers, stomping over defensive backs, waking up sore and loving it. He considered himself too old for college, however, so his agent arranged a September '96 tryout in Tampa with a scout for the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League.
"I was running around in shorts, and there's no way he could tell how physical I was," says Chancey. "He said I needed to go back to college. That was a really discouraging moment."
Chancey bounced back when his cousin Antowain Smith, a University of Houston running back at the time, invited him to tag along to a workout in early '97. While Smith, who would be drafted in the first round by the Bills, was swarmed by NFL scouts and player-personnel officials, Chancey got what he considered to be only a token opportunity to run the 40. Then something happened. "I ran a 4.58," he says, "and suddenly they wanted to see if I could catch and block and all that. About an hour and a half later [ Chargers general manager] Bobby Beathard called. The next day I was off to San Diego."
Chancey spent the first nine games of the '97 season on the Chargers' practice squad and was activated for the last seven, playing exclusively on special teams. As soon as he reported to training camp this year, however, he was cut. Beathard admits it was a bone-headed move. Two days later the Bears picked up Chancey, hoping he would provide solid backup for Ty Hallock. In eight games, Chancey has carried 13 times for 50 yards and caught eight passes for 85 yards. In a 23-20 win over the Oilers on Sunday, he scored his first NFL touchdown. Although Chancey needs to work on his blocking and pass catching, Bears vice president of player personnel Mark Hatley likens him to Chiefs fullback Kimble Anders, who played in the Pro Bowl for the past three seasons.
"Sometimes I regret having played baseball," Chancey says, "but then I really think about it: Maybe if I had gone to college to play football, I would've gotten hurt and couldn't have come back. God makes things happen for a reason. I think this is where he wants me to be."
No one in Chicago would argue the point.