As the ground shook and the trees swayed, Diane and Howie Long scooped the three boys out of their beds, grabbed armfuls of blankets and pillows, and made their way to the front door. The boys knew the drill by heart. Every day Howie would park his Chevy Suburban in the same spot in the driveway, just beyond the reach of the tallest trees. If an earthquake rattled Los Angeles, it meant they were all spending the night in the Suburban—two adults, three kids and two dogs. "You had to think about aftershocks," Howie said.
The Longs lived in Los Angeles for 12 years, while Howie starred at defensive end for the Raiders and Diane worked as a corporate lawyer. But shortly after the Northridge earthquake in January 1994—6.7 on the Richter scale—they decided they'd spent too many sleepless nights in their Suburban. So they embarked on a national search for a new home. Possible destinations included Oregon, Cape Cod and the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina.
They settled in Charlottesville, Va., a genteel college town of red bricks, white columns and trees that generally stay upright. For the boys—Chris, Kyle and Howie Jr.—Charlottesville was a haven and a playground. They went fishing in Sugar Hollow and inner-tubing in the James River. They attended school four miles from home, at St. Anne's-Belfield. And when it came time for the oldest, Chris, to choose a college, all he had to do was cross Ivy Road from St. Anne's-Belfield to reach the University of Virginia.
It all looked so easy. He had the Hall of Fame father, the big house, the summers in Montana, the weekends in L.A. with Terry Bradshaw and Jimmy Johnson at the Fox Sports studio. But when Chris accepted a football scholarship to Virginia and emailed another recruit, linebacker Clint Sintim, to introduce himself, Sintim did not respond. "I didn't really care for him," said Sintim, who had yet to meet Long. "I thought he was just a rich kid with a famous dad."
Then Sintim got to Virginia and saw how Long approached game days. Chris had eye black smeared across his cheeks and D-Block blasting out of his headphones. He stalked around the locker room, screaming at himself and his teammates, explaining in vivid detail how he was going to annihilate the man in front of him and how his teammates would annihilate the men in front of them. "Who's going to ride with me?" he hollered. "Who's going to ride with me?" This did not sound like some spoiled rich kid. It sounded like Ray Lewis.
Football players, especially pass rushers, are often fueled by hardships they faced early in their lives. This is true for Lewis, for Shawne Merriman and for Howie Long. Chris is the opposite. He is fueled by the lack of hardships he faced, by the perception that his advantages somehow made him soft. The fuel is different, but potent nonetheless. After four years spent pile-driving quarterbacks as a defensive end at Virginia, Chris is projected as the possible No. 1 pick in the NFL draft on April 26. And Sintim, of all people, is one of his roommates and closest friends. The Longs refer to him as their fourth son.
"I was obviously wrong about Chris," said Sintim, who'll be senior in 2008. (He redshirted as a freshman.) "He is not soft or spoiled at all."
EVER SINCE Chris arrived in Charlottesville, at age nine, he has been trying to make that point. In Los Angeles he did not play football, did not watch football and picked daisies in the outfield during his Little League games. He spent his free time writing science-fiction and adventure stories. His parents thought maybe he'd become an architect. After the family moved, Chris asked to try out for a youth football team called the Eagles, mainly because he liked their green uniforms. Howie told Diane the boy would get hurt in the first practice and give up. Even after Chris survived that first day, Howie told the coach, Mark Sanford, "I'm not sure he'll stick with this game."
As a ninth-grader Chris went out for the football team at St. Anne's--Belfield, a private K-to-12 school with an enrollment of about 840. But when he tried to run at his first practice, he looked as though he might trip over his size-13 cleats. Coach John Blake told him to get on the defensive line and drop into a stance. Chris bent down—back perfectly straight, butt high in the air, free hand tucked behind his leg. Chris's eyes even bugged out. "Oh, my God," Blake said. "That's Howie Long." It was the first of a thousand comparisons.
Chris befriended a school custodian, McKinley Breckenridge, who let him into the weight room when he wanted to lift after 10 p.m. His devotion to football grew at the same rate as his body. Before every game Blake would gather the team in the locker room and read his favorite poem, The Man in the Glass. Chris knew it so well that he'd recite it aloud, right along with Blake.