Tears were flowing. Here were some of the toughest, hard-nosed college football players around, and their emotions got the best of them when one of their own stood and told a story of resiliency, courage and determination.
It was early in Sean Chandler’s football career at Temple, his freshman season in 2014, The Owls’ defensive backs coach at the time, Francis Brown, had each of his players get up and tell the others something they didn’t know about his life. Chandler rose to speak and soon had a captivated audience.
“Every single one of those guys was crying,” recalled Brown, now the assistant head coach at Baylor under former Temple coach Matt Rhule.
Chandler, who speaks softly but hits like a sledgehammer on the field, remembers telling his story.
“I remember getting up, and I started crying a little,” Chandler recalled earlier this month. “The other guys are like, ‘Dang, we didn’t know.’ ”
Few people knew that Chandler and his family had lived in what he estimates were six different homeless shelters while he was growing up in Camden. One of the shelters, he stayed in for about a year.
Chandler says his family’s situation became more stable when he was in the seventh grade. Before that, he was living a shelter-to-shelter existence.
Even as things improved, Chandler never became complacent with his living conditions.
“Every day, you wonder if it can happen again,” he said.
And every day of his life is spent doing his best to make sure it won’t.
Chandler’s family includes mother Latonya Woodson, and sisters Ebony Chandler, 25; Tyana Chandler, 23; and Collette Chandler, 10. He also has an older brother, Cornell Woodson, 30, who Chandler says was off to college at the time of the frequent moves. Chandler says he doesn’t live with his father, James, but has kept in contact.
The family politely declined to discuss the situation, and even Sean Chandler was reluctant to go into too much detail.
“Honestly, I had fun as a child,” he said. “Now I look back on it and say, ‘Man, that isn’t a way to live.’ ”
His story had a profound impact on his fellow defensive backs, who were in the room that emotional day.
“After he was done speaking, there was silence throughout the room,” former Temple and current Baltimore Ravens cornerback Tavon Young recalled. “I felt bad for him, but then again, I felt good at what type of person he turned out to be.”
Temple senior cornerback Artrel Foster remembers the raw emotions Chandler’s story produced.
“I was all teared up and didn’t understand what he had been through his whole life,” Foster said. “When I heard that, I understand why he works as hard as he does.”
Anybody who has spent time around Chandler always points out his incredible work ethic and his silent but firm leadership.
“For us, we didn’t do double sessions and he used to organize and hold a practice in preseason,” said Dwayne Savage, Chandler’s high school coach and still the head coach at Camden High. “Everybody respected him so much that they showed up for those workouts.”
Even had Chandler not endured such an unstable living situation in his early childhood, he likely would have been hard-working. But the experience cemented a certain mental toughness and drive that have enabled him to be a four-year starter and definite NFL prospect.
“Now I look back on it and see all the things I have overcome, and nothing can break me because nothing was as bad as that,” said Chandler, who attended Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School while playing for Camden. “If I went through that, then it shows I can keep pushing.”
Few people call Chandler “Sean” — to most, he’s “Champ.” The name came, he recalled, when he started playing midget football at age eight. He was on a team, the East Camden Seminoles, that had several players named Sean.
It was the first day of practice, and the team had a hitting drill, which Chandler won. Being the champion of that drill, he became known as “Champ.”
Through the years, he has worn that nickname like a badge. “Champ” is a hero to many in his hometown.
“I am so proud of him,” said Brown, the Baylor assistant.
Brown and Chandler have a long relationship. Brown was a star quarterback and defensive back at Camden. Chandler was a star receiver, running back, defensive back, return man — you name it — at the school. Brown persuaded the Owls to give Chandler his first scholarship offer. Brown was one of the few people in the Temple program who knew Chandler’s story.
“He is from the city I came from and people don’t always have positive things to say about Camden, but Champ is an example of the positives,” Brown said. “He came from nothing.”
Stories about Chandler’s work ethic are legendary. He often stays at Temple’s football facility until he is bleary-eyed looking at tape of the next opponent.
“Champ is the reason Tavon Young is playing in the NFL,” Brown said. “Tavon wasn’t always the hardest worker, but when Champ came, that all changed and he became an unbelievable worker after that.”
Young, on injured reserve with a torn ACL, has maintained a close relationship with Chandler. The two worked out together in the off-season.
“He was a great teammate,” Young said. “On the field, you always want to have him on your team, but off the field, he is a tremendous person.”
Chandler has made the same favorable impression on Temple’s new coaching staff.
“I coached kids in the past who had entitlement issues. Sean Chandler has zero,” Temple first-year coach Geoff Collins said. “He is respectful, he is grateful for everything he gets and understands he has to work for everything he gets, and he has just been awesome to coach.”
The next level
Chandler, who is listed at 6-foot and 190 pounds, was a starting cornerback in his first two seasons at Temple and has been a starting free safety the past two years. He has great potential as a punt returner, although he has returned only two kicks this season.
“He’ll be in the NFL,” said one pro talent evaluator who requested anonymity. “Depending on the system, he could play corner or safety.”
Added Brown: “He will play free safety in the NFL, like ‘Honey Badger,’ ” referring to Tyrann Mathieu of the Arizona Cardinals.
Collins was a defensive coordinator the past six years in the Southeastern Conference, including the previous two seasons at Florida, and has coached his share of NFL prospects.
“He is an SEC player, an NFL player,” said Collins, whose 3-5 team has a bye this week and will return to action Thursday, Nov. 2 at Lincoln Financial Field against Navy.
For Chandler, everything he has done has been geared toward reaching the NFL.
“I have been dreaming of the NFL since I was young,” said Chandler, who is on pace to graduate in May with a degree in kinesiology.
Chandler has the speed, intelligence and hunger to make it to the NFL. He also has one of the greatest intangibles.
“He has one of the strongest mental mind-sets I have ever seen,” Brown said.
That strength came from early-life adversity.
“I know how strong I had to be from what my family went through,” Chandler said. “It helps motivate me to get to the next level.”