KANSAS CITY, Mo. —It was gnawing at the kid. He'd arrived at Arrowhead Stadium a few days earlier and saw his name on the list of inactive players. Jamaal Charles was benched.
It was a signal to Charles that he wasn't important enough to the Chiefs to even wear the uniform. That he didn't even offer the team enough to have him on the sideline.
"I'm telling myself, 'You're better than this,' " Charles says now. "It was just hurtful. I would never in my life think that a player like me would be inactive."
He had to say something. Coach Todd Haley had made the decision, and Charles wanted to speak his piece. The Chiefs' young running back, once buried on the depth chart and forgotten for that game, wanted to tell Haley that it wouldn't always be like this. After practice, days after missing the Chiefs' home loss to Oakland in the season's second week, Charles approached Haley.
"I went up to him," Charles says, "and said, 'Coach, I'll play hard. I'll do anything you want. I just don't want to be inactive.' "
Charles didn't know if it would do any good. He left the field, spent but uncertain still.
"I wanted to cry so bad," he says. "I thought my career was over."
Considering where Charles had come from, no possibility could be more painful.
Charles sits in an office at Chiefs headquarters, signing 8-by-10s in a silver paint pen. It's Friday afternoon. Practice is finished, but the good ones always have something more to do. More work than the others. More demands. It's the curse of being blessed.
He signs one, then another. Then he stops and looks up.
"I saw everything before it happened," he says.
Charles tells a story that begins as a matter of numbers. Of his grandparents' nine children and their 43 grandchildren, one of whom grew up more determined than the others to stand out. He'd do what the others couldn't do and often were not willing to do. He would succeed where others had failed, reach a level that hadn't been touched.
"My dream," Charles says, "is that I'm going to finish it."
He wasn't far removed from third grade when young Jamaal already had won the contest to become Oscar Miller's go-to grandchild. Miller's wife had died, and the old man didn't handle it well. He couldn't bring himself to leave the house or drive, and it was Jamaal who was dispatched to the side roads of Port Arthur, Texas, a town of about 58,000 near the state's southeast border. Jamaal's job was to bring back a box of chicken or a few bottles of water. He did it, smiling all the way back because he always liked the feel of a completed list of chores.
Some of Charles' cousins were swallowed up by temptation, and others couldn't stay focused long enough to escape 17th Street, the tough area of Port Arthur where Charles grew up.
"Ain't nothing good back in my 'hood," he says.
Charles says now that he never was fazed by the lures of the streets. There was too much available beyond Port Arthur's borders. He was ambitious, always willing to run out again to please his grandfather, always eager to prove himself as extraordinary. Somebody had to do it, and out of nine children and 43 grandchildren, he was the chosen one. That's the way he saw it, anyway.
"I wanted to be different," he says. "I wanted to make it in life."
Speed could take him there. It was his most noticeable gift. Charles' speed took his high school team to the playoffs, won him a scholarship to the University of Texas, and promised him a chance at a level of success his family had never experienced.
But for the first time, Charles' speed was holding him back. He was a junior at Texas, a running back for the football team and a sprinter for the track team. Charles was told that, if he wanted to maintain his place as the Longhorns' starting running back, he'd have to abandon track and make football a year-round commitment.
Back in Port Arthur, track had kept Charles focused. It had given him something to do during football offseasons, when some of the cousins found trouble or adjusted to having children of their own. The distractions were enough to split Charles' family, many of them rarely seeing each other after Charles' grandmother died. When the drama intensified, Charles hoped that perhaps he might someday bring the family back together.
"Everything just faded away," he says. "Everything wasn't the same no more."
Convinced that football was his path toward success, Charles gave up track. But he wasn't happy about it. One promising avenue was now closed, and Charles didn't like anyone squashing an opportunity. He says that Texas' coaches forced him to choose between his two loves, and he says the power play was enough to compel him to leave school after three seasons in Austin.
"They were saying that if I do track," he says, "they're going to get somebody else. That's what ran me out of Texas."
He was one of the Chiefs' third-round picks last year. Charles' speed again was never in question. But what about his 200-pound frame? Or the fumbles that had plagued him even in college? Or the fact that Larry Johnson and Kolby Smith were more experienced and were ahead of Charles on the depth chart?
"I've been in this situation a lot," he says. "People didn't believe in me."
Charles sat out that game against Oakland last September, and something happened.
"I woke up," he says.
He approached Haley, a touchy decision considering the coach's fiery personality, and told him that he was not satisfied being anything other than great. It had always felt preordained. He was willing to do what it took to reach the goals he set back in Port Arthur.
Haley didn't tell his young running back, but he liked that Charles let him know it wasn't OK to be average. While other tested players have accepted their reduced roles and avoided what could become a testy confrontation, Charles refused to strike out looking - and Haley admired that.
"I like guys that are passionate about their abilities," Haley says. "He could've easily wilted. ... He made up his mind that he was going to find a way to make us keep him in there."
The memory of week two never too far away, Charles says he worked harder than ever to become a complete running back. Worked on his route-running, his mental approach and reducing those fumbles that still plague him too often. If he entered the NFL with questions, he was determined to eliminate them.
Haley insists that deactivating Charles wasn't a strategy to get through to the 22-year-old running back. Instead, Haley says, it was just a game-day roster move.
"If it had a positive effect on him," Haley says, "then that's good."
Charles says that, whether it was planned or not, he got the message.
"I see what Coach was trying to do to me," he says. "These days, I take every day like it's my last play."
He got the phone call the week of the Chiefs' game against Washington. His grandfather was dead.
Charles went back to Port Arthur, where all this began, and could barely stand to look his family in the face. Too many reminders of the old days, when he'd walk to the grocery store and deliver something to his emotionally drained grandfather.
Now, it was Charles who felt empty. When he did look up finally, he saw his family smiling at him through their tears. It was a sad day, but there was joy in seeing the man that Charles had become.
For the first time in years, the family was together again, and seeing Charles made them happy.
"Being there helped them," he says. "Everybody was happy to see me; everybody was happy to be home. It brought my family together. It was like a big family reunion. I brought my family back together."
When Charles rejoined the Chiefs, he felt empowered. Johnson was released not long after that Washington game, and Smith again suffered a season-ending injury. The Chiefs needed Charles, and he was ready.
In the time since becoming Kansas City's featured back, he has shown signs of becoming one of the NFL's most impressive young rushers. More than that, he is a sign of what the Chiefs have, a calming contrast to all the reminders of what they don't have.
"Part of the nucleus," Haley says.
Back in that office at team headquarters, Charles signs the last photograph and stands. It's time to go home, but he says the work has just begun. That's the way he likes it. A man who forces himself to stay hungry is more thankful for his rewards.
"I'm trying to prove myself every week," he says. "The only way they can see that is, you've got to go out there and show results. If you don't show results, they're still going to think the same thing about you. They're going to think that, 'Well, Jamaal should've just stayed inactive.'
"But I've got to go out there and prove that I can be the player I want to be. I want to be great. And if they see that, then I guess they found a good player."