KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Nobody in the Gulf Coast community of Port Arthur ever expected Joe Washington’s records to be broken. His schoolboy rushing totals stood for three decades, through all the oil booms and busts that influence life on the eastern edge of Texas.
Then along came Jamaal Charles, who possessed such blinding speed, peerless vision and almost effortless ability that even Washington knew his marks would topple.
“He wasn’t too keen on focusing on records and yards,” Washington recalled this week, “and that’s when I knew it. I knew he would do it.”
Charles eventually did break the prep mark in Port Arthur, then went on to a standout career at Texas — much to the chagrin of Washington, who played at Oklahoma. And just like Washington, the soft-spoken Charles made it to the NFL, where he hasn’t stopped setting records.
He had four touchdown catches in last week’s win over Oakland, the most by a running back, and part of a five-TD performance that put Charles in rare company. Three other players have scored more touchdowns in a game — Gale Sayers, Dub Jones and Ernie Nevers — and four other running backs have ever had more than the 195 yards receiving Charles piled up.
It was a virtuoso performance that didn’t surprise Washington all that much. After all, he knew from the moment Charles broke his high school records that Charles was destined to do great things.
“I’d been out of football for 20 years when he was in high school,” Washington said, “but I always heard about him. And I’ve become a great admirer of his skills.”
Given his bloodlines, all of this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
Charles’ big brother, ShanDerrick, was a star running back at SMU before injuries derailed his career. Another brother, Kevin, played basketball at Lamar State College-Port Arthur, and a cousin, Graylin Johnson, played safety for the Longhorns long before Charles arrived in Austin.
Even his mother, Sharon, was a high school high jumper and volleyball player, and it was her steady influence — along with that of his grandmother — that kept Charles on the right path.
“In Port Arthur, a lot of our kids come from a rough situation,” said Kenny Harrison, now the football coach at Memorial High School but back then Charles’ offensive coordinator. “He was always very mature for his age. At a very young age, he wanted to be the best. He never said it, but you could tell the way he went about his business. He had a mission and a goal, to be the absolute best that he could be.”
It was that singular focus that allowed Charles to elude the drugs and gangs and violence as if they were a woebegone defensive back; all those negative influences in the 1990s and early 2000s made the crime rate in Port Arthur among the nation’s highest.
“He comes from a family with a ton of athletes,” Harrison said, “so he had something to shoot for. He saw how they handled situations, and he took a piece from each and every one of them.”
Those who know Charles will tell you his first love was track, and folks still think he could have made the Olympics as a sprinter. But after helping the Longhorns win a national title as a freshman, Charles gave up track to focus on football. By the time he was a junior, he was the heir to a legacy created by Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams.
“He was just a cut above,” recalled Greg Davis, then the Longhorns’ offensive coordinator and now an assistant at Iowa. “He had all the physical tools, and it was so important to him.”
One memory that stands out to Davis came during the second game of Charles’ freshman season, when Texas visited Ohio State. The Buckeyes’ star linebacker, A.J. Hawk, picked off a pass, and “all of a sudden a blur shows up and there’s a heck of a collision, and it’s Jamaal.”
“He’d come sprinting across the field and made the tackle,” Davis said. “Extraordinary.”
Charles left school a year early for the NFL, and was the Chiefs’ third-round choice in 2009. The pick was roundly criticized because Kansas City already had a star running back in Larry Johnson, and there were more pressing needs for the franchise.
Eventually, it became impossible to keep Charles off the field.
He became a regular by his second year, ran for more than 1,400 yards in his third, and appeared to be on the path to greatness. But then a freak misstep in Detroit in 2011 — Charles slipped on the plastic first-down marker on the sideline — resulted in a torn ACL.
Charles wondered what effect the injury would have on his career.
“That’s the worst injury I could ever go through,” he said this week. “People forget about you, especially when you get hurt, so I took a lot from when I tore my ACL.
“I approach things differently today. I don’t take anything for granted.”
That’s a big reason why he’s all smiles these days.
After running for more than 1,500 yards last season, Charles is leading a renaissance for Kansas City. He has a league-leading 18 touchdowns to go with more than 1,800 yards from scrimmage, making him the most productive running back in the league.
He’s also a huge reason the Chiefs, who languished through a 2-14 season in 2012, are 11-3 and tied with the Denver Broncos atop the AFC West with two games remaining.
The Chiefs play the Indianapolis Colts today.
“I don’t know how anybody could be more valuable to a team’s success than he is,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “He’s got this competitive toughness to him. He’s relentless. That’s a very tough position to play in the National Football League, very tough. You take a heck of a beating and on Mondays you just don’t want to get out of bed, but he handles it.”
In record-setting fashion, too.
Charles is averaging 5.55 yards per carry for his career, on pace to shatter Hall of Famer Jim Brown’s record of 5.22 yards. Charles also needs just 254 yards rushing to break the franchise record of 6,070 held by Priest Holmes.
Then again, records don’t mean much to Charles.
“The most fun is winning, you know what I’m saying?” Charles said, flashing his pearly white teeth. “It puts a smile on everybody’s face, going out there and playing hard for your teammates. Go out there and make not just me happy but my family happy, and the fans. And I feel like we’re getting back to a winning system, and I love winning.”