A LIFE OF CHALLENGES OVERCOME
Life presents each person with different obstacles. For Jamaal Charles, the path to becoming one of the best running backs in the NFL was lined with adversity.
Living with a learning disability initially set Jamaal apart from his peers, but when his undeniable athletic talent shined through, it gave a young Jamaal an outlet. JC eventually turned that outlet into a means to support his family, and a platform to help children facing the same challenges he overcame.
A UNIQUE CHILD
Jamaal RaShaad Jones Charles was born on December 27, 1986, raised in Port Arthur, Texas, by a single mother, Sharon Charles, and a large, closely knit family.
Sharon was one of nine children of Jamaal’s grandparents, Mazelle and Oscar Miller. From those nine children came 32 grandchildren. The matriarch of the family was his grandmother, Mazelle, known to all the children as “Big Momma.”
Mazelle Miller kept things in order for the entire family. Jamaal recalled how, early in his life, everything revolved around spending time at his grandparents’ house, particularly on Sundays. The day began with church in the morning, and ended with dinner at Big Momma’s house.
Mazelle built and shared a special bond with Jamaal, the youngest member of the family.
“She was there for me so much early in my life. She praised me when I did well and she was mad at me when I did bad. She kept me disciplined,” he remembered. “She would always stick up for me too. My cousins would tease on me and she was always there to have my back, and tell them, ‘Leave him alone!’ She would tell me, ‘Don’t listen to them.’ I think she really was my guardian angel.”
Getting picked on was common for Jamaal growing up. The jabs came not only from his older siblings and cousins, but also from classmates. For as long as he can remember, the most difficult parts of school for Jamaal were some of the areas that came quickly to other kids. He had trouble maintaining focus, and that made pronouncing and spelling words difficult.
“I was teased about it,” he remembers. “When you have to stand up in front of the class and you’re struggling, it’s hard. People are saying, ‘He can’t read’ or ‘He doesn’t know how to pronounce words.’ It hurt me.”
It wasn’t until Jamaal was in the third grade that he discovered he had a learning disability. It took even longer to get help. In the fifth grade, Jamaal was told he was at a second grade reading level.
He was placed in special education classes, which often left him excluded from field trips and other activities his peers enjoyed.
The one trip he did get to take each year was to the Special Olympics, where he competed against peers suffering from the same learning disability. It began a relationship with the Special Olympics that he has maintained to this day.
“That was our only trip,” he said. “It wasn’t anything serious. I was out there with people just like me. We just learned differently. It just took us out of the classroom and let us compete. I raced against other people in my class who thought they were faster than me, and it helped me.”
SAFETY IN SPORTS
One place where Jamaal was always felt comfortable and safe was in athletics.
With the encouragement of his mother Sharon — herself a two-sport high school athlete — Jamaal was enrolled in several sports at a young age. It was also through sports that he and his mother built a unique bond.
“My mom started me out with football at four years old,” he recalls. Me and my momma have a strong relationship. We still do. I love my momma. She raised me. We’re still building our relationship even now.”
Jamaal proved a special talent from the beginning. He was a prodigious football player from a young age, and although the state of Texas is known for its rabid passion for the sport, he never felt pressure to perform as a boy. Instead, he took pure joy out of the sport, which allowed him to connect with friends in a way he wasn’t able to at school.
Jamaal also participated in basketball and baseball, but the sport he loved most was track. From a young age, he took comfort in the feeling he got from running. He found the individual nature of the sport appealing.
“What I liked about track was that I could enjoy it by going out there and just running. It was a comfort zone where I was in complete control. I didn’t need anybody to take care of me on the track. I worked hard on my own. I worked hard at football too, but with football, you’ve got to work with 20 other guys. Track helped me just get away from everyone.”
But eventually, life started to catch up.
When Jamaal was eight years old, his grandmother passed away, and things became more difficult for him. He wound up moving from place to place, splitting time living with his mother and his aunt, Arlene LeBlanc.
His learning disability made finding stability essential, but that was becoming harder to come by. By the end of Jamaal’s freshman year in high school, he was still struggling to focus on his studies — particularly at home, where everyone was so busy that he often couldn’t find help with his homework. His teachers and coaches started to take notice.
Among them was his AAU basketball coach, Kenny Loften, a close family friend. Loften’s wife Gina was a teacher, and both she and Kenny could see something special in Jamaal. But they knew he needed help.
So they reached out to try to make things easier on him, offering a place to live and learn for as long as he wanted, another safe haven of sorts.
“I went there to try to learn. It was about trying to deal with the learning disability, and focus on what I wanted to do in life. I had so many great people in my life that just wanted to help me out. The Loftens took on a pretty big role in my life. They took me in like a son. I never had a dad there for me growing up, so he was more like a dad to me. That helped me and impacted me, because I had a man to talk to at home. They had different family values, so I learned about things that I didn’t have growing up.”
Though he lived with the Loftens for just one year before moving back in with his Aunt Arlene, the support that Gina and Kenny provided had a major impact in helping Jamaal establish a path for himself in life.
Even as Jamaal struggled to make the best of his classroom situation, he still had to deal with feelings of embarrassment and inadequacy around his peers. It didn’t help that they continued to see him as the kid who couldn’t put together sentences in elementary school, and was placed in special education classes.
In response, Jamaal kept to himself.
But his explosion onto the high school athletic scene to change that. Jamaal emerged as a track star in his sophomore year at Memorial High School, playing a large part in the school’s national record-breaking performance in the 4×200 relay. His success on the relay team and individually earned Jamaal a spot in the 2003 World Youth Championships, where he took bronze in the 400-meter hurdles.
As his star quickly rose on an international level, Jamaal became something of a local celebrity in Port Arthur, too. His junior year, he had a breakout on the gridiron, supplanting his brother ShanDerrick — a star at Southern Methodist University — as his high school’s star.
“I was starting running back, and I just killed it,” he said. ” I didn’t know I was really a star until I started breaking records. Seeing people cheering for me, scoring touchdowns, that was just something that I embraced, something that I really wanted. When I saw my brother doing all that stuff, getting all the love, people cheering his name. I wanted all of that. I just wanted people to love me.”
They did. Jamaal rushed for over 2,000 yards as a junior and scored 27 touchdowns to help lead Port Arthur Memorial to the Regional Final, where they lost to the eventual champion. Jamaal was named district Player of the Year, First Team All-State and was honored with the Willie Ray Smith Award for Best High School Offensive Player in Southeast Texas.