By Mike London
CHARLOTTE — The best three-sport Rowan County athlete of the 1990s?
You can make a case for North Rowan graduate Jeff Chambers.
No Rowan County football player had received an invitation from the Shrine Bowl in eight years when Chambers got the call and ended that drought in 1996.
“After that, Rowan County started getting a lot of players in the game,” Chambers said.
The big guy was one of the standouts in that 1996 Shrine Bowl, as the North Carolina squad, coached by A.L. Brown’s Bruce Hardin, pulled off one of the monumental upsets of that long-running series.
Chambers was special. Incredibly strong, but ridiculously agile for a man his size. He was, in many respects, similar to Javon Hargrave, the North Rowan Cavalier who has become a very rich young man and a rising star in the NFL.
“When I was coming along, coaches were so concerned with height,” said Chambers, who stands 6 feet tall. “You had to look a certain way and you had to fit a certain mold. I believe opportunity in the NFL is greater now. There was a 5-foot-9 quarterback (Kyler Murray) drafted in the first round. Now they’re just looking for guys who can play, so you see more 6-foot or 6-foot-1 defensive linemen getting drafted. College recruiting is different now than it was in the 1990s. You’ve got HUDL now, so everyone’s film is out there. You’ve got more camps and showcases. You’ve got those high school all-star games. I might have been invited to the Under Armour All-America Game, if they’d had one in 1996. I probably would’ve been recruited by the big schools.”
There are a lot of what-ifs.
But it’s not like Chambers lives with regrets or is stuck in the past. His high school and college careers were incredible and extremely satisfying. His football prowess led to a college degree from Western Carolina University. That sheepskin, in turn, has led to a productive life.
Like Hargrave, Chambers was far more than a football player.
Chambers was regional runner-up three times in wrestling and had a fourth-place finish in the 1996 1A/2A state tournament. He’s certain he would’ve won his consolation match for third place at 275 pounds, but there was a miscommunication on the time of the match and Chambers had left the arena, the old Charlotte Coliseum, with friends who wanted to get a bite to eat. Chambers didn’t eat, but when he came back to wrestle, he was informed they’d called out his name. It went down as a forfeit.
“It’s a funny story now,” Chambers said.
As a track and field athlete for the Cavaliers, Chambers powered his way to three individual state championships in the throws. He won the 1997 shot put for 1A/2A/3A at the indoor state meet with a heave of 52 feet, 6 3/4 inches. In 1995, he won the discus championship with a throw of 152 feet, 5 inches. He took his second state discus title in the spring of 1997 on his his final day of competition for the Cavaliers.
That was an era in which North Rowan won nine 2A state outdoor meets in a 14-year span. Chambers competed for teams that won four straight state team titles. He would make the All-Southern Conference team at Western Carolina in track and field, as well as in football.
For every amazing athlete, there’s a starting point. For Chambers, who was Rowan County Male Athlete of the Year for the 1996-97 school year, the beginning of the gridiron journey was the seventh-grade team at North Rowan Middle.
“I’d never played in an organized football game until seventh grade,” Chambers said. “I wasn’t allowed in the youth league because I was heavier than the limit. So all I knew about football was what I’d seen on the TV. But then I got my first coaching. I figured out I was not only the biggest person, I was one of the fastest.”
He ruled middle school football as a 250-pound running back. He won North Middle’s Outstanding Citizen Award. He won a scholarship to attend Mack Brown’s UNC football camp.
North Rowan High had been 3A state runner-up in football in 1992 and had moved down to 2A when a new realignment period started in the fall of 1993 That’s when Chambers arrived.
He envisioned touchdown glory, but that didn’t happen. Coach Robert Steele, who had been Chambers’ head track coach, was orchestrating North’s defense and set Chambers straight. He told him he was now a defensive tackle.
“We had Benny Geter to run the ball,” Chambers said. “I didn’t like it much at first, but it worked out. It probably was the best move of my life. There’s a good lesson in there. You may not be playing the position you want to play, but you can still help your team.”
With veterans Travis Hairston and Shelton Cureton serving as his tutors, Chambers proved to be a natural defensive lineman. Powerful, yet nimble. One person couldn’t block him. It didn’t take opponents long to find out he was a serious problem.
North was Rowan County’s most successful football program in the 1990s — by a lot. Head coach Roger Secreast was an offensive innovator, while Steele turned North defenses into aggressive, well-oiled machines. North had great athletes, and they couldn’t have been any better prepared on Friday nights.
“It was a great situation for me,” Chambers said. “I had a great support system. Coach Secreast was there when I needed a pat on the back. Coach Steele would always give you the truth, the tough love.”
North won 79 games in the 1990s. East had the second most wins in Rowan County in that decade with 58. Chambers was an integral part of the fun. He was the first freshman to make the All-Rowan County football team. That’s a team he would make four straight seasons.
“That 1993 season. My freshman year, was the year of Mitch Ellis,” Chambers said. “Mitch broke passing records. We unleashed a passing attack like people had never seen. We were the big dogs on the block.”
In Chambers’ sophomore season in 1994, the Cavaliers put together one of the stronger teams in school history. They reached the state quarterfinals and finished 12-2. That’s the season North beat West Rowan twice, including a 34-30 shootout in the second round of the 2A playoffs. It’s also the season North lost in overtime to Albemarle in the first ever regular-season meeting in the state of North Carolina of 10-0 teams. Teams played 11 regular-season games that counted that season for the first time.
Secreast employed a jumbo offensive set in short-yardage situations, so Chambers got to carry the ball some. He pounded into the end zone 13 times that season. He scored three TDs in a game twice.
“Whenever we got it down close, I got to use those old running back skills,” Chambers said.
Chambers moved to nose guard his final two high school seasons and dominated at 278 pounds.
His senior season, the fall of 1996, Chambers was All-State. He was Yadkin Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year and Rowan County Defensive Player of the Year, but his finest hours may have come in the Shrine Bowl at Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium.
Hardin had constructed a squad with Chambers as the defensive lynchpin. Wonders had been getting tackled by Chambers for four years, and Hardin knew who he wanted to anchor his defensive line against a star-studded South Carolina contingent.
“From the time I checked in at the Shrine Bowl, my goal was to start,” Chambers said. “I was going hard at that first practice. By Tuesday, a coach pulled me aside and told me that we were all on the same team and that we needed everyone healthy for Saturday’s game. So I knew I was starting. That’s when I dialed it back a little bit.”
South Carolina’s quarterbacks were Phil Petty, who would start three years for the Gamecocks, and Woodrow Dantzler, who would become a legend at Clemson. Richard Seymour, destined for the University of Georgia, the New England Patriots and seven NFL Pro Bowls, anchored the S.C. defense. But the most celebrated member of the S.C. team, at the time, was a Darlington receiver named Brian Scott, who would have two stout college seasons for the Gamecocks.
“Scott was Mr. Basketball and Mr. Football in South Carolina that year,” Chambers said. “He predicted (to the media) before the game that they’d beat us, 34-0. North Carolina had not been winning (N.C. had won two of the previous 13 Shrine Bowls) and we were supposed to get beat really bad again. South Carolina had all the stars.”
South Carolina tried to block Chambers with one man, something he hadn’t seen in years. It didn’t work. South Carolina averaged 1 yard per carry on rushing plays in the first half. Dantzler was averaging inches per carry, not yards per carry. South Carolina would turn it over five times, and turnovers are the great equalizer. North Carolina may have been outmanned, but it won the game, 21-14.
‘The Shrine Bowl was fun,” Chambers said. “We only had a few major recruits and South Carolina had a bunch of guys who played for years in the NFL, but on that day, we were the better team. Coach Hardin knew what he was doing.”
Chambers won a $2,500 Sparkplug Award for his leadership during Shrine Bowl week. That let him know that even among elite athletes, he could be a leader. He would lead again in the East-West All-Star Game that summer.
The recruiting tussle for Chambers came down to a tense tug-of-war between mountain rivals Appalachian State and Western Carolina. Wake Forest watched Chambers several times, but never offered. None of the ACC schools did.
Chambers committed verbally to Appalachian State after a visit to Boone, but then he flipped to Western later in the recruiting process.
“I woke up one day, and Appalachian just didn’t feel right,” Chambers said. “I told Coach Secreast that I wanted to go to Western instead and he told me that I needed to call Coach (Jerry) Moore at App State to let him know. Coach Moore tried hard to talk me out of it. He told me Western hadn’t beaten Appalachian in a very long time, but I stuck with my decision and went to Western.”
For a while, he thought he’d made the wrong move. He expected to start for the Catamounts as a true freshman. He was shocked when Western coaches told him he’d be redshirting in the fall of 1997.
“I was very discouraged, ready to come home, wasn’t even traveling with the team,” Chambers said. “Coach Steele and Coach Secreast talked me out of leaving. And in the long run, that redshirt year was a positive. I don’t care who you are, it’s tough making the transition from high school to college. The speed is so much different. You have to learn the playbook. You have to know where to be, at all times, and that only comes from reps on top of reps. But I learned the system as a redshirt and I got a big jump academically. I was always a year ahead academically.”
Chambers’ first athletic competition on the field for Western Carolina actually came in track and field, where he went into action right away. He was Western’s top thrower during his career and made all-conference teams. He would finish as high as second in the discus in the Southern Conference Championhips; third in the hammer throw; fourth in the weight throw, sixth in the shot put.
But it was football that made him memorable in Cullowhee. He would start at nose guard for Western for four years — 44 consecutive games.
By his sophomore year, he was the strongest player on the team. He weighed 298, then, and was bench-pressing 455 pounds. He’d started lifting weights in eighth grade, and he loved every aspect of it.
There were many memorable college games for Chambers, but start with Western’s trip to LSU, Sept. 2, 2000. Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, with 87,188 fans going nuts, plus one very real tiger growling on the visitors side. Nick Saban’s first game at the helm of LSU. Chambers’ first plane flight with Western. The Catamounts always traveled by bus, but that trip was almost 700 miles.
“Their first offensive series, they go three-and-out,” Chambers said. “Our guys are going crazy. One of my teammates says, ‘So this is the SEC!’ Well, then LSU scores 58 straight points, and I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, this is the SEC.’ Rohan Davey (6-2, 245) was one of their quarterbacks, and I’d never seen anyone that big get under center.”
Chambers played well at LSU and made seven tackles, but it was far from enough.
He’s got fonder memories of beating Appalachian State for the Old Mountain Jub in November, 1998 in Cullowhee, as Western finally ended a 13-year famine against the Mountaineers.
“We had a horse in Brad Hoover, and we rode him,” Chambers said. “We didn’t get to be on TV much, but that game was on Fox SportsSouth. There was so much excitement in the stadium.”
Chambers remembers looking around during the postgame pandemonium and seeing a grinning Secreast (Western Carolina, Class of 1971), who had made the trip to support him.
Chambers had a terrific game against Duke (1998) and a very good one against Maryland (1999).
“Some of my best games came against the big schools because I always felt slighted somewhat and was extra motivated,” Chambers said. “You always wanted to make the most of every chance you got to play against guys who were rated higher. We didn’t have the silver-spoon guys at Western, but we competed.”
Chambers was a leader for a 7-4 team in his final season at WCU. He’s proud of that. He’s also proud of making the Dean’s List academically and for being named to the American Football Coaches Association Good Works Team, the All-America squad for service in the community.
He didn’t have much of a shot at the NFL. It hurt that his coaches were fired his senior year. Western didn’t have a Pro Day. Film didn’t get out.
His agent got him tryouts with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, but they were looking for 6-foot-4, and he was 6 feet even.
He played Arena football for the Carolina Rhinos, but he got out of bed one day and knew it was time to move on to the next phase of his life.
“Arena was ironman football with a 19-man roster, crazy football,” Chambers said. “I knew it was time to let football go. I knew football had taken me as far as it could.”
That was in 2002. He’s been in the business world since then.
Chambers has a 15-year-old son, whose sports are track and field and baseball. Chambers has done a lot of volunteer coaching. He’s helped a small army of throwers achieve AAU track success, and he’s coached football in Charlotte at Country Day Middle School where he taught safety and fundamentals and helped teams win games as offensive coordinator.
His mother passed away in 2017, so Chambers doesn’t get back home as much as he once did, but Coach Secreast, Coach Steele and that period when North ruled Rowan County are never far from his thoughts.
“Sports is where I learned to compete in life,” Chambers said. “Sports caught me how to stay humble if we won and sports taught me how to handle it if we lost. Sports took me so many places and taught me so many valuable lessons.”