Do you want to play football?
A simple question with some life-changing results. It was what running back Jawon Chisholm heard first from Akron and now, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The answer an easy one.
“Heck yeah, I want to play football.”
But to understand the journey is to understand Chisholm. There was a point in his life when that question didn’t seem worth asking. In tenth grade, a gunshot wound nearly cost him his foot. Wrong place, wrong time as he refers to it. The details don’t really matter anymore. What mattered was the initial diagnosis.
His foot was going to need to be amputated. Football was over. It’s a story that he admits still gets him choked up about.
“Sometimes I get emotional just talking about it. It was wrong place, wrong time. It happened. When I first went into the doctor’s office, which I get emotional talking about, doctor said I’d never play football again. I mean, that’s all I ever did. That’s all I ever thought in my life. At that split second moment, it’s like, dang, what should I do now? What can I do? I knew I was going to survive but the thing was, this is all I knew was how to play football. God blessed me with the talent. I’m thinking, God can’t put me in this type of situation. But you can never question it. I always kept faith no matter what.”
That’s where the story should’ve ended. A talented running back’s high school career cut short before many ever watched it unfold. Though it came in under terrible circumstances, the hospital he went to was the right place and the right time.
“The crazy part about it was the doctors who I had. There were two doctors who worked on me. They were going to leave that same week I came in and they were doing no more surgeries. And when I first entered they said they were going to amputate from my toe to my ankle. And my dad talked to the doctor and was like, ‘is there anything you can do? I don’t want to have him have an amputated foot. God has a lot planned for him.’
They talked it over and once I came out of surgery [to stop the initial bleeding], which was about two hours later, I guess the two doctors heard my story and that I played football. And they were supposed to leave and not do anymore surgeries. But they stayed for an extra 17 days because I was in the hospital for 17 days. They stayed the extra 17 days just to save my foot.”
The doctors, Chisholm says he can’t remember their names, didn’t know if he’d be the same football player as he was before the injury. But they gave him a chance.
Still, there was self-doubt the first time he stepped onto the field.
“I came back my 11th grade year and I went out onto the field. I made one cut and I was like, man, this isn’t the same. This ain’t me. I don’t know if I can do it. I was on my way to probably give it up. I had a big family with family support and they told me to stick with it, that God’s got a plan. And I stuck with it. My 11th grade year, I basically hobbled around the field. I just had to show that if I made it this far, I had to keep going no matter what it brings me. I’m going to play football.”
Do you want to play football?
That’s what Akron asked, at the last second, and Chisholm happily joined. Arriving at camp, however, made it seem unlikely he’d ever actually get that chance. The Zips had more than a dozen running backs on the roster. Chisholm was 12th or 13th. Over the short span from when he set foot on campus to the beginning of the year, he moved up to third on the depth chart, behind only two seniors.
Once they graduated, Chisholm ran with the opportunity. Literally. A four year starter, he rushed for over 3400 yards, including averaging more than five yards per carry his senior year. It may have been a team that barely won but don’t tell that to him. He loved it all the same.
“We lost, had losing seasons all four of my years, but at the same time man, football is football. I had so much fun doing it. I gave my all, there are no regrets. No matter what the outcome was, I was proud to be around my teammates, proud to be around football. I always thought I had the talent to go far.”
The NFL aspirations didn’t immediately yield results. He wasn’t drafted or signed as a UDFA. He spent three days with the Steelers in rookie minicamp. To most, that’s an extended weekend to most but for Chisholm, enough time to realize how special the organization is.
“No one was stuck up, no one was arrogant. Coach Tomlin talked to every single last person. When I first went there, he talked to the rookie minicamp guys, the tryouts and the guys who got drafted, he talked to everyone the same with the same demeanor. He always gives you that type of hope that you really can make it. I feel like he sincerely means everything that he says.
[Running backs] Coach Saxon just topped it off with just being the genuine person that he is. I’ve only known him for a short amount of time but he seems like a genuine person who cares a lot about football and wants you to be successful in life. Just be as successful as you can. He told us yesterday that you just have to maximize your opportunity and make the best of them when it comes to you.
[Danny Smith] is a down-to-earth kind of guy who is serious about his job but at the same time, he makes his job fun because he makes jokes. Just his demeanor and his character. The way he comes to work every day it’s the same thing. I just felt like this has gotta be the perfect place. It’s a winning tradition. It’s a Super Bowl winning coach.”
He lost out on a contract offer to Cameron Stingily. Chisholm didn’t give up, working out five days a week – including twice on Tuesdays and Thursdays – while keeping in touch with Saxon, remaining patient and waiting for an opportunity.
On Saturday, it finally came.
Do you want to play football?
“It was actually [director of pro personnel] Mr. Hunt that called me. Brandon Hunt. I was walking out of Subway actually. I was on my daily day, just got done working out. I work out five times a week. Twice on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I just prayed a lot through the whole process. I prayed to God to put me in the perfect situation, and that he allowed me get to where I wanted to be in that perfect situation. So when I got a call from Hunt, I was walking out of Subway and it’s funny because I was hungry and everything, I was going to get a sub, they called me and were like, ‘Do you want to play football?’
When he told me that, I was just, I cried on the way to the house. I got there and I told my mom and them that the Steelers are going to bring me in for training camp and my mom started crying. All I needed was an opportunity. And hopefully I can make the best out of it.”
With several injuries at running back, Chisholm got thrown into the mix right away. He wasn’t a part of the comparatively laid-back two days of practices in shorts. Shortly into his first practice, he got blasted by Vince Williams.
“That’ll be a memorable hit no matter where I go, I’ll always remember that hit. It was a pretty good pop. I needed it. I haven’t been hit since six or seven months ago I played in an all-star game. That was my last hit. And we really didn’t do any hitting there either. Really it goes all the way back to last season, my last game vs Kent State really when I had full contact. Just to come off the streets, working out, I pretty much needed that hit and I guess that was a welcome back hit. That’s something I’ll always remember.”
He’s shown power and vision in his first two practices. But Chisholm considers his greatest trait to be his versatility.
“Versatility is my biggest weapon by far. Just being able to do so much. With the size that I have, I feel like I can do a lot. Some backs are one and two dimension backs but I feel like I can do a lot more than just one or two things. I’m just an all-around back. Whatever you need me to do, special teams, running back, catching the ball, need me to go back and catch the ball as a kick returner, I can do it. Whatever you put me up to, I’m up to any task. I feel like that’s my style. Period.”
It’s that do-anything-asked attitude that makes it difficult to root against Chisholm. He may seem like a longshot but Josh Harris found himself in a similar situation last year. Brought in mid-way through camp, made the practice squad, and by the end of the season, got onto the field.
The rookie back says the fact he went so overlooked out of college only serves as additional motivation. There’s always been a chip on his shoulder.
“I’ve had a chip on my shoulder since high school. When I came back my 11th grade year, my coach said I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t end up playing until my third or fourth game of the season and ended up rushing for a 100 yard game. So the rest is history with that. Ever since then, I pretty much had a chip on my shoulder. Where I’m from, a lot of people didn’t think I’d come back from the injuries I came back from. Sometimes when I hit the field, I get real emotional. I had a pretty rough life so every time I step on the field there’s a chip on my shoulder. Not because no one picked me up or anything, it’s just the type of player I am. I always felt like I was a secondary person to people.
There’s always been a chip on my shoulder no matter what. Did that add an extra chip? Yes. For sure. But at the same time, there’s always been a chip on my shoulder. I give it my all every time I’m out there. You can kind of see it in my eyes and my plays what type of chip I have on my shoulder. Just going out there and doing whatever the coach tells me. Just making the best out of everything. And I just want the best for whoever I play for. I just want to give my best and let them see I give it my all every time I touch the field.”
Jawon Chisholm doesn’t need to be asked if he wants to play football anymore. He’s in the NFL. He’s playing the game. Living his dream.