SON OF TEXAS

On his road to the NFL, Jamaal Charles made an important stop at the home to some of the greatest running backs in the history of the game: The University of Texas.

A native of the Lone Star State, Jamaal was highly touted out of high school but chose to stay in state, as many great young prospects have before and after him, and become a Longhorn.

His career began with a national title, and it ended with his name etched in the record books alongside some of the best ever to tote the rock in Austin. This is the story of Jamaal Charles at UT.

FAMILY FIRST

Jamaal finished his career at Memorial High School in Port Arthur, Texas with 4,107 yards and 52 touchdowns and as a U.S. Army and PARADE All-American, and his road to UT stardom began with a big junior year.

JC was a two-sport star, excelling on the track and even earning a trip to the Junior Olympics, but he found his home on the football field that junior year. After amassing more than 2,000 yards and 27 touchdowns, he drew attention from schools across the country, becoming a 4-star recruit and one of the top running back prospects in the nation.

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With his love for track, he was a coveted recruit for many of the top universities in the nation. Early on in the process, he was drawn to the University of Florida. However, when Texas football coach Mack Brown sat in his living room, everything changed.

“When I first met Coach Brown, I was sold on going to Florida,” Jamaal recalled. “I was sitting in a room with Coach Brown and my family and he said, ‘Are you sure you want to go to Florida? Because sometimes your family might not be able to make the games.’”

With that one word—family—Brown swayed the young Charles. The UT coach planted the seed in his mind, and knowing that his family could just drive a few hours and see him play, knowing that they’d be there for him if and whenever he fell on tough times, Jamaal was ready to become a Longhorn.

“My senior year, people started to come around and see who I was, but I just stuck with UT,” JC said. “There were colleges from all over who came and saw me, but I was just hooked on Texas. I’m big on family, and I wanted to be close to them, so I committed to UT.”

TEXAS TAKES THE TITLE

When Jamaal arrived in Austin, he faced a brand new situation: one with promise and one with uncertainty.

He was joining a squad that had an opening at running back after the departure of a superstar in Cedric Benson. After topping Michigan in the Rose Bowl the year prior, expectations were high as the Horns were ranked No. 2 to start the year.

The situation was intimidating at first for Jamaal, who was just 18 when his freshman season began.

“It was definitely a change,” No. 25 said of when he first arrived at Texas. “I was coming into a new environment. I just saw them win the Rose Bowl before that year, and they had high expectations coming back. They had good people on their team. They had Ramonce Taylor and Selvin Young in front of me.”

Coach Mack Brown had told Jamaal during the recruiting process that he’d see the field right away in Austin, but with talent all around him, he was nervous that his coach might not stick to his word—but those worries soon washed away.

Jamaal played in the first game of the season against Louisiana-Lafayette, and he tore it up, tallying 135 yards and a touchdown on the ground in his debut.

The next week was a little tougher. The second-ranked Horns visited No. 4 Ohio State, and JC tallied just 26 yards on 10 carries, but while the Buckeyes limited him on the ground, he found a way to put in work with in the passing game. He caught six passes for 69 yards from Vince Young, including a critical nine-yard reception for first-down yardage late in the fourth quarter. That play set up the go-ahead score in UT’s gargantuan 25-22 win.

The following week brought the best performance of Jamaal’s freshman year and one of the biggest outputs of his career. He exploded for 189 yards and three touchdowns in a 51-10 victory over an in-state foe in Rice. After that came another multi-touchdown game against Missouri, but it was the next game that was perhaps the best of that first regular season for Jamaal.

In the famed and heated Red River Rivalry game against Oklahoma, No. 25 snapped for 116 yards and a touchdown on just nine carries. He notched an 80-yard touchdown run to give UT a 14-6 lead early, and the Horns never looked back in a 45-12 blowout—the school’s first win over OU in five years.

From there, the Horns just went on, waxing every opponent they faced. In nine Big 12 Conference wins, they triumphed by an average margin of 37.2 points per game, scoring 52.8 points per contest.

Then came college football’s main attraction: the BCS National Championship Game—taking place in The Granddaddy of Them All, the Rose Bowl. UT was matched up with USC, the team that spent the entire year ranked at No. 1 ahead of the Horns, and what followed was one of the most thrilling championship games in sports history.

It ended up as the Vince Young show. Jamaal tallied 34 yards on five carries in the shootout, but the Texas quarterback hogged the spotlight, including an eight-yard score in the waning seconds to cap a legendary performance and give the Longhorns the national title in a 41-38 victory.

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Jamaal still remembers it as one of the greatest moments of his life.

“That was one of the best moments I ever had,” Jamaal says. “I had never won a championship in my life, and I finally won one on a collegiate level. How many people are there who can say they did that? That year was off the chain. I came in at the right time at UT.”

A SEASON OF GROWTH

In the spring after winning that national championship, Jamaal donned the burnt orange once again and took to the track, where he helped the Horns earn a third-place finish at the NCAA finals—the squad’s best since 1997.

He earned All-American honors in the 60-meter indoor, as well as 100-meter, 200-meter and 4×100-meter relay outdoors. He was also the outdoor Big 12 Champion in the 100-meter, tallying a blazing time of 10.23 seconds.

However, after performing below his personal expectations on the football field during his sophomore year, his career on the track was finished.

The second season for Jamaal was one of change for the UT program. The squad was stripped after the championship year—gone were Vince Young and several other stars, but as always in Austin, there was an expectation for excellence.

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With the departures, Jamaal became more of a focal point of the offense, earning 37 more carries than as a freshman, however, he didn’t have the breakout year he hoped he would. He broke 100 yards just once: a 109-yard outburst against the same Rice team he torched for 189 and three scores the year prior.

The Horns finished the regular season at 8-3 and earned an Alamo Bowl berth against the Iowa Hawkeyes. That game provided one big highlight. Jamaal pulled down a 72-yard touchdown reception from Colt McCoy to help propel UT past Iowa in a 26-24 nail biter.

While the season didn’t go the way JC hoped, it was a learning experience, and through the trying year, he decided to drop track and focus on football. And he learned to better accept his role as a leader in the UT locker room.

“It is a way different feeling, knowing that I’m going to be the guy back there starting. I know I have to work hard because everybody is going to be there, depending on me to carry the rock every play,” he says. “I have to be a leader now and lead the other running backs. I tell (the coaches) to leave me in during practice so I can get used to the game. I want to play hard during practice so I can be ready for the games.”

HARD WORK PAYS OFF

When Jamaal returned for fall practice, everyone noticed the change in their starting running back.

He came back bulked up at 205 pounds, ready to carry a full load for the Horns. The team knew he was disappointed in how 2006 went, and knew that he was poised for a better 2007.

“Jamaal didn’t have the season he wanted to last year,” McCoy says, “and we didn’t run as consistently as we needed to.”

Right from the first kickoff of his junior year, the new-and-improved No. 25 showed that new commitment. He reeled off three straight 100-yard games, each with a rushing touchdown, and he then punched in three scores against Rice to carry UT through its non-conference schedule at 4-0.

However, Big 12 play didn’t start as well. JC first went for 94 all-purpose yards and a score against Kansas State, but it wasn’t enough in a 41-21 loss. The next week against Oklahoma, the Horns fell 28-21, and it brought one of just two games where Jamaal didn’t find the end zone that year.

But while he struggled midway through the year, he went off late. When Nebraska came to Austin in October, Jamaal exploded for a career-high 290 rushing yards with three touchdowns in a 28-25 win.

The following week, he lifted UT to another close win, 38-35 over Oklahoma State, with a 180-yard three-score performance. Then in a victory over Texas Tech, he amassed 174 rushing yards and a touchdown.

At the end of the regular season, the Horns came up at 9-3, earning them a Holiday Bowl berth against Arizona State. Here, Jamaal tallied 161 yards and two touchdowns as Texas won in a wild 52-34 affair.

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When the dust settled in Austin, Charles had registered 1,619 yards on the ground, plus 199 through the air, and 18 touchdowns. At the end of that junior season, he had passed Vince Young to fourth on UT’s all-time rushing list with 3,328 yards, trailing just a trio of legends: Earl Campbell, Cedric Benson and Ricky Williams.

With a national championship ring on his finger, and plenty of accolades in his back pocket, the decision was easy: Jamaal Charles was ready for the NFL.

“It wasn’t really that hard,” Jamaal says of his decision to go pro. “I was a four-time All-American in track. I won a national championship. I definitely could’ve came back my senior year but the most important thing: I wanted to make my dreams come true.”