Kam Chancellor: How humble beginnings led to a domineering resolution

Kam Chancellor was "The Enforcer" on the field, but off of it, he has proven even more impactful. Where is the former Virginia Tech and Seahawks safety now?

Football, a Boys and Girls Club, and an unassuming barber. Separate, they may not mean much to an individual. But for Kam Chancellor, those three entities supplied the pillars that anchored his foundation. A foundation that led to college football greatness, Super Bowls, and, ultimately, life’s preeminent gift: fatherhood.

Kam Chancellor’s humble beginnings

Without suffering, there can be no success. One must be challenged before any form of progress can be made. Thus, often, those who struggle the most reap the greater rewards. Look no further than Chancellor for such an example.

Without a father in the picture and raised in Park Place — a destitute neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia — Chancellor’s future was blurry. However, his mother, Karen Lambert, brought it into focus. Working multiple jobs and constantly moving between apartments and houses, Lambert created the best environment she could for her children.

“My mom, she always had about two or three jobs all the time,” Chancellor detailed. “I have five siblings, and we all lived together. It was kind of rough for us, but we always stuck together. We always had each other.”

But even being the superhuman she was, there were still substantial lapses in Lambert’s oversight. So, life offered Chancellor his first two pillars.

Pillars No. 1 and 2: Football and a Boys and Girls Club

Walking down the street, Chancellor’s cousin Rico asked him a seemingly mundane question: “Kam, do you want to go play football?” But Rico wasn’t talking about backyard football. The two ended up at James Monroe Elementary School. There, kids were donning pads and helmets; gear Chancellor would soon become intimately familiar with for decades.

“We get there, and the Park View Vikings were practicing, and I see a whole bunch of people and a whole bunch of teams,” Chancellor recalled. “From that day on, I kept going out there. I liked the coach, and I started liking football more and more.”

Starting a sport may be insignificant for many — even a chore for some. But for Chancellor, it was life-altering.

“When I was little … I used to hang with older dudes because I was big for my age, and I used to do what they did. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t have anyone to look up to, so I was trying to follow people outside on the streets. When my cousin told me about the football thing, that’s when things started to change.”

Chancellor kept busy as a kid, even dabbling in track and karate. Anything was better than staying home or on the street with directionless and misguided peers. His mother also signed him up for the Colonial Heights Boys and Girls Club. It offered a sanctuary, away from the cruelty of life brought on by those beyond its borders. It was a place of innocence in a neighborhood that robbed so many of it.

Chancellor socialized, made friends, was fed, and enjoyed activities such as field trips that his mother couldn’t provide. But one pillar remained unelevated — dormant until Chancellor could recognize its importance.

Pillar No. 3: An unassuming Barber

On Colley Avenue lived Andy’s Barber Shop. As businesses came and went on the block, the shop survived for three generations. Kumasi Johnson, the grandson of founder Andy Lovick, now ran the establishment. And the Chancellors would routinely get haircuts there. One day in 1998, Johnson made a suggestion to Lambert, one she ultimately agreed with.

I could use some help around the shop, and Kam could benefit from hanging around here instead of out there, Johnson thought. And so, the then-fifth-grader picked up a broom, swept hair, cleaned the clippers, and took out the trash five to six days a week for four years.

If Chancellor wasn’t at school, practice, or at home, he was at Andy’s. Always on time, wearing a smile, and ready to work. All the patrons knew him, with regulars affectionately calling him “Shoe Shine Boy.”

A little money was nice, but Chancellor gained something even greater: knowledge, perspective, and maturity.

“He was always quiet, but he was always very observant,” Johnson said. “When you cut people’s hair, they open up to you. They tell you things … Listen, you can learn a lot about the world in a barbershop. You hear people fussin’ and fightin’ over little things, and Kameron was always very alert about that.”

Johnson was a simple barber, cutting hair and chatting with his customers. He never expected to play a consequential part in the life of a 10-year-old. But instead of shying away from the opportunity to leave a lasting impression, he took Chancellor under his wing.

“[Johnson] gave me some wise words, and I started staying away from bad people who were doing bad things,” Chancellor explained. “I stayed away from that path. He always told me to stay away from clowns and to watch my company.”

It was also at Andy’s that Chancellor began to realize his personal legend. You see, the money he made from working at the shop wasn’t for him. He didn’t buy himself new clothes, shoes, or toys. As any righteous leader would, he took care of those around him before fending for himself.

“He told me he had bought food for his brothers and sisters,” Johnson reminisced. “I told him, ‘Kam, that’s all well and good, but you can’t go to school and try to study when you’re hungry.’ But that’s just Kam. He was always looking out for his family.”

Kam Chancellor, high school … quarterback?

Due to the guidance of his mother and role model (Johnson), Chancellor attacked his academic and athletics ventures with the same intensity he would soon be famous for.

Chancellor was a gifted athlete, both on the hardwood and gridiron. But as a junior, a thumb injury sidelined him for half of the season. Thus, he received little recruiting attention. Old Dominion presented a basketball scholarship, and James Madison sought his signature for football.

However, in-state Virginia Tech took notice of the small-town QB. And after a senior year comprised of 2,000 passing yards, 500 rushing yards, and a 10-2 record, the Hokies saw enough and extended a scholarship offer.

Yet, the first-team All-Eastern District signal-caller and the No. 18 rated recruit in Virginia nearly turned VT down:

“I didn’t know anything about Tech. When you’re coming out of high school, you’re sometimes afraid to try things or go away. I guess because this program was so big, I was scared I wasn’t good enough or wouldn’t fit in. I thought JMU was just right for me and that I would go there. Then my coaches at Maury told me that Tech would be a better place for me. It’s a great program, and they saw in me that I could be successful.”

Kam Chancellor
Credit: Cliff Welch/Icon SMI

At Virginia Tech, “The Enforcer” is born

Chancellor stepped on campus a 6’4″ quarterback, but it didn’t take long for the defensive coaches to secure his services. He had played some safety in high school, so the switch wasn’t shocking. What was shocking was that as a true freshman playing a new position (cornerback), Chancellor saw the field in all 13 games, even snatching an interception. The following season, the staff moved him to ROVER, a linebacker/safety hybrid. Chancellor started all 14 contests, recording 79 total tackles and another pick.

The Virginia native quickly adapted to his new role and thrived. But more change was on the way. In 2008, the Hokies transitioned Chancellor to free safety, his third position change in as many years. His tackle totals fell (52), but his presence was felt — both by the defense and the opposition.

Chancellor sought to emulate late Washington safety Sean Taylor, which was easy to see in his playstyle. “[He was a] big safety, the prototype guy for the position,” Chancellor stated. “I’m a big safety, too, and I’ve just always wanted to be just like him. … That was one of the guys I wanted a chance to meet and try to get some insight from, think like he thinks, pick his brain a little bit. But unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to.”

Before games, Chancellor would open YouTube and put one thing in the search bar: Sean Taylor highlights. Although they should have come with a parental advisory notice, the videos motivated Chancellor. He became known for his brain-rattling blows coming downhill and over the middle. So much so that he earned the nickname “The Enforcer,” thanks to his ability to compel offenses to step off the field … willingly or not.

Chancellor considered entering the 2009 NFL Draft, but after speaking with his mother and Johnson, he chose to return for a final season. He wanted to earn a degree — only the second in his family behind his sister — and bet on himself to increase his draft stock in the process.

A year later, Chancellor looked back at his Virginia Tech career with two ACC titles, an Orange Bowl victory, a second-team All-Conference nod, and, most importantly, a bachelor’s in Human Development.

Now being able to focus on his NFL preparation, Chancellor suited up for the East-West Shrine Bowl, where he recorded seven tackles and a pass breakup. However, a 4.69 40-yard dash stunted the safety’s draft ceiling, resulting in the Seattle Seahawks selecting Chancellor in the fifth round of the 2010 NFL Draft.

The creation of the Legion of Boom

Chancellor joined fellow safety Earl Thomas (first round) in the Seahawks’ rookie class, laying the groundwork for one of the fiercest secondaries of all time. But before the unit would take off, Seattle had some rebuilding to do. They were fresh off 4-12 and 5-11 campaigns and on their third head coach in as many seasons. Enter Pete Carroll.

Despite Chancellor serving as a rotational safety and not starting a game, the Seahawks rattled off a 7-9 record. Thanks to the NFC West’s mediocrity, Seattle snuck into the playoffs as the division’s lone representative, even knocking off the New Orleans Saints in a thrilling 41-36 Wild Card bout.

The next offseason, Chancellor was named the starter opposite Thomas. To say he hit the ground running would be an understatement. The Enforcer folded opponents to the tune of 97 tackles, 13 PBUs, four interceptions, and a sack. While the team missed the postseason, Chancellor made the 2012 Pro Bowl as a replacement.

Chancellor made the most of his opportunity, but two rookies also made life easier: CBs Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. The Legion of Boom was complete. With Chancellor, Thomas, Sherman, and Browner patrolling the field, offenses struggled to put points on the board. Off the field, it was quite a lot of personalities to handle.

Chancellor, living up to his name, acted as the leader of the unit. As he put it, “One match is a fire starter. It only takes one to light up the whole box.”

His time at the Boys and Girls Club and in the barbershop equipped him with the tools necessary to navigate the locker room. He put his teammates first, serving, empowering, and building them up. And the results were palpable.

Super Bowl success and a gift long overdue

In 2012, Russell Wilson stole the starting job from Matt Flynn before the season and led the Seahawks to an 11-5 finish. The defense carried more than their share of the weight, conceding a league-low 245 regular-season points. Despite once again losing in the second round of the playoffs, this time, everyone knew it was only the beginning.

The next April, the Seahawks rewarded Chancellor with a four-year, $28 million contract. Under new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, he continued to enjoy success, concluding the 2013 season with 99 tackles, three interceptions, a Pro Bowl, and second-team All-Pro honors.

Wilson’s second year proved to be even more magical, resulting in another playoff berth and a first-round bye. Once more, they conquered the Saints, this time in the Divisional Round. Next up: the rival 49ers.

With Colin Kaepernick at the helm, San Francisco’s offense was dynamic but not enough to overpower Seattle’s daunting defense. After holding off the 49ers, 23-17, all that stood between Chancellor and a Super Bowl ring were the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos.

For an entire week, Seattle heard how cerebral Manning and unstoppable Denver’s offense was. The Legion of Boom never needed outside motivation, but they were served a five-course meal … and they didn’t hold back on game day.

Eight. Points. That’s all Manning and Co. could muster against Seattle’s defense. The final score read 43-8, the fourth-largest victory in Super Bowl history. Chancellor was on top of the world. But he never took his success for granted, as the deaths and imprisonments of his childhood friends served as constant reminders of what could’ve been.

That offseason, Chancellor signed a five-year, $34 million extension, granting him the opportunity to give back to the person that gave him everything:

“I told my mom that I was going to get her a house a long time ago. She also wanted a car, so the next time I went home, I told her we’re going to go get a car from this guy’s house. We go drive to the neighborhood, and she’s like, ‘Oh, these houses are nice,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know.’ We get to the house, and the car is in the driveway, and it has a bow on it. She was smiling and happy and tried to open it but the door was locked. I said, ‘You have to go in the house to get the keys from the guy.’

“I have all my nephews, nieces, sisters, brothers, and coaches all in the house just waiting for her, and once she opened the door, everyone jumps out and says surprise. She was so happy, and it just felt good. She deserves it.”

Kam Chancellor
Credit: Seattle Seahawks

The fall of the Legion of Boom

For Chancellor, life couldn’t get much better. He secured generational wealth, his family was taken care of, and in just his fourth NFL season, he reached heights thousands of players never have: a Super Bowl.

But he wasn’t done. For the second straight year, Chancellor earned Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro recognition. Additionally, the Seahawks again found themselves in the Super Bowl, squaring off with the New England Patriots.

With 26 seconds left, Seattle was down 28-24 with the ball at the 1-yard line. It was second-and-goal, and Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch was in the backfield. The decision was easy: hand the ball off, score the touchdown, and go home back-to-back champions. Only, that’s not what Carroll and the offense called.

“The pass is intercepted at the goal line by Malcolm Butler! Unreal!” 

The now infamous play didn’t just rob the Seahawks of a Super Bowl win — it caused an irreparable rift in the locker room.

Chancellor recollected, “To this day, people still ask me, ‘Why didn’t you give the ball to Marshawn?’ And to this day, I don’t know. I never got a clear answer. … Even during my last few years in Seattle, it was like a cloud that hung over us. It haunted us — like this constant, unseen, unspoken reminder that we just weren’t on the same page anymore.”

In each of the next two years, Seattle won 10 games and lost in the Divisional Round. Chancellor remained a constant threat from his safety position, racking up tackles and plucking two picks in both seasons. But around the corner stood a challenge no athlete is ever prepared to experience.

In Week 10 of 2017, Chancellor suffered a neck injury serious enough to end his season early. What he didn’t know was that would be the last time he stepped on an NFL field.

In summer 2018, Chancellor tweeted that the injury had not healed enough for him to return next season. He never used the word “retirement,” but there was little indication he would play again: “To walk away from the game by choice is one thing. To walk away from the game because of the risk of paralysis is another.”

Chancellor raised the 12th Man flag for the Seahawks’ home opener against the Dallas Cowboys, which many saw as a further sign his playing days were behind him. Finally, in 2019, Seattle terminated Chancellor’s contract due to a failed physical. He later stated the injury caused spinal stenosis and bone spurs in his neck.

Football was a game that gave Chancellor an avenue out of Park Place. It was embedded in his life for over 20 years. Now, it was gone, taken. Not leaving on his terms ate at Chancellor, and the transition to life after football wasn’t easy. A pillar of his foundation crumbled, and the ground below him became unstable. But he wasn’t the 10-year-old at a crossroads anymore. Chancellor had life experiences to lean on, family and mentors to reside in, and new goals to achieve.

Chancellor’s difference-making extends beyond the field

Chancellor had the word “Bam” tattooed on each of his shoulders, resulting in the nickname “Bam Bam.” When he tackled opponents, he considered them “stamped” and his job done. But in his post-playing career, the head between those shoulders was much more important. Chancellor settled down and married. He owns a shoe collection, a coffee shop in Virginia, and a real estate company that renovates old, rundown homes into brand new residences.

Additionally, he mentors future and current NFL players when his schedule allows. In 2012, Chancellor created the Kam Cares Foundation and has since increased its reach. His mission statement on the website:

“I believe we were all put on this earth for a reason, and I know that God has a greater purpose for me beyond the football field. Through my foundation, I am walking in that purpose. Kam Cares Foundation was established to give young people from underserved communities hope that they, too, can achieve the seemingly impossible with hard work, dedication, faith in God; but more importantly, a willingness to pay those gifts forward. That is the only way we truly make an impact.”

Chancellor has always given back, and his alma mater is repaying the favor. Virginia Tech will induct their former star safety into their Hall of Fame on Nov. 4. Yet, everything Chancellor has accomplished pales in comparison to his new job title: dad. With a two-year-old son roaming around and a daughter on the way, his hands will be full. But Chancellor’s three pillars have prepared him to be the father he never had.

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