COLUMBIA, S.C. – Garrett Chisolm's surgically repaired right leg – the one with a dark, four-inch, straight-line scar running down from the crown of his knee cap from his January ACL procedure – is shaking under the strain. After three hours of leg curls, leg extensions, squats, Biodex testing and finally icing down the joint at the University of South Carolina trainer's office and football weight room, Chisolm's leg is quivering as he sits at a restaurant.
This is not a reaction to physical pain. Chisolm is doing everything he can to maintain control in the rest of his body, his poker face and upper body never once wincing at a series of questions about how he has dealt with the biggest trauma in his life. In the span of nine months last year, just as Chisolm's football career was in the midst of taking off, he lost both his mother and father to cancer. The pain and responsibility was so consuming that Chisolm talked to his coaches and family about quitting last April, almost going home to Charleston to run the family janitorial business his mother and father built.
Instead, Chisolm, who was at the trainer's office by 6 a.m. to work on a paper before focusing on his knee, is on the verge of getting drafted by an NFL team this weekend. He will top that by getting his degree in business and sports management in May. At 6-foot-5, 299 pounds, he has literally climbed a rock wall to get to this point. His road to being projected as a late-round draft pick has had more turns than the Blue Ridge Highway, even as he spent hours along the way driving the 115-mile route along I-26 from Columbia to Charleston, often taking off just after practice to help his father, Garrett Sr., after the death of his mother.
Chisolm, 23, played only one year of high school football, then attended NAIA Pikeville (Ky.) and Trident Tech (S.C.) before going home to help with his mother, Purcella, who suffered for nearly three years before succumbing to ovarian cancer. He reached South Carolina in '08 and missed a second year of football before walking on to become a late-season starter in '09.
For all of that accomplishment amid tragedy, Chisolm struggles as he is asked how he has been able to deal with the loss, to see his parents – his "whole world," as he put it – get ravaged by cancer. With his leg shaking, Chisolm often can't even find the words to describe how he has done it. Four questions go by and Chisolm can't even respond, increasingly looking like a little boy lost in a big man's suit.
"I'm still dealing with it," he said.
In contrast, people around Chisolm can't stop talking about him.
Chisolm during South Carolina's senior day last season.
(Photo courtesy South Carolina Athletic Dept.)
"You can go an entire career and you'll never see another story like this, never," said South Carolina strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald, who was there the day Chisolm showed up for a tryout and was there two months later when South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier yelled at his assistants to put Chisolm in the starting lineup. "It's not one thing; it's the whole story. Just walking on, do you realize how rare that is? If you're a walk-on in the [Southeastern Conference], you're lucky if you finish out your eligibility by being a part-timer on special teams. You might start a few games along the way as a part-time fullback. You don't become a starter in a couple of months, especially on the offensive line."
To find a man out of tryout who is big enough, athletic enough and smart enough to play major college football is as likely as finding a wild iguana in the far reaches of Canada, even if you give that guy two years to get ready. Chisolm did it in the space of three months and then came back as a full-time starter the following season. While that has as much to do with his size and athletic gift, Chisolm wouldn't have made it this far without some serious work ethic and life skills.
Such as simply wanting to do the work and wanting to do it as soon as possible.
South Carolina would often have night practices that ended at 9:30. The players would leave and the coaches would spend the next hour going over the tape of practice. If Chisolm had a bad practice, he'd either wait for offensive line coach Shawn Elliott or ask Elliott if they could go over the tape in the morning.
"What time do you want me to be here, Coach? 5 a.m.?" Chisolm would say on more than one occasion as Elliott remembers.
"Chis, come on now. 5 a.m.? How about 7?" Elliott would reply.
"My father would leave the house before the sun came up and not get back till it was dark," said Chisolm, who was in the locker room before the sun comes up, beating head trainer Clint Haggard into the building. On game days before the injury, Chisolm used to be the first one to show up for team meals, beating the rest of the team and director of football operations Jamie Speronis by sometimes as much as an hour just so he could sit quietly and study the game plan another time.
"You tell him what you want him to do and he does everything he can to make sure he does it exactly the way you ask," Speronis said. "He's meticulous about his preparation."
Chisolm inherited Chisolm Janitorial Services from his parents and is trying to run it with the help of his aunt Aquila Major. Major took over the paperwork part of the business, which Purcella used to handle. Chisolm helps manage two employees who run the day-to-day operations, which his father handled primarily on his own.
Chisolm's college plan was initially to get a degree so he could go back and help grow the business. If he made the NFL, better yet – there would have been some extra money to help the company. Now, keeping the business alive is a parallel dream with making the league.
"My parents worked too hard to build that business, to take care of me and my brother. I can't let it just go," he said.
If the NFL draft were about willingness, aptitude and mental toughness, Chisolm would be a first-round pick. He enrolled at South Carolina in fall 2008. By spring 2009, he was ready to try out for the team. The problem was that Chisolm's record of bouncing around small schools wasn't in compliance with SEC rules and would have raised red flags with the NCAA. That summer, Chisolm found out he needed one class to qualify. Already serving an internship, Chisolm had only one choice.
The final exam was to scale a 200-foot rock wall in Brevard, N.C., complete with ropes, pitons and carabiners. Chisolm smiles about making it to the top, but that was just the first step.
The tryout at the end of August 2009 was the real uphill battle. Tryouts in college football are, well, a ragtag affair, to put it politely. There are usually 80 students who show up at the start. Both the talent and the conditioning run the gamut. You might get a 6-foot-1, 155-pound guy trying to be a wide receiver standing next to a 5-11, 300-pounder who thinks he's ready for nose tackle. That's why Chisolm immediately stood out.
"Obviously he had the size you're looking for and he'd been doing some good things in the weight room; you could just tell that by what kind of shape he was in," Fitzgerald said.
Still, that's not enough. Once the initial group of 80 got pared down to 20 or so who got taken onto the field, the real test came down to willingness. Are you willing to get hit and hit back? Nothing separates football players from the rest of humanity faster than some real contact. Can you handle it? Will you fight back? And will you fight back without losing control?
Chisolm answered every question affirmatively. Lining up against then-assistant strength and conditioning coach Aurmon Satchell, who has since left South Carolina for Indiana, Chisolm did exactly what he was supposed to do:
He got Satchell, a former linebacker at Texas, a little angry.
"Satch came back from working with him and said: 'Yeah, that guy pissed me off. I like him,' " Fitzgerald said with a delicious grin of someone who enjoys the hand-to-hand side of football.
"Chis caught me in the face one time and I had to say, 'Look, we're not going to do that again.' But it wasn't because he was doing something wild or out of control. He was doing the right things to simulate blocking me and his hand slipped and just caught me. You could tell that Chis had the right attitude, the right approach," Satchell said.
The approach is exactly what his parents instilled. As a child, Chisolm would go on jobs with his father, helping with the cleaning and the restocking of supplies. They wouldn't say much. The work was constant. Being tired wasn't an option. Even at the end.
Two weeks before Garrett Sr. lost his battle with lung cancer on Sept. 15 (he had quit smoking earlier in his life but took it up again when Purcella was diagnosed), he was living with his sister and he was still running the business. He got a call from a client who needed supplies for a party. Garrett Sr. called his sister and asked her to come home so she could give him a ride to take the supplies over. Major took a different approach. She called one of the employees and asked him to do it. When she came home, her brother groused a little bit about it, but then took a lesson from it.
"The difference between you and me is that you're hands off and I'm hands on," Garrett Sr. said, as Major recalled. "I've got to learn to be more hands off."
When asked for a favorite memory of his father, Chisolm remembers a simple phrase from one day they were working together.
"He said, 'I appreciate you,' " Chisolm said. The elder Chisolm dispensed love in short, meaningful phrases, such as the time he told Chisolm and his brother, Robert, that they could accomplish anything.
"Your mother gave birth to two winners," Garrett Sr. told his boys.
At South Carolina, the appreciation came quick. In 2009, as the Gamecocks started 5-1 before losing five of their final seven games, the offensive line increasingly became a problem. The team went through a five-game stretch in which they were limited to 16 points or less in each game. For an offensive-minded coach like Spurrier, that was unacceptable. Spurrier came into a coaches meeting and commanded that Chisolm be in the starting lineup. The offensive staff was apprehensive about putting a walk-on into the lineup. Secondary coach and defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward then yelled, "Why don't we give him a chance? None of our [defensive starters] can get past him to the passer in scout team [practice]."
"Coach Spurrier has a great feel for whether a guy is ready and he just knew," Speronis said. "The assistant coaches aren't necessarily going to have the guts to do that, but a premier ball coach isn't going to be afraid and that's what Coach did."
Spurrier then marched into a team meeting and announced his decision by simply saying, "Chis, you're in."
Chisolm started the final games, including the PapaJohns.com Bowl against Connecticut, at left guard. Sadly, his mother was in full decline at that point.
Sitting in the car
Garrett's parents, Garrett Sr. and Purcella
(Courtesy Garrett Chisolm)
On Jan. 8, 2010, Purcella died. Chisolm was at home at the time in Charleston, but he couldn't take being by his mother's side when she passed away. Chisolm was never told just how bad things were until the end.
"As parents, you don't want to burden your children with all the details about what's happening, especially when they're young and have other things they have to do," Major said. "Purcella didn't even really tell other people in the family that she was sick until the very end. You're not going to give up fighting until that last breath."
Purcella, who grew up one of 11 children in a broken home, had worked hard to provide a strong foundation for her sons. Chisolm called her "the glue" of the family. On the day she was buried, he couldn't keep it together to face other people. As the funeral procession went back to the church for his family and friends to meet, Chisolm didn't join the group. Instead, he sat in the car, alone in his thoughts.
A couple of months later, Garrett Sr. developed the classic smoker's cough, a deep, unrelenting hacking as the lungs struggle to get enough air and the cancer takes over. His sons finally got him to go to the doctor and he was diagnosed. After that, Chisolm weighed whether to continue playing.
"He came in and told me everything that was going on and how he felt he had to go back and take care of his dad, his brother and help run the business," Elliott said. "I've had kids come quit before because things get to be too hard, but nothing ever like this. I just told him that he had a family here that supported him and that the things he would accomplish by getting his degree would help him and his family a lot more in the long run."
Nice sentiment, but Chisolm was only convinced to stay after Major, who runs her own tax business, said she'd take over the paperwork and monitor the day-to-day operation.
Garrett Sr. declined faster than his late wife. He lost weight quickly, becoming a shell of the man his sons had known. During spring practice, Chisolm would go back and forth from school to home almost daily and every weekend, checking on his dad and doing as much work as possible.
When the season came, Chisolm was in the lineup. After beating Georgia on Sept. 11 in a mild upset in the second game of the season, Spurrier awarded a game ball to Chisolm and his father and commended the offensive line, as it paved the way for freshman Marcus Lattimore to rush for 182 yards and both of South Carolina's touchdowns. Once again, after the game, Chisolm went home to see his father. This would be for the last time.
Garrett Sr. died on Sept. 15. He was buried on Sept. 18, as South Carolina hosted Furman in a game Chisolm missed. As with his mother's funeral, Chisolm couldn't bring himself to face friends and family. He drove back to school that evening. He played again the following Saturday. For the season, he helped the Gamecocks go 9-4, including two losses to eventual national champion Auburn. Around teammates, Chisolm rarely let on about what he was going through.
"You'd ask, 'Chis, everything all right?' and he'd say he was OK," defensive end Cliff Matthews said. "Chis just really has his life together, knows what he needs to do."
"What was I supposed to do? My parents were already in the ground. I couldn't do anything about that," Chisolm said.
Chisolm against Tennessee on Oct. 30, 2010.
Chisolm never let his focus slip, even in obvious moments. As the season wore on, NFL scouts would come through and ask questions about the better players on the roster. Eventually, the scouts started asking about Chisolm. Fitzgerald normally doesn't tell players about whom the scouts are checking on, knowing it's immediately a distraction. With Chisolm, Fitzgerald broke his customary practice, hoping that some good news would provide a little distraction from the tragedy. Chisolm blocked it easier than an undersized safety.
"He said, 'Coach, I don't want to hear about that.' Most guys are like: 'Really? Tell me more, what did they want to know? What do they think?' " Fitzgerald said.
Rather, Chisolm prefers to take the burden rather than share the glory. He blames himself largely for the team's loss to Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Chisolm tore his ACL playing pickup basketball in December. He tried to practice with a brace two weeks after the injury, but the knee gave way instantly.
"I let my team down," Chisolm said.
How are you supposed to blame yourself for getting hurt, Chisolm is asked.
"You didn't see the bowl," he said.
The folks at South Carolina don't see the equation quite the same way.
"You just think to yourself, 'Can't this kid catch a break?' " Elliott said. "For everything he has overcome and done for everyone else, now he has to deal with this? It just breaks your heart. But you just know he's going to be OK because he has his life together."
"He's just a really special person," Speronis said. "I'm better for having him be part of us more than anything we've done for him."
For Chisolm, the attention means little. It doesn't bring his parents back and it doesn't eliminate the work he has to do every day to get his knee in shape or complete his schooling. As he ignores and deflects questions about how he's doing, he remains incredibly respectful. For the third time in less than 24 hours, he thanks this reporter for making the trip to see him. He then adds a compliment before making another telling remark.
"I'm sure it's going to be a great story, but I'm not going to read it," he said.