One Step Ahead: Chaquiel Nettles Overcomes Obstacles | News
We're all pawns in the game of life, sacrificing for each other and always moving forward.
Football is not a game for Billies receiver Chaquiel Nettles. It's an escape, a shelter from life's adversity.
"The only thing that stops me from thinking about things is playing football. My mind just goes blank," says Nettles, a senior at Williamsville South.
On the outside, Chaquiel is a normal high school kid, but dig a little deeper, and you'll find his story is anything but ordinary.
"It's a unique story, it really is," says Billies football coach Kraig Kurzanski.
Nettles grew up in downtown Buffalo, living with his mom, four siblings and a passion for football.
"I have two older brothers and they both taught me how to play football because I wasn't that good," says Chaquiel.
Chaquiel's mom, Shirley, agrees, "It was important for them. It was good for them to keep them out the streets."
"We always wanted to focus on that football and focus on school. We never tried to focus on the streets, but it was always there," says Chaquiel's older brother D.J.
One night when Chaquiel was 11, the streets came to the family's doorstep.
"All I can remember is my mom going crazy," says Chaquiel.
"Next thing I know I'm like, where's AJ at. Next thing I know, I hear a gunshot," Shirley recalls.
Chaquiel's oldest brother, A.J., was shot in the leg. The wound was just an inch from paralyzing him.
"I remember it like it was yesterday. I feel like it was a dream," says Chaquiel.
A.J. Nettles reminds his brothers often, "That life is not for them. It's not for none of us,"
Growing up, the brothers didn't have a male role model.
Chaquiel's mom explains, "They didn't have a father figure. I was the mother and the father."
"Times I will cry and wonder who my father is. And never really knew until I was 16," says Chaquiel.
Chaquiel's father is in prison.
When Chaquiel was in sixth grade, he stopped living with his mother. Shirley had become addicted to crack cocaine.
Shirley Nettles fell victim to the same streets she protected Chaquiel from, so Child services forced her to give up custody before she went to rehab. Chaquiel and his brothers went to live with their aunt.
Grammar school was a tough time for Chaquiel.
"Sixth and seventh grade, Chaquiel was what I call a frequent flyer in my office. He was sent to the office quite a bit," recalls Heidi Rotella, Chaquiel's former principal at Pinnacle Charter School.
Rotella was determined to find Chaquiel another activity besides football.
"So I just threw it out there, what about chess club? And I had tried about four or five other names, what about chess club? He said, sure, I play. And I did a double take," Rotella remembers.
As a kid, Chaquiel learned to play chess from his uncle. It was a talent that Rotella noticed immediately.
"The same way that he could focus on multiple opponents in football and basketball was the same in chess. He could see four moves ahead," says Rotella.
Then came one move Chaquiel never saw coming. Rotella entered him in a chess tournament.
"I didn't think I was gonna do so good. I came in there with an under armor and a football jersey on and all the other kids were wearing shirts and ties. I was like, uh this is not for me," says Chaquiel.
"He played and he won, and won again, and won again. He played all day long. He came in third," says Rotella.
"It was more of a proud feeling knowing that you thought you couldn't do," explains Chaquiel.
And, he made believers out of his teachers, too, especially Chiwon Sadler.
"As we were preparing him for high school, we just felt like he needed that additional support," says Sadler, one of Chaquiel's former teachers at Pinnacle Charter School.
Chaquiel spent his freshman year at Cardinal O'Hara, a private school, and it was Sadler who paid his tuition.
"It made me feel loved," says Chaquiel.
Chaquiel transferred to South Park, after a poor experience at O'Hara. After his sophomore year, he moved back in with his mom. His mom was out of rehab and off drugs, but the gang violence was still an issue in his old neighborhood.
Two weeks later, Chaquiel moved in with Sadler and her four daughters.
"He honestly became the son I always wanted," says Sadler.
Midway through his junior year, Sadler was offered a job in North Carolina. She was leaving Buffalo, so Chaquiel had a decision to make: go to North Carolina with Sadler and leave his family behind or stay in Buffalo.
"The only thing that stopped me from going was my little brother. That's the only thing that stopped me," says Chaquiel.
However, Chaquiel was determined not to live in his old neighborhood. So, he began asking for a place to stay. He called friends, former football opponents, even his former principal.
"Just like in chess, he can think ahead and come up with a couple of options," says Rotella.
Chaquiel found a home in Williamsville, staying with eventual teammate Casey Nuchereno and his family.
"You see kids all the time and they're really great kids, they just got stuck in bad situations," says Barbara Nuchereno, Chaquiel's caretaker.
And after six weeks of staying at Nuchereno's, Rotella opener her home to Chaquiel as well.
"I call them my sisters. If it wasn't for them, I don't think Chaquiel would be at where he is right now," says Shirley Nettles.
The only gang in Chaquiel's life is family. Those connected by blood, bond and blue jerseys.
"He's had a lot of trials and tribulations in his life that he's overcome, and being out here, and being part of a greater cause and a team, and a community that really cares about him. I think he's embraced that," says Kurzanski.
Chaquiel's senior season is over, but not before he made his mark on the stat book.
Chaquiel totaled 60 catches, 950 yards and 18 touchdowns. The University of Albany has offered him a scholarship and four other have shown interest.
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