When the Chiefs take the field on Sunday at Oakland, Jamaal Charles will return to the scene of his baptism by beer, poured over him from the stands as he celebrated the first of his five touchdowns in a 56-31 steamrolling of the Raiders in 2013.
His first true game back from his second ACL surgery doubtless will mark another baptism by fire for Charles, whose life has featured many of those – including a challenging childhood in which he was diagnosed as learning disabled and frequently bullied before he blossomed after gaining confidence through the Special Olympics.
For that matter, Charles more literally was baptized in the Missionary Baptist Church in his hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, where his treasured grandmother, Mazelle Miller, was a force.
But even though he learned to work through his reading impediments by reading the Bible aloud to his aunt Arlene LeBlanc, he’ll tell you now he didn’t take church so seriously when he was young and “didn’t really understand it, either.”
He understands it in an entirely different way now.
A convergence of factors – the 2015 injury that led him to at least fleetingly consider retirement; a sense that he had been living in “a fantasy world” that put football over family; the notion that he “been sinning” and strayed “into the shadows” – compelled him to be baptized anew during Pro Bowl week in January.
At the urging of his wife, Whitney, they attended a Christian conference in Colorado Springs with several hundred other NFL players and their wives. As the days of worship and workshops were concluding, baptism was offered.
Considering they still had on their clothes and others were in swimsuits, Charles and his wife hadn’t necessarily planned on participating.
Then they looked at each other and decided to “go for it” – and so they took the plunge in their clothes, including Jamaal wearing a white T-shirt and socks.
“Something inside my body was moving,” he said. “Like, it was crazy. The Holy Spirit was inside, just shifting around in me, (pulling) at me: ‘Something’s got to change.’ “
And so it did, says Charles, who now says he’s all-in on his faith and no longer summoning it like “a genie” when it suits him.
“It was definitely life-changing; you definitely felt renewed,” he said. “I felt like a new person; I felt, like, a new life.”
Charles, 29, declined to elaborate on what had made him come to feel he’d walked off his intended path.
“I think God understands what I was doing,” he said, smiling, “and he’s the only person who really needs to judge me.”
But perhaps he casts light on at least some of his regrets less directly.
One way or another, he believes he was putting football before not just faith but family – including Whitney, their two daughters and his mother.
Some combination of time rehabilitating his knee, pondering his football future, and revisiting his faith made it clear to him he wanted change.
“Football was this world I was in all by myself; I was in that fantasy world a long time, like, football is all I do, all I know. …” he said. “It opened my eyes to that football is just a thing that I do to take care of my family.”
His eyes also opened to seeing himself as someone whose potential influence should exceed his basic shyness and make him want to reach out more.
That might be understood from deciding with Whitney to sponsor three children in need, as he wrote on his blog, or you might see it in his inclination to roam the locker room more than ever to engage and encourage teammates.
Now, he says, when he used to turn away from someone asking for money on the street he’ll give if he has something in his pocket.
“I want everybody just to be happy, man,” he said.
This reconciliation and reprioritizing may make football sound less important to him.
But Charles reminds that football is “my calling” and suggests his newfound peace of mind is what enabled him to come back.
“The rehab played with my mind; it played with my mind a lot,” he said.
He still poured all he had into it, of course, because that’s who Jamaal Charles is …
Even if he is so much more that you can’t know.
“All you see sometimes is just the glory,” he said. “Nobody sees all the stuff off the field, all the (stresses) wearing on me.”
Since his second baptism, he feels free to let go of his past and accept what comes.
“All the stuff I used to worry about was washed away,” he said.
After Charles finished an interview with The Star on this topic, he greeted a group of media.
Asked about his knee, he said he was feeling good.
Then he casually added, “I’m happy with who I am.”
Which he figures makes him ready in a new way for the latest baptism by fire on Sunday … and beyond.