TAMPA — Mid-August at the University of South Florida. The monotony of football training camp had taken hold. The afternoon was steamy and brutally hot.
And Bulls defensive tackle Todd Chandler was smiling.
“Oh my, what a beautiful day,’’ Chandler said as he strolled from USF’s locker room to the practice field.
For Chandler, a 6-foot, 317-pound junior, these are all beautiful days.
He’s excited about Saturday afternoon’s game at Raymond James Stadium, where the Bulls (0-3) will challenge the No. 15-ranked Miami Hurricanes (3-0). Hope already is sinking for USF’s season, which desperately needs a turnaround.
Chandler knows all about renewal.
“I was lost,’’ he said.
Now he has found himself.
Chandler, ranked No. 7 nationally among defensive tackle recruits in 2010, didn’t adjust well to college. He fell behind in school. He became a father. He was redshirted, frustrating a player who hoped to contribute immediately. He stopped going to class. Eventually, he landed on academic suspension, costing him another season and causing him to wonder whether he should just quit.
Instead, he worked himself into a valuable role for USF last season. He found religion. And he discovered that his daughter, Tod’Jhay, was capable of melting away his problems.
“I believe Todd is happy,’’ Bulls senior defensive end Julius Forte said. “The peace he found off the field, he brought it on the field. We wanted to lift him up because we saw that one of our brothers was weak and almost drifting away.’’
“Instead of focusing on the tough times, he thinks about the positive things. I get a real kick out of him. He’s upbeat.’’
Football is only part of his attitude change. Growing up in Liberty City, Chandler imagined himself playing for the Hurricanes. He was committed to UM before having second thoughts, reopening his recruiting and landing with the Bulls.
During his first USF training camp, already feeling overwhelmed, his daughter was born. At first, the responsibility seemed too much. Now he knows there are more important things than football.
“I remember how I was depressed and angry,’’ said Chandler, whose mother, Taweaka Martin, helps to raise the daughter. “I was feeling sorry for myself, thinking I had nothing going for me. Now I have everything. I have Tod’Jhay.’’
She’s 3 years old.
“She is a real bundle of joy, just like me,’’ said Chandler, smiling. “I call her before games. She says, ‘Daddy, are you at work?’ She calls football ‘work.’ She says, ‘OK, do good. Go Bulls! Love you, Daddy.’
“This is why I enjoy college. This is why I work hard. I know my daughter is watching. I don’t quit because I don’t want her to ever quit. And she won’t. She’s going to know about all the joy in this life.’’
Chandler finds much of his bliss at Extreme Life Ministries, where the pastor, Emerson Morris, is a former USF player who attended Chandler’s old high school (Miami Northwestern). His mother, looking for a pastor in Tampa to guide her son, found Morris and the connections were too great to ignore. Chandler said he felt it immediately.
Now he’s the lead usher.
“I’m by far the biggest guy in church,’’ said Chandler, who also serves on the church board. “I stand by the door and let you in — ‘Hey, how you doing’ — and if anything looks crazy, I’m going to escort you out.
“If I find something and know it works, I give it my all. The only thing is, I don’t sing. I’m deep in prayer, but I’m not going to sing. If you heard me sing, you’d understand.’’
He still makes music on the field. Chandler is primarily a run-stuffer, but also capable of breaking through the line and trapping an opponent in the backfield. When that happens, his emotions break through. He bounces around with earth-shaking rhythm, slapping himself repeatedly in the helmet, unable to contain his glee.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,’’ Forte said. “He’s like an angry bowling bowl coming at you. He’s like an action figure. You can feel the energy.’’
“Todd has bought into what we’re asking him to do here,’’ USF coach Willie Taggart said. “He keeps everyone upbeat and focused. He’s playing well, having fun again.’’
Chandler no longer worries about the thoughts of other people, who might think he has underachieved after arriving at USF as a prized recruit. He works to please his coaches, his teammates, his daughter — and himself.
“I know my name was thrown under the rug,’’ said Chandler, who has two tackles for a loss and one fumble recovery so far. “And I might’ve deserved that for a while. But I can help this team. I want us to win. Whatever I can, I will do.
“It’s not just on the field. If I have to yell or scream or tell a joke to lift someone’s spirit, I’m going to do it. You never know what someone is going through. It might be a person’s last day or they might be depressed. Life doesn’t have to be like that. That’s why I’m always smiling.’’
Somewhere along the path, when Chandler could’ve drifted away from football and the promise of a better future, he found his joy.
Now every day is beautiful.