The play was one that many Texas Longhorns fans likely remember, the first moment when freshman running back Jamaal Charles cemented himself into the lore of Longhorns football — October 8, 2005 in the Cotton Bowl against the Oklahoma Sooners.
To understand the moment, one has to reflect back on the context. One of the biggest stages in college football. One of the fiercest rivalries, but one that had swung in favor of the interlopers from north of the Red River for five long years. The scoring margin during that interminable stretch? Dominance by Oklahoma — 189-54.
With the expectations high in 2005 with junior quarterback Vince Young and future pros across the rest of the entire team, what the Longhorns needed was the cathartic release of victory against an unranked Sooners squad.
Late in the first quarter, Oklahoma had just closed an early scoring gap to 7-6 after two short drives that resulted in field goals.
The ‘Horns handed the ball to an electric young running back who had already approached or surmounted the 100-yard yard mark rushing in three of his first four games.
From this writer’s viewpoint in the upper deck, Charles entered a mass of huge human bodies at the line of scrimmage, then somehow emerged into the open field on the other side. Using the elite track speed that allowed the Port Arthur product to run a 10.13 100m the following year, Charles was gone and the Horns never looked back.
The needed catharsis with a heavy dose of the uncanny elusiveness and speed possessed by Charles.
By the end of the national championship run that culminated with arguably the greatest college football game ever played against USC in the Rose Bowl, Charles had scored 11 touchdowns and averaged 7.4 yards per carry.
The story of how he earned the opportunity to become a national champion on the biggest stage in the sport was remarkably unlikely.
In a heart-warming speech delivered at the Special Olympics in 2015, Charles described how his life changed at 10 years old.
“I was afraid,” he admitted. “I was lost. When I was a boy, I had trouble reading. I found out I had a learning disability. People made fun of me. They said I would never go anywhere.”
Growing up in the midst of poverty in Port Arthur without his father, Charles was an “awkward, sensitive” child who was teased by his peers for his instinct to cling to his mother and his maternal grandmother, the most important figures in his life. Charles was the youngest of 32 grandchildren, but formed a special bond with the matriarch, Mazelle, known to all those kids as “Big Momma.”
And then Charles discovered something that changed his life — “I learned I could fly.”
"When I was 10 years old, I had a chance to compete in the Special Olympics,” Charles said. “That's right, the Special Olympics gave me my first chance to discover the talent I did not know that I had. When I competed in the Special Olympics, I found out just how fast I was. I stood high on the podium, getting the gold medal in track and field. When I found out how fast I was, I was blessed with a new company. The company turned to courage, the courage to be the best I can be every day.”
The help of his extended family, the community that he built, and the success as an athlete allowed Charles the space to be himself. A kid who liked to be silly, joke, and do imitations. And knew he could fly.
So he flew — to a bronze medal in the 400m hurdles at the World Youth Championships in Athletics. That fall, more than 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns later, he’d carried Memorial to a 5A Division II quarterfinals. After posting nearly identical numbers a year as a senior, Charles was a Parade All-American, two-time District Player of the Year, and a US Army All-American.
In fitting fashion, Charles didn’t stop flying at Memorial until he had won the 5A 110m and 300m hurdles that spring before he headed off to Austin as a top-60 national prospect and the nation’s No. 7 running back, according to Rivals.
Charles had chosen the flagship university of his home state in July of 2004 over offers from national powers like Florida, Miami, Nebraska, Notre Dame, and bitter rival Texas A&M.
Following a sophomore season that saw Charles rack up 836 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, he exploded as a college football star with one of the best rushing seasons in Longhorns history, company that includes two Heisman trophy winners, Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams, as well as an assortment of other stars.
The 1,619 rushing yards that Charles recorded that season ranked as the fifth-best all time and still stands only one spot lower a decade later.
An 86-yard touchdown run against Nebraska that year saw him flying around the field during a 290-yard performance that ranked No. 4 in Texas history in single-game rushing yards and featured two other touchdowns.
After the season, the awkward, sensitive kid who once clung to the female figures in his life was ready for the next step in his life, his legacy cemented as a Longhorn legend — a legacy as a national champion and the fourth-leading rusher in Texas history, behind only Williams, Cedric Benson, and Campbell.
Selected in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs, Charles played in the NFL for more than a decade, accumulating four Pro Bowl selections, two All-Pro selections, and the most rushing touchdowns in the NFL in 2013 over more than 7,400 yards and 91 touchdowns. In 2010, he averaged 6.38 yards per carry, the second most in NFL history.
As he’s done all his life, Charles needed the courage he honed as a Special Olympian to continue his NFL career into his third decade, battling through two ACL tears and a 2016 season largely lost to knee issues.
After playing in two games with the Jacksonville Jaguars last season, Charles signed a one-day contract with Kansas City on Tuesday so he could retire as a member of the Chiefs organization, the one for which he ran for 7,260 yards to set the franchise record. His remarkable career ended with an average of 5.4 yards per carry, second in NFL history among running backs.
But before Charles could become an NFL star, he had to learn how to fly to become a Houston-area legend and a Longhorn legend.
Once he did, the sky was the limit.