How ‘Selma’ Got Smeared

The Great Defender

Elias Stein

Beware the Visor

No one hits harder — or leaves a bigger impression — than the Seahawks’ thunderous strong safety, Kam Chancellor. Just ask a few of the men left in his wake.

Demaryius Thomas saw him coming. They usually do. No one goes very long without looking for Kam Chancellor. And as Thomas sprinted across the field, there he was — the bad man in the dark visor who lurks in the depths of football’s best defense. Thomas had one thought as Peyton Manning let go and Chancellor let loose: Hold on to the ball.

He did, somehow, even as Chancellor lowered a shoulder and sent him sprawling.

Not that it mattered. It was the Broncos’ first completion, down just 5-0 with nearly 55 minutes left, but for Seattle, Super Bowl XLVIII was already over.

“To me,” says Chris Clemons,1 “that hit solidified the game for us. They didn’t run routes the same.”

Byron Maxwell, only a couple of yards away, had the best view. “I was just lookin’ at Demaryius’s face,” Maxwell says, “and I could see that he’d been hurt. I saw a little pain on there.” Earl Thomas leaped into Chancellor’s arms. Richard Sherman slapped him on the helmet.

“It wasn’t just him making noise,” Demaryius Thomas says about the aftermath of the hit. “It was a couple of other guys making noise. Basically saying they were there, and it was going to be like that all night.”

Super Bowl XLVIII - Seattle Seahawks v Denver BroncosMichael Zagaris/Getty Images

There’s no single reason for Seattle’s success on defense. The Seahawks have found undervalued talent — both Sherman and Chancellor were fifth-round picks — and developed it well. The defense is relatively simple, and lined with players perfectly tailored to it. But it’s about more than development and strategy. The Seahawks are scary. That’s what Chancellor provides. He doesn’t like to call it fear. To him, it’s respect. But by any name, it’s real. The hits — and the threat of them — make opponents blink first.

When I ask Sherman what those collisions do for his defense, he channeled Mother Nature. “He just brings that menacing force,” Sherman says. “We’re a bunch of wild dogs, and a pack of wild dogs is pretty dangerous. But a lion running with a pack of wild dogs … that’s something.”

For years, Chancellor has been the Seahawks’ muscle, the one who drops the boom that spawned a legion. “But it’s more than that,” says Kris Richard, Seattle’s defensive backs coach. “He’s a shoulder to lean on. He’s an old soul. An old, wise guy who’s got a ton of experience. At what? We don’t know. But you know you can count on him, you can go to him.” A year after Chancellor defined Seattle’s first Super Bowl, he’s at the center of its chase for a second. The man who damages souls gives the Seahawks their own.

Almost 10 years later, Matt Wright still feels the pain. Anytime he rolls off a bench press or hauls a heavy box, it’s there, that ache in his left shoulder. “It’s a constant reminder,” Wright says, “that, dang … that was a big hit.”

The Hampton Roads region of Virginia knows high school football. But even by its lofty standards, Phoebus High School carries weight. Wright — a two-way star committed to Virginia Tech — was a senior in 2005 when the Phantoms hosted a regional final against Maury High School. Maury is in Norfolk, about a half hour south across the water, and their quarterback was a 6-foot-3, 210-pound nightmare named Kam Chancellor.

“Kam was electrifying,” Wright says. “He was athletic, he was mobile, and he could put the ball on a rope. He was the centerpiece of that team. He was the glue that kept everything together for them.”

As they often did, Phoebus moved the ball at will that night. They scored seven touchdowns and rushed for nearly 300 yards. The problem was that Chancellor refused to fade. He threw for 225, ran for 35 more, and accounted for five touchdowns, all told. It was a blocked extra point that did Maury in, for a 49-48 loss in double overtime.

Chancellor didn’t play a lot of defense in those days. He meant far too much to the offense. They held him to 15, 20 snaps a game, his head coach Dealton Cotton remembers now, maybe a few more if they needed a big play. Against Phoebus, one of those snaps came on the final play of the first half. Maury trailed 14-13. The Phantoms had just 16 yards to the end zone and time for a single play. Wright lined up as a tight end to the right, and at the snap, started sprinting down the seam. He caught the pass, but he paid for it. The hit by a seldom-used safety separated his shoulder. It was a bad AC sprain, severe enough to linger a decade later.

“He delivered the hardest hit I’ve ever had in my high school career,” Wright says. “He didn’t really realize what that meant. I think that was probably the first big hit of Kam Chancellor’s career.”

It wasn’t, not quite. The first had come two weeks earlier, in Maury’s 49-35 win at Great Bridge, on a crossing route that left a receiver sipping water on his back near the sideline. “That’s when that stuff got started,” Chancellor says. He struggles to describe exactly why he craves them, those shots that seem to send lightning through him. “Just the ferociousness,” he says. “The velocity, the power, the contact. I just like … it’s hard to explain. I just like that feeling of being aggressive, in control, instilling your will.”

It’s not a physical sensation that he’s after. There isn’t one, not in that instant. “I don’t feel it,” he says. “When you’re going so hard and you’re just playing in the moment, you don’t feel it. The adrenaline kicks in. I just get live. I raise.”

Matt Wright’s older brother, D.J. Parker, graduated from Phoebus two years earlier, and by the summer of 2006, he was Virginia Tech’s starting free safety. He remembers that morning, two days into summer practices, when a freshman built like a tight end strolled into the secondary meeting. “He walked into the DB room, and I was like, ‘Man, this dude is huge,’” Parker says.

Kam Chancellor came to Tech as a quarterback, but depth issues spurred first-year position coach Torrian Gray to coax him over to the defense. Fellow freshman Zach Luckett joined him. The two stayed after practice that first day, alternating between receiver and cover man. In a dozen throws, Luckett didn’t catch a single pass.

Nebraska v Virginia TechNed Dishman/Getty Images

They knew before the week was out that Chancellor’s future was at safety — he laid two hits in a live scrimmage that Parker can still hear — but that first season, Gray kept him at cornerback behind Brandon Flowers. “To run so fluidly, and be able to change directions, and good hips, it was pretty impressive, man,” Gray says. “I was shocked when they tried to play him at corner, but he held his own.”

The athletic feats showed up everywhere, from the practice field to teamwide dunk contests that featured Chancellor’s head above the rim and the ball going between his legs. But what Parker couldn’t believe was how steady he was, how reliable. Parker was a senior when a 20-year-old Chancellor stepped in next to him at strong safety. Parker never had to tell him what to do or where to be. “I was impressed by that,” Parker says. “Me being a senior and him being a sophomore, I knew I wasn’t going to have to worry about Kam.” Chancellor took over at free safety — the quarterback of Tech’s defense — when Parker graduated. He’d text Parker after games, wondering what he’d done wrong, what he could do better.

“He just brings that menacing force,” Richard Sherman says. “We’re a bunch of wild dogs, and a pack of wild dogs is pretty dangerous. But a lion running with a pack of wild dogs … that’s something.”

When draft time came, Gray sensed there could be trouble. Teams saw Chancellor’s size and envisioned a linebacker, a 230-pound play wrecker that could dart into backfields and run with tight ends. “Teams were asking, ‘Can he play linebacker, weakside linebacker?’” Gray says. “No, the guy’s a safety! I watched him here and coached him for four years. I told him, ‘Kam, you are a safety. Don’t let them move you.’”

The Seahawks saw just that. Entering the 2010 draft, Seattle was looking for help on its back end and found it by drafting Earl Thomas in the first round. Getting Thomas sent John Schneider and Pete Carroll to other positions with their next three picks, but as the fourth round came to a close, Chancellor was still sitting there. “By the time we get to him, that’s grace,” says Kris Richard, the Seahawks’ defensive backs coach. “He’s sitting there in the fifth round, a guy we absolutely adored, and he’s still sitting there. For us, that’s like, ‘We just got a second-round pick.’”

Chancellor doesn’t know why he fell. A 4.62 in the 40 at the combine didn’t help, and neither did the recent experience of Hokies safeties in the NFL. Three years earlier, Seahawks general manager John Schneider was a personnel analyst in Green Bay when the Packers took Aaron Rouse in the third round. Rouse was Chancellor’s predecessor at Virginia Tech. Like Chancellor, Rouse was tall for a safety — 6-foot-4 — and in Green Bay, he struggled with the smaller, change-of-direction movements necessary in pro defenses. “I think a lot of people probably viewed them in the same light,” Schneider says. “I think people were questioning whether or not he was going to be flexible enough to play the position. Aaron was going through the same thing. He was a downhill thumper, intimidator.”

After the draft, Schneider says the staff talked with Chancellor about improving his flexibility. A few months (and some yoga sessions) later, Chancellor arrived at camp as the player Richard was so enthused about in April. “What we saw on tape from him in college,” he says, “absolutely translated to what we desire from a safety in our defense.”

Lawyer Milloy was fed up with the slipshod fashion. He was 36 years old in the fall of 2010, about to start his 15th season, and he wasn’t going to have the rookie in the next locker dressing like that. “I was tying just regular knots [in my ties],” Chancellor says, “like you’d do with a shoe.” After a game in the preseason, Milloy snatched the tie and folded it into a full Windsor. Chancellor liked it enough to learn himself, rewinding a YouTube clip until he got it right. It’s the sort of exchange they had all year, with Chancellor soaking up everything he could. “He was asking me a lot of questions,” Milloy says. “I could just tell he was hungry. He definitely was a young guy on a mission.”

Each one of his hits is a half-second of chaos, but in his life, Chancellor is about order. He’s meticulous and kempt. He’s been getting manicures for years. “It’s not very often,” he says, “but I need to step it up some more.” In his first job, at age 10, he cleaned at a local barbershop, washing clippers and sweeping hair, to help make a few extra bucks for a single mom who would go on to raise six children by working two or three transportation jobs at a time.

“I’m real particular,” Chancellor says. “I’m a timing guy, I’m a schedule guy. Everything has a place, everything has a time. I’m an attention-to-detail guy. I like to see the little things.” The violence in Chancellor’s game may look reckless, but what has allowed him to survive in a league watching over its collisions is being anything but.

Cincinnati Bengals v Seattle SeahawksOtto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Eric Winston, a nine-year NFL veteran who has played right tackle for four different teams, is one of the names etched onto Chancellor’s list. It was last season, when Winston was in Arizona, on a run play when Winston was looping out wide. “All of a sudden, you see something out of the corner of your eye,” Winston says. “You turn, Kam’s on you, and you wish it was someone who’s not him, because then maybe you could survive it.” Chancellor took on the block, brought Winston to his knees, and yanked Andre Ellington down a yard deep in the backfield. “I think he’s almost gotten too known for [the hits],” Winston says. “Obviously he’s a hitter, enforcer-type guy, but he’s a good all-around player.”

Every teammate reacts to mention of the hits in about the same way: a “ha” from Cliff Avril, a shake of the head from Jeremy Lane. They all have different favorites, but ones that keep coming up are the shots on would-be blockers. Sherman mentions the collision with Packers tight end Richard Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game, the hit that provided the best exchange of the playoffs. “I knocked you on your ass, though,” an NFL Network microphone caught Chancellor saying. “And I’m gonna do it again; I’m going to continually do it.”

When he wipes out Vernon Davis, it sends a pulse through both the defense and the crowd, but when he decks Rodgers, Chancellor sacrifices his own body for the sake of the play. With his willingness to play the run and ability to hold up in coverage, Chancellor commands an area of the field that makes him a perfect complement to the rangy Thomas. “He’s like, the principle of everything,” Lane says. “He keeps everything in order.”

Chancellor took some lumps in his first few years as a starter. Richard remembers a game against the Vikings in 2012 when Chancellor was embarrassed after missing badly on a pair of cutbacks that helped Adrian Peterson rack up 182 yards. In coverage, there were kinks to work out and details to fine-tune. “He had to understand what his strengths and his weaknesses are,” Richard says. “And when you work to improve those weaknesses, from there, you’re all strength.”

In the second half of this season, when Chancellor finally made it all the way back to recovery from offseason hip surgery that nagged him early in the year, he was as effective as he’s ever been. And nowhere was that more apparent than in Seattle’s playoff win over Carolina. Leaping to block field goal attempts, collecting 11 tackles, and returning a backbreaking, season-ending interception for a touchdown — it was a combination of the flash he’d shown for years and the honing that comes with five seasons in the league. “There isn’t going to be a perfect football player out there at any time,” Richard says, “but he comes close.”

Karen Lambert’s children are mostly grown now. They come and go from the Chesapeake home her son bought her after getting his new five-year, $35 million contract in the summer of 2013. But even with a houseful of kids, there are times when she can hardly tell if anyone’s home. “I’ll come down and see them, and say, ‘I didn’t even know you were downstairs! I thought you were gone,’” she says. “It’s just that quiet. We’re very laid back. You talk when you have to talk.” Chancellor takes after Mom. During their early days together in Blacksburg, D.J. Parker wondered if he even could talk.

Chancellor played sparingly as a rookie, coming into games in Seattle’s big nickel package after the bye week and spelling Milloy here and there. That offseason, Milloy retired. It was the first time, he says, that he felt comfortable leaving a team in the hands of a successor. “I didn’t think there was anyone worthy enough to take over the reins until Earl and Kam came along,” Milloy says. “That’s why it was easy to hang them up and turn over the keys. That’s what I told them.”

Milloy’s departure left an opening at strong safety, but it also created a leadership void in Seattle’s locker room. When Pete Carroll came to Chancellor before that season, he asked his second-year safety to fill both. “After he got going in his first year, we were kind of calling on him to take over, ‘Go ahead,’” Carroll says. Chancellor resisted. He wasn’t ready; he didn’t feel like he’d done enough.

“I just said, ‘Coach, I don’t feel like I’ve earned it yet,’” Chancellor says now. “‘I don’t feel like I’ve earned the respect and the trust.’ I felt like I needed to go through the gantlet, go through the process of contributing to the team, going out there and doing things right over and over.”

“It’s taken years of him feeling good about himself and him feeling right about his position,” Carroll says. “He really wanted to naturally evolve, and he did. He did it perfectly. I was way ahead at the time. I was wrong. He was right.”

Four seasons later, Chancellor has finally — and fully — given Carroll his wish. Red Bryant had been the voice of the Seattle defense for years, but when the 30-year-old Bryant was cut this offseason, the Seahawks voted Chancellor their new defensive captain. For most of the season, Chancellor fit his mother’s description. He talked only when he had to. Michael Bennett handled the pregame oration. But before the Seahawks’ Week 12 game against Arizona, with Seattle coming off a loss in Kansas City that dropped them to 6-4, Bennett asked Chancellor to do what he’d never done before.

He started in the locker room, before the Seahawks even took the field. Chancellor walked up to individual players, looked them in the eye, told them to trust their teammates, to play for one another. Marcus Burley landed in Seattle this spring a year removed from being an undrafted cornerback. Within days, a text lit up his phone. It was Chancellor, offering to help with whatever Burley needed. “He didn’t have to do that,” Burley says. “One of the best safeties in the league, he doesn’t have to do that.

“When he says ‘Love our brothers,’ ‘Play together,’ ‘One heartbeat,’ you feel it.”

When it was time to speak to the group, Chancellor unleashed a message that hit just as hard as he ever has. “It was something that the team needed,” linebacker K.J. Wright says. “You just felt what he said. You usually listen to guys, and you hear them, but you felt that one. I believe it’s one of the things that turned our season around.” For the next 60 minutes, Chancellor was a terror, collecting eight tackles and dictating the Seattle defense in a 19-3 drubbing of the Cardinals. The Seahawks haven’t lost since.

Chancellor shrugs when asked about it now. He doesn’t know if he would have done it four years ago. He probably wouldn’t have this season if Bennett hadn’t asked. On Sunday, the league’s loudest franchise will follow its quiet captain into the Super Bowl. He doesn’t need to say anything. They always see him coming. 

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Playoffs, Demaryius Thomas, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Lawyer Milloy, NFL, Pete Carroll, Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks, Super Bowl, Virginia Tech

Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ robertmays