The older brother watched as the receiver practiced running routes, catching the football and blocking.
Familiar with the way practice is and the way big-time athletes are in big-time college football, the older brother knew this even before the receiver did:
This wasn’t his time.
“You could see the talent,” Richie Chambers said of his brother, Craig, a true freshman receiver at the University of Washington. “You knew that he was going to be a good receiver, but you could see that he wasn’t at the collegiate level yet.”
A lot was made of Craig Chambers when he declared his intent to attend Washington out of Jackson High School. At 6-foot-5, 195 pounds, he was unfairly compared to Reggie Williams. Chambers could use his height and his 37-inch vertical leap to great advantage against smaller defensive backs in the Western Conference.
When Chambers verballed at Washington, recruiting gurus declared him the crown jewel of the class. He couldn’t miss, not with that frame and 4.45 speed in the 40. He would be a star as soon as he pulled down the purple jersey.
Observers pointed to Washington’s depleted receiving corps and immediately predicted that Chambers would start, that he headed the group of five true freshmen who could play and play a lot.
But Richie Chambers knew better. As a UW linebacker in the early ’90s, Richie Chambers had a close-up view of what top-of-the-line receivers looked like. His brother wasn’t one of them. And maybe he was the only one honest and loving enough to level with Craig.
“In high school, especially in Washington, he was far superior to other athletes,” Richie said. “When you get to college, they’re all the same. If you’re not ready to go, you’re not ready to go. I don’t think he was ready to go, mostly because of his competition in the area.”
Craig Chambers came in at a disadvantage. While the other freshman receivers — Sonny Shackelford, Quintin Daniels, Corey Williams and Charles Smith — had the benefit of prepping under pretty sophisticated, complex passing schemes in high school, Chambers simply did not.
“I had a lot to learn,” Chambers said. “I was really raw coming into the season. In high school, I didn’t really learn much. It was kind of just go out there and play and run around. Here, you have to be so precise it’s insane. In high school, you kind of line up wherever and get open. It was nothing like this.
“I learned more here in seven days than I did in four years in high school.”
It’s not that the Jackson football program was inferior in its philosophy of offensive football. It simply chose different points of emphasis and different, simpler techniques.
After all, Chambers’ talent wasn’t exactly wasted at Jackson. As a senior, he caught 48 passes for 804 yards. In his prep career, Chambers had 93 receptions for 1,972 yards and 18 TDs. As a junior, he totaled 267 receiving yards against Edmonds-Woodway, en route to catching 35 passes for 863 yards and eight TDs for the season.
Yet, now, he watches as Shackelford, Daniels and Williams take their reps with the first offense. Instead of starting alongside Reggie Williams and Charles Frederick, Chambers is on the scout team, imitating receivers of opposing teams.
More than likely, Chambers will redshirt.
“At first I was upset about it,” he said. “But after the first game, I thought it probably would be better for me to take a year to get better and stronger.”
In truth, Chambers felt absolutely lost in the days after he arrived for fall practice. He felt overwhelmed by the mountainous playbook, the constant watching of film and the endless teaching. He could see that his competition came in more polished, more ready for the college game.
It was Football 101. When the team spent its time at The Evergreen State College in the first phase of training, life was football from the time the team woke up to lights-out.
“Everybody said how football becomes your life,” Chambers said. “I didn’t realize it was 24 hours a day. You sleep and you dream about football. You’re just exhausted at the end of the day.”
Exhausted, and, in Chambers’ case, discouraged. There was no getting around it, his competition was passing him up. And there was little Chambers could do about it.
Washington receivers coach Bobby Kennedy noticed.
“We threw a lot at him,” Kennedy said. “Maybe for a high school guy whose offense probably wasn’t that complex and didn’t ask guys to do a lot, it was pretty demanding for him. This is a young kid. He’s going to be a valuable player for us. He’s going to be good. He just has to develop his strength and his speed. He just has to hang in there and he’ll be good.”
All the instruction, all the technique, not to mention the pages upon pages of plays might as well have been Yiddish to Chambers. There was so much to absorb and such little time.
“It can pretty much just break you down,” Chambers said. “There were times when I was just lost. They would be saying words and I’d be like, ‘What does that mean? How do you do that?’ I didn’t know what I was doing. Then they’d move on to the next thing so fast. It was like I was playing a whole new position.”
Chambers points to his brother and Curt Marsh, the former Snohomish Panther, Washington Husky and Oakland/Los Angeles Raider. Both told him that it would get better, that each day would be easier.
Chambers now can see the value of taking a year to grow and learn. While he admits to being in a mental depression for about a week, Chambers looks forward to next season, when he can legitimately contribute.
“You can hit rock-bottom,” he said. “You can have a lot of self-doubts, like, ‘Would I be better off doing something else? or ‘Am I good enough to play here?’ But it gets better and now I feel more confident about the type of player I can be.” John Sleeper writes for The Herald in Everett.