Chaztin Gillette could no longer hear the crowd or the scuffle around him at the line of scrimmage as he went to scoop a fumble with just more than 10 minutes remaining in South-Doyle’s Week 2 game against Cherokee.
All he could hear was his heart beating, pounding even, as he picked up the ball and ran 41 yards for a defensive touchdown.
Once across the goal line, the roars rained down upon the senior defensive tackle’s ears and his hearing returned as he celebrated his score with teammates.
The 6-foot-6, 310-pound Gillette had never played a varsity game until last Friday night, and he found a way to not only make an immediate impact but also get his name into the box score.
“My Twitter went crazy after the game,” Gillette said Monday.
That’s because, for those who knew even a little of Gillette’s story, they knew that moment was a long time in the making — from him sleeping on a family member’s floors to his own personal mistakes to him coping with the father figure in his life being murdered just a year ago.
Gillette’s journey to get on the field had been an arduous one. Now, he’s hoping that his last chance at football will give him a future that doesn’t reflect his past.
— TB1️⃣ (@TonquezB) August 26, 2018
‘I just don’t want to play’
South-Doyle football coach Clark Duncan has decades of experience and has been the head coach of the Cherokees since 2009, so he knows an athlete walking the school hallways when he sees one.
Each of the last three school years, he’d call in Gillette to his office and talk to him about possibly joining the football team, explaining the benefits and possible opportunities it could present in Gillette’s life. Sure, a 6-6, 300-pounder could help his team, but Duncan wanted the game to help Gillette more.
Duncan knew Gillette’s situation.
Gillette never bought in, though.
Rather, he seemed content just going to school and then heading home to Montgomery Village housing some 5-6 miles from South-Doyle.
But that wasn’t the case. He wasn’t content staying in a housing community where a cursory Google search of its name prompts multiple reports of shootings and murders.
Gillette was just afraid to say “yes.”
“I always wanted to play football but … I’m shy. My mama always said I’m too big to be shy,” he laughed. “But I don’t know. That’s just me.
“I never really had a ride, and I didn’t want to ask people. I didn’t have money to pay for a physical or uniforms and stuff. (My friends) used to always ask me (to play). But I was embarrassed … I used to just lie, ‘I just don’t want to play.’”
Duncan wished Gillette would have shared all this sooner.
“Those are things that, had he told me that — we’ve never had someone not be able to play because they couldn’t afford it,” said Duncan. “But he was too shy to ask.”
‘I want to play’
Chaztus Whaley sustained gun shots on the evening of Friday, Aug. 11, 2017, at a house on Co-Op Road in Rockford, Tenn. He — Gillette’s older brother — was dropped off at University of Tennessee Medical Center by a group of unidentified people, yet Whaley died of the wound injuries the morning of Aug. 12, 2017.
Whaley was 21, and he was the father figure in Gillette’s life.
“I depended on him for everything — when I needed shoes, clothes,” Gillette said.
“It was horrible. I think the first day I came back to school, I think I got into a fight. (His death) messed me up real bad. He was like my dad. My father wasn’t really in my life. Losing him, I don’t know, I didn’t really want to talk to nobody. It was super hard.”
Meanwhile, South-Doyle lost its first game, 31-16, Friday, Aug. 18 at Heritage to begin the 2017 season. The Cherokees went on to a 1-5 start before rallying to finish 7-6 with a Class 5A state quarterfinals appearance.
Some two months after that season ended, Duncan called Gillette into his office. It was early January, and students were reporting back from Christmas break to start the spring semester.
And it was time for Duncan to make his final sales pitch to Gillette.
“Well, he didn’t come to me,” Duncan recalled Monday. “I went out and got him, which I did every year. Every year, we’d have a conversation to come play. But it was back in (early) January. School had just started back. And, we talked about what opportunities he could have. He was struggling academically, too. It wasn’t that he couldn’t do the work. He had no motivation to do the work. I think he was still struggling from the loss of his brother.
“We talked about life and what this game could do for him, in terms of getting to the college level and getting his college education paid for — and not just take care of himself but his mama and his kids down the road.
“I asked him, ‘What are your thoughts?’ He said, ‘I want to play.’”
Getting through the preseason
Why Gillette decided to finally play was two-fold. Yes, the loss of his brother. But, also, Whaley’s death awakened Gillette. He envisioned himself in the future with no one to provide for him.
“That’s the thing,” Gillette said, “I’m about to be grown. Like, what am I going to do? Why not play? Get a free education. Help my family and my future.
“(Whaley) never wanted me out in the streets. He wanted me to go to school.”
Gillette, admittedly, doesn’t like the street life and Duncan said Gillette often frequents the Boys & Girls Club as a safe haven from Montgomery Village. But Duncan made Gillette aware that his refuge won’t always be there.
“I told him, ‘When you graduate high school, you can’t go in there anymore. What are you going to do when you graduate? You better have a plan,’” Duncan said. “He got a plan.”
And so football became the plan.
But saying yes to football didn’t mean Gillette would immediately waltz in, grab a starting spot and become a Division I recruit. Having not played any football since the sixth grade, Gillette was going to have to learn to lift weights properly, endure conditioning and quickly absorb the techniques and strategies of the game.
Furthermore, he’d have to be academically eligible and he’d have to be coachable.
“All through winter and spring,” said Duncan, “I knew that everything he was doing, he was doing for the first time.
“We felt like if we got him through spring practice, he’d be bought in.”
Gillette had a great spring. And even when he had humbling moments in the weight room — watching players smaller than him put up better numbers — coaches helped him put it all into perspective.
“I used to feel embarrassed. I’m one of the biggest dudes on the team but one of the weakest (in the weight room). There’s, like, receivers that’s stronger than me,” recalled Gillette. “But Coach was like, ‘That doesn’t matter on the field.’
“That’s true, though. On the field, it’s hard to stop me.”
Learning the ropes of life
Gillette was set to make his public debut inside Neyland Stadium on Friday, Aug. 10. But he never took the field during the Knoxville Orthopedic Clinic’s KickOff Classic jamboree that night, which was one day shy of the one-year anniversary of his brother’s death.
A mild concussion that Gillette sustained days before prevented him from playing.
Another speed bump surfaced in Week 1, but this one was self-inflicted.
Gillette didn’t show for Tuesday practice. Duncan had to take action quickly to get a point across and steer Gillette in the right direction.
“Again, Chaztin has never been involved in high school organized sports. We had an understanding. He knows the rules. He knows he has to do what he’s been asked to do,” said Duncan. “One of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do was call him in and suspend him. I suspended him for the rest of the week. He’s going to miss his first high school football game. We had worked so hard to get to that point. And it was devastating to Chaz. But I told him, I said, ‘You come back on Monday (in Week 2), and get this thing right.’
“I hated to sit there and tell him he was suspended,” Duncan added. “But I knew that if I didn’t, it would be an ongoing thing. We’re going to get an understanding of: this is how we do things here and you’re going to abide by it.
“It was tough love.”
Perhaps tough love that Gillette had never known.
South-Doyle cruised in Week 1 without Gillette, 52-3, against Heritage. The Cherokees lived up to the preseason hype generated from having two Division I prospects in Elijah Young and Ton’Quez Ball.
Gillette, on Monday night in Week 2, sent Duncan a long text message, explaining how he had made a bad decision and that he wanted another chance to join the team.
The next day, Gillette showed up for practice and endured “a little extra conditioning,” according to Duncan, to make up for missing the meetings and practice. Learning about commitment and discipline and accountability is more important to Duncan than Gillette just getting playing time.
“I hope that the rest is history,” said Duncan.
Duncan didn’t start Gillette in Week 2 against Cherokee. And that only fueled Gillette’s fire.
“I was talking to Ton’Quez on the sideline. ‘When I get in, I got to show ‘em,’” recalled Gillette of his first game. “I got to turn up.’ I got in and I was just looking for the ball.”
‘If he’ll work at it…’
Duncan used to watch Gillette play basketball in the school gym. Scouting a 6-6, 300-pounder with what Duncan called “skinny ankles” no doubt piqued the football coach’s interest.
“I’d seen that he can move,” Duncan said. “He’s going to play basketball (this year), too. He went out for basketball and made the team.
“His athleticism is off the charts. But we didn’t know how aggressive he’d be.”
Remember, Gillette is shy by his own admission. Oftentimes, that can translate into a non-assertive style on the field.
Not this time. Not with Gillette.
He flashed his strength, size and aggressiveness throughout spring practice.
“That’s when we realized, this kid can play,” said Duncan. “He’ll hit ya.”
He even dropped a little weight. He started at 327 but thinks he’s 310 now — though he isn’t completely sure because “the scale in the locker room be trippin’.”
On Monday afternoon, just before talking to 5Star Preps, Duncan had a highlight of Gillette chasing down and tackling a Cherokee player from Week 2 queued up on his laptop, showing a coworker a snippet of Gillette’s in-game ability.
Duncan’s investment in and commitment to Gillette isn’t hard to notice. Deep in every head coach’s heart is an innate desire to help kids.
And to see that time and effort pay off on the field last week was a proud moment for all, because both he and Gillette know that if all continues in the right direction, then Gillette could get some college opportunities.
After all, that’s the goal.
“I always just wanted to go to college and get a good job. Where I come from, I don’t want to be on welfare. I don’t want to be in public housing,” said Gillette. “I want to be able to take care of my family. I want to be able to go on vacation. I ain’t never been on vacation in my whole life. I want to be able to take my family and my kids somewhere.
“I don’t want my kids to go through what I’ve been through. I don’t want my kids to be hungry. We didn’t have a house. We used to have to stay with my aunt. Used to have to sleep on the floor and stuff. It was bad.”
Academically, Duncan and his staff are making sure Gillette stays on track. Athletically, they’re encouraging him and instructing him on how to play hard every down and see happens. Duncan believes he can be one of the best players to have ever come out of South-Doyle — “if he’ll work at it,” Duncan is quick to add.
But there’s still much to learn. In terms of life. In terms of commitment. In terms of technique.
“His pad level — for a big man — is unbelievable,” said Duncan. “Once he learns to understand blocks and read blocks, then he’s going to be the best to ever come around here.”
Gillette certainly showed a glimpse of that potential last week.
Officially in the box score, his defensive touchdown happened with 10:10 left to play.
It’s a moment Gillette will always remember and one he hopes to have more of in the coming weeks.
“I came off the line. I didn’t get blocked. I was looking for the ball. (The quarterback) tried to hand it off,” said Gillette. “I guess they didn’t know what they were doing and the ball fell behind the line of scrimmage. I was like, ‘There’s my chance. Get it. Go.’
“I could hear nothing but my heart beat. It was just my heart, beating.”