Camden's Chandler: From homelessness to football stardom

Sean Chandler survived more than a year of being homeless to become a star at Camden High School. Now, he's headed to Temple University.
Sean Chandler survived more than a year of being homeless to become a star at Camden High School. Now, he's headed to Temple University. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 06, 2014

Sean Chandler always would eat just part of his food - half of a hamburger, maybe, or one of the two slices of pizza.

He wrapped up the rest to take home to his little sister.

"This was all the time," said Brad Hawkins, who coached Chandler with the Whitman Park Tigers football program in Camden. "We'd take Sean to get something to eat, and he always had to make sure he had something to take back to his sister."

The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Chandler was one of New Jersey's best football players last season. As a senior at Camden, he was named The Inquirer's South Jersey defensive player of the year after intercepting eight passes and returning three for touchdowns.

In his last two seasons, Chandler scored seven touchdowns on returns and 13 more as a receiver. He plans to sign a letter of intent with Temple on Wednesday morning.

But when folks close to Chandler shake their heads in wonder, they aren't thinking about his spectacular feats on the football field.

They are thinking about his strong work in the classroom. They are thinking about his leadership within the football team and through the school community.

And they are thinking about his remarkable journey, from a slight youngster who was homeless for more than a year as a middle schooler to a polished and poised student-athlete who is about to sign a full scholarship to college.

"The young guys on our team, they always say, 'I want to be like Champ,' " Camden football coach Dwayne Savage said, referring to Chandler's nickname. "They see the way he carries himself. They look up to him."

Sitting in the library at Camden High, Chandler isn't sure that his story is so special.

"What I went through, a lot of people in Camden go through," Chandler said.

The difference, according to those close to Chandler, is the way the personable, young man has dealt with the adversity in his life.

Chandler said he lived in six or seven residences that he can remember. He said he spent more than a year in a homeless shelter in the city when he was about 12 or 13.

"That didn't make me bitter," Chandler said. "That was my life. I had fun. I remember playing in the lobby of that place, playing tag, hiding in the washing machines.

"If you think about negative things, the negative will overpower the positive. I think positive, because that's how you make your dreams come true."

Hawkins, whose son Brad is a standout sophomore athlete at Camden, said Chandler was a "little man who became the big man."

Chandler always was mature beyond his years, despite being one of the smallest players on the team, Hawkins said, and despite the challenges of his personal life.

Hawkins said he and other officials with the Whitman Park organization knew of Chandler's situation but tried not to pry. They bought him meals. They gave him rides home, but he always asked to be dropped off at the corner or around the block.

"He would never cry and complain," Hawkins said. "He was so personable. But the big thing with Sean was that he always had to make sure he took care of his baby sister."

Chandler said he felt a responsibility to care for his younger sister, Colette, now 7. He has lived most of his life with women: his mother, LaTonya Woodson, and his older sisters, Ebony and Tyana.

He also has an older brother, Cornell Woodson, but he was grown and on his own for much of Chandler's formative years.

"My dad wasn't around, and my older brother was gone, so I felt like I had to be the man of the house," Chandler said. "I always felt like I had to take care of my sister.

"I remember one time she spilled noodles on her arm and burned herself. She cried so loud.

"I told myself, 'I'll never let her cry like that again.' "

Camden athletic director Mark Phillips said Chandler, who was recruited as a defensive back, is held in high esteem around the school.

"You will never hear anybody say a bad word about him," Phillips said. "He's the kind of kid I hope knocks on the door for my daughter."

Chandler has lived in some of Camden's roughest neighborhoods. But he said he always has been able to avoid the lure of the streets.

"Those guys, they knew that wasn't me," Chandler said. "Sometimes, I'll be standing there, and they'll be like, 'Champ, you got to get up out of here.'

"When I took my official visit to Temple, I came back, and I was walking down the street, and there was a drug dealer on the corner, and he was like, 'How was it? We're rooting for you.'

"That's heartwarming to me."

Hawkins has been to every Camden game the past two years. He has watched Chandler weave his way through traffic on his way to the end zone with interceptions, kick returns, and receptions.

But he knows those little trips, with so many opponents in the way, were walks in the park compared to Chandler's larger journey.

"This is something you just don't see," Hawkins said. "To come from where he's come from, to go through what he's gone through, it's a gift from God."

Division I football commitments

These are the South Jersey seniors who have committed to Division I football programs and may sign letters of intent starting Wednesday.

Player   High School   Pos.   College   

Abdul Anderson   Absegami   DE   Bucknell   

T.J. Anderson   Holy Spirit   LB   Rhode Island   

Kingsley Ayeni   Eastern   LB   Rhode Island   

Kishon Banks   Paul VI   LB   Wagner   

Lamont Bradford   Timber Creek   OL   Delaware State   

Sean Chandler   Camden   DB   Temple   

Justice Davila   Timber Creek   DB   Old Dominion   

A.J. Dawson   Holy Spirit   DB   Maine   

Jamil Demby   Vineland   OL   Maine   

Anthony Diorio   Shawnee   DB/LB   Dayton   

Ray Ellis   Holy Spirit   DT   Florida Atlantic   

Alec Finelli   Rancocas Valley   DB   Sacred Heart   

Matt Fitzpatrick   Bishop Eustace   OL   Duquesne   

David Hood   Absegami   RB   Temple   

Adonis Jennings   Timber Creek   WR   Pittsburgh   

Shayne Lawless   Moorestown   LB   Stony Brook   

Ray Lawry   Kingsway   RB   Old Dominion   

Marques Little   Williamstown   RB/WR   Old Dominion   

Tim McConnell   Bishop Eustace   DB   Duquesne   

Mike McGrath   St. Augustine   OL   Columbia   

Andrew O'Neill   Washington Twp.   RB/WR   Sacred Heart   

Gerald Owens   West Deptford   RB   Michigan State   

Alex Padovani   Hammonton   WR   Villanova   

Jake Powell   Cherokee   TE   Delaware   

Rob Rolle   Delsea   DB   Villanova   

Tyler Schneider   Rancocas Valley   DE   Austin Peay   

Ed Shockley   Millville   LB   Villanova   

Brendon Slade   Delsea   DB   Sacred Heart   

Jeff Steeb   Holy Spirit   LB   Villanova   

Andrew Stevens   Camden   OL   Maine   

Antoine White   Millville   DT   Penn State   

Rodney Williams   Cherry Hill West   DB   Syracuse   

Isaiah Worthy   West Deptford   LB   Old Dominion   

- Phil Anastasia



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