Most people who know Chaquiel Nettles recognize him as a standout high school athlete, an asset on the basketball court and one of the best high school football players in the region.
And some may have heard that he is the younger brother of an outstanding wide receiver at Sweet Home who was once recruited for Division I football.
But few know that the 18-year-old senior is a father figure to his younger brother, escaped gunfire and gang life – in city housing projects, and is a killer chess player.
He also is homeless.
Or has been for some time, bouncing from family to friends’ to benefactors’ homes for much of his teenage years. Right now, he is staying primarily at two homes in Amherst, taken in by families giving him a chance of realizing his dreams after escaping some tough city streets and scrapes.
One constant in his life are the two square, brown pillows he keeps at the homes of the two families that have taken him in. He doesn’t sleep without them. They’re his security in a life of constant transition.
Chaquiel was saved by his talent, his determination and by a group of teachers and soccer moms who have become his guardian angels. By his own admission, he’d be spending his days shooting dice in the city if it weren’t for those people who’ve have taken it upon themselves to feed and shelter him since his teenage years.
“The ladies that I know that watched over my boy, that helped my boy Chaquiel, they are beautiful, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart,” said his mother, Shirley. “If it weren’t for them, my boy would probably be like the other boys out here. But they knew Chaquiel was going to be somebody, and I did too.”
Chaquiel Nettles’ story is the Buffalo version of “The Blind Side,” the Oscar-winning movie about Michael Oher, who overcame similar early life struggles to become a first-round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens.
One of four brothers and a young sister, Chaquiel is currently a senior at Williamsville South High School, but he started out life on Smith Street on Buffalo’s East Side.
At an age when most kids are having the training wheels taken off their bikes, Chaquiel was playing street football with his brothers in his bare feet. He credits his two older brothers for looking after him despite the gang and drug activity that flourished around him. The oldest brother, A.J., was sucked into that life, but never allowed his younger brothers to follow in his footsteps, Shirley Nettles said. He taught them football instead.
“Don’t follow me,” she recalled him saying. “Keep going.”
His family moved to Towne Gardens subsidized housing on Clinton Street when Chaquiel was in fifth grade. When he wasn’t playing football, he was with other kids, throwing crabapples and stones at passing cars, banging on the doors and windows of homes and running off. A jagged scar runs across his right inner calf from when he put his foot through a window during one of his stunts.
Chaquiel’s mother said she guided her children as best she could, but it was a struggle. She had her own demons, and Chaquiel’s father was not present.
“I love them,” she said of her children, choking down sobs. “I didn’t give them up to anybody. I said, ‘I want the best for you, Chaquiel.’ He understood all that.”
When her youngest child suffered a health crisis at birth, she agreed to give her sisters custody of her kids while she worked on getting clean from drugs. It was the hardest thing she’s ever done, she said.
“I wasn’t there like I wanted to be,” she said. “But I wanted the best for my children, and being a mother on drugs was not the best thing for my children, so I just put it in God hands. I said, ‘Guide me the right way, and give me the right people to help my children.’”
Chaquiel and two of his brothers, D.J. and DeAnthony, went to live with one aunt. His newborn sister went to live with another aunt. The transition was difficult. Chaquiel, who had enjoyed a relatively unfettered childhood, found himself in a home with more structure, more rules, curfews and consequences. He was not happy.
“I was a bad kid,” he said.
His aunt enrolled him at Pinnacle Charter School. An intelligent student and class leader, he made good grades with little effort.
And “little effort” is about how much he gave it, said Heidi Rotella, who was founder and head of the school at the time. Raised in an environment where punks demand respect and adults have to earn theirs, Chaquiel frequently found himself on the other side of Rotella’s desk. The fact that he had untreated attention-deficit disorder didn’t help.
During one of his disciplinary office visits in seventh grade, however, Rotella watched in surprise as Chaquiel set up all the pieces on a knocked over chess board by her desk. She signed him up for the chess club.
“He very quickly went from playing with the kids to playing with Mr. Boehringer,” she said, referring to the club coach.
He was signed up for a seventh- and eighth-grade chess tournament, going up against private school students from Park and Nichols. Chaquiel walked in wearing his football jersey, saw all the other kids in shirts and ties, and headed for the door. After much coaxing, he stayed – and won. And won. He finished third overall.
The next year, Chaquiel won the top class academic awards in math and language arts at Pinnacle, said his teacher and mentor, Chiwon Sadler. He was also named Athlete of the Year for success in track and basketball. He continued to play football for a community youth league, with extended family and coaches covering his registration and equipment costs until he aged out at 15.
Then came high school. Chaquiel was accepted at Cardinal O’Hara High School but missed the deadlines to qualify for financial aid. After a failed hunt for a benefactor, his mentor, Sadler, agreed to cover his tuition costs. He made three touchdowns in his first game as a freshman and has continued to build a reputation based on his talent and speed.
But he also seemed dogged by the reputation of his older brother, D.J., who spent a year there and did well athletically but struggled academically. Without the support he enjoyed at Pinnacle, Chaquiel floundered. He wound up in trouble at school and in growing conflict at his aunt’s house. He failed three classes and had to retake two in summer school.
It was about time that he started living with Sadler and her children in Buffalo. He enrolled in Buffalo’s South Park High School for his sophomore year.
“We just kind of clicked,” she said. “He had a certain determination that impressed me.”
Kim MacKinnon, a South Park teacher, recognized Chaquiel as a survivor. She pushed him in many ways, sending him to her classroom to do school work during his free time instead of letting him goof off in the cafeteria.
“He’s been blessed through life with people who have extended help, and that’s because of the type of person that he is,” MacKinnon said. “He wants to be successful. When you see there is a child who wants it, who’s willing to work for it, you’re willing to go the extra mile.”
But over the summer between Chaquiel’s sophomore and junior years, Sadler’s mother became ill and she moved to North Carolina. Chaquiel reluctantly decided to move with her, but within days was itching to return.
“I thought it was wrong to leave my little brother, because I was all he had,” he said.
He returned to South Park at the start of his junior year and lived with his mother, but grew increasingly anxious about living in his old neighborhood. Shortly after his younger brother got caught up in a brawl following a Thursday at the Square concert event, Chaquiel said he couldn’t leave DeAnthony to fight alone and joined the fray.
After the brawl, he made a decision. “I was like, ‘That’s it. I can’t do this anymore,’” he said.
He called Rotella, a Williamsville resident who had taken a leave of absence from Pinnacle and was in the midst of a divorce.
“It was very tearful, very emotional,” she recalled. “He said, ‘I promise you, I don’t need anything. I will sleep on the couch. I won’t be any trouble for you in any way.’”
But Rotella told him the timing was bad.
“If I can’t stay with you, I’m running away,” he responded.
Rotella wasn’t the only person Chaquiel reached out to. He spread the word of his plight among his other athlete friends and acquaintances.
“That’s so Chaquiel,” she said. “He just started asking around. That’s where he was truly homeless. He was just looking at places to stay one night at a time.”
After a game against Williamsville South, he caught up with a player he knew from that team, who subsequently went home and told his mom that he had a friend who needed a place to live.
“Why can’t he live with us?” the boy asked his mom, Barbara Nuchereno, an Amherst council member. “We’ve got plenty of room.”
Reluctant to crush her son’s generous spirit, Nuchereno began making calls to everyone who knew Chaquiel’s story. Then she got him a bed.
“It happened pretty quickly,” she said. “The kid was desperate for a place to live, and my husband was not happy with me. He was like, ‘What are you doing? You didn’t talk to me about it and just moved the kid in.’”
All sides agreed it would be a temporary arrangement. Chaquiel wound up staying with the family for six weeks, then settling in on couches and beds at various homes in Amherst on a rotating basis for a few more months before finally spending most of his nights with Rotella’s family.
Together, the educators and women made sure he was fed, helped find him summer work, covered his day-to-day living expenses and out-of-pocket medical costs. Brothers and extended family members covered his clothing and other needs. Everyone helped.
Chaquiel continued to play football for South Park throughout his junior year. But by late October, he was enrolled at Williamsville South and playing varsity basketball there.
The district, however, later barred him from remaining at the school, stating in January that its investigation determined Chaquiel was not a legal resident of the district and not a homeless student because he lived with his mother in Buffalo “all his life” and was never forced to leave.
It took consultations with state education legal experts, photos of the places he’s lived, reference letters from his former teachers and coach, and personal appeals to administrators by Nuchereno and Rotella to finally get a reversal.
But that wasn’t the end of their problems.
Though Sadler had committed to paying Chaquiel’s tuition at O’Hara, she was only able to make about half the payments. The Catholic school refused to release Chaquiel’s freshman transcript until it received the balance of $2,903.75. Without the transcript, Chaquiel could not finalize his schedule at Williamsville South for this year and he was barred from receiving scholarship offers from four-year colleges interested in recruiting him.
Nuchereno, Sadler and MacKinnon all appealed to the school and made payment plan requests. Nuchereno even asked if Chaquiel could sign a promissory note, offering to pay the money back when he finally had an income.
“We tried to get through to anyone we could,” she said. “No one would talk to us.”
Catholic Charities finally intervened and found anonymous donors to cover $2,000 of the cost.
“They did what I had hoped the school would do,” she said.
Nuchereno ultimately brought a check for the entire balance to Cardinal O’Hara on Wednesday. With Catholic Charities reimbursing her for the first $2,000, she, her brother and best friend each chipped in $300 to cover the balance. With his transcript record complete, Chaquiel’s class schedule was finalized Friday.
The University of Albany has already made Chaquiel an offer, and coach Kraig Kurzanski said he expects more college offers to follow. In the game Friday night between Williamsville South and Hamburg, Chaquiel scored three touchdowns.
“Those skills that he developed throughout his life, to survive, and not only to survive but to prosper,” MacKinnon said, “those are going to be his best tools to survive when he goes onto college and on with his life. I pray for him every day.”