Saying that Chaquiel “Chaq” Nettles beat the odds is an understatement.
The 19-year-old didn’t just graduate from Williamsville South High School. He didn’t just earn a coveted football scholarship to a Division I university.
He did so while escaping poverty, homelessness and gang life on tough city streets, at times not knowing where he would sleep at night.
“I decided I would get out of the neighborhood,” Nettles said, referring to his growing up on the East Side, “because being where I was wasn’t going to get me to where I wanted to be.”
Where he is now – trying to earn his place on the football squad at Robert Morris University outside Pittsburgh – is a different world altogether.
Nettles’ story is the Buffalo-area version of “The Blind Side,” the acclaimed 2009 movie about Michael Oher, who overcame similar life struggles to play offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens in the National Football League.
Like Oher, Nettles overcame adversity to even qualify for college, bouncing from different homes and schools before becoming homeless.
And also like the movie, last-minute National Collegiate Athletic Association restrictions were the final hurdle Nettles needed to clear before realizing his dream.
But he is finally there, having escaped the gunfire, the fights and the street culture that derailed his brother’s dreams and threatened to crush his own.
With the help of the mother who let him go – and the Amherst soccer moms who took him in – Nettles has transformed from a rough-and-tumble kid with a good heart into a young man with a future.
He is a high school graduate now – no small feat – as well as a college athlete and maybe someday a star.
Securing the full-ride scholarship was “a great feeling,” Nettles said recently with excitement. But he also sees it as “a better opportunity for me to finish what I started” and to help others follow his path.
“Every kid’s dream is to play pro sports,” he said. “I would love to go pro in the NFL, but, honestly, my goal – what I want to do – is help kids. So many people have helped me, I want to give back.”
Nettles credits his ascent from tough streets to scholarship to a small group of women who refused to let him slip through the cracks.
One was his mother, Shirley Nettles, who knew that a life of drugs and poverty wouldn’t help her son get where he needed to be.
Shirley Nettles, who struggled with drug problems, made the toughest decision she has ever had to make. While she tried to get off drugs, she let her son go.
“She got a lot of grief from her family and community to let him do this,” said Heidi S. Rotella, a former principal and one of the women who took him in. “So it was a lot for her to stand up and do it. Talk about the ultimate motherly love.”
That decision allowed Nettles to escape from the feeling that he was somehow destined – because of his surroundings – to end up in jail or worse.
He was able to get out of a world where, as a young boy, he learned numbers by counting bags of cocaine.
“Being in my old neighborhood, I would have to walk around and watch my back everywhere I go,” he recalled. “Going to the park, you would see people shooting dice and playing basketball. Sometimes you would get into a brawl just going to parties.”
Nettles, who grew up without a father, first went to live with an aunt. He then bounced around to a number of homes and schools and, at one point, was asking for places to stay night by night.
Word spread that the boy needed a home, and Rotella, a former principal at Pinnacle Charter School, agreed to take him in.
With the help of Barbara S. Nuchereno, an Amherst councilwoman, and other families in Williamsville, Rotella persuaded school officials to accept Nettles as a homeless transfer student.
Makes most of chance
Once he got his chance – both in the classroom and on the football field – he flourished.
“I have a lot of other kids like Chaq that I help out,” Rotella said, “but Chaq has that something people gravitate to.”
“Somehow, people just love him,” added Nuchereno.
Friends have called him “chameleon” for his ability to thrive despite his constantly changing surroundings.
Nuchereno and Rotella taught him healthy eating habits, bought him glasses and imprinted on him the need to be a gentleman, they said.
They also helped him get treatment for his previously untreated learning disorder and helped him navigate the confusing maze of college applications, cover letters and NCAA guidelines.
“It’s not that he wouldn’t make it, because he is so bright, but there are a lot of hurdles,” Nuchereno said. “In that way, it’s easy to see how kids don’t make it.”
All-WNY wide receiver
Nettles also became a force on the football field, scoring 18 touchdowns for South’s football team last season and earning first-team All-Western New York honors as a 6-foot-1, 170-pound wide receiver.
But Williamsville South coach Kraig Kurzanski let him know that this alone wouldn’t be enough.
“I just thought, ‘I’m fast, I could run and I could catch.’ I thought that was going to get me to the NFL,” Nettles said. “I didn’t think school was going to be a big part of it until my coach told me, ‘Your grades are not going to be good enough.’ ”
Nettles buckled down, made his grades and “worked his butt off,” Nuchereno said, graduating with an average in the 80s.
But with a college scholarship awaiting, one final hurdle was thrown in his way this month.
The NCAA informed Nettles that his grades and SAT scores would prevent him from accepting the scholarship.
Nuchereno and Rotella lobbied the NCAA for a rare waiver, asking the officials to take into account his circumstances and to put greater emphasis on the period when he had a steady home.
“With this kid, he grew a huge amount,” Nuchereno said. “Four different schools, different homes – come on.”
Nettles nearly gave up hope when his bags sat packed for days without any word from the NCAA. Then he got the call – the waiver was granted.
“I’m bursting at the seams with pride and love,” said Rotella, who checks in on Nettles to make sure he is eating and sleeping well.
Now at Robert Morris getting ready for the season, Nettles is trying to snag a starting role on the Colonials’ roster.
His old days may seem like worlds apart, but he’s got a message for those who want to follow him.
“You’ve got to want to be good,” he said. “It’s not going to be given to you – you need to go out and work at it. If you want to be great, you can be great, but put yourself in an opportunity that’s going to make you be great.”
He adds that all his hard work only paid off because of the compassion of his family, as well as people who were once total strangers to him.
“I just want to thank the people that have been behind me,” Nettles said. “It’s been a lot of people, and I wouldn’t be here without them.”
Friends shed tears of joy
Rotella and Nuchereno, after years of caring for Nettles as one of their own, burst into tears talking about all he has done – for himself but also for them.
“This is what life is supposed to be about – making people’s lives better,” Nuchereno said. “When you can do it generally it’s one thing, but when it’s someone you know and feel, it’s so much better.”
And just because Nettles has gotten to college doesn’t mean the hard work is over, he said.
“I didn’t come here just to make the team,” he said. “I’m looking to start.”
That’s no surprise to the many families that helped get him there.
“He’s a permanent member of all of our lives,” Rotella said. “He’s going to make it.”