TAMPA — It may seem like just another play in an inconsequential game, but when Todd Chandler takes the field in USF's football opener Sept. 1 against Chattanooga, it will be a moment nearly three years in the making.
"I can't wait. If it's the last play of the game, I'm just so excited, I might just break down and cry right there," said Chandler, a sophomore defensive tackle from Miami's Liberty City neighborhood who last played at Miami Northwestern High in 2009.
It hasn't been easy for Chandler, who came to USF with high expectations, rated the nation's No. 7 defensive tackle by ESPN. He redshirted his first season, then had to drop a class that first year, which put him below the NCAA minimum of nine credit hours in a semester and made him ineligible last season. That second year away was difficult, but it changed him.
"It built me as a person," said Chandler, who worked on USF's scout team and was named its defensive MVP. "It built me up. It hurt real bad, knowing I couldn't do whatever my role was going to be last year. But like Coach (Skip) Holtz tells me, I put myself in this position, so I have to work through it."
Chandler found a new focus, improving his grades and attending church at Extreme Life Ministries in Tampa with his mother, Ruskin resident Taweaka Martin. The short but powerful 310-pounder changed in football as well, dedicating himself in the weight room and showing coaches commitment in practice.
"When Todd really impressed me was a year ago," Holtz said. "It was a hard experience for Todd to go through last year. … It's a shame to go through a lesson like that and not learn from it. I saw him become a leader last year. His mind-set changed. Here's a guy that was ineligible a year ago that's sitting, watching, but I thought his attitude changed tremendously. He has a chance to help this football team."
Martin said her son was grounded by the harsh contrast of going from high school star to just another player at USF, then watching others get on the field when he couldn't.
"Him not playing those two years really made him appreciate the fact that he has to really work hard to stay on top of his game," said Martin, who works for A Kid's Place, a nonprofit charity in Brandon for abused and neglected children. "It really humbled him a lot. You go from being the big man on campus in high school where everybody knows your name to college, where you're up against players who have been there two or three years, where nobody knows your name."
Just as the absence of football changed him the presence of his daughter Tod'Jhay, who will turn 2 next week, has been a major part of his maturation. He came home from his first USF training camp for her birth, and she now lives with Chandler's mother, where he can see her every day. His maturation has run parallel with fatherhood.
"It gave me patience," he said. "It controlled my anger a lot. I used to have a real bad temper. I wasn't able to listen to the message the coaches were trying to get to me. My daughter taught me to take a deep breath and talk it out, explain what's going on."
She knows the Bulls hand sign and "talks all day," he says, and she'll watch with her mother and grandmother in less than a month when her father realizes a dream. Chandler is battling for a spot on USF's two-deep depth chart, but all he wants is a chance to play.
"If they want me to run down on punt return, I'll do anything," he said. "I feel like I owe these guys everything. During that suspension, all my teammates were in my ear, saying, 'Don't give up. Just keep pushing. Go to class.' I owe them that much, to do whatever my role is on this team. …I knew at some point I had to change what I was doing, to do something different. This year, it showed."
And his mother, who went back to school and earned her GED the week Chandler graduated, is still inspired by her son. So she too looks forward to that first play with pride.
"My baby told me, 'Mama, I can't wait to feel the turf under my feet,' " she said. "That's what every football player wants. … Todd is an amazing kid. I'm so proud of him."