TAMPA — The sun would rise over the banks of the Illinois River in the small northeastern Oklahoma town of Tahlequah, the dawn of a new day in the capital of the Cherokee Nation — and a young Brent Caldwell would wonder where he'd sleep that night when the sun went down.
For six months, his bed was along the banks of the river, either in a tent or the backseat of his mother's car. Every other month would present a new move, from tents to studio apartments to trailer parks. Even then, his mother would disappear for weeks, and when food ran out, Caldwell and his older sister, Brienna, would stay at friends' houses for nourishment.
In a Native American community overrun with drugs, alcohol and poverty, it was difficult to not follow the trend.
"I just turned 26," Caldwell, an assistant coach for Chamberlain's football team, said recently. "Growing up, I never thought I'd make it to 25. I really didn't."
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Four days before the Chamberlain football team faced its toughest task of the season, a Class 5A region final matchup with national power Lakeland, Brent Caldwell was the last coach on the field after a three-hour practice.
Last year he walked into Chamberlain's main office, hair to his shoulders, and asked if he could help coach the football team. He earned an assistant teaching position and is now the offensive line coach.
"He will do anything," longtime Chamberlain coach Billy Turner, 71, said. "He'll bring out the water. He will tape ankles. Anything you want, he will do it."
Earlier this season, one that began with aspirations of Turner's first state title in his 30 years at Chamberlain and ended with a 40-20 loss to Lakeland, coaches gathered players for a bonding exercise. Each player and coach told the group one story about his past. Caldwell told the team about growing up without a father, the instability of his home life, getting caught up in drug and alcohol abuse, moving out when he was 16.
"None of us knew about that," Turner said. "It was a surprise for us."
In Tahlequah, a town of 14,458, 18.5 percent of the families live below the poverty line, more than half the national average. Caldwell's life was no different. Money was scarce. But drugs weren't.
"I started going down the wrong path," said Caldwell, who is Native American. "Most people do drugs to get high. We just did it because it was there. I never had anything seriously wrong happen to me; but I've been next to someone who was convulsing and ODing; I've seen all that. I've lived through waking up to a call saying two or three of your buddies are dead because they were doing drugs and they were drinking and driving and suddenly they're not alive anymore."
But he had one way out — football.
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With his size, Caldwell always had a knack for football. He was an all-state guard in high school, and after watching Syracuse play on television he decided he wanted to go there. "I wanted to go there because it was the furthest I knew from Oklahoma," he said.
He was accepted to Syracuse and walked on to the football team. He earned a scholarship after his sophomore year, but a coaching change led him to transfer to UMass, where he earned a degree in history. After graduation, Caldwell became a graduate assistant for the Minutemen, which turned him on to coaching.
"Football is the one stable thing in my life since I was 3 years old," Caldwell said. "That's why I spend so much time doing it."
He moved to Tampa for a fresh start, and he got that at Chamberlain. He's an example to the kids he coaches that difficult childhoods can be overcome.
"When I told them my story, they really don't understand at first because it seems like I have a pretty straight-on head," Caldwell said. "I've got a job and I'm pretty balanced in what I do. But I know where these kids are coming from when they have no food and don't have any money and are always staying at other people's houses and feel like bums.
"As a kid, that's the worst feeling in the world, knowing that you really don't have anything stable in your life."
And now both Caldwell and Chamberlain are better for it.