Wesley Chapel High senior Kris Chandler wasn’t sure he’d ever see the football field. But, fortitude overcame frustration and he’ll start Friday’s season opener for the Wildcats.

Hidden in what could very well emerge as one of the top rushing attacks in Pasco County is a back that you’ve probably never heard of.

Hitting the holes has never been a problem for Wesley Chapel High (WCH)’s Kris Chandler. Hitting the books, however, has.

But, no longer.

After three years of high school, with each of those football seasons spent practicing with the Wildcats but unable to compete because of academic requirements, Chandler will start tonight’s season opener against Sunlake in a great comeback story.

Chandler originally attended Wharton High in New Tampa, but transferred to Wesley Chapel (WCH) after a semester. That first year in high school after moving from Alabama, however, put him in an academic hole he thought he’d never climb out of.

“My first semester at Wharton was hard,” Chandler said. “We had just moved from Alabama and I didn’t like it here. I was resentful, mad, my whole focus was on going back.”

There was no going back, however. So, Chandler had to move forward. He came to WCH with a 0.7 GPA, making him ineligible to compete in high school sports. While he was still allowed to practice with the team, he could not suit up on Friday nights for games.

Head coach Tony Egan took an interest in Chandler, because he saw enough raw athletic ability that he thought the running back could one day play his way into a college football scholarship.

“I’ve always thought he was good enough to play D1 football,” Egan said. “Athletically, he’s a little raw but he’s as strong as can be. You should see him in tackling drills, he’s just a beast.”

First things first, Egan told Chandler. The coach got with his player’s teachers, sat down with Chandler in front of guidance counselors and helped put him back on track to attaining eligibility.

Egan admits that it was an uphill climb from 0.7. Chandler’s sophomore year went by, but his grade-point-average slowly climbed.

He took summer classes, online classes and retook classes through Apex, an online virtual school. He was still ineligible as a junior, but he kept showing up for practice, and kept showing out in the classroom.

Halfway through his junior year, he had raised his GPA to 1.78. By then, the Chandler project was taken up by his teammates and teachers. He credits science teacher Susan Cullum and SSAP/graduation enhancement counselor Celeste Richter for helping turn things around. Then-teammates Dexter Leverett, Malik Melvin and Isaiah Bolden encouraged him. Assistant coaches Nelson Vazquez and Delroy Lewis worked with him after school.

It turned Chandler’s attitude toward schoolwork on its head.

“I would turn my work in early, so my teachers could check it and make sure I had done everything right,” he says.

This past June, at the end of his junior year, Chandler nervously awaited his grades.

“I went in to the library to check with Ms. Richter, to see if I would have to take summer school again,” he said. “She was sitting there behind the computer, smiling. She told me I had done it. I asked her, ‘Are you sure?’. She turned the computer around and showed me.”

He had climbed all the way out of his hole. The computer monitor displayed a 2.3 GPA.

Chandler left the library and immediately sent his mother a text with the good news. He also sent texts to his sister, older brother and dad. He ran over to the weight room to tell his coaches.

Chandler was cleared to play in 2018, so he could take the summer off and focus on conditioning with the football team.

“It took a lot of weight off my shoulders,” Chandler said. “I think about it every day. I promise you, there’s no danger of sliding back now.”

It’s no secret what Egan likes to do on offense — run the ball down your throat, and Chandler could be his battering ram in 2018.

Egan coached offensive line at River Ridge High when the Royal Knights rushed for more than 3,000 yards in both 2014 (3338) and 2015 (3166). As head coach at WCH, Egan guided Leverett to consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, with Melvin serving as a dangerous complement in the rushing game, building one of the area’s most productive ground attacks.

Chandler’s one year of high school football will be a big one, as he steps into the role vacated by his former teammates.

Egan says that Chandler squats 450 pounds, bench presses 320 and can power clean 285. He also runs a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. Chandler looks like a high school version of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin — short, with a compact frame and tree trunks for legs. What’s more, Chandler has an awful lot to prove, not just to himself but to all of the people who helped him get to where he is.

He got to pull a game jersey over his head on August 7 for the team pictures. On August 17, as we were going to press with this issue, he saw his first live game action in a preseason matchup against Land O’ Lakes.

But tonight, it’s for real.

Tonight, Chandler officially makes it all the way back.

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