ATLANTA — Saahdiq Charles ambles across the parking lot toward Roasters Rotisserie. He usually would have gone home after the workout, maybe showered and relaxed, but today, he and two trainers sped right to lunch.
“I’m hungry,” Charles says, stepping inside.
For the two months he has been in Atlanta, living with his cousin in an Airbnb, training with a bodybuilder and an offensive line guru, Charles has leaned on the familiar. Days filled with meals, workouts, naps and Netflix have smoothed the 21-year-old’s transition into adulthood, though he doesn’t “necessarily feel like a grown-up.” The license that permits him to drive the black BMW X6 parked outside — the one nicknamed “the Batmobile” — is vertical, and when he recently signed on a new apartment, he was shocked to discover the electric bill came separate from the rent.
Yet Charles chose this. He won a national championship at LSU and, figuring he had nothing left to prove, entered the NFL draft. Several coaches thought this was a mistake, even though Charles was considered a top talent. He had been suspended six games last year and was sure to be tagged with the dreaded label of “character concerns” — the NFL’s catchall for a prospect with more to his story than just football ability.
Charles slid to the fourth round, where Washington’s selection of him presented a unique opportunity. While No. 2 overall pick Chase Young was the centerpiece of new coach Ron Rivera’s draft, Charles might very well have been its most pivotal acquisition. Following the acrimonious departure of Pro Bowl regular Trent Williams, the team is searching for stability at left tackle, and Charles will have the opportunity to compete for the starting job.
To prove he’s up to the task, Charles must become, as he puts it, a man about his business. He must pull off the transition as a global pandemic limits training and shrouds the season with uncertainty. He must get stronger, overcome pitfall impulses from his past and display a resilience first flashed as a 6-year old, when he rode out Hurricane Katrina with his mother in a New Orleans hospital. In other words, Charles must grow — and grow up.
In a small way, it’s why he’s here at Roasters. Roc Shabazz, a trainer and former Mr. Olympia competitor, devised an intense diet for Charles based on his blood type, and Charles understands that if he doesn’t do the little things, such as eat and sleep right, he loses weight. This is concerning for a lineman, because less mass means less power. Shabazz hounds Charles via text and FaceTime to stick to the strict schedule, because he believes Charles has a shot at greatness.
Shabazz has trained elite athletes, such as Ray Lewis and Shaquille O’Neal, and he says Charles’s blend of length, strength and balance gives him the build of “a Greek god.” Yet Shabazz grades Charles’s work outside the weight room — sleep, recovery, nutrition — a 3 out of 10. He’s supposed to eat five meals a day, no excuses. But a few weeks ago, the scale showed he was a half-dozen pounds short of his goal weight (about 310), revealing that Charles had been shirking some meals, eating too much popcorn and not enough steak.
Now, at Roasters, Charles regretfully shakes his head.
“They didn’t have a meal plan at LSU?” asks Omar Whavers, a trainer.
“They did, but it wasn’t like this,” Charles replies.
The waiter arrives: half-pound, all-white chicken rotisserie, turnip greens and rice. It’s Charles’s second meal of the day. For now, he is on track.
Can he be accountable?
In the NFL, “character concerns” is shorthand for any player who could become a headache, and it encompasses a broad array of offenses. Players could be charged with crimes, violate team rules, have a bad attitude or do anything, really — such as when an anonymous scout blasted cornerback Eli Apple ahead of the 2016 draft for having “no life skills. At all. Can’t cook.”
The tag has become a black box, equating every misdeed, making it an insufficient descriptor of individual cases as well as a difficult label for prospects to shed.
By the time Charles declared for the draft in January, he had earned the tag. LSU had suspended him twice in three seasons; the second was for a third failed drug test for marijuana, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situation. Experts evaluated Charles as gifted but raw and risky. Criticism reached a crescendo when an unidentified member of the LSU program told Yahoo that Charles was “not reliable” and “tremendously immature.”
Several teams removed Charles from their draft boards. They worried less about marijuana and more about whether the suspensions showed he was “unaccountable” — a damning distinction in the league. But Washington warmed up to Charles as it looked into his story. Senior director of player development Malcolm Blacken spoke to Charles several times, and Rivera was impressed when LSU Coach Ed Orgeron told him Charles owned his suspension and “didn’t try to blame anybody … but himself.” Washington’s evaluators assigned Charles — who they believed had first-round talent — a draft slot and spoke with owner Daniel Snyder.
“We explained the circumstances and explained the homework we did on the young man,” Rivera said in an interview. “We felt confident enough that this was the kind of guy who’d come in and do things our way, which he has done. He’s been very good.”
While Charles’s situation might seem similar to that of Derrius Guice — the team’s previous “character concerns” draft pick from LSU, recently cut after an arrest on domestic violence-related charges — Rivera believes it is not.
“These circumstances were completely different,” he said.
Deep down, the “not reliable” label digs at Charles’s central conflict. Is he, as supporters say, a good kid who will grow and succeed? Or will immaturity prevent him from fulfilling his potential? It leads to the question standing between the prospect he is and the star he could become: Can Saahdiq Charles be accountable?
According to Charles, yes. He says the suspensions were incidents, not displays of character, and that he has grown. When asked to explain what happened at LSU, to tell his side of the story others have long told for him, he declines. The past is the past, he says, though it’s impossible to know if he’s skirting the issue or showing maturity by taking the high road.
“Coach O told me to never talk about it,” he says. “I gave him my word.”
‘Tough as hell on me’
In a fancy Brazilian steakhouse in a northern Atlanta suburb, Charles begins to unspool his story, one that starts in August 2005, when days after his first youth football game, Hurricane Katrina barreled toward New Orleans and changed his life forever.
Back then, almost everyone fled the city. But Charles’s mom, Patricia Burrell, couldn’t go. She was a nurse. So she and her 6-year-old son left their neighborhood, New Orleans East, where Katrina hit the hardest, and went west, into the heart of the city.
“They couldn’t evacuate all the patients out of the hospital. Like, somebody had to stay and work,” Charles says. “My mom just felt giving, like …” He pauses. “It’s my mom.”
They moved into what was then Memorial Medical Center. The hurricane battered the Uptown hospital, shattering windows, knocking out power, cutting off running water. Katrina turned Memorial into an island and an oven — without electricity, temperatures inside soared above 100 degrees.
Day by day, the water rose. Charles remembers seeing doctors and nurses rushing around, their patients clinging to life, their reserves of food and blood dwindling. Sometimes, when he peered out the windows, he saw people smashing storefronts and grabbing whatever they could. Other times, he saw people swimming.
“We were in there like a week or so,” Charles says. “We went through a lot.”
After the storm subsided and Burrell had done all she could, they left. Charles abandoned the short life he had lived in New Orleans, losing friends and contact with his father. They moved often, a pattern of serial relocation that disrupted life for many of the estimated 372,000 children displaced by Katrina. The storm forced the largest migration of Americans since the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.
Burrell refused to let her son be swept away. In Jackson, Miss., where they eventually settled, she assigned chores and demanded good grades. She wasn’t strict, Charles says, but she instilled a sense of accountability. Once, when she discovered her son had two or three C’s, she pulled him from the middle of a baseball game.
“She don’t play that [stuff], man,” he says. “Glad she didn’t, though.”
Charles came to see sports not only as protection from his “tough” neighborhood in North Jackson but also as a means to form friendships like the ones he had lost by moving. Sunrise to streetlights, Charles would play basketball in the cul-de-sac and tag and soccer at the park. But after his sophomore year, Charles decided football was his future. He transferred to Madison-Ridgeland Academy, a wealthy school with a good football team. Burrell hadn’t wanted him to go, but she was swayed by the no-nonsense attitude of Coach Herbert Davis.
“Coach Davis and Coach [Kenny] Williams, they was tough as hell on me,” Charles says, beaming. “They kind of motivated me to be the tough player I am.”
Junior year, Charles moved from defensive line to left tackle, and big-time scholarship offers poured in. Charles embraced LSU, yearning to play in front of the aunties and godparents who had returned to New Orleans and never seen one of his games.
Yet on the day Orgeron visited Jackson, LSU assistant coach Jeff Grimes couldn’t get a hold of Charles. Grimes was accustomed to cutthroat recruiting tactics in the SEC, and he suspected Ole Miss or Mississippi State might have Charles holed up in a hotel to prevent Orgeron from seeing him. But just as Grimes pulled up to the airport, Charles called to apologize: He had fallen asleep.
Remembering the incident, Charles chuckles. It was only a near disaster, right?
Madison-Ridgeland’s Williams, a mentor, defends Charles against accusations of immaturity, saying, “I can go back and search everybody’s character at 18 to 20 and show you flaws.” He believes Charles is determined to prove himself, and he knows what Charles has gone through. In high school, Williams worried Charles might be too good at fitting in, that sometimes he didn’t know how or when to tell friends no. It’s possible, perhaps, to see links between those moments and what, years later, got Charles into trouble.
By the time Charles walked into interviews at the NFL scouting combine, he had told the story of his life hundreds of times. The powerful men asking whether they could trust him, whether he really was a “character concern,” felt no different from the curious kids across the Deep South who asked Charles every year who he was and why he was there.
“I always had people talking to me,” Charles says, “trying to figure out who I am.”
The next day, walking onto the Norcross High football field, offensive line guru Willie Anderson’s expression goes from grin to grimace. There’s so much to teach Charles. In the NFL, defensive linemen will find his weaknesses; Washington offensive line coach John Matsko will ride him hard; losses will feel like agony after a lifetime of winning.
Best-case scenario this season, Anderson says, Charles competes for the starting job at left tackle. It will be a challenge, and Charles will be punished for inconsistencies he previously overcame with talent. But Anderson believes that once Charles fuses natural athleticism with refined technique, he could be one of the NFL’s best linemen.
During practice, to illustrate a point, Anderson mentions Trent Williams and drops into a stance to mimic Washington’s former left tackle. Charles furrows his brow; he has seen this before.
Charles has long admired Williams, studying his game tape and molding his playing style after him. But since Washington drafted him, the Williams comparisons have felt heavier. Instagram commenters say he’s replacing Williams, whose formidable legacy includes seven Pro Bowls. Charles disagrees, saying he wants to just be himself. “I wasn’t really thinking about him, honestly,” he adds.
As Anderson finishes his explanation, he marvels at Williams’s size and speed. Jared Southers, another lineman, jokes the technique is unrealistic for anyone other than Williams. Charles scoffs.
“That’s some [stuff] I be doing,” he says.
For the last drill, Anderson puts orange cones in a square. The linemen must slide, shuffle and sprint around them. Charles seems to glide through the drill, but Anderson stares him down.
“In the NFL, D-line coaches are looking at everything,” he says. “The way you propel yourself with your arms” — Anderson makes small arm circles — “he’s going to see it and tell his players, ‘Time his arms up.’ ” He pauses. “Don’t give them [stuff] to look at.”
“Yes, sir,” Charles says.
Minutes later, Charles again explodes out of his stance. He flies around the cones, grass crunching under his feet like fresh snow. Throughout the drill, his arms stay steady, and in moments like these, when he’s so determined, so talented, it’s hard to imagine he won’t make it.
Challenges off the field
At 10:54 the next morning, nearly three hours after Charles was supposed to work out, Shabazz picks up his phone.
“Where you at?” the trainer asks, frowning. Pause. “How many times you eat?” Pause. Charles is off track. “Mhm.”
Thirty-two minutes later, the Batmobile pulls up outside. Charles joins the workout and goes hard, compensating for his tardiness. He feels confident in his ability to course-correct, as he did after blowing his first monthly stipend from LSU — roughly $700, the most money he had ever had — on shoes. Later, the 17-year-old had to text his mom and ask for money to buy food. This was perhaps the scenario the LSU official envisioned when, in the scorching, pre-draft Yahoo story, he said Charles “gravitated toward trouble when he didn’t have money, so what’s going to happen when he does?”
Charles rejects the implication. Slowly, he felt ashamed by those texts home and learned to save. Now, by NFL standards, he’s economical. He bought his BMW used, for about half the $100,000 list price. He rented a one-bedroom Airbnb in Atlanta and made his cousin, Tosh, sleep on the couch. He eats at Fogo de Chao only for lunch because it’s $18 cheaper than dinner.
In the gym, Charles crushes five sets of bench press — but it doesn’t erase his mistake. Later, Shabazz pulls him aside. He knows the dangers out there, the lapses in judgment, the friends who really aren’t. He removes his glasses.
“You’re young, and you’re just getting started, and you have so many things to focus on,” Shabazz says later, describing the conversation. “[You] have to … say: ‘Okay, this person’s in my life. Is he an asset or a liability?’ [You] have to cut those liabilities out.”
Charles nods. He’s still tense. Feet away, there’s a speed bag bolted to the wall, and Charles drops into a boxer’s stance. He jabs right, left, right, left until he’s unloading, grinning and swinging, the bag spinning in its socket. One punch rattles the top of the machine and a water bottle crashes to the floor, spraying all over his clean, gray-and-white high-tops.
“That was dumb,” he mutters. “You gotta think before you do some [stuff], Saahdiq.”
Arriving in Washington
Four days later, Charles packs the Batmobile and leaves the Airbnb, driving north toward another new beginning. In Washington, Rivera awaits, pleased with the rookie’s progress but ready to see him on the field. The team doesn’t yet know which version of Charles it’ll get. It’s not possible to be both who he was at LSU and the player Washington hopes he will be.
An hour before Charles signs his new contract at the team facility, he pulls out his iPhone. His signing bonus alone will be worth 1,000 times more than the college stipend that once felt like winning the lottery. He looks at the lock screen, the one he set right after the draft. Sometimes, it fades into the background of his life, but now, he looks at it hard. He wants to see this message every day, internalize it, carry it from summer to fall to the rest of his life.
I Am Dependable
I Am Trustworthy
I Am Reliable