Cal Poly

College Football: Cal Poly’s Chen found his own path to success

Senior James Chen, who was an emancipated minor in high school, recently completed a five-year career as a defensive tackle at Cal Poly.
Senior James Chen, who was an emancipated minor in high school, recently completed a five-year career as a defensive tackle at Cal Poly. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

College football coaches really do look at unsolicited game film.

With the high volume of players sending clips in search of an elusive scholarship, it’s hard to believe coaches have the time to watch enough of them to make it a worthwhile strategy.

Yet, it happens.

And it was while watching one such tape from Northwood High in Irvine in 2004 that the staff of former Cal Poly head football coach Rich Ellerson fell in love with an unintended target.

Though the return address featured another name, the answer to “who’s number 56?” was all Mustangs coaches wanted to know.

Fifty-six was James Chen — a two-way lineman who was the pride of the school. He was also an emancipated minor whose tumultuous relationship with his parents had him on the brink of quitting sports altogether before he left home to support himself.

To get to Chen, Ellerson had to go through his school counselor, a woman who opened her doors to keep the local hero from wandering from house to house and sleeping on the street.

ATHLETIC CAREER ALMOST DERAILED

Chen, a 6-foot-2, 270-pound fifth-year senior defensive tackle for the Mustangs, didn’t envision himself as a college athlete.

Having been solely responsible for his own well-being since he was 16, Chen naturally assumed he would have to give up the fun of games and enter the real world after graduation.

Though fully prepared to give up athletics in college, Chen almost saw his three-sport career ended much earlier.

His parents divorced when he was 11, and Chen was never ready for the day his mother remarried and moved in with a stepfamily.

The transition created a collision between Chen’s siblings, which include four other brothers and two sisters, and a new stepfather and two stepsisters.

Chen succumbed to a common fear — that his mother would choose her new husband over him — and it immediately led to personality conflicts within the family.

He said he watched two older brothers get kicked out of the house and sent to homes for troubled youths.

Now in high school and worried that he was next, Chen just started dodging home altogether.

He would sleep over with friends — and keep sleeping over until their moms and dads got wise. Then he would move on to another place.

A time or two, he said, there was no other place.

“There were a couple nights that I had to sleep at a bus stop,” Chen said. “It was fine with me. I didn’t think anything of it. I just liked being out of the house and being on my own.”

On top of grade troubles in school, the behavior led to police calls and missing reports and finally to threats from his parents that they would pull Chen from the football, wrestling and track and field teams.

SEEING POTENTIAL

Anne Klenk, 57, is the counselor at Northwood High.

Her daughter Erin was dating a new sophomore boy her junior year and Klenk wanted to get to know him as best she could.

He was already spending many of his evenings eating dinner at her house and staying late into the night.

Those late nights, after which she would drive him back to his parents’ house, and the time she spent driving Erin and Chen to his athletic events made her as close as she had ever gotten to one of her students.

But the deeper she delved, the bigger the urge she felt to do something more.

“There’s just something about James that after getting to know him, I saw a great potential in him,” Klenk said, “and his home situation was such that if he stayed in his home, it wasn’t going to happen.

“Every coach at the school wanted him to play their sport and just saw him as a very hardworking kid who would do anything they would ask him to do.”

She offered Chen a room to stay for a week or two while they could work to find him something more permanent, and Chen looked into ways he could be away from his parents without worrying about the authorities.

EMANCIPATION

For Chen, the answer was emancipation.

It didn’t mean he would never see his mother or siblings again. He had two of his brothers walking with him for senior night at Cal Poly this fall, and he’s begun to reconnect with his mother and stepfather, going back to their house in Irvine for holiday visits.

But at the time, Chen’s mother, Jane, gave her blessing to the emancipation, which he began the spring of his sophomore year at Northwood.

In a quest that actually made him a more appealing football recruit, Chen not only had to prove to the court that he could support himself financially but also had to raise his grades.

Mustangs coaches are known for only targeting players they know can handle the rigorous course load and academic standards at Cal Poly.

In what was a longer process than expected for Chen and the Klenk family, neither of which had any legal experience with emancipation, he was able to persuade the court that he could pay rent and live on his own, but that alternate living situation never materialized.

After a couple of failed attempts to move Chen elsewhere, the Klenks just felt as if he was part of the family, even if they weren’t the only ones helping him.

He worked as a handyman planting trees, scrubbing ceilings and doing other odd jobs for high school faculty, who were all aware of his living situation. He even took on a job as a janitor at the high school at the end of his senior year.

Several mothers from the team banded together to purchase him a letterman’s jacket when they found out that the team captain in the affluent school was the only player without one.

And Chen was a regular at a number of different dinner tables.

Still, when looking back, Erin said it felt as though they were living “The Blind Side,” a motion picture based on the best-selling book that detailed the adoptive situation between NFL tackle Michael Oher and the family that took him in when he was in high school.

The Klenks taught Chen how to drive and eventually let him use their third car. They bought him his first pair of track shoes for discus and shot put events when he was the only one throwing in sneakers.

They drove him up the coast and moved him in at Cal Poly, where supporting himself was no longer an issue while he was on scholarship.

“This is where I was able to blossom because I didn’t have to worry about those extra things,” Chen said. “Football teaches you responsibility and time management, hard work and all those great qualities.”

PURSUING A CAREER

Cal Poly could send a player or two to the professional football ranks this season, an occurrence that’s become almost commonplace since Jordan Beck was a third-round pick in the NFL Draft under Ellerson’s tutelage in 2005.

Ellerson is gone, having left for Army after the 2008 season. Receiver Dominique Johnson has the size and hands of a pro prospect, and linebacker Marty Mohamed is an All-America candidate.

But considering his path, the biggest success story could be Chen, who won’t become a professional in his chosen field for at least another four years.

An aspiring doctor preparing for medical school, the microbiology major carries a 3.64 grade-point average and along with teammate Brandon Roberts was selected to the CoSIDA/EPSN Academic All-District 8 first team.

Thinking about a specialization in infectious disease, Chen isn’t ruling out sports medicine. He’s had enough injuries — a knee ligament tear and pelvic fracture, among others — during his all-conference football career to become familiar with team doctors.

Ellerson once called Chen the best defensive player on the team, but both player and coach knew he was in college to pursue a career outside of football.

With an uncle he idolized for his family practice and impact on the local community, Chen has always wanted to go into medicine.Before he met Ellerson, though, Chen never thought football could take him there.

Rather than spending his time making highlight films in high school, Chen spent one semester working four nights a week part-time at a restaurant and starting his handyman business in his effort to prove he could support himself without parents.

“I was kind of in the belief that no matter where I went, I was going to get a full-time job no matter what,” Chen said.

“No one was making those films or begging me to go on” playing football.

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