Thousands of people dream of reaching the NFL. Those who make it are a small bunch. And each NFL player will tell you a different story about how they reached the pros. Perhaps they were born into a football-loving family. Or raised in a football-crazy environment. One example of an area known for its intense focus on football is Jacksonville, Florida.
The story of Jeff Chandler is slightly different. The passionate football attitude in Jacksonville never grabbed him. Some might be even be miffed to hear that the Washington Redskins' kicker has described finding football an "accident."
He paid little attention to the dedicated and famously productive football programs in Jacksonville. Or that such programs have served as a solid foundation for high school football players with dreams of reaching the NFL, like former Mandarin graduate Sam Cowart, who is now a linebacker for the New York Jets.
The list goes on. This season alone, Jacksonville-area high school boasts 12 NFL players on its roster. And Jeff Chandler is one of them.
But when Jeff first walked through the front doors of Mandarin High School, playing for the NFL was never a goal. In fact, his main concern was preventing an opposing team from obtaining a goal, a soccer goal. He was a star goalie for the Mandarin Mustangs soccer team. Things would soon change.
Ask Jeff now when his favorite time in high school was and he'll tell you, "Friday nights." That's because right before senior year, a Mustang kicker graduated, leaving a spot open for someone who had a strong leg. Coach Craig Howard asked Jeff to be his new kicker. Jeff had never kicked a football before that moment, but he gave it a shot. "I was hooked," said Jeff.
And the story begins.
Playing football for the first time in his life was not a smooth transition from soccer. Jeff frequently received advice from his football teammates who also played multiple sports.
"They helped me out a lot because I had never played football before. Just sitting around and talking to those guys made it easier for me to adjust."
Jeff more than adjusted to the game. He would sometimes play the position of wide-receiver in addition to being a star kicker. When he graduated from Mandarin in 1997, he was an All-District Kicker and Punter, three-time All-Gateway Conference goalkeeper in soccer, and a letterwinner in tennis.
He is extremely thankful to those in the Jacksonville area who have made an impact on his life. "I lived here all my life," said Jeff.
"I was lucky enough to have people who supported me and pushed me along the way. There were a lot of great teachers and great people around our athletic department and faculty. They have been a big support group, especially when I played soccer and then football."
The hectic agenda of juggling soccer, football, and tennis taught Jeff the importance of time management. "The schedule kept me focus and in line," said Jeff. This positive attitude continued in his college career.
After Mandarin, Jeff continued his football career as a walk-on at the University of Florida. In 2000, he was voted UF's most outstanding special teams player for the season. He is also Florida's all-time leading scorer with 368 points and 67 field goals. During the 2002 NFL draft, Jeff was selected by the San Francisco 49ers. He also played briefly for the Jaguars before being released.
The game of football has taught Jeff some valuable life lessons.
"Football includes a lot of hard work, ups and downs. I never really got cut from a team. Football is a tough business and everyone gets cut. You learn to deal with adversity and learn to use it as fuel."
Jeff advises the next generation of Mandarin football players to "Dream big!" and "Give it a shot" no matter how hopeless it may seem.
In the future, Jeff hopes to give this advice to the Mandarin football team in person. He currently lives in Jacksonville and has considered the possibility of going back to Mandarin to coach after his professional career.
"I think it would be fun to coach kids and provide a testament by saying, 'Hey, I used to play on this field 10 years ago&' It's great to see players go back to their high schools and give back to those people who gave them their start and put them where they are."
The goalie-turned-kicker will never forget his days in Mandarin or Coach Craig Howard for giving him an opportunity to try something new.
Jeff happily sighed, "Any time we see each other, we reminisce about Friday nights."