ALEXANDRIA — Midway through his run, Shirdetra Chark lost the ability to speak.
There was her little brother, DJ, racing down the field at Houston's NRG Stadium, weaving between linebackers, outracing defensive linemen and zipping by defensive backs.
The LSU fans boomed as he crossed the goal line.
A touchdown. ... A touchdown!
This was it. Finally, this was it. The first touchdown of his LSU career — and from 79 yards, no less. Here was Shirdetra, among the rocking crowd, her hands raised and her voice gone.
“I remember when he got the ball. I remember when he started running,” Shirdetra Chark said. “I remember yelling so loud that I lost my voice. My mouth was open, and nothing was coming out.”
Shirdetra lost her voice for reasons beyond the stress that screaming puts on a person’s throat. A month before that 2015 Texas Bowl game, doctors surgically inserted a stent in Shirdetra’s trachea to hold it open so she could breathe, so she could eat — so she could live.
It was her seventh throat procedure in seven months. The six prior were a result of the first procedure, a blunder by medical staff: While inserting a breathing tube, they accidentally punched a hole in her trachea and esophagus so large that she couldn’t eat for more than two months.
She slipped into a nine-day coma, lost 20 percent of her body weight in two weeks and, her mother said, nearly died.
“We were watching her slip away,” Shirley Chark said. “There was nothing we could do.”
Shirley Chark has her own medical story. So does Darrell, Shirdetra and DJ’s father. In freak accidents separated by about four years, each lost the ability to walk.
In 2000, Darrell was suspended in the air on a ladder while working construction on a partially built bridge. Loose concrete above him collapsed, the concrete chunks ripping from his back a swath of skin and pinning him, while 20 feet in the air, against the ladder.
Suffocating, he shook free and fell to the ground in what turned out to be a life-saving maneuver. He couldn’t walk straight for years; the concrete compressed four of his thoracic vertebrae and twisted his spine.
As a school teacher in 2004, Shirley lunged to help a special-needs child who was leaping onto a table, only to have the table and child crash on top of her, seriously damaging three vertebrae in her lower back.
And you thought DJ Chark’s biggest obstacle was waiting two long years to touch the football at LSU.
“It’s about keeping going,” Darrell Chark said. “Ain’t no quitting in this family.”
Foster Moreau’s mother told him to sleep in.
It was a reunion.
Everyone was there. Well, not everyone. Most of them were there, those who molded DJ Chark into the man LSU fans now, finally, know by name — the hotshot receiver poised for a monster senior season in 2017.
They were all there, gathered in the lobby of Chark’s former high school, known in this area by an acronym: ASH.
Chark hadn’t seen some of those people since his days at Alexandria Senior High. There was catching up to do on this Wednesday in late July.
Terrell Gorham needled Chark about his youth league days, when Gorham had no choice but to play little DJ at running back.
“He couldn’t catch,” Gorham laughed. “He really couldn’t catch.”
That was around the time DJ acquired his first of many nicknames. Gorham allowed players to choose a name — any name — for their jerseys. Scrawled on the back of DJ’s was one word, a moniker he’s still known by here: "Smooth."
“The way he ran,” Gorham said. “He was so small but so smooth.”
But the catching up was far from over at the ASH reunion.
DJ took photos with Mike Crenshaw, an admitted big LSU fan who coached DJ in track, the guy who first witnessed little DJ outrace high school girl sprinters nearly twice his age. Six years later, DJ advanced to the state meet because of his "ups," he was a long jumper.
Brad Chesshir drove in from southwest Arkansas, a four-hour haul, to see the receiver he coached at ASH, the one who racked up more than 1,500 yards in kick returns as a senior.
He recalled a skinny DJ Chark, even thinner than the 6-foot-4, 195-pounder is now. So skinny that he held no major college scholarship offers before a string of recruiting camps (Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and LSU) in the summer before his senior season.
That didn’t stop Chesshir from using Chark on the ground. He scored a touchdown on a jet sweep to beat rival Pineville in overtime. And here's fate finding a way around the defense that is time, all these years later: Many expect LSU first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada to plug DJ into a scheme partly built around that very play.
“All they've got to do is give him the handoff,” Chesshir said. “The jet sweep, that’s his style. That’s his element.”
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Finally, there was Duane Urbina, another longtime ASH educator and the principal the past seven years. There was no catching up to do with Mr. Urbina, DJ said. DJ visits ASH every time he’s in town, popping into basketball practice, peeking his head into the school’s main office and dropping by his former math teacher’s classroom.
The latter even puzzles his mother. Shirley Chark wonders aloud: What 19- or 20-year-old boy returns to his high school to meet with his math teacher?
The one who, in 13 years in the education system here, never missed a day of school.
DJ finished with a 3.9 grade-point average, Urbina said. He claimed all three major senior individual honors, too: Prom King, Mr. ASH and Most Outstanding Athlete.
“He had great parents,” Urbina said, gesturing to Shirley and Darrell across the school’s atrium. “I see so many kids that don’t have a push from home.”
To get to play football, Danny Etling had to strike a bargain with his mother back in the fo…
May 13, 2015
The date is tattooed on Shirdetra Chark’s mind.
She entered a doctor’s office for asthma issues, somewhat common for her at that time.
While there, her breathing became so difficult that she experienced symptoms of a heart attack. Staff members rushed her to an emergency room, hooked her up to a respirator and then ... nothing. It all went black.
“Next thing I know,” she said, “I wake up nine days later.”
Doctors induced a coma to control her severe breathing problems; in the process accidentally stabbing that hole in her throat. She couldn’t immediately have surgery to close the hole because she had lost so much weight during the coma. Doctors told Shirdetra her health was comparable to an 80-year-old cancer patient's.
But this was a 24-year-old new mother who spent the better part of her life as a dominant sprinter. It took more than six weeks in a nursing home-type facility for her to gain strength for surgery. She got nutrition from a feeding tube surgically implanted in her abdomen.
Those six weeks were the worst.
“I couldn’t swallow my own spit,” she said. “I suctioned it out for two months.”
Her brother took it hard. The two are tight, despite their six-year separation in age. They spent their childhood racing each other and caring for each other while their parents battled those serious back issues.
"We’re best friends," Shirdetra said.
Shirdetra’s hospitalization happened during LSU summer workouts before DJ’s sophomore season. He thrived in spring practice that year. He was the talk of the team, poised to burst into the rotation with Travin Dural, Malachi Dupre and John Diarse.
Few in the LSU football building, Shirdetra said, knew her brother was commuting to New Orleans to visit her.
He missed or was late to a least one workout that summer, his father said. He was disciplined, and he began to slip down the depth chart.
“It was pretty difficult,” DJ said.
DJ played in two of the first nine games that season. At one point, he told his father, “Dad, I’m hanging ’em up. I was a starter in the spring, and now they don’t use me.”
DJ admitted to being “very close” to leaving LSU. It got serious enough that then-receivers coach Tony Ball met with Darrell, DJ, Shirley and Shirdetra during the 2015 season.
The Charks weren’t the only ones baffled by DJ's lack of playing time.
"Who wasn't frustrated?" Crenshaw said.
Weeks later, LSU met Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl in Houston — site of the Tigers’ season opener against BYU this season. On a first-and-10 late in the first quarter, quarterback Brandon Harris handed the ball to DJ, running an end around.
He followed lead blocker Will Clapp to the outside, cut inside off a Diarse block and ran the next 50 yards untouched before dragging a Texas Tech safety into the end zone.
A photo of that play hangs in Shirley and Darrell’s home in a room filled with a small minibar, red-felt pool table, flat screen television and hundreds of pieces of memorabilia from their children’s sports careers: trophies, ribbons, banners, photos, DVDs, posters.
“They gave him that ball that night,” Darrell said pointing to the photo, “because they knew they should have played him.”
By that night, Shirdetra had been out of the hospital for about five months. She was growing healthier, pushed and motivated by her little brother. They helped each other during one of their most difficult times.
She was hospitalized. He wasn’t playing.
“During that time, I’m telling him, ‘You hang in there. Work hard enough, and they’ll play you,’ ” she said. “He’s in there telling me the same thing, but for a different situation. That’s how we got through that.”
At some point this summer, a Chrysler 300 slowly rolled down the alley behind the LSU footba…
ASH has produced its share of college football players.
In fact, two of DJ’s role models are Chris Brown and Nic Harris, former ASH stars who signed with Oklahoma in 2006 and 2005.
Chark always envisioned being the next great ASH graduate, a person whom others there emulate. Now he's doing just that.
DJ returned for an ASH football game last fall. He walked onto the sideline to the sound of his name being chanted by the student section. He can’t go anywhere around town without being noticed.
Sign this for me, DJ.
Take a photo with me, DJ.
“I call him Superstar,” said Dae’Von Washington, DJ’s closest friend, former ASH teammate and a linebacker at Louisiana Tech.
Washington gets caught up in it all, too. How could you not? DJ entered last season without a catch in his first two years in Baton Rouge. He exited with 26 for 466 yards, three touchdowns and people asking if he would return to college.
“People were like, ‘You getting your draft grade?’ I’m like, ‘Draft grade?’ They’re like, ‘For the NFL,' " DJ said. “In my head, I feel like a freshman. At first, (the NFL) was far-fetched, and then at the end of the season it became more realistic.”
He admitted to being “close” to leaving. Ultimately, his return could mean a diploma. He’s on pace to graduate in December, his parents said.
He’s now the figure they all look up to at ASH, a decade after his role models signed with Oklahoma and two decades after the last ASH player signed with LSU (quarterback Craig Nall in 1997).
A Chark excelling at ASH is not surprising, people there said. He’s the latest in a lineage to speed through the school.
“There have been Charks at ASH for 30 years,” said Crenshaw, now a special education teacher in the parish who coached DJ and his sister in track. “If they had the Chark name, you knew they could run.”
Crenshaw attended ASH with DJ’s uncles, Tim and John. They were sprinters and jumpers. Richard Brown, another of Chark’s uncles, broke famed LSU star Billy Cannon’s 100-meter record at a prep meet in Lafayette, Urbina said.
DJ’s sister, at one point, climbed to the No. 2 prep hurdler in the state, and she eventually signed a track scholarship with Nicholls State. Shirdetra is now a track coach at Dillard University in New Orleans while also serving as a fitness coach for Orange Theory Fitness.
“The Charks,” Urbina grinned. “Speed runs in their family.”
This place is special to DJ. He plays with the area code, 318, written on tape wrapped around his wrist, his parents said.
This place embraces the guy they still call Smooth. This community wraps its arms around him like New Orleans did Leonard Fournette. DJ hugs back.
“This place supported me,” he said, “even when I wasn’t playing.”
‘He really saved me’
Darrell Chark wears a dark fedora, tipped down to cover his forehead.
He shuffles along in white snake-skin dress shoes and black pants, a gold chain resting against a pink-and-gray checkered shirt. He's a notorious "pool shark," Washington said.
You wouldn’t know that a ton of concrete crushed the middle of his spine some 17 years ago. He never had surgery. It’s too risky for a thoracic injury. He opens a black medicine bag, exposing more than a dozen bottles, each holding dozens of pills.
It slows the pain. It doesn’t stop it.
The same goes for Shirley. They’re on disability, and they’re both in rehabilitation and will be, they said almost in unison, “for the rest of our lives.”
Doctors repaired two of Shirley’s damaged lower-back vertebrae. A third is resting on a nerve. Pain and tingling still shoot down her left leg. They were bedridden for long stretches but, thankfully, not simultaneously.
Darrell’s stretch was longer and tougher. He fell into what he called a “deep depression.” Before the injury, he was the quintessential working man, with a stay-at-home wife who raised two kids.
“I’m not going to say he gave up on life,” Shirdetra said. “He was in a position where he couldn’t provide for his family the way he wanted.”
“When I got hurt,” Darrell said, “I thought we were going to lose everything.”
Darrell’s main motivation came from his son, then around age 5. DJ harassed his father nearly each day to throw the football. Darrell slowly crawled out of bed, arriving in the backyard a few minutes later, hunched over in pain.
He did not want to do this. He hated it. He thought of a way out: Force DJ into difficult training exercises to make him quit. He made DJ pull tires, for instance.
“I started having him do stuff that a child shouldn’t,” Darrell said. “I was trying to break him, trying to make him quit. The more I did, the more he kept coming.”
“He got me out of the depression,” he said. “He really saved me.”
Darrell recently revealed this to DJ in an emotional conversation.
“As a family, each of us individually have gone through life-changing experiences,” Shirdetra said. “We persevered. When one of us is down, the other has been strong enough to pull the other out. I pulled DJ out. He pulled me out. DJ pulled Dad out. We were able to pull Mom out. We’ve been through so much. Today, we can enjoy life and sit back and relax.”
There’s no relaxing for DJ.
He’s expected to be a senior leader for an LSU team that starts the season No. 13 in the nation. Chark joins running back Derrius Guice as players whom Canada wants to feature in his snazzy new spread offense.
How respected is he on this team? Shirley said coach Ed Orgeron offered him the team's revered No. 18 jersey, saved for players recognized by their peers as the ultimate teammate. He turned that down in favor of another recent legacy, taking No. 7, following in the line of some greats: Fournette, Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu.
The new No. 7 is set to debut at the same place his breakout began — in Houston at NRG Stadium.
Shirdetra won’t be there this go-round, but she will be watching from home.
This time, she’s hoping her voice will last past the first quarter. Doctors finally mended the hole in her throat two months after that emergency room trip on May 13, 2015. The surgery was eight hours long, and it took three teams of surgeons — plastic, thoracic and ear-nose-and-throat — to do the job.
She’s back to, mostly, living a normal life — aside from a sometimes-scratchy throat, spells of coughing and an occasional need for an oxygen tank.
It could be worse — much, much worse.
Doctors struggled reviving her from that nine-day coma. She was almost lost.
“Only thing I remember in the coma was shooting pool with Jesus,” Shirdetra said. “I told my parents that. My dad said, ‘Who won?’
“I had solids, and he had stripes. I had five balls left, and he had the 8-ball. He hit in the 8-ball, and then the white ball went in behind it.”
Shirdetra paused, retelling the story she told her parents from that hospital bed in New Orleans two years ago.
“I said, ‘Mom, Jesus scratched.’ ”
Darrell chimed in: “Must not have been your time.”