After Tyrell Chavis got the call from the Giants, who wanted to sign him as an undrafted free agent out of Penn State two weeks ago, the first person he told was his mother.
Then he told his other mother. His Long Island mother.
That would be Cheryl Coles of Shirley, the woman who took him into her home after he was without a place to live during most of his two years as a player for Nassau Community College. She and her son Marc, who was Chavis’ teammate at Nassau CC, became his pillars of support here in the area. They became so close that Chavis doesn’t hesitate to call Coles “Ma” and Coles unflinchingly thinks of him as her own. On the wall in her living room, she has pictures of her family members . . . and Chavis.
“He’s like my child,” Coles said. “He’s just a really good soul, a good kid. We just took him in as part of our family. He’s like my son.”
“She played a huge role for me,” said Chavis, a defensive tackle, who participated in the team’s rookie minicamp this weekend. “Going to junior college and being away from home, with my housing situation being homeless for two years, she took me in and moved me into her home and took care of me and filled that mother role for me while I was up here. She gave me the encouragement and the help that I needed to get by and to make it.”
It was Marc Coles who first brought Chavis to the house. The teammates became best friends and lived together in a rented house with about a dozen other players before they were unable to make rent and had to find their own places.
They bounced around from rental to rental, sometimes from couch to couch. For Marc, it was easier to escape that drudgery — he just went home. For Chavis, home was in Richmond, Virginia, and he had no intentions of returning there. So Cheryl Coles took him in, too.
“It just felt normal,” she said. “Marc was raised as an only child until four years back . . . They’re two good boys, two phenomenal young men. Never had a problem. I never had any issues. Everything was just smooth.”
For Chavis, being with the Coles family in Shirley was like a warm embrace after spending most of his childhood in a bad neighborhood in Richmond and in a non-traditional relationship with his birth mom. Marie Chavis was diagnosed with polyneuropathy — a disease similar to multiple sclerosis in which the body’s nerves degenerate — after a car accident in 2003. Soon she was in a wheelchair, and it was up to her young boys to take care of her. Tyrell was the younger of the two and in the fourth grade at the time, but he took the lead.
“I had to grow up fast,” he said. “I learned how to cook at a young age, take care of myself, wash clothes. I used to come home after school and cook for my family, cook my mom and my brother dinner. Make sure everybody had food to eat. I had to take over the role of the man of the house . . . I just knew it was something we had to do. We didn’t have a choice.”
It was not easy. Marie’s medicine would make her so drowsy that she sometimes would fall asleep in the middle of meals and begin to choke, Chavis said. Chavis would not only cook dinner but feed her and keep her awake through each mouthful. As she began to move out of her wheelchair to a walker, Chavis would hold her hard with each tenuous step for fear that she would fall over.
“Tyrell has seen me have seizures in front of him and he’s been right there to hold me, to hold my body as still as possible so I wouldn’t hurt myself,” Marie said. “He and his brother had to endure a lot watching me go through that.”
He’d always had a mother, but it had been a long time since he’d been mothered. Cheryl Coles gave him that. She still does. The three of them would go to the beach at Smith Point just to relax, the first time Chavis recalled ever doing that. Just last June, she got him a cake and some festive hats to celebrate his birthday when he turned 23.
“That was the first time I had a birthday party in maybe 10 or 12 years,” Chavis said. “It was definitely nice.”
If it all sounds a little familiar, a little Hollywood-scripty, well, they think so, too.
“I’ve actually watched that movie with the both of them and shed a couple of tears over it,” Coles said of the film “The Blind Side,” the true story of former NFL lineman Michael Oher, who was homeless and taken in by a supportive family. “A couple of people have said things about that. Within the family, we’ve spoken about that. It’s actually very similar.”
Coles, who like Marie Chavis is a single mother, also acted as a conduit between Tyrell and his real mom.
“I would keep her posted on everything,” Coles said. “When he was at my house, she knew everything.”
“I still love her and appreciate her to this day for doing all she did for my son,” Marie Chavis said. “She’s like a second mom to him . . . She took him in out of the generosity of her own heart. He’s met a lot of wonderful people along the way and has taken all of that in, and it’s made everything possible for him to do what he’s able to do now.”
During that time, things were so bad in Richmond that even Marie insisted that Tyrell stay away.
“I really didn’t want him to come home,” she said. “He knew there wasn’t anything here for him.”
Until, that is, things changed. For the better.
Which is why Chavis did go back to Richmond last week for the first time in 2 1⁄2 years. He did it to see his mother and her new home, which is on the other side of the city. She’d promised herself and him that by the time he finished college at Penn State, she would have the family’s base of operations in a better, safer location. She kept up her end of the deal.
So did Tyrell, returning as an NFL player.
“He wanted something better for himself,” Marie Chavis said. “I’m just lucky enough that I got a chance to see that, to see him grow up and mature, because our neighborhood wasn’t the best neighborhood . . . To see him progress and make it this far, that’s all I needed. That’s all I ever wanted for him was to live his dream.”
Chavis is spending Mother’s Day with the Giants today, but his visit home last week before he reported to rookie minicamp was one of the best gifts Marie said she has ever received. She’d been able to see Tyrell briefly after Penn State games she attended the past two seasons, but those were quick interactions with fly-by hugs and short chats. Last week was the first time in almost three years that she got to really be his mom.
“Actually spending time with him and sitting down and being able to talk to him and just love him and hold him in my arms was very special to me,” she said.
Marie is doing better these days physically, too. She’s settled into her new place. She walks unassisted. Robert, her oldest son, recently retired from the U.S. Air Force and has moved back to the Richmond area with his wife and son, Marie’s grandson. She watches him every other weekend.
And before Tyrell left from his visit last week, he gave his mom a gift. An actual gift. It was a membership at a local gym. The idea is for her to continue to get stronger so she might be able to come see him play football for the Giants in the fall.
“Finally, I can definitely see the light now,” she said, “and it’s shining very bright.”
His other mom is just as optimistic. Cheryl Coles has been calling and texting Chavis since he arrived in New Jersey to find out when he’ll have some free time so she can visit. She offers to make the trip from Long Island to New Jersey to drive him around. And of course, she’s looking forward to the possibility of watching her unofficial son play in the NFL.
“It’s very exciting,” she said. “I’m trying to let it settle in and trying not to tell everybody. But it’s just too late; everybody knows. You can’t really hide it for very long. I just can’t wait to watch him play at the next level.”
“It’s definitely perfect,” Chavis said of his NFL landing spot. “I tell people that I’m from Virginia but this is kind of like my second home. Before Penn State, I was here for 2 1⁄2 years, so I got accustomed to it. But when I left junior college, with the struggle and all, I was like, ‘I’m never going back to New York.’ Then I ended up getting picked up by the Giants. I guess it’s meant to be.”