Fat and fleshy, a trucker’s hat teetering on his head, the man sitting in a corner booth at the Town & Country restaurant kept glancing over his left shoulder at Charles Ben. Ben sat at a long table in the center of the room, his back to the booth. He could not and did not see the man, and so he did not pay him any mind, and so he continued talking about his younger brother Alshon Jeffery, the Eagles wide receiver, and talking about himself, too, as he picked at a plate of chicken wings.
Still, the man in the booth was close enough to get a sense of Ben’s proportions – 6 feet tall, 216 pounds, his body bouldered with muscle – and he could tilt his head just enough to see Ben’s profile. And so the man in the booth turned and glanced, and turned and glanced again, and again, always with the same look on his face, as if he knew who Charles Ben was, or should know.
▪ “ALSHON JEFFERY: “Where I’m from, a lot of people would say Charles is better than me. They’d say I’m nothing close to what he did.
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▪ “CHRIS RUMPH, FORMER CALHOUN COUNTY HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL COACH: Alshon wished he was as good as his brother. Wished.
▪ “CHRIS MACK, CALHOUN COUNTY ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL: Alshon’s great, but he’s the second-best football player in his own house.
▪ “ZAM FREDRICK, CALHOUN COUNTY BOYS' BASKETBALL COACH: In my opinion, and I’ve been here 28 years as a coach, he’s the best athlete we ever had.
▪ “DELORIS JEFFERY, MOTHER: Yes, Charles was the man. If you listen to the old people, they'll tell you the story. Sometimes, I don’t think he likes to tell his story.
What’s the difference? How do you explain the divergent paths of these two men who share blood? Alshon Jeffery is five games into his sixth NFL season. He is 6-3 and 218 pounds, 27 years old and handsome and famous, and he is earning $9.5 million this year with the Eagles. He was a terrific wide receiver at the University of South Carolina, a second-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears. He was a two-sport superstar at Calhoun County High School here, football and basketball, and had he been a couple of inches taller, he might be playing in the NBA now instead of the NFL. He was that good.
Charles Ben was better. In both sports. Ask anyone in this town of 2,100 people. The memories of the athlete he used to be seem to swirl in the air around him. They sound apocryphal.
He played eight positions at one time or another in football, including wide receiver, quarterback, linebacker, safety, and long snapper. He racked up more than 200 yards in one game from two punt returns and an interception return. Against Silver Bluff High, he matched up against Troy Williamson, whom the Minnesota Vikings selected with the seventh pick in the 2005 NFL draft. When Williamson was at wide receiver, Ben covered him. When Ben was at wide receiver, Williamson covered him. Ben, one coach said, ate him up. Once, with Calhoun County trailing by three points late in the second quarter and its opponent about to punt, Rumph decided that he wouldn’t bother sending Ben out to return the kick, that he’d rather let the opponent down the ball and have his offense take a knee so the team could regroup at halftime. Ben begged Rumph to change his mind, promising that if he didn’t score a touchdown, Rumph could punish him at practice however he saw fit: extra running, extra up-down drills, whatever. Rumph relented. Ben fielded the punt, serpentined through the coverage, and coasted into the end zone.
By the time he graduated high school, in 2002, he had been named all-state twice, had been selected the county’s offensive player of the year as a senior after catching 54 passes for six touchdowns, and had helped Calhoun County High win its first conference championship in football – not to mention three state championships in basketball. He kept the college recruiting letters in giant trash bags: UCLA, South Carolina, Arizona, more.
“I was OK,” he said with a sheepish smile and head bob. “I was OK. I was OK.”
Yet there he was one afternoon in mid-August, 33 years old, living in the red-brick, rancher-style house that used to be his grandmother’s, a pebble’s toss from his old high school. They see him there at games sometimes, and he sees them, the same faces, most of them. The town hasn’t changed much since he was a prodigy. Crime and poverty remain high. Some of his peers have died, casualties of the opioid epidemic. Yet there he was, still.
Charlotte, where the Eagles will play Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers, is just 130 miles north. Ben could make that drive in two hours, for the game. He’s proud of Alshon, and he travels to see him when he can. It’s not surprising. Alshon built their mother a house. Alshon went to South Carolina because it was close to his family. Everyone in St. Matthews agreed: Alshon Jeffery never forgot where he came from.
But Alshon also minded his studies. He went to summer school to keep his grades up. Alshon loves St. Matthews, but Alshon made a choice: He made sure to do what he had to do to get out. A kid with that kind of opportunity, in a place like St. Matthews, has to seize it. It’s a waste, a sad story, if he doesn’t.
“I had a great opportunity, too,” Charles Ben said. “I just screwed mine up.”
▪ “FREDRICK: Of all the guys I coached, the one I’m probably most disappointed in and still love to death was Charles. If there was a dude I’d have bet money on playing in the NFL, it would be him.
▪ “RUMPH: “He was an unbelievable kid. Very respectful. He just didn’t focus on his academics. By the time he turned it on, it was too late.
▪ “FREDRICK: We did have him in school for a little while. He left. He was supposed to go to South Carolina. He never got to Carolina. We had him down at South Carolina State. “If you’re home, more comfortable, go there.” He didn’t last a month at State. He didn’t want to go to school.
▪ “RUMPH: You know what? I think it was fear. Sometimes you get kids from small towns, and when they get a chance to leave, it’s like Linus and the little blanket.
▪ “MACK: Alshon had the vision to understand what that talent could do for him, and that’s the difference.
He’d like to start a trucking company, he said, get a fresh start. Maybe in California. Maybe in Philadelphia, if Alshon re-signs with the Eagles. For a while, Ben worked in the maintenance department at South Carolina, the same university that he had planned to attend, the same football program where his younger brother had been a star.
“Thought I was going to make it in. Didn’t make it in,” he said. “But it was all my fault. I was younger then and didn’t really understand that. But now, I understand it. With age comes wisdom. If I didn’t do what I did or went the route I took, my brother might not go at it as hard. That’s how I look at it.”
So you’re a cautionary example to him?
“Yeah. He’d always say, ‘I'll be better than you.’ That’s what you’re supposed to say. Don’t be like me. Be better than me. That’s why I always laugh when I see him out there. He always said he was going to be better than me.”
Is it fun for you to watch Alshon?
“Sometimes … “ he said, his voice trailing away, his eyes somewhere else.
We drove from the restaurant to a public basketball court. When Ben was 14, the older teenagers in town, guys just out of high school, started letting him play pickup with them. It was there that he dunked a basketball for the first time. The rims had the same chain netting that they did then, but now the court was in disrepair. Fleas hid in patches of tall grass that sprouted from cracks in and around the craggy asphalt, and the tiny black bugs covered the legs of anyone who walked there.
The site awakened something within Ben. Wearing a green “CAVS” baseball cap, his hair set in dreadlocks tied in one long, loose braid behind his head, he turned the cap backward, as if he were throwing a switch, and tightened the straps on the black Nike sandals on his feet. He jumped and grabbed one of the rims, holding himself there for a heartbeat, his white T-shirt billowing, the sun blazing, before letting go and falling back to earth. The backboard and pole creaked and swayed.
“Yesterday! Like yesterday!” he said. “I'll never forget. They were like, ‘You just dunked!' I was like, ‘I know!' Back in the day, if guys saw you had potential, they would make sure they’d get you. ‘You’re going to ball today.’ That’s how it was.”
He walked back to the car with a smile, fleas dotting his high white socks. He seemed happy.
“When I’m talking about my brother, I’m happy,” he said. “Have to take the good with the bad.”
▪ “BARRY CHARLEY, CALHOUN COUNTY PRINCIPAL: I also officiate high school football. We were talking at a scrimmage, and there was a guy who used to work at the Sheriff’s Department in Orangeburg. He was comparing the two. He said, “Alshon was good, but Charles was better.” That conversation comes up all the time.
▪ “RUMPH: He wasn’t a fast guy, but he just understood the game so much. He understood angles. He wasn’t a burner, but he never got caught. Whenever you had him out there, you felt like you had a coach on the field.
▪ “ROSS SMITH, CALHOUN COUNTY SOCIAL STUDIES TEACHER: Great basketball player, great football player. Unbelievable talent.
▪ “FREDRICK: “Man, that kid was so good. I think if Charles got into shape, he could still play in the NFL. I’m telling you, man. That boy was a beast.
On her dining-room chest, Deloris Jeffery showed off the memorabilia that her sons had accumulated over their athletic careers. Upstairs, Charles Ben’s son and daughter – Carmari, 10, and Mya, 3 – could be heard playing. Ben was fishing. Most of the items were Alshon’s: Alshon game balls, Alshon photos, Alshon awards. Three trophies weren’t. Two were football-shaped, with CHARLES BEN ALL-STATE engraved on plates affixed to the bases. The biggest of the three was a basketball. Deloris knew it was Charles’, but she couldn’t remember why he had received it. Once glued to the base, the engraving plate had fallen off. Time had made Charles Ben’s name disappear.