Chas-ing more than a job

6-30-01, 1:05 a.m.

Some of the campers booed when they heard that the big guy with the tattoos was with the Bengals.

Some of the kids were getting loud just talking among themselves.

And some of the 225 kids that day a few weeks ago at Northern Kentucky's day camp for low-income children just flat out weren't paying attention.

Then Jeff Chase's booming voice won the attention of the kids ranging from ages 10 to 16.

"You may think not listening isn't important," Chase said, pacing back and forth among the seats instead of speaking from the stage.

"But in my job, you can be competing side by side with someone to make millions of dollars. And if they don't listen," Chase said, "you come in the next day and their locker is cleaned out."

The kids heard enough from Chase and Victor Leyva, his fellow Bengals rookie offensive lineman, that they swarmed them for autographs.

"If the kids didn't have to catch their buses home, Jeff and Victor would have been there another hour," said J. Webb Horton, activity director of the local version of the National Youth Sports Program. "Both guys were great. Jeff was very forceful about staying in school and staying away from drugs. I mean, he went through the whole thing."

Probably because Chase has lived the whole thing. Father left at age 2. Mother on welfare. Occasionally homeless as a child growing up in Rowland Heights, hard between Los Angeles and Pomona in southern California.

Thrown out of high school for smoking pot. Finally, at age 19, spending a year in the federal pen for driving cocaine from New Mexico to California.

Now Chase, 25, is getting the shot of a lifetime after a lifetime of taking shots. And that means letting the kids in on it.

As a free-agent out of Texas A&M-Kingsville, Chase knows he could be gone tomorrow. But he's making a Pro Bowl impact off the field today.

"He's always got a big smile, is positive, and always

is willing," said Eric Ball, the Bengals' director of player relations who has sent him to Cincinnati's Children's Hospital as well as NKU.

Chase had a lot of time to think while doing time in Lompoc, Calif. A lot of it was spent thinking about helping kids like himself.

"I made up my mind a long time ago that I want to work with kids. Low-income kids," Chase said.

Chase also spoke last weekend at Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander's camp at Illinois Wesleyan.

"He was passionate, he was sincere, he did a great job," Alexander said. "He didn't get into specifics, but he let them know, 'I messed up a lot in my life.' He's a very determined person and that came across."

Chase prefers not to get into specifics nowadays. His story has been out there for the past year and was recycled when he signed with Cincinnati in April. And he says, "Take from it what you will, but that's in the past and I'm moving on."

Like he told Alexander's campers, "I'm a 25-year-old rookie. What's that tell you? I should have been here a long time ago."

Chase's appearance at the linemen's camp was a boon to him as well as the kids. With the 6-3, 305-pounder asked to teach, Chase found himself doing a better job of grasping the techniques Alexander had preached during the Bengals' camp last month.

"After I explained it to someone, I was actually doing it better," Chase said.

It's lack of technique because of his lack of experience that has put Chase in a situation where he needs to develop for a year. He's as raw as home video, but his strength, quickness and heart make him a worthy project.

Chase admits he wasn't exactly grounded in the fundamentals while moving from junior college at Mount San Antonio and then to Kingsville for a year before he missed another year for being academically ineligible.

When he returned for his last year, his position coach was gone and Chase was left to impress the pro scouts just on sheer strength.

Which is why he's spent much of his time in Cincinnati idolizing left guard Matt O'Dwyer, a mauler who has quietly turned into a technician.

"I think O'Dwyer's awesome," Chase said. "He's the guy probably closest to my style. Because I'm raw, I've just had to be stronger than the other guy. I try to watch as much film as I can so I can see what these guys do in games. I look around and I think I can play in this league. I've played two years (of four-year college ball) and you figure the average guy here has four or five years just in the NFL."

Complicating it all is that Chase didn't move from left tackle to guard until his last college game, which was a very competent performance in the Hula Bowl.

"I like guard," Chase said. "It's not like being on the island by yourself against a quick pass rusher, but you have to be quick and strong inside."

It's his strength and explosion that impressed Alexander enough to stick his neck out and convince the Bengals to take him. The coach had no qualms about the ex-con.

"I have a gut feeling about the guy," Alexander said. "You feel it when you meet him. He's honest. He's determined."

Chase's brother, Johnny, knows exactly what Alexander is talking about. He says his brother has a certain positive radiance that draws people to him.

"It's not like Jeff was a bad guy who all of a sudden got turned around in jail," Johnny Chase said. "He's always kept a pretty good head on his shoulders. He always had a strong work ethic. Some of the things he did weren't right. But it's been pretty well written about. He was doing it to keep food on the table and shoes on his feet."

Johnny Chase, 30, was the oldest of the three kids. There is a sister who is the middle child and they have miraculously not only kept their lives, but made them better.

Johnny is part owner of Oz Fitness Center, a $3 million and 25,000-square foot facility in Tempe, Ariz. A 6-4, 285-pound guard, he blew out a knee in his final college game at Cal-Northridge.

But sports had done its job and kept the brothers from going completely off the deep end. They broke into homes just to take showers and get food to eat.

When Jeff was about eight years old, he recalls occasionally breaking into the home of a neighbor who happened to be a very large person. That tipped them off who had the food, so Jeff would climb through a hole in the backyard fence, Johnny would pick the lock, and they would run back to their home and eat a gallon of
ice cream in front of the TV.

But whether they were living in public housing with a friend's family, like Jeff did once, or trying to hold on to apartments while their mother waitressed, there was always basketball on nearby courts like the Farjardo.

"Sports gave us a normal support system maybe we didn't have at home," Johnny Chase said. "Who knows where we would have been without coaches or guys we played with? It taught us responsibility. I think that's what Jeff is thinking about now. You've got to have some sort of athletics and academics to keep kids on a path, to give structure."

Sports also kept Jeff sane in prison. Or at least working out did. Lompoc isn't maximum security, so there was some relative normalcy.

He had a seven-day-a-week job cleaning the visitors' room and the warden's hallway from midnight to 4 a.m.

The rest of the time he'd nap, lift weights for nearly three hours in the morning, eat lunch, and then get in his running around the exercise yard. After dinner, it could be more running or walking.

"You do a lot of walking in there," Chase said. "I liked working out anyway, but that situation just made me want to do it even more. Look what happened. I went in at 320 pounds and came out at 255."

Which is the idea. That was five years, 50 pounds and an eternity to go.

"I can't put my finger on it," Alexander said. "It's something you can't write down in a computer. But there is something about the guy. You believe in him."

It sounds like the kids already have. Now Chase hopes the rest of the Bengals' coaching staff is next.

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