Incredible journey


Chris Pressley (Denny Gallagher photo)

Posted: 7 p.m.

Chris Pressley, the Bengals mammoth rookie fullback, thinks about it some and decides that everyone has a story about how he finally made it to the NFL.

Which is a little like saying Carson Palmer can throw it a little bit. Pressley's story is as big and as complex as, well, China.

When Jacqueline Pressley looked at the picture of her son standing in front of the Great Wall, she couldn't quite believe it.

But believe that when people congratulate her for all the things her son did on the University of Wisconsin football field that culminated in an NFL contract with the Bengals, she makes sure to ask, "Do you know he also got a master's degree?"

"In our family that's a very big accomplishment," she says. "Not only is he the first in the family to get a master's, but he's the first to get a bachelor's." 

Still, there he was standing in front of one of the great structures on earth a world away from Woodbury, N.J., on a trip for Wisconsin business students taking three courses during a month stay ...

Could this be the same son that had been evicted along with her and his five brothers and sisters not once but twice from their home before he went to college?

Was this the same son that came home at 3 in the morning after mopping floors at Wendy's and woke three hours later to finish off his 4.0 run at Woodbury High School and help keep the family afloat?

Could this be the same son who found out when he came home from his freshman year in Madison that many of his childhood possessions had been auctioned off and now has lucrative job offers on the table from the corporate world as well as an NFL shot?

In the end, she can believe it.

"I tell everybody that we're Christians and all the glory goes to Him. Christopher has the gifts that God gave him but he still had to work to use them," Jacqueline Pressley says. "He's always had goals. He's always written them down. With his passion and relationship with the Lord, and how hard he worked, he has been able to do so much."

When his stuff in the storage bin was auctioned off without telling him, Chris Pressley figures he lost some all-state plaques but what he really missed were some of the pictures of his boyhood tucked away in some boxes.

Get the cameras rolling for a new chapter.

The next step is making the Bengals 53-man roster and the odds look as long as they did back in Woodbury. There are three fullbacks. Only one figures to make it and the 5-11, 260-pound free agent Pressley is banging heads against a seventh-round pick in Fui Vakapuna and the man who was once the highest-paid fullback in the NFL in seven-year veteran Jeremi Johnson.

Jim Anderson has been coaching the Bengals running backs (since 1984) longer than Pressley has been alive (Aug. 8, 1986) and he's waiting for the pads to come on. The Bengals open their third week of voluntary on-field practices Tuesday, but the fullbacks might as well be inside watching film.

"We're encouraged with what he's doing and how he's doing it," Anderson says. "But we haven't done anything yet in regards to contact. That really makes the difference in the position."

Chris Pressley, who did his homework so well he never got less than an A after junior high school, has taken enough notes already.

"The pads are going to be real exciting when they see that pop and they can see 'we want to be a running team and we want a dominant person back there.' I can do it," Pressley says.

"It's going to be fun competing with the guys and just showing my talent and what I can do. I have to show them that explosiveness. That tenacity. I'm not one of these guys where it's just one play - 'Bam' – and he doesn't show up for a couple of plays. It has to be every time. His job, if it's not going into the flat, he's in there busting heads. That's what I like to do."

Glenn Pressley is convinced.

He was convinced from that first game in eighth grade when his nephew ran wild.  The 230-pound Chris never played until then because his mother didn't want him to get hurt and because he was way over the weight limit. In fact, he began the season riding his bike across town that year so she wouldn't find out and he ended up being MVP.

She sure knew after that first game and "Christopher" had knocked over everybody in his path to score something like three touchdowns and go for 200 yards. Glenn stood up in the stands and said, "Jackie, he's the one. He can make it."

After that, Glenn never got surprised with what Chris did on the field. "He just put the fear in the other team with the way he ran," he recalls. And he vows not to reveal the name of the son of an  NFL player Chris leveled and knocked out of a game.

Glenn is one of the people that Jackie says has blessed her family with help and kindness. He's the brother of Chris' father, a man that Chris knows and has seen on occasion but with whom he does not have close ties.

But Glenn, who also has six children, took an interest. When the first eviction notice came right before Chris' freshman year at Woodbury High School, they went to a shelter and were then sent to a motel room. When the weekends came and they were all mashed into the one room, Jackie realized something had to be done and the kids were sent to various relatives and friends before she got back on her feet.

"We bounced around to different places, but my mom wanted to make sure we were all within two or three miles of each other," Chris Pressley says.

Chris went to Glenn's family for a couple of months and the two have stayed close. They've got a lot in common. Glenn, 37, had been a good enough prep tight end/defensive end in neighboring Deptford Township to be named All South Jersey and to receive interest from several Division 1 colleges.

But Glenn had become a father his senior year in high school and he didn't want to shy away from his responsibility. A year out of school he began the steps to become an electrician and is still with Union Local 351.

When the same thing happened to Chris, when a son arrived that same senior year along with the college letters, Glenn advised him not to do what he did. Chris was thinking about staying home and working, but Glenn argued that he could best take care of his son by pursuing both football and a college degree. And the family would band together and help him raise the baby, now 5, also named Chris.

"He was going through a rough time and we helped him out, that's all," Glenn Pressley says. "That's how my wife and I are. We don't say much about it.

"Chris is a great guy. He's a hard worker and I just told him, 'Don't let anybody outwork you.' I don't care how much talent you have. This is his dream. I told him, 'This is your job. You're hungry. Don't let anybody outwork you.' Nobody has. I told him early on he was going to have to take a lot of the responsibility of the family."

An older brother was lost to the streets, so Christopher knew what was waiting if he went the other way and that his mother was relying on him. And he relied on her, too.

"I was determined to stay home and raise my children," Jackie says. "I had seen what happened when I was younger when parents weren't home. I was mother and father, going to all their activities, and raising them.  A lot of people abuse (the welfare system), but there are ways to have integrity and I was determined to have it. What I could give to him was the relationship to the Lord."

She also transferred that head-held-high determination.

"She doesn't drink, she doesn't smoke, she just stays with her faith," Chris Pressley says.  "I saw a lot kids in my situation that had to go through it and their parents were weak mentally and broke down. My mom stayed strong and hasn't turned to any substance besides the Lord. That's something I saw. I know whatever I go through from here on in, it's going to be easy for me."

He worked at any fast foot joint that would give him a job. Wendy's. K of C. Taco Bell. He also worked at Rita's Water Ice, chipping through the blocks of ice that make Italian ice and frozen custards. He painted a gym. He moved furniture for 50 bucks a day.

"Everyone has their things they go through; the story of how they got here," Pressley says. "I think it made me stop and realize that I want a better life for myself and my kids. Once I found out that football could give me an opportunity, I was going to take full advantage."

He used it to get his B.A. in business and marketing with another 4.0 and then with the extra time of his senior year he hauled down another perfect slate to get the master's in communications and marketing. But it wasn't so much different than blocking in the Big Ten.

"I'm not a natural student. I was in a lot of classes with people who were just naturally smart. They really got it. They helped me out," Pressley says. "Then eventually I got it after I started seeing it. I think learning is something you get better at over time. I was good in high school, but I got better in college because I realized there are some of the same things in football. Repetition. Perseverance. You're tired or not, (but) you're digging through it. A lot of guys would say, 'Forget the work, I'm ready to rest.' All that stuff helped me out."

One of those opportunities that came knocking non-football heads was the trip to China. He realized that the poverty he knew in Woodbury is relative.

"My big thing was the cultural aspect. Getting out of the country and seeing something different. That always helps you grow as a person," he says. "Some of their country is Third World and seeing how I grew up, these people grew up with much less than I ever did. They get up every day and go and it was inspirational to me. Everyone has their own story. Everyone has something they're going through. It might be on different scales and that helped me grow."

There are new challenges. Jackie, along with the mother of his child, has been caring for the younger Chris. Pressley tried to see as much of him as he could during college and actually flew Jackie and Chris to Madison for some of the summers and game weekends, which helped relieve the congestion in his grandfather's apartment as well as improve the father-son bonding.

But the expenses began to pile up and Pressley now has some extensive loans to pay back.

He should be able to pay it off with two degrees. Impact Sports, a branch of Nike apparel, offered him a regional manager job in the South Jersey-Philadelphia area. Phillip Morris came calling with a sales manager job in Chicago.

But Pressley, who says he had a "father role at a young age," knows there is a lot more than a boyhood dream riding on an NFL roster spot.

"I feel the pressure. I definitely do. That's why I took advantage of getting my degrees," he says. "Even if I end up playing football for several years, I still have to take care of my mom, my son, my sister, my brother."

Pressley's been in the league less than two months, and he already has made a good call.

Everyone has a story.

It's just that some are better than others.

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