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Chris High: Taking Advantage Of A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oct. 15, 2017

There is no question that Navy senior Chris High has been the top fullback on the roster for the past two seasons and has been one of Navy's more colorful characters since he set foot in Annapolis.

There is also no doubt that High has overcome long odds by traveling a path that will take him to graduation day next spring, when High aims to be commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps.

High, in his second season as a starter, is the team’s third-leading rusher with 402 yards and a touchdown on 89 carries. He has the size (6-feet, 225 pounds) to run over tacklers and the speed to run a sweep and look like the halfback who excelled late in high school. High also still owns arguably the chattiest, most upbeat voice in the locker room, on the sideline, anywhere.
 
“I remember at my very first position meeting. I’m a freshman, so I’m keeping my mouth shut, and the older guys are serious and quiet,” recalls junior fullback Anthony Gargiulo, High’s current backup.
 
“And Chris High [then a sophomore] comes in, mouth yapping away, starting conversations and making jokes with everyone. He was so open and lively. I was surprised he was only a sophomore. I figured he was the top dog, a fourth-year guy. He still makes meetings interesting. He’s still the life of the room.”
 
High, a product of Douglass High School in Oklahoma City, talks as openly about his past struggles as a student-athlete at Navy as he does about the disadvantages that marked his inner city youth growing up in a single-parent household.
 
His mother, Cherryetta High, gave birth to Chris when she was 14. She raised him with the devoted help of a supporting cast led by his grandmother, Barbara Friday-Ross, and a cousin, Leonard Friday, who is only five years older than Chris.
 
During a typical week when Chris was young, home base was at his grandmother’s residence, while Mom was either at school or getting into the working world. Before his sophomore year at Douglass, after his mother decided Chris needed an everyday male figure in his life, Friday – at age 19, married with his first child and working as a surgical technician – took in his younger cousin for the next three years.
 
“Chris was already a great, goofy kid – yes sir, no sir. My kids want to be like him,” says Friday, now 27. “Chris is showing these kids what discipline and respect are and what it is to be a good citizen. I love to tell the story about this kid from the inner city who fought and won. That resonates around here so much.”
 
The High family lived in the Prince Hall housing section, an area that dealt with much poverty and crime. Money was always tight, especially while Cherryetta was getting her high school education and starting her working career as a certified nursing assistant at age 18, two years before she moved out of her mother’s home.
 
“When I was little, I didn’t understand why [my mother] wasn’t around much,” says Chris High, the oldest of three children that includes his 14-year-old brother, Aquelle and his sister, Tyetta, 12.

“But I started to realize that she had to work and had to sacrifice a lot of time with her kids. She was trying to provide food and clothes for us and money for whatever else we needed,” he adds. “I saw how some people had two parents or had more things than we did. But as I got older, I could see the bigger picture.”

“Our family on my Mom’s side is huge. If I didn’t have my family to help me, I would have had a whole lot of obstacles,” recalls Cherryetta High, who says Chris was shielded effectively from the bad influences around him.

“There were a lot of things I did not share with Chris. But children have a way of understanding, to a degree, what’s going on,” she adds. “He could understand that Mama was struggling but she was getting it done.”
 
And Cherryetta could see early on that Chris had a way of making friends with his positive attitude and natural social skills, despite the struggles going on around him.

“Chris was like everybody’s baby,” she says. “I’ve never met somebody who attracts so many people – all good vibes. He wasn’t a normal kid [that way]. If he got in trouble for something, it was one time and no more. I don’t think he’s ever experienced somebody not liking him. He’s one of a kind.”

The Navy football family is in complete agreement with that assessment. Senior wide receiver Tyler Carmona saw High’s magnetism throughout the year he spent in the same company as High at Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I.

“Before I got to know Chris at NAPS, I just saw this happy kid who would not shut up – and I mean that in a good way,” Carmona says. “He was a real character, loud and engaged. It was like he knew everybody. It came as a shock to me later, when I found out about his background and all he had to push through growing up.

“If you walk with [High] around the Yard, he talks to everybody, and everybody knows him,” Carmona adds. “He’s a genuine guy who doesn’t try to impress people. He gets a lot of attention, not because he’s after attention, but because of his personality. I’m more of a yeller when I try to get guys going [at football practice or during games]. Chris is the motivator, making suggestions and urging people on.”

High thinks back to that year in Newport and shakes his head at how intimidating and pivotal it was for him. At Douglass High School, nearly 1,700 miles away, academics had been a breeze compared to NAPS.

“I struggled hard. Sometimes I wonder how I got here [to the academy],” says High, who adds he isn’t satisfied with the 2.6 grade point average he has this semester. “I thought when I got [to Annapolis], I’d be good. It didn’t happen that way, either.

“I used to tell the younger guys here, ‘Oh, you got a D right now? I’ve been in a worse situation. You got a 1.whatever [GPA] right now? I’ve been in a worse situation.”

At Douglass High, the way former head coach Willis Alexander recalls, High progressed steadily as a student, and rarely failed to give great effort in the classroom or in competition. Besides lettering four times in wrestling and three times in track and field, High made Alexander’s varsity football team as a freshman and stuck for four years.

But the roster was so stacked – Alexander won 90 games over 10 seasons and went 1-1 in Class 4A state title games – that High had to wait his turn for a good while on the depth chart.

High was an undersized, two-way backup for two seasons before making a game-day impact. He came off the bench at linebacker in his final game as a sophomore to replace an injured teammate. High made a key tackle for a loss in overtime to help Douglass win that state championship.

“His living situation wasn’t the best, although his mother has always been very, very supportive. Chris has seen a lot of negative things in his lifetime,” Alexander says. “But the positives he’s always had are his attitude and his willingness to excel.”

By his senior year, High had grown into a 180-pounder and had become the lead back in Douglass’ 1-2 halfback tandem. He ended up rushing for nearly 1,800 yards. He was named Class 4A’s best running back.

At that point, Navy had already been the first FBS team recruiting High. Alexander says Bob Elliott, the late Notre Dame assistant, had seen High play and had been impressed, but the Irish had no room for another running back. So the word got passed on to Navy, and Navy assistant Mick Yokitis came to Douglass to check out High.

“That’s not a school where we typically recruit, but Chris had something to offer as a player, and Coach [Ken Niumatalolo] wants us to bring back good people,” Yokitis says. “His academics were a little low, but Chris was busting his butt. Being a good officer comes down to, are you a good person and do you work hard? He was worth taking a chance on.”

After High’s teammate and good friend Terry Harris accepted a full scholarship to play defensive back at Morgan State in Baltimore, High received an offer to follow Harris. Navy also wanted High.

“I did not want to go to Navy. I didn’t feel like that place was for me,” High says.

Alexander stepped in with some advice. He urged High to reconsider and come to Annapolis, for reasons beyond playing at a higher football level. If High got hurt at another school, Alexander cautioned, he likely would be dropped and have his scholarship revoked. Navy, however, has other, larger plans as a creator of Navy and Marine Corps officers.

“I told him this ain’t about football, it’s about the rest of your life,” Alexander recalls. “You’ve got to get that degree. You’re going to go there and graduate. If I’ve got to kick your ass, you’re going to sign that paper.”

Alexander says he sent 86 players off to play college football during his coaching tenure, from the JUCO ranks to Division I. His one and only Navy player is High.

“This was a life-changing opportunity for Chris,” says Mike Judge, Navy’s fullbacks coach. “It was impressive that he realized that at age 17 and made the decision to leave home and go to NAPS. What jumped out about Chris was, even though at first he didn’t know what to do or how to do it, he only did it at one speed – wide open. That’s still him.”

Niumatalolo, Navy’s 10th-year head coach, has an image of High etched in his mind. As a plebe in his first preseason camp, after the coaching staff had decided to move the 185-pound freshman from slot back to fullback, High was lined up with the kickoff unit, running with the scout team.

“You knew [High] was miserable like all of the other plebes,” Niumatalolo says. “And I hear Chris yelling at the other guys on the line, ‘I’m the fastest guy! I’m going to beat you all down there!’ Plebe summer is really rough. So is getting yelled at here and in [Bancroft] Hall all of the time. But nothing fazes this kid. Nothing gets him down.”

High did not see any varsity action until his sophomore year, primarily on special teams. During his first two seasons, he looked up to such fullbacks as Noah Copeland, Chris Swain and Shawn White.

By the time he entered his junior year, High’s work ethic and the improved diet and strength and conditioning had him poised to take the job from White – which High did.

He started eight of the 11 games he played in, missed three games due to injury, and wound up with 546 yards rushing and seven touchdowns.

This year, High is on track to surpass those numbers and threaten the 1,000-yard barrier. He helped Navy open the season at 5-1 by averaging 4.5 yards per carry. High carried the ball a career-high 18 times for 72 yards in Navy’s thrilling, 48-45 win over rival Air Force on October 7.

A week earlier at Tulsa in a 31-21 victory, High had an extremely rewarding day. Besides rushing for a career-high 89 yards, including a career-best, 37-yard run, High performed in front of about two dozen family and friends and former coaches. Among the attendees were Cherryetta High, Leonard Friday and Alexander.

“To see all of my people take that kind of time out of their day to drive an hour and 30 minutes to come and watch me play, I was ecstatic,” High says. “We’re not supposed to look into the stands. But I did take a glance over to where they were sitting and thought, ‘That’s a lot of people.’”

“We hear that voice [of High’s] everywhere – locker room, practice field, bus, training room. It’s refreshing to me,” Niumatalolo says.

“It’s a long road for everybody here, but Chris came here with a different starting point that a lot of people who come to the Naval Academy. We took a chance on a long shot. Chris stayed the course, and he’s going to do more great things. Great kid, great story.”

 

 

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