THE NFL POWER COUPLE SERIES BY CYNTHIA ZORDICH
I took the trolley to meet Jeff on campus. The sun was warm. Beads swayed from old Louisiana oaks. Mardi Gras remnants. I could hear faint music coming from the quad. Spotting Jeff in the distance, he looked every part scholar. I am sure fellow co-eds would never guess that he once ran through smoke-filled tunnels. That he once commanded a stage of thousands. That he had a Super Bowl ring tucked away in his top drawer. His hair is long and pulled back into a ponytail, and his gate is purposeful. Still carrying today's lecture in his mind, his brow is creased, but on seeing me, he immediately warms and graciousness is apparent.
The photo shoot is quick and carefree. He does not pose and has no airs about him. When I have him hold a book, he can't help but read it. When I ask him to look away in thought, he thinks. Therefore, in a matter of minutes, we're done with all that nonsense. More than anything, Jeff Charleston wants to talk about football, Reagan and how both have impacted his life. When we get to talking, his eyes glare and dart between intensity and childlike amazement.
He credits his conditioned work ethic and his sense of personal obligation back to his childhood days in Oregon. His family had packed up their big-city lives in Atlanta, and set off for his great-grandparent's farm, when he was 12. It was a move motivated by family devotion. With them, they brought three able bodies, who could help lessen the burden of the farm. Jeff jumped in without question, without complaint. There was work to be done, before and after school. He never thought about it. He just got it done. He plowed the fields, loaded hay, fed the animals and milked the cows. He caught on quick and grew up quicker. By seventh grade he had long passed the 6-foot mark and with the good old fashioned farm work, his body had become strong and agile. He may have been a newcomer on the fields of Oregon, yet there waited, after the work was done, a field of a different sort that he knew all too well. Back in Atlanta, football had started for Jeff in second grade. In Oregon, organized ball doesn't start until seventh grade. He was a seasoned player before any of his teammates had snapped their first chin straps on.
She shines, like her collection. When Reagan Charleston opens the heavy wooden door of her Mandeville home, she glows with welcome. Natural light warms the neutral colors of her foyer and dances in her eyes. She has created a personal masterpiece by surrounding herself with the very things that she loves: art, architecture, textiles and light. In paying homage to a family of artists, Reagan Charleston could be considered one of New Orleans' greatest advocates. She was raised to be a craftsman. Hard work and creativity were the hands she was dealt, and with them she is carving a name and reputation for herself. While most little girls were jumping rope and playing hop scotch, Reagan was dividing visits between her grandparents' French Quarter gallery (The Coghlan Gallery), their Mandeville studio and her aunt and uncle's antique shop in Covington. Though she was fascinated by the process of metal crafting, and would sit alongside her mother as she smoothed the copper that would become the coveted sculptures created by her grandparents, for Reagan, the greater lesson came, not in craftsmanship, but in business. It was work. It was a business, and it was during the hundreds of hours spent crossing the causeway, that she pondered, not art, but career. She decided it would be law. She graduated from Mandeville High School and enrolled in Louisiana State University. "I had a very rigid idea of what I wanted to do. It would be undergrad studies at LSU, law school and practice." She never questioned her plan and never paid mind to the natural pulls of the universe brewing inside and beginning to surface in subtleties.
By the time Jeff left Central High School, he had racked up enough awards to win Best of Show. He lettered three years in football and basketball and was First Team All-Oregon pick at tight end and Second Team All-State at linebacker. He accepted a scholarship at Western Oregon where he was a two-time All-Great NAC pick. As a sophomore, he led the team in sacks (4.5), tackles for losses (10.5) and ranked third on the team with 69 tackles. He transferred to Idaho State for his final year of eligibility and registered 12 sacks, 56 tackles and 19 tackles for losses. He was voted Defensive Player of the Year and Newcomer Player of the Year in the Big Sky Conference. Undrafted and unable to secure a spot on the roster in Houston, Jeff did what he knew best, he went to work. This time, instead of hard farm labor, he preserved his body for training and took a job in a biology lab. It was his major and it gave him the time he needed to stay in shape, running four days a week, lifting and testing formulas of a different kind - defenses. Time in the white suit made him realize that he absolutely did not want to work inside. The lab had no windows. It was no life. He belonged on the field and that motivated him. When he signed with the Colts in January of 2007, they had just won the Super Bowl the season before. He was signed with a 'futures contract' and he thought that sounded great. What did he care if he was a mere camp boy? He was fearless. He was undaunted by the task, and if you ask him, he’ll tell you that knowing he had a profession outside of the game kept him from playing scared. “You can’t play scared and play to your fullest ability.” Early on, he knew that there would be life after the game. "Some of these young players invest their whole life into the game. Therefore, their entire future is on the line if they don’t make the cut." This time, he made the roster, and in 2007 started in three games at DE, had 42 tackles, 22 solo, one sack and four pressures. Some might say that a fifth pressure came that fall, when he was waived by the Colts. Not Jeff. In keeping with his philosophies, he was unnerved. Even as a first year player, he had begun researching his second career. He had taken part in the NFLPE Career Transition Program at Stanford his first year and was already registered for the Wharton Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program (BM&E), the second. Yet, the briefcase would have to wait. Jeff was signed by the New Orleans Saints where he would become a vested player, a Super Bowl Champion and a husband.
They met on November 30, 2009. It was a Monday night football game and the Saints had just pounded the New England Patriots to remain 11-0. Sure the whole city was lit up, but one light shined brighter than the rest, and it pulled him to her, immediately. Their connection was fierce and knocked both conservative, practical thinkers off course. In no time, separating, even for a few days, would be out of the question. Uncharacteristically, Reagan diverted from her master plan. She would soon find that with the NFL, came team and community obligation. She embraced the responsibility and the opportunity to contribute to New Orleans Philanthropic efforts, her favorite being the LA/SPCA. It was the first time in her life she let passion lead her and it opened her eyes to a world and instinct that she had been stifling. While Jeff continued to fulfill on the field duties and pursue off the field opportunities (including his 4th NFL Boot Camp: The Hollywood Boot Camp in Los Angeles), Reagan tapped into her creative roots, and began crafting her own jewelry, for pleasure's sake. Her influence was in the appreciation of the art, not in the need to attract attention or be adorned. Humble as she may be, her work was catching eyes, and before long, she was creating pieces for friends. Soon after, she began posting her work on her facebook page and Pinterest and yes, there was definite interest. Within months, she had 15 pieces in a local boutique and feature stories in both RISE on Magazine Street and Femme Fatale.
A honeymoon trip to Europe would ironically bring her back to early New Orleans influences: Lions. The casting of her first signature piece would pay homage to Toulouse Street where two Leonine Guardians protected the gate to her grandparents’ gallery. In explaining her intention behind the work on her website Reagan writes, "Even as a child, I was fascinated with the two lions guarding the gate. Perhaps it is because my sun sign is Leo that my obsession was innate, or maybe it was their majestic omnipresence and beauty. Where ever I go, I seek out leonine guardians protecting homes, cathedrals, or courtyards. When I designed this first pendant, I sought to provide a protector of hearts, a feline bodyguard sitting bravely atop the chest of the wearer." Her follow-up to the Leone was the Carousel Tiger Cuff and was inspired by the Plantation de Bore (Audubon Park) carousel. Each architectural detail is transformed into miniature massive reliefs. The REAGAN CHARLESTON collection of sterling, bronze and gold pendants, bracelets and earrings has now expanded to authentic alligator handbags and continues to pay tribute to the city she cherishes. Each piece is hand forged and carved in New Orleans by master artisans and features precious and semi-precious stones that Reagan personally selects for color and character. "The greatest impetus is the desire to create signature designs, because until then, they aren't really your own." Since the passing of her grandmother, Amelia, in January, Reagan has inherited many of her sketches and looks forward to incorporating much of that work into her own. During our visit, Reagan carefully pulls out the drawings from a Louis XV chest of drawers. There are lions and tigers and knights in armor. The collaboration will be a natural succession. We also spend time in her studio where leathers, precious stones and metals are casually thrown over a collection of Jeff's helmets and cleats. The light comes in from the courtyard and jumps about the workshop. Sketches of couture gowns Reagan personally designed for gala events are pinned to the wall alongside estimates and reminders. For pleasure's sake no more, REAGAN CHARLESTON is a business and with that comes: minimums, pricing, manufacturers, buyers, clientele, and a serious investment, both financially and personally. It's all her, all day.
It seems there is no clocking out of the business of being Jeff and Reagan Charleston. Finishing with the Saints in 2011, Jeff embarked on a free agent tour across the US. He signed with the Vikings in June of 2012, but missed the final roster cut. Tampa signed him next, but it would seem this chapter of his life would be closing, when he was released in early October. It is exactly here, at this point, where Jeff Charleston's approach to life and the game separates him, and benefits him. His Mindset. "Most guys are not leaving the game by choice. They feel as though they failed. That is why they won't reach out in transition. They're embarrassed. Like 'being done' has never happened before. But, this is the time to reach out! While you're prime! Fresh! Guys don't realize how valuable the shield is. Well, let me tell you, the response rate is impressive." Again, back to his old adage, 'You can't play scared and play to your full potential', Jeff has jumped into transition with both feet. Consistently taking advantage of NFL resources, he is now obtaining his MBA at Tulane. "Many guys don't know that the league will reimburse your tuition 100%. My question is, why wouldn't you take advantage of that? Truth be told, although the NCAA insists on placing 'student' before 'athlete', a player's reality in school is that we miss out on so much as an athlete. So much is sacrificed because of our commitment to the game. There are scheduling conflicts and time restraints, especially as you get further into your major. The reimbursement program gives players the opportunity to go back with complete focus on education." In this past year alone, his network has expanded from league contacts to corporate contacts, and now includes Tulane University scholars. In surrounding himself with such talent, he is confident that all future career steps will be calculated and researched. "With ball, we spend hundreds of hours preparing for each game. We anticipate the actions of our opponents. We check and recheck our own actions. We consistently improve our plan. Even at the moment of execution, we react to change and make adjustments. This is the game plan that has been ingrained into our minds – it’s second nature. Walking into any environment you have that credibility. You've proven that you have performed at the top of your profession. Guys forget that. They close the play book. Here's how I look at it: SHORT TERM/JOB. LONGTERM/LIFE. I apply the same principles that I learned as a player to everything that I do."
Like a rolling stone, Jeff is gathering knowledge and building a network that he will utilize in his own business. He is also instrumental in the growth of REAGAN CHARLESTON. In the coming year, Reagan has bumped production to meet buyer demand. Although becoming more accustomed to the reception, she still pops open a bottle of champagne when a celebrity is shown wearing one of her pieces. With that, she is starting to realize that interest in her line is growing. One big step they have made has been hiring a publicist to field the inquiries, requests for interviews, and stylists who wish to incorporate REAGAN CHARLESTON pieces into their collections. Reagan is honest in saying that humility keeps her from pushing the sale. It is not her nature and she feels it is best to have others speak on her behalf. Jeff is the visionary. It is an expensive venture and where she likes to take it slow, he is preparing them for expansion.
Like their marriage, the business is a partnership. Together, they are solid rock and pure silk. Vision and execution. They are the product of principles. They understand the value of hard work. What we love most, is that they have embraced league resources and have expanded their league network. Jeff and Reagan represent a new generation of NFL partnership. By laying a foundation for life, after the game, they have turned the uncertainty of transition into opportunity.
"The beauty of the NFL lifestyle is that if you plan and prepare properly, you will have the flexibility and resources to embark on many journeys after retirement. The NFL teaches you, as well as your spouse, to adapt to varying circumstances and unforeseen changes. It prepares you for life in a way that other careers do not." Reagan Charleston.
Photographs by Cynthia Zordich
Cynthia Zordich is an NFL Engagement contributing author. She is the wife of former NFL Player/Coach Michael Zordich and the mother of current Carolina Panther Rookie Michael Zordich, recent New York State University (at Buffalo) graduate Alex Zordich and Penn State Junior Aidan Zordich. www.cynthiazordich.com