It can be utterly devastating. Especially if you’re the starting quarterback of a team that just lost the championship game. It would be understandable for a player in that position to hang their head and sulk for a while.
However, Chaz’ Mackey, Hawthorne’s running and passing dual-threat, is different, as anyone who knows the 16-year-old will tell you.
Following the Hornets’ 26-14 loss to Baker in the 1A state championship at Doak Campbell Stadium, Mackey took in the sights and sounds of the arena, not in sadness, but rather, with his head held high in hopes of a swift return to the big game.
“We’re ready to work as soon as we get back and all in the offseason,” he told WCJB20 in a postgame interview. “We’ll be ready to come back here next year and hopefully win it.”
That competitive spirit is what drives Mackey, both in sports and in life. After all, bouncing back from adversity is something that Mackey is unfortunately all too familiar with.
August 15, 2020, three days before Chaz’s 16th birthday and less than a month before his first game as a member of the Hawthorne Hornets, all is quiet in the Mackey household.
Then the phone rings. Chaz’s mother, Karen, took no hesitation in picking up, hoping for the best and fearing the worst. After hearing the news, she let out a scream and ran into her youngest son’s room to wake him up.
Clarence Mackey, Chaz’s father and role model, had passed away at 50 due to COVID-19 and other underlying health conditions.
And yet, at the family’s lowest moment, it was the 15-soon-to-be-16-year-old who pulled through and held everybody together.
“Chaz’ texted us all long messages, like every family member: my mother-in-law, my mom, myself, and Chaz’s siblings,” Karen said. “We all got individualized, personalized text messages two or three days after his dad had passed, encouraging us, telling us it’s OK to cry and that his dad is in a better place. I was like, ‘Oh my god, this boy is 15.’ I couldn’t believe how strong he was. He got us through the funeral service, and he kept giving us encouraging messages throughout the football season. He’s just so strong.”
Even at his age, Chaz’ realized the weight on his shoulders.
“Definitely I think I have to step up,” Chaz’ said. “Because with him being gone, it’s like there’s no man in the house. So, I have to play that role, or at least try to fill the role that he had.”
That mentality carried over onto the football field.
“I couldn’t even imagine the hurt and the pain that he went through,” Hawthorne athletic director and football defensive coordinator Dustin Adkins said. “That’s something I never experienced even as an adult. So, I know it was painful for him. But he showed up the very next day when it happened and didn’t miss a single workout. Just seeing the resolve he had in himself to compartmentalize that loss and, at the same time, use it for motivation was very big.”
Chaz’ was always a “daddy’s boy,” his mother says. Clarence, who founded and owned a tire company called C & D Quality Tire Service, would always take his youngest son with him to work whenever he could in Chaz’s early years to the point where the boy became attached.
“There was this one time when he was going to elementary school, and my sister-in-law was dropping him off at school,” Karen said. “And she got out to come around to, and because we babied him, open his door, and he locked her out. She was going back and forth from one side to the other to get him out. And he’s like, ‘No, I’m not going to school. You can take me to my daddy. I’m going back to my daddy. Me and my daddy going to work.’”
To Chaz’, his father was his hero, but also his biggest supporter.
“My husband never missed a practice, never missed a game,” Karen said. “And Chaz’ would always say, ‘Mom, you’re too slow. We got to wait on you to get dressed. My dad is always on time. He’s gonna take me. You just stay home. We got it.’ So, he hated when I had to take them to practice. And his dad would make sure his service calls were off if there was a game. He didn’t take any business after one or two o’clock because he’d get home and get the right outfit on. He’d have t-shirts and hats made for every game. His dad always went the extra mile.”
Clarence continued to support him as Chaz’ moved on to higher levels of football, even while he saw less action. After playing sparingly as a backup quarterback during his freshman and sophomore seasons at North Marion High School, Chaz’ desired a bigger opportunity.
“Going into his sophomore year, I almost wanted to say ‘Hey, Chaz. Your time is coming. You’ll get there,’” Karen said. “We went through that season. There were opportunities that he could have gotten out there to say, ‘Hey, we’re blowing out a team. Let’s try something new and just put me in and give me an opportunity.’ But the opportunity wasn’t there. But I still was positive we were not going to leave. It was a new coach and new coaching staff. So, I’m trying to get him adjusted to that, and he’s becoming frustrated. So, he went to my husband and said, ‘I just want an opportunity to compete, wherever it is.’”
After carefully laying out all the pros and cons (and thoroughly convincing his mother), Chaz’, with the guidance of his father and uncle, made the decision to transfer to Hawthorne in June 2020.
“He came in, and he adjusted and fit in right away with all of our players,” head coach Cornelius Ingram said. “He was one of the guys as soon as he got to Hawthorne. Set up a group chat with his teammates and wanted to throw with all the receivers and running backs. He wanted to get to know everyone before the school year even started. And I think he did a great job. He’s definitely a Hawthornian now.”
The Hawthorne community, famed for its close-knit nature, immediately accepted Chaz’ with open arms.
“When people first heard I came, a whole bunch of people added me on Twitter and started texting me saying, ‘Welcome to Hawthorne,’ and things like that,” Chaz’ said. “And during the season, people would still text me and call me, so it’s a great community, and it’s like my second family now.”
Chaz’s newfound family helped to keep his mind occupied during the toughest period of his life.
“Us as coaches, I think we all pulled him aside individually, and just let him know, ‘Hey, man, we love you,’” Adkins said. “’We’re here for you. And we know this isn’t easy, but if you ever want to talk, I don’t care what time it is, it could be four o’clock in the morning: If something’s on your mind or something’s troubling you, just give me a call and I’ll answer.’”
Just being around a loving environment every day was huge.
“Everybody just kind of corralled around him, not necessarily in words every day because, you know, sometimes you don’t know what to say,” assistant football coach Greg Bowie said. “But you just want to show love. Whether it’s a fist pound, a chest bump or whatever.”
But most of all, it was Chaz’s love for football that kept him going.
“I think he used football as an outlet to keep his mind focused,” Ingram said. “And his teammates did a great job picking him up in a tough time. A lot of the kids kind of looked up to him, because even me, as an adult, as their head coach, I don’t know how I would deal with losing my father, especially at a very young age. So, a lot of these kids pull from Chaz, and he was able to go through all types of emotions and still be able to have an incredible year. The kids looked up to him for that strength. Even though there were times they probably didn’t want to practice, or there were times they didn’t want to watch film, but they would see Chaz show up to every single thing and lead our football team and want to follow him.”
In playing football, Chaz’ followed in his father’s footsteps, as Clarence not only was a star at North Marion before graduating in 1988, but he also was inducted into the Union College Hall of Fame after becoming the first in school history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. But it wasn’t just his father Chaz’ had to look up to.
“He caught on to a lot of things and learned really early, really fast in different things,” Karen said. “And I think he had to or wanted to mostly because of his older brothers. He always tried to keep up with them.”
All four of Chaz’s older brothers — Cornelius, Sean, Courtney and Jamal – played football at some level. Due to the vast age difference between the five kids, with the oldest being over twice as old as the youngest, Chaz’ latched on to Cameron, 23, who he grew up with in the house.
Having Cameron, who went on to catch 50 passes as a wide receiver at Southern University, around the house only helped to fuel Chaz’s already strong competitive spirit.
“His greatest strength is definitely his competitiveness,” Adkins said. “Like, if you tell him he can’t do something, he’s going to try to do everything he can to prove you wrong. You tell him, ‘Hey, you can’t run the ball, or you can’t scramble,’ and he’s going to try to show you that he can. You can tell him he can’t make the throws, he’s gonna show you he can.”
That competitiveness isn’t reserved just for the football field, however.
“Chaz’ thinks he can shoot the basketball,” Bowie said. “So, every day, it’s ‘Coach, what I gotta do to play basketball?’ I tell him, ‘Man, you don’t want no part of this.’”
Chaz’ fits the cliché of “first one in, last one out” to a tee. Even when not honing his craft in the weight room or out on the field, the quarterback routinely stays on the Hawthorne campus until 5 or 6 p.m. This often leads to some heated games of basketball or shooting competitions with the coaches themselves.
It was shortly before 5 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon in April. Most of the student-athletes had been sent home right after school for a rare off day. Not Chaz’. He spent his day playing Around the World with Bowie, who is also the head boys basketball coach.
Bowie quickly dispatched of Chaz’ in the first game and took a big lead in Game 2, getting around the arc once before the boy even nailed his first shot.
Still, Chaz’s confidence never wavered.
“I’m just giving you a head start, man,” he said. “Let you think you have a chance.”
Sure enough, Chaz’ got hot and quickly caught up to Bowie. Eventually, the game came down to the final corner shot, where both players remained stuck for numerous turns. As Bowie prepared each of his shots, Mackey slowly wandered over to him and stood in front of him.
“Why you keep coming over here and playing defense, man?” Bowie asked. “Stay over there.”
“I’m just getting you the ball and getting a better look,” the boy said with a wry smile.
Finally, Chaz’ ended the drought and hit nothing but net to win the second game, holding his arm in the air like a goose neck to celebrate.
“You know it’s just tied now, right?” Bowie asked. “Still got another game to go to decide it.”
Said game ended very quickly. Bowie, who played basketball in high school, got around the world and back before the boy even made it to the opposite corner. He ran around the otherwise empty gymnasium, throwing out three-point signs with his hands with Ingram, his brother.
“Nah, man,” Chaz’ said. “Let’s go again. Best of five.”
And so, because of Chaz’s never-ending drive for success, the game ensued.
“Chaz’ is the biggest hater on the team, man,” Bowie said with a laugh. “We can beat him 10 games straight, and he’ll still say, ‘Well, y’all still not that good.’ And I’m like, ‘We just beat y’all 10 straight. What you mean we not that good?’ He just wants to challenge everything. So, if me and Coach Cue are talking about grilling or whatever, it’ll be ‘Y’all don’t know how to cook. I can cook better than y’all.’ If you playing Madden, it’s the same thing. But it’s funny because he’s laughing the whole time. He won’t let us be great, man. You have to work to get his approval. And you know what? This is what he might give you: ‘Yeah, I guess you’re half decent.’ He ain’t never gonna give you no credit.”
Karen claims that all of her son’s competitive nature comes from his father, whom she said was always very cocky.
“There’s nothing you could tell my husband that he couldn’t do,” she said. “And that’s just what Chaz’ is like. Chaz’ is like, ‘I can learn your position. I’m going home to study it,’ and he would. Chaz’ always tries to prove people wrong. He’ll say, ‘OK, y’all think I’m gonna throw four touchdowns? I’m gonna show you. I’m gonna do 15.’ He just sets that bar so high. Then he’ll walk around like, ‘Didn’t I tell you?’ I told you I was gonna do it.’
In 2020, prove everyone wrong he did.
In his first season as a starting quarterback, Mackey completed 55% of his passes for 1,282 yards and 15 touchdowns, compared to just eight interceptions. It didn’t take long for him to show his worth to his new team.
In Hawthorne’s third game of the season against rival P.K. Yonge, they trailed 13-0 with about four minutes left in the game.
“He was struggling throwing the football for basically three and a half quarters,” Ingram said. “But I’ll tell you, he threw some dimes on those last few touchdowns to get us in the game.”
Hawthorne 14, P.K. Yonge 13. 1:48 left 4th qtr. Chaz Mackey hits Camron Cohen to make it 13-12. Hornets get 2-pt run by Mackey to take late lead. @ThePrepZone @FlaHSFootball pic.twitter.com/aEeiCwBGlM
— Scott LaPeer (@scottlapeer) October 3, 2020
Trailing 13-12 following Mackey’s second scoring throw to Camren Cohens, Hawthorne decided to go for two and the win.
“Chaz had a run-pass option where we had him rolling out to his right,” Ingram said. “And he tucked it down and ran and dove into the end zone for the two-point conversion to win the game. I’ve seen kids not have that same confidence level when they were down. A lot of people in that stadium thought the game was over.”
His teammates immediately took notice.
“He left his feet and took a big hit,” Bowie said. “And that showed me right there that he’s willing to sacrifice his body with the game on the line for his teammates. And I think in that moment, they knew also like, ‘OK, he’s a warrior. He’s not selfish. He wants to win.’”
“That P.K. Yonge game was definitely special,” Ingram said. “And from that moment on, I knew he was a different ballplayer. I knew he was a different kid. I knew our future was pretty bright with him at quarterback.”
That doesn’t mean there weren’t lulls during the season, however. A week later, Hawthorne suffered their first defeat of the year at the hands of Bradford 28-25.
“After that first loss, I went to Chaz’ and was like, ‘Man, you said we want to win, but are we really doing everything behind the scenes to win games?’” Adkins said. “It’s easy to say you want to win on Friday nights, but are we taking that next step? It can’t just be the coaches holding y’all accountable. What are y’all doing to hold each other accountable? You know, sometimes you have to have a heart-to-heart with them. That’s what we did.
“And after Bradford, I think he stepped it up. Yeah, we had a couple hiccups. We still lost a game after Bradford, but I don’t think it was lack of effort, lack of preparedness. I just think after taking our first loss, and being at a new school, being on the high not losing a game, that kind of refocused us and refocused him to go back to the drawing board and look in the mirror and say, ‘What can I do better?’”
Following the Bradford loss, Mackey fully stepped up into a leadership role with his new team and led Hawthorne to a 3-1 record down the stretch and another playoff appearance.
“His leadership ability is probably better than any kid I’ve coached only because I’ve seen him struggle in a game,” Ingram said. “Not many, but I’ve seen him struggle in a game. He’ll be struggling throwing the ball and come back to make the perfect throw when the game is on the line. Confidence never wavers. Just a tough kid, and his leadership ability is second to none.
“I feel like there isn’t a play that we can’t call for him. He believes he can make every throw; we’ve seen him make every throw, and that’s the definition of a true leader and a real ballplayer. It’s easy to throw touchdowns when everything is going great. It’s easy to call plays and go demand that huddle when you’re leading in that game the entire game. But when the game is on the line, and you got to make a comeback, he’s one of those kids that truly believes in the coaching staff and in his ability as a quarterback.”
— Chase Anschultz (@ChaseAnschultz) September 4, 2020
Chaz’s mastery of the quarterback position stems from his intelligence, his mother said.
“We always thought Chaz would be a coach, not an actual football player because he just was so intelligent,” she said. “He knew so much about the game that he never really showed any interest in being physical at playing the game. He was just really mentally smart, and he just knew the ins and outs of the game.”
Officially listed at a generous 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds, Chaz’ also often feels slighted at comments about his size.
“People saying I’m undersized has always been one of my biggest obstacles,” he said. “It more so motivates me now because I’ve been hearing it my whole life. And I mean, you see the things that I did this year, so I don’t really listen to what anyone says. I just block it all out.”
Chaz’ likes to model his game after that of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson because he says he’s also an undersized, mobile quarterback who leads his team and doesn’t listen to critics. In fact, Chaz’ is adamant about being a dual-threat quarterback. Just ask his coaches.
“He was hesitant on pulling and running sometimes,” Bowie said. “I tease him all the time. Like, you’re 5-8 pocket passer, man. You got to be able to pull that thing down every now and then and get a couple yards. He is a pass-first quarterback. Running is his last option. But Coach Cue teases him all the time because of the time he had a nice lane, and he was running, and he just tripped. I walked down to the other end with my hands on my head. Coach Cue stood there with his mouth wide open. We joke on him today about it like, ‘Man, what happened? You just seen all the green and tripped.’ But I will say now that he is more willing to run it.
“He actually has a goal. He said he can get to 500 rushing yards this year,” Bowie said with a laugh. “I told him to just show me.”
Even though Mackey had just 89 rushing yards on 52 carries last season, one would still be wise not to doubt him. After all, he’s spent his entire life proving his doubters wrong. Not only did he lead Hawthorne to a playoff berth, but also to their first-ever state championship appearance in school history, a fact that Chaz’ himself was unaware of.
“It felt great to make it because I didn’t even really know until the day after that we was the first team from here to ever go to state,” he said. “I texted Coach Ingram and said, ‘We was the first team to go to state?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, first team ever.’ I really truly didn’t know.”
Mackey helped Hawthorne exorcise their demons by defeating Madison County, whom the Hornets had lost to in the state semifinals two years prior, to make it to the big game. Ingram said Mackey played “his best football in our biggest game” in the 18-14 win, as he threw for a career-high 175 yards.
Though the season ended with disappointment in Tallahassee, Chaz’ was still rewarded for his successful season by being named Class 1A First-Team All-State.
“To be honest, I didn’t think I would make it mostly because there’s a lot of great quarterbacks in 1A,” he said. “But it happened, and I just thank God for it. Hopefully, I can make it again next year.”
Even all of the success of the season, however, wasn’t enough to hide all of the lingering pain forever. Chaz’ used football as an outlet, Ingram said, as something to focus on to keep his mind distracted. And when that outlet was no longer there, he “crashed,” as his mother would put it.
“When football stopped, after they went to the state championship, Chaz’ kind of shut down,” Karen said. “He shut down, and he would resort going back to his room and staying there. Not really talking, communicating. Something is going on with Chaz’. He just wouldn’t do a lot. He would go to school, but he was unhappy. One time he even came to me and said, ‘Mom, nobody on the team likes me. I got to get out of here. I got to get out of Hawthorne. Nobody likes me. They’re talking about me. I gotta leave.’”
It got to the point where he even wanted to transfer schools again, she said.
“So, I took a day off, and I spoke with Coach Ingram, and I spoke with Chaz,” she said. “And we were actually considering transferring him back to North Marion just to make it because he was crashing. He was really crashing right in front of me. He said to me, ‘Mom, I miss my dad so much. You know, we have football that kind of kept me going, but now I have nothing.’ And for him to say, ‘Mom, I need to speak. I need to talk to someone,’ I think to my myself, ‘Hey, we need to do family counseling, family therapy.’ And that has been the best thing I could have done for my child.
“We did have this conversation like, ‘Chaz, are you at Hawthorne because you’re mad at North Marion because they didn’t give you this opportunity? Did you go to Hawthorne just to get back at North Marion to show them what you can do? And he said, ‘Mom, they never believed in me.’ And I said, ‘Chaz, in life, you’re going to have people that don’t believe in you. But you have to believe in yourself. You know you’re going to always have your family to believe in you. Don’t change from a school to go back to a school to say, ‘I told you I’m good. I told you I could do this.’ You follow your heart. You do what’s right. You be the better person.’”
Chaz’ heeded his mother’s words, as he is a very good listener, according to her, and he eventually came around to sticking with what he had already built at Hawthorne.
“He is a very compassionate, very caring person,” Karen said. “He came back to me and said, ‘Mom, you are so right. They hurt my feelings when they didn’t give me an opportunity. But look at the relationship I’ve built with Coach Ingram, Hawthorne High School, the teachers, the students here.’ He said, ‘I never would have had the opportunity if my dad didn’t stay on me, and if we didn’t have that conversation with Coach Ingram and him believing in me, giving me that opportunity. He didn’t hand me this quarterback position. He said, ‘You’re going to work for it.’ This is where I need to be. These are the people that support me.’ Knowing sometimes his dad was sick and didn’t feel good while still going to Hawthorne over the summer, he said, ‘This is where my dad wanted me to be.’”
Since making that decision to stay, Chaz’ has put his full effort into making his father proud by working toward improving his game and capturing that elusive state championship come December.
“I’ve been working nonstop this offseason with my receivers, the offensive linemen, the whole team,” Chaz’ said. “I gained about 20 pounds since the season ended, so I think I’m in great shape, and I’m ready for the season to start back. I’m more comfortable here now than last year. I was just fitting in, learning everything, but this year, I know the offense, and I know every play, so this year should be even better than last year.”
But even outside of football, Coach Ingram sees great success in his quarterback’s future because of who he is as a person.
“No matter what happens with Chaz’, man, he’ll be successful,” he said. “Whether it’s in school, playing college football, or just going out there getting a job, getting married and having kids. He’s just a different cat. I just love confident people. Regardless of the adversity he will go through, he’ll overcome it because I don’t know how worse it can get than losing a father going into your junior year of high school. For him to overcome that and have the success he’s had on and off the field now, he’ll be fine in life. He’s one of those guys we won’t have to worry about. He’ll have a successful life because he’s built himself for that moment already.”
Chaz’ Mackey, at 16 years old, has already faced and overcome more obstacles and more adversity than many will face in a lifetime. He has a never-ending drive to be successful, and he always finds a way, despite all the hurdles placed in front of him. Whether it’s people doubting him because of his size or if it’s the heartbreaking loss of his father, Chaz’ is able to move on, but he never forgets.
To this day, eight months after Clarence Mackey’s death, Chaz’ still visits his grave at least once a week to talk to him. He says he knows his father is always watching and listening.
Loss can be utterly devastating. But how you bounce back from it is what defines you as a person.
And there is nothing Chaz’ Mackey does better than bounce back.