In Ridley Scott’s 1982 neo-noir science fiction flick Bladerunner, Dr. Tyrell sums up this new series succinctly enough when he says to Harrison Ford’s character Roy, “[t]he light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very very brightly, Roy.” Let’s meet the lights that burned twice as bright, but maybe half as long, one hit wonders. Our second installment delves into SMU running back ShanDerrick Charles, who flirted with history in 2001.
SMU wasn’t exactly a ball of excitement heading into their California excursion in week five of the 2001 season. The Ponies, under head coach Mike Cavan, were winless and without their starting tailback for the trip to the sunny west coast. The good news was their opponent was equally hapless, 0-4 San Jose State - a WAC Conference opponent. The fact that actions taken by certain institutions forced SMU into the WAC is a travesty for which authorities have never been held accountable.
ShanDerrick Charles was set to step into some serious playing time thanks to Keylon Kincade’s concussion. The freshman from now-defunct Port Arthur Lincoln was no wallflower. He’d come close to breaking Joe Washington’s Port Arthur rushing record in high school, but a broken hand left him yards short and scared away blue blood schools. Cavan and SMU were happy to bring the Bumblebee on. Before that afternoon in San Jose, Charles carried the ball once in 2001, for zero yards against Iron Skillet rival TCU.
San Jose State didn’t know what was about to hit them; neither did the rest of college football. All Charles did that afternoon was run for 243 yards, more than Doak Walker or Eric Dickerson had mustered in a single game during their Mustang careers, and a yard shy of Mike Richardson’s school record. The 5-9, 180-pound waterbug was the engine of SMU’s first touchdown drive, going 74 yards on four carries before David Page plunged in from a yard out. Charles ran 49 yards to set up the go-ahead field goal, and his touchdown in the fourth sealed a 24-17 win.
Two weeks later, with the WAC Offensive Player of the Week to his name and bye week to recover, Charles and SMU welcomed UTEP to Ford Stadium. Surely the Miners would put the clamps on the true freshman. They did not, this time Charles popped for 212 yards and a then school-record four touchdowns, in his first collegiate start. It was the first time in school history that a Pony back ran for two consecutive 200-yard games, besting a two-game mark set by Dickerson of 348.
SMU spotted the Miners 14 points but scored the next 40 in their largest comeback since the Miracle on Mockingbird in 1989. Charles scored all four touchdowns in the second half on runs of 4, 22,25, and 15. Two games and a carry into his college career, Charles was at 455 yards and 8.4 yards a carry with five touchdowns, two Conference Player of the Week Honors, and the Mustangs were on a winning streak.
A week later the Ponies headed to the high desert of Reno to take on Chris Tormey and Nevada. Tormey had preached to his team the importance of slowing down the ShanDerrick Charles train, “[h] e’s a breakaway threat as a runner, and they’ve got a powerful, experienced offensive line. He’s got outstanding speed.” Tormey was right.
ShanDerrick’s little brother, a football player of some note, Jamaal Charles of Texas and NFL fame always said big brother was better. “My brother was so good it was ridiculous,” the younger Charles brother told the Dallas Morning News in 2007. “He was quicker and had more jukes than I have. He’s short, but he’s strong. He could have been in the NFL by now.”
The tour-de-force continued even if the winning streak didn’t. Charles hit triple digits again with 123 yards on 22 carries. Nevada ran away from the Ponies. A week later, Charles was on pace for another triple-digit afternoon with 96 yards on seventeen carries by the third quarter before a rib injury knocked him out of action. A hamstring limited him the next week against Tulsa. In the final two games, against Rice and North Carolina, Charles ran for 153 yards on 28 carries.
In seven games and a carry, Charles rushed for a freshman school record 860 yards, besting the other member of the Pony Express, Craig James. Charles 6.4 yards per carry was fifth best in college football and best in the WAC. His seven touchdowns tied for team best.
By 2002, pundits expected great things from Charles, and backfield mates Kincade and Kris Briggs. The Doak Walker Award committee named him to the 2002 preseason watch list. Charles, however, injured his back during the season and rushed for just 83 yards on 27 carries. The injury, a stress fracture to two of his vertebrae, cost him any hope of effectiveness in 2002 and all of 2003.
Of note, the Reno Gazette reported that the injury came during a pickup basketball game, but Charles says it happened in the weight room. Regardless, Charles never played again and continues suffering from back pain. Charles did get to see his younger brother Jaamal play eleven years in the league. ShanDerrick was his biggest fan.