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Life of a Saint: Chris Ivory

Ivory reflects on his journey through football, the obstacles he faced along the way and how he may be able to help the next generation of football players.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

“Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” -Theodore Roosevelt

The internet isn’t filled with interviews with former NFL running back Chris Ivory. Ivory isn’t pumping content out on his social media accounts at a feverish pace. He seemingly does not feel the need to communicate to the masses at scale, a trait that has been consistent with Ivory throughout his life.

Once he stepped onto a football field, however, his play always spoke volumes.

Life of a Saint: Chris Ivory

The Dallas Cowboys were in their glory years. A young Chris Ivory watched the local juggernauts win Super Bowls just in front of his fifth, sixth and eighth birthdays. And growing up just a 2-hour drive east from Dallas, it’s no surprise Ivory was intrigued by football at an early age. “Dallas was the team growing up in Texas. Around that time, it was a superstar team. They had Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Aikman, Michael Irvin. They had a roster.”

Without his biological father in the picture, Ivory’s mother acted as his sole provider, a source of strength, an invaluable mentor and, of course, his biggest fan. Judy Ivory took cheering to the next level, blaring the sirens of her Longview Police Department squad car when a young Chris Ivory crossed the goal line.

Longview High School

Even at a young age, the Texas native had the goal of someday playing the NFL. “It was on my mind. I knew that’s where I wanted to go. It was a goal of mine. I felt like it was achievable, but I knew it was hard work to get there. And you have to have the talent. It’s knowing that and knowing I had to have the GPA to get to college”, Ivory recalled. Ivory possessed an outlook that he maintained throughout the rest of his career and simply let his play do the talking for him.

“If you let one man bring you down, you’re not running hard enough.”

It was this mantra from both Longview Offensive Coordinator turned Head Football Coach, John King and Assistant Coach Oscar Wilson that helped create the punishing running style for which Ivory is known. King, who still coaches the Longview Lobos today, offered a glimpse into the Chris Ivory of yesteryear.

“(Chris was) Very quiet, non-assuming. But very talented on the field. Very violent; blocking, running, tackling in the limited time he played defense for us. He was very explosive. He was not a “rah-rah” guy. He just went about his work and stayed to himself. But he wasn’t a kid that would be detrimental to the team. It was not negative. He just did his job and did it to the best of his ability.”

King continued, “I guess you could say he was to himself. I really didn’t get close to him until the latter part of his career. I guess it’s a trust he’s got to build. It’s a barrier you have to break through. I’ve known his mother for many, many years. I watched Chris come up through our middle school ranks. I was offensive coordinator his freshman and sophomore year. He had to battle some injuries there and overcome those. His junior and senior year I was the head coach. Of course, he was a big part of what we did. Believe it or not, I had a hard time promoting him to some people because he played fullback in our offense. We were a 2-back I offense. He did a lot of the grunt work. We knew all along that we had two good running backs. One of them went to the University of Texas, and then Chris. We felt like Chris was the better of the two. I guess I didn’t do a good enough job showcasing his abilities. We knew he could. He did play some tailback and one back stuff for us. He was very unselfish. He would do what we asked him to do and never complained.”

When asked to offer a lasting memory about his play on the field, King replied, “He just had so many big plays. I think about his senior year. We were playing Lake Highlands at their place. Chris, he scores a touchdown on a triple option deal out of a split-back gun. He catches the pitch and takes it to the house. Then he turns around and we put him on defense. He runs over there and hits a guy, violently, causes a fumble, and we pick it up and take it back for a touchdown. That’s just the kind of impact he had. He was that kind of player. That was always the comment I got from opposing coaches is just how violent he ran and how explosive he was. He just had a unique skill set. He would catch the ball out of the backfield. He would block. He could run it. He had the home run speed. He had everything.”

Washington State v Washington Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Ivory’s College Years

After a successful high school career, Ivory headed out of state to Washington State University. When asked why he chose to head so far from home, Ivory replied, “I just wanted to get out of Texas at the time. I just wanted to see something different. At the time, that was one of the few big schools I had on my list. I was also recruited by smaller schools that were in Texas that I didn’t feel had as much recognition. Then there were schools that wanted me to go and play defense, like Miami. I had two other schools that wanted me to play running back, but it didn’t pan out.”

Ivory’s opportunities on the field at Washington State were limited due to injuries. Adding to the frustration of injury, Ivory also saw a coaching staff change that ultimately lead to him being moved down in the depth chart. Heading into his senior year, Ivory was then dismissed by Washington State for violating team rules. The dismissal would turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

Ivory’s final year in college was spent playing for Dave Wolkosky at Tiffin University. Wolkosky was one of the coaches replaced earlier on in Ivory’s college career at Washington State. The reunion not only made sense to Wolkosky from a skillset standpoint, but he also knew Ivory’s character was not a concern. And while Ivory’s final college season was cut short due to a knee injury, he had shown enough to open some eyes. Add to that the role his agent, Mike Simon, played in his recruitment, and Ivory had sparked serious interest within the NFL.

Ivory Finds the NFL

Pertaining to his dream to play in the NFL, Ivory had a lot stacked against him. He had just graduated from Tiffin University, a Division II school that had never had one of their players drafted by an NFL team. He also did not get an invite to the NFL Combine. Add to that, he was also coming off that knee injury which always raises concerns. Ivory said, “I thought I had an opportunity, but I thought it would hamper me a little just because I had that on my resume. With knees, it’s a hard thing for them to look at and feel like you’re going to come back from it 100%.”

April 22-24, the NFL draft came and went without Ivory hearing his name called. While Ivory was originally supposed to be drafted in the seventh round by Cincinnati, Ivory got a phone call a few picks prior from the Bengals stating they were going in another direction. Though disappointing, he wouldn’t have to wait long after the draft to find his way into the NFL. April 27, 2010, Chris Ivory became a member of the New Orleans Saints, signing a 3-year deal.

It wouldn’t take long for the Tiffin product to showcase his skills, scoring on a memorable 76-yard pass reception during his first preseason. And while he was happy to be turning heads in New Orleans, he knew he had an uphill battle joining the Saints straight off a Super Bowl win and already possessing a crowded backfield with Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. Despite those two local legends handing the lion’s share of carries in the Saints’ backfield, Ivory kept a healthy mindset. “I felt it was a good opportunity. I didn’t know what was going to come out of it. But I knew if I went in there and just played to my ability that something would come out of it. It was understood that if you didn’t make it at one location that it was possible to make it somewhere else, depending on what you did with your current team. But my mindset was to make it with the original team I was with.”

As far as getting some guidance once he arrived, Ivory offered, “I learned a lot of it on my own, but if I had to name a player, it would be Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. They were really good about bringing me under their wing.” As fate would have it, injuries to both of those mentors would force Ivory into the starting role and he took full advantage. In week six of that season, Ivory ran for a staggering 158 yards on only 15 carries. Ivory had not only made a believer out of Saints fans, but also teams around the NFL. Ivory continued to impress throughout the rest of his rookie campaign. Despite some late-season injuries, Ivory had made a splash in the league.

Ivory would continue to work on his craft in New Orleans, fine tuning his game and working on his protections. He showed flashes of brilliance when he got the opportunity, but the crowded backfield continued to limit his touches. In those limited opportunities, however, the rest of the NFL was continuing to take notice and Ivory was carving his future with every stiff arm, every juke and every bulldozed defensive back.

New York Jets v Buffalo Bills Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

A Workhorse in New York

“I would have loved to have stayed but I had a better opportunity moving on being that the backfield in New Orleans was pretty full.”

Ivory had proven that he could perform like an elite back when he had the chance in New Orleans. He just never had enough of a chance. A move that would send Ivory to New York in exchange for the Jets fourth round pick would prove to be the best situation for Ivory, who quickly flourished as more of a feature back.

Ivory spent three years in New York. Those years turned out to be the best of his career, running for 833, 821 and 1070 yards respectively. Ivory out-rushed backs like Bilal Powell during those seasons and even bested teammate and former 2000-yard rusher Chris Johnson in 2014. Ivory mentioned, “I think it was more just being able to get the opportunity. I had more time in the backfield to get more than just a few carries. I was definitely able to have more success once I had the opportunity. I split carries at times, but not as much as I did in New Orleans.”

Finishing Out an NFL Career

After his three years in New York, Ivory eventually moved on to become a Jacksonville Jaguar for two season and finished his career with one season on the Buffalo Bills. In both instances, it was again the wrong place at the wrong time in some ways. Ivory’s arrival in Jacksonville came during the same season they drafted rookie phenom, Leonard Fournette. Despite being listed in the NFL’s Top 100 players just a year earlier, Ivory was again sharing carries with the running back that the Jaguars viewed as the future. Ivory’s arrival in Buffalo had him sharing carries with LeSean McCoy and a very mobile rookie quarterback, Josh Allen.

In true Chris Ivory fashion, without the pomp and circumstance, Ivory retired from the game. He didn’t need the farewell tour. He didn’t ask for the spotlight. He just quietly and privately retired. “I just didn’t do it publicly. I really prefer to keep things more private.”

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Chris Ivory accomplished a lot on the football field. A simple scroll through his Wikipedia page will offer awards like the Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week, FedEx Ground Player of the Week, the aforementioned NFL Top Players of 2016 (ranked 78), a Pro Bowler in 2015 (finished second in the AFC in rushing) and the Pro Football Writers All-Rookie Team. With all that being said, Ivory’s favorite accolade is none of them.

“A lot of people don’t really know this unless it’s really broadcasted, but I was a Top-10 back for three of the nine years I played. I really don’t get the recognition for that. In 2010, I was an alternate, but I was a Top-10 back. Then in 2014 and 2015. Most people only know 2015 because that was the only year I was broadcast as a Top-10 back in going to the Pro Bowl.”

In a league filled with egos, Ivory was never one to toot his own horn, even with all the awards and accomplishments he had accrued. He’s just not wired that way. But on the occasion, he was thrust in front of the microphones and cameras. Ivory developed a lack of trust for the media. He explained, “I started doing interviews but then when I realized what some of those interviews did – how the media twists your words up and how it would come back to the coaches. It really pushed me away. You tell them one thing and then they put something else in the paper. I didn’t like the fact that my words were being misconstrued at times. That pushed me away from the media. There came a time where my wife told me that I control the interview. I can tell them what I want them to know. I tried to do that, and I did do that for a little bit, but I just felt that it was better to stay away from it and keep it real short whenever I did interviews.”

Just like the role his mother played, Ivory had another strong female influence in his life, helping him navigate through the obstacles and situations he was experiencing.

Looking back on his playing career, Ivory stated that his only regret was wishing he had learned how to take care of his body at an earlier age. Looking forward, it sounds as though he wants to help future players avoid some of the pitfalls he experienced. “I’m looking at performance coaching just because I was one of those guys that had injuries coming in and didn’t understand how to take care of his body. Being that I was able to go through that and learn what was needed to take care of my body, I feel like I can give back to those guys who are in the same place and don’t quite understand what it takes to have longevity.”

Aside from finalizing the next move in his professional career, Ivory also plays the role of dad to his daughter, Nevaeh. And if history tells us anything, it’s a safe bet that she will someday be yet another strong woman standing right alongside her dad, Chris Ivory.

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