Former University of Pittsburgh offensive lineman Charles Spencer is a “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade” kind of guy. For thirty-five years, life has tested Spencer’s resolve, but the two-time All-Big East honoree continues to flourish through even the most trying of times.
“That’s exactly my story,” Spencer said. “The worst situation – I somehow figure a way out of it and make it a positive. That’s just how my life has been. I’ve somehow made a positive out of the worst negatives.”
Eleven years ago, Spencer was drafted by the Houston Texans with the first pick of the third round in the 2006 N.F.L. draft. The dream of playing football at the highest level, a dream countless young men possess, became reality for the 6-foot-4 inch, 337-pound offensive lineman. As a rookie, Spencer quickly earned the starting left tackle spot in Houston, generating optimism that the franchise had found its blindside protector for quarterback David Carr. But in just the second game of his career, Charles suffered a fractured tibia early in the third quarter, an injury which would derail his promising career. The damage from his injury proved insurmountable, and Charles would never take the field for the Texans again. After unsuccessful attempts at a comeback with the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars, Spencer had to accept that his career in the N.F.L., a career which once held incredible potential, was over by 2009.
“I mean, I enjoyed my time,” Spencer said, on his injury-shortened career in the N.F.L. “It was rough, because I worked so hard to get to that particular point, and the second game into my rookie season – the first play of the second half – I break my leg. I don’t take anything for granted and I appreciate every second that they gave me, but I felt like I left some still on the table. It took a few years for me to get past it, but I’m at a point now in my life where I finally have closure.”
Spencer’s injury-shortened N.F.L. career was devastating for some time, but the life Charles leads today, a well-rounded life that fills him with daily content, is a culmination of every event in his life – from the most euphoric of moments, to the most tragic.
First, Charles’ professional football career moved him from the humid summers and snow-ridden winters of the Northeast, to the yearlong heat of Houston, Texas. As a native of Poughkeepsie, New York and a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Spencer prefers living in Houston over his Northeast roots, and asserts that he and his family are “in Houston for good.”
“The weather is obviously a lot better,” Spencer said. “The cost of living is a lot cheaper. The people are a lot more friendly. Just the atmosphere of how people carry themselves, I think, is a lot better than what I’m used to.”
Post-football life in Houston also fortuitously reunited Charles with an old friend from Poughkeepsie, Yamar Diene. Diene, a former professional basketball player in France, was searching for a new career in Houston upon returning to the United States. After electing to pursue real estate investments, Diene introduced Spencer to the profitable field, as well. What originally began as two friends catching up after years apart resulted in the discovery of Charles’ post-football profession.
“I had a kid (Diene) I played A.A.U. basketball with in high school. He was from Senegal, and he actually came and played at my high school, and he lived with us for his senior year in high school. He went on to get a scholarship at Rice, and then played in France for like ten years. After he retired, he came back to Houston, and I was already in Houston. He got introduced to real estate, and then he kind of pulled me by the ears and tagged me along. And then, here we are.”
Thanks to Diene, Spencer is now self-employed, finding success in real estate and private investments. He earns a living by flipping residential real estate for profit and renting out owned properties. Due to his success in the field, Charles plans on expanding his investments into commercial real estate properties in the near future. As a guy who graduated from Pitt with a degree in criminal justice, and a third round selection in the N.F.L. draft, this was not a career path he envisioned pursuing before reuniting with Diene. But for Charles, many of life’s most rewarding gifts have been unforeseen.
At thirty-five years old, Charles Spencer already has a family of his own. He resides 45-minutes outside of Houston in Fulshear, Texas with his high school sweetheart, Tanya. Tanya and Charles married in 2008, and together the couple has given birth to three children: a thirteen-year-old daughter named Nhy’Airah, a ten-year-old daughter named Vizz’shun, and an eight-year-old son named Righteous. Real estate may be Charles’ career, but spending time with family is his true passion, and he has found that life after football is much more conducive for consistent family interaction.
“I always tell people – people always ask, ‘What do [you] do?’ And I say, ‘I’m raising my kids now.’ I had my oldest daughter in college, and from college on, I was always playing football or was somewhere associated with football. So I didn’t spend a lot of time at home. Now that I’m home and able to be around a lot more, I really generate a lot of my time with my family and raising my kids.”
One way that Charles spends time with his son is by coaching Righteous’ youth football team. According to Charles, Righteous is already showing glimpses of his father on the field.
“My son is actually pretty good [at football],” he said. “He started football a lot younger than I did. Last year was his second year of tackle, and I actually coach his team. We won the championship. He’s playing right guard and defensive end, and he’s out there killing it.”
Aside from real estate, coaching and spending time with family, Charles also enjoys saltwater fishing. Although a self-titled “novice” at this hobby, the occasional trips to sea provide the temporary breaks from stress that every man requires.
Before life in Houston, Charles excelled on the football field at Pitt. As with any chapter in his life, Spencer’s journey to the University of Pittsburgh tested his resolve in the face of adversity. Charles joined the Pitt football program as a member of the Class of 2001, but his eligibility for playing college football faced uncertainty coming out of high school. In order to become academically eligible for college football, Charles was forced to spend a year at Trinity-Pawling Prep in New York to improve his grades. The season at Trinity-Pawling delayed the beginning of his collegiate career by a year, but it was during this trying time that Bob Ligashesky, Pitt’s tight ends coach and special teams coordinator at the time, demonstrated to Charles the dedicated, caring nature of the Panthers’ coaching staff. If not for his season at Trinity-Pawling, Pitt may never have separated itself from the other schools recruiting Charles Spencer.
“To be very honest, I thought Pitt was the closest school,” Spencer said, on his decision to attend Pitt. “But the more important reason why I committed to Pitt was because of Bob Ligashesky. Coming out of high school, I didn’t qualify; my G.P.A. was way too low. My S.A.T. scores were way too low. Bob – throughout the whole process – he was very honest, very committed to it, and even me having to go to prep [school] to get my grades up, he was always there. He was always in communication. He promised my mother he’d take care of me. And still, to this very day … we still talk.”
After redshirting during his first season at Pitt, Spencer lettered as a rotational defensive tackle in his freshman and sophomore seasons. Understanding that playing time at defensive tackle would be limited behind incumbent starters Vince Crochunis and Dan Stephens, Charles approached then-head coach Walt Harris concerning a potential switch to the offensive line following his sophomore year. The Panthers’ starting left guard, Dan LaCarte, had just graduated, and his position was there for the taking. It took some time for Spencer to receive a response from his head coach, but on the opening day of training camp, he learned that he would compete for the vacancy at guard.
Once on offense, Spencer wasted little time in securing the starting left guard position. In his junior season, he started all twelve games for the Panthers, earning second team All-Big East honors while validating his switch to offense. After transitioning to left guard so seamlessly, Charles accepted the lofty challenge of replacing Rob Petitti at left tackle heading into his senior season. At left tackle, Spencer was named second team All-Big East for the second season in a row, showing the consistency over consecutive seasons that led to his selection in the N.F.L. draft.
Aside from his senior season under head coach Dave Wannstedt, Charles Spencer was recruited by, and played under, head coach Walt Harris. According to Spencer, Harris welcomed the kid from Poughkeepsie and transformed him into a disciplined adult.
“I loved the guy, man,” he said, regarding Harris. “He took a kid that had very little direction and he made me a man quick. He just didn’t tolerate any type of dysfunction. He wanted it a certain way. He was going to get it done, regardless of how you felt about it. Some of the things that he taught me in college I still apply, and I apply in my household.”
Coach Harris’ lessons on the “simple things” and “details,” in both life and football, still manifest themselves in Spencer’s daily life. Having witnessed the effect Harris’ teachings had on his own development, Charles now looks to impart the wisdom of his former coach onto his children.
“Walt Harris’ thing was: if you’re not ten minutes early to something, you’re late,” said Spencer. “If I’m not ten minutes early to something, I consider myself late. Still to this day, I take my son to practices and we’re a half-hour early, because if I’m not ten minutes early, I’m late. And I take that very seriously. When I have business meetings, I always tell people, ‘Be ten minutes early.’ It’s just the little things like that. Because of Pitt, I appreciate time.”
In addition to Pitt’s coaches, Charles also formed eternal bonds with many of his teammates in the blue and gold. Over ten years following his graduation, he still remains in contact with his closest friends from the team.
“I actually just hung out with [tight end] Kris Wilson last weekend. And then, [offensive lineman] Mike McGlynn – me and him were like brothers on the offensive line. We did everything [together] away from football. Most of the offensive line I still stay in contact with.”
Spencer shared many memorable moments with his teammates during his five seasons as a Panther. He finds it difficult to specify which one moment would qualify as the most memorable, but recalls Pitt’s 41-38 victory over Notre Dame in 2004 – when kicker Josh Cummings converted a game-winning field goal with one-second remaining to defeat the Fighting Irish in South Bend – as a seminal moment in his career.
“If I had to pick a moment, it was probably when we played Notre Dame up in South Bend and Tyler [Palko] threw for five touchdowns or something like that … It was that moment where things became realistic for me.”
To this day, Spencer remains a follower of Pitt football. Living in Houston prevents him from attending many games in person, but he did make the trip to Heinz Field for one Backyard Brawl against West Virginia, and he attended the 2015 Armed Forces Bowl when Pitt faced Houston in Fort Worth, Texas. Staying current on the team has also given him the opportunity to familiarize himself with the work of head coach Pat Narduzzi.
“You know what? I like [Narduzzi] a lot, and I’m hoping he stays for quite some time to really build this program back up,” he said. “Last year’s team was solid – the offensive line, the run game. [Nate] Peterman was slinging the ball. It was fun to watch. Our defense was a little shaky last year at the corner position, but I like the direction he’s going. … I like where he’s going with this program.”
Spencer undeniably approves of the direction in which Pitt is heading, but as a man who has overcome so many unforeseen obstacles in his life, he understands just how tenuous the future can be. This respect for the unpredictable helps him to appreciate the present in his own life, while preventing him from peering too far into the future.
“I really don’t know, because I take one day at a time,” said Charles, when asked where he sees himself in ten years. “Today, I took the kids to the water park and they had a blast. Tomorrow, I’m going to work out and see what I can do business wise. I just approach every single day. I’m not a guy that’s going to prepare three-to-six months down the line, because we’ll get curveballs thrown at as all the time. So I’m just going to take today, I’m going to approach today, I’m going to be the best person that I can be, and when tomorrow comes, I’ll do the same thing. Where I am ten, fifteen, thirty years from now, I have no idea.”
Without a doubt, Panther fans wish Charles and his family nothing but good fortune, but life will continue to challenge him, just as it has since his days in Poughkeepsie.
After following the narrative of Charles’ life so far, one thing is certain, though: Charles Spencer will greet adversity head on, overcoming it like he always has, and always will.
The Sports Now network is growing! Check out our new site PittsburghHockeyNow.com for the best Pittsburgh Penguins news and opinion.