To almost the exact digit, University of Wyoming quarterback Sean Chambers can tell you with impeccable accuracy how long ago it was that his life got turned upside down.
363 days ago.
On Oct. 26, 2019, the redshirt sophomore quarterback led his 5-2 Cowboys into battle against Nevada at War Memorial Stadium. The results couldn’t have gone much better for anyone wearing or rooting for brown and gold: UW dominated the Wolf Pack 31-3 in a game that was, for all intents and purposes, over by halftime.
But it was a play before the teams went into the locker room that forever changed the trajectory of Chambers’ career.
About a third of the way through the opening quarter, Chambers, among the most dangerous ground threats regardless of position in the Mountain West, dove for the pylon on a 2-yard touchdown run. He was slow to get up, but it was nothing out of the ordinary for a player who has taken his fair share of hits. But his left knee wasn’t quite right.
“He was already a little bit sore and didn’t feel 100% going into Nevada,” his father, John Chambers, said. “The way he bounced up, I knew something was wrong.”
Chambers missed the ensuing drive, but returned to throw what might have been his best pass of the season, a 37-yard scoring strike to Raghib Ismail Jr., that gave the Cowboys a 21-3 halftime lead. The California native had seen his struggles as a passer up to that point, coming into the contest completing less than 42% of his passes. But against Nevada, Chambers shined, going 6 of 9 passing for 158 yards and a pair of touchdown passes.
It was all coming together for Chambers and the UW offense. Up until the moment it wasn’t.
Chambers didn’t play the second half of that matchup against the Wolf Pack. In fact, he didn’t play another snap the rest of the season. The knee injury he suffered scoring that touchdown wound up being a season-ender, requiring surgery. It was the second consecutive season Chambers had been lost to an injury, with a broken ankle taking him out in 2018.
Two seasons, two devastating endings for a player fans were pinning the team’s hopes and dreams upon. UW went 1-3 over its final four regular-season games, and all Chambers could do was watch hopelessly from the sidelines.
“It was definitely tough. It was definitely one of the tougher things I had to go through,” Chambers said over the summer. “But I think I’m going to come back a better quarterback.”
Fast forward almost exactly a year, and Chambers is as healthy as he has ever been. After a battle with redshirt freshman Levi Williams, Chambers was named UW’s starting quarterback earlier this week. He was also recently named a team captain.
If resiliency is a mark of leadership, then Chambers is among the best leaders UW has had in recent years. And when he takes the field today against the team that cut his 2019 season short, Chambers can’t help but be grateful.
Grateful to be playing in a season that was uncertain because of a pandemic. Grateful because his hard work paid off. And grateful to be the leader of a team with championship hopes and dreams.
“There were definitely some ups and downs with the injury, COVID. Definitely some uncertainty there,” Chambers said. “But to take the field this Saturday, it’s going to mean the world to me. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be fun to just get back out there with the guys.”
In the team’s 2019 season opener against Missouri, the Cowboys quickly fell behind 14-0. For all the world, it looked like the sky was falling. But Chambers’ calm confidence let teammates know things were going to be just fine. Chambers wasn’t worried in the slightest. Why should they be?
UW would wind up winning in a classic 37-31 shootout. Among the highlights was a 75-yard run by Chambers that gave the Cowboys a lead before halftime. Quite literally, Chambers sprinted and stiff-armed his team to victory.
“He kind of came up to us and was like, ‘We’re moving guys, we’re doing this. We just need to put it together,’” senior guard Logan Harris said. “He just has that winning mentality. He wins.”
“Winner” is the term offensive coordinator Brent Vigen has used consistently when discussing Chambers. It is part of the reason he won the quarterback derby this fall over Williams, who shone in his lone start last season, a 38-17 victory over Georgia State in the Arizona Bowl.
Both ooze potential and are more than worthy of getting the keys to the car. But Chambers’ body of work speaks for itself in the only category that truly matters: wins and losses.
“He started 11 games, and he’s won eight of them. He’s a winner,” Vigen told WyoSports over the summer. “That has to factor in beyond pure numbers.”
The passing numbers haven’t always been pretty for Chambers. He has completed just 45.9% of his passes in his career, and has thrown just 10 touchdowns. And that’s part of what made the injury against Nevada last season so brutal. When he finally seemed to be comfortable in the pocket and making precise throws down the field, the rug was pulled out from under him.
A quarterback never wants to be defined by his legs, rather than his arm. Just as Chambers was on the verge of changing people’s perceptions, he had to start back at square one.
“As a father, you definitely don’t want to see your children hurt. But also, you realize playing football, it’s not a question of if you’re going to get hurt, it’s when. I really felt terrible for him because he had a great first half. He was finally getting his feet underneath him,” John Chambers said. “He does know that people just consider him a running quarterback. To anyone who plays quarterback, that’s an insult.”
Chambers spent almost half of UW’s season on crutches. He stayed focused, though, doing all he could to help his teammates while also starting his rehab immediately after surgery, which he had in early November.
When the coronavirus pandemic shut down college campuses around the country in the spring, Chambers went back home to central California for a bit. He then quickly came back to Laramie to get his body right. Hardly anyone on the UW team was in town, and the football facilities were shut down due to concerns over COVID-19 transmission.
That didn’t stop Chambers, though, who worked with trainers at local parks to rehab his knee. Without access to the weight room, the healing and strengthening process was difficult. But it was better than nothing.
To be the best player he could be, Chambers reported back nearly two months before most of his teammates did. As always, he was going to keep fighting.
“He decided, ‘I have to go back … I have to finish this. I have to get healthy.’ That was his decision,” John said. “He was in Laramie, by himself. No roommates. He was there every day.”
The mark of a great leader is not gaudy statistics or being the loudest person in a given room. It is the ability to inspire those around you, whether it’s during a sideline huddle or in the classroom. The work you put in within all facets of life doesn’t go unnoticed by those closest to you.
When the MW was creating potential plans for a return to football, it set up a Return-to-Play committee that met once or twice a week to brainstorm ideas. Chambers was one of the few student-athletes on those calls, working with coaches across the conference to help create an effective plan.
Chambers wasn’t chosen because he’s a veteran quarterback. Heck, he wasn’t even confirmed as being UW’s starting quarterback at that point. He was chosen because he’s a respected leader of men.
“Sean’s a really good leader, and he’s definitely a guy I really like seeing being named a captain. I think he definitely deserves that. He plays the role really well,” Harris said. “He just kind of takes that lead that you need.”
In a strange, albeit fitting, twist of fate, Chambers’ return to action comes against the very team that shattered his 2019 hopes and dreams. By Vigen’s accounts, Chambers is much improved as a passer and overall quarterback. Head coach Craig Bohl said Chambers might even be faster than he was before.
Chambers is excited for the challenge. If the path there hadn’t been difficult, it wouldn’t be quite as worthwhile.
John Chambers admits that, as a family, “tough love” tends to rule the Chambers household. That isn’t a bad thing. When you grow up among sports, it’s sometimes the best way to get messaging across. When Sean was injured last fall, the message wasn’t one of constant reassurance or coddling, it was that he needs to play smarter “if you don’t want to rehab for your whole life.”
But in no way does that represent any less love.
John couldn’t be prouder of his son and his journey. Not every 20-something would be able to bounce back the way Sean has in consecutive years. And even fewer of them would become the leader he has.
And that’s what makes both John and Sean the happiest. It isn’t that he’s earned the starting quarterback job. It’s that he has the respect of everyone within the UW football program. There are no stats that can quantify what that truly means.
“We are beyond proud. And maybe we don’t show it enough … we are beyond proud of what Sean has done,” John said. “To go and face some of the adversity he’s faced with the injuries, and to still power through that and lead, and be recognized by his peers, that means more than anything to Sean.”