Claypool draws strength in roots
Family, friends give rookie a boost
The turkey was in the oven, appetizers were on the table and mimosas were flowing at the home of Chel and Khul Sanghera. It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving in Abbotsford, British Columbia, but dinner couldn’t wait. There was a Steelers game to watch at 10 a. m. sharp.
While Chel was getting the spread ready, her longtime friend John Mensah came to her with a prediction about his son.
“He’s going to get two touchdowns today,” he proclaimed.
Sanghera told him that on this morning, of all days, he should just thank the universe that Chase Claypool has made it this far and be grateful that he’s an NFL wide receiver.
“We’re happy,” she reminded her guest. “Don’t be greedy.”
But Claypool’s father was having none of it and repeated himself that yes, No. 11 is going to score not one but two touchdowns. Sure enough, less than an hour after kickoff, Dad knew best. He turned to Sanghera again with another forecast: He’s going to get two more.
Out of superstition, Sanghera wanted to play the same game and replied the same way, that they should all just be thrilled about the first two scores and expect nothing more. But Sanghera has learned by now that the 22- yearold she and her husband have watched go from youth football legend who lived down the street to breakout rookie is always surpassing expectations. Four touchdowns in his fourth NFL game, most by a Steeler since 1968, most ever by a Canadian player, with his parents and friends all watching together back home? Yeah, that sounds like Chase.
“Everything I felt for so long, and his mother, his father, my husband,” Sanghera said, “it’s like, ‘ I told you so!’ ”
‘ An anomaly’ and fan favorite
In Claypool’s hometown north of the border, there aren’t a ton of football options for kids. Chel Sanghera, known to many players as “Mama Chel,” was the president of the Valley Community Football League, and her husband Khul coached their son, Tajan, on the Abbotsford team. About 14 years ago, this week’s most coveted pickup in fantasy football started out as a wiry running back Sanghera calls “the worst nightmare” for “Abby” opponents.
Claypool’s dominance got to the point where Khul Sanghera didn’t bother using him on first down and only played one side of the ball unless it was a playoff or championship matchup. The most flak they ever took was the time Claypool scored 10 touchdowns in one game.
“He was known growing up as someone who is phenomenal, an anomaly,” remembered Sanghera, whose son played with Chase through high school and even had a paper route with him. “We had to utilize him very differently. Even for parents on our team, they think their kid is the superstar, but Chase is running it in. We were explaining that we didn’t think Chase was going to do this.”
That’s why Sanghera, who was at Claypool’s draft party, doesn’t hesitate to snap into “told you so” mode now. As she put it, many of those who used to give her “heat” about Claypool being too good are now on his bandwagon. She’s doing her part, too, converting friends and coworkers to Steelers fandom, and of course she has her own gear by now.
So does Kim Borza Donaldson in South Bend, Ind., where she’s Notre Dame’s senior director of athletics advancement. She interacted with Claypool here and there during his Fighting Irish career, but she also lived across the street from him five minutes from
campus — and she’s a Western Pennsylvania native who rushed to order a new Steelers jersey with “Claypool” on the back.
“I’ve seen a couple,” Borza Donaldson said with a laugh. “I don’t think I was the first. I might just be the newest. But I’m sure there will be a lot more now.”
A Beaver Area High School graduate who played tennis at Pitt, Borza Donaldson was inundated with text messages and calls from Pittsburgh friends when the Steelers drafted Claypool. She assured them Claypool would be a great fit for the city, on and off the field, but she had no idea she’d be proven right this quickly.
Naturally, as a “proud Yinzer,” she was in front of her TV watching the game live Sunday when her former neighbor became a household name.
“He was a great figure in our community here in South Bend,” Borza Donaldson said. “And I will say, Chase was a wonderful neighbor. No complaints, no noise violations or anything like that.”
In the wake of his breakout, Claypool was calm, cool and collected Wednesday in explaining how he’s staying grounded. His friends congratulated him, but then it was time to play “Call of Duty,” and there was no more football talk.
Still, he’s wasted little time becoming one of the most popular Steelers, just as he did in college, and just as he did for a country that’s known far more for hockey and even basketball than it is Claypool’s sport.
“He loves football, but he also loves the unification it does for us back home,” said Chel Sanghera, who also watched the season opener with Claypool’s mom, Jasmine. “He loves the support, he loves the cheering. We do TikTok videos for every touchdown, and he appreciates that.”
Giving up the ‘ glory’
Jasmine Claypool always will be Chase’s biggest fan and vice versa. He and his mother have been too close for too long and been through too much together for that to ever change. Still, he has “a village” behind him in Abbotsford, according to Chel Sanghera.
For her Thanksgiving game watch, Chel and her husband hosted both of Claypool’s parents. It’s always been that way, though for as long as the Sangheras have known Chase, his mom and dad have not been together. Jasmine raised him, but there’s a reason why, after being drafted, Claypool bought new cars for both her and his father and delivered them at the same Mother’s Day party.
“The whole way through, we’ve had aftergame drinks, we fund- raise together, we have Christmas gatherings,” Sanghera said. “They co- parent really well.”
There’s also Chase’s stepdad, Palmer Carvery, whose son Jacob Carvery was a college football player in Canada and helped steer Chase to the game. Several more brothers and sisters on both sides always have his back, too, and it works for the Claypools.
“He didn’t come from a mom and dad marital unit, but you’ve seen them all there,” Sanghera said. “And they don’t fight, they just go there and they cheer and they’re on the same side.”
Chase has spoken openly about some of his hardships, most of all when his sister, Ashley Claypool, died by suicide in October 2011 when she was 17. Sanghera still remembers Jasmine calling her right away, and the ribbons the team wore in Ashley’s honor. Chase, who was 13, didn’t miss the next game, and he and all the players wrote her name on their helmets.
This year, Claypool is writing again. Every game so far, on the tape on his right wrist, he has written the letters UKO. They don’t stand for anything, but to him, they stand for everything.
Samwel Uko was two grades behind Claypool in school and football, a standout running back in his own right who looked up to the college recruit headed to Notre Dame. Uko always wanted to “play up” in youth leagues, or at least practice with the older team, and when he got to high school he finally shared the field with his idol.
“When we were in community football, Chase was a running back,” Uko told the
Vancouver Sun in 2016. “I saw him play and I said ‘ Coach I want to be a running back.’ ”
Uko, who discovered football in middle school after moving to Canada from South Sudan, signed to play at the University of Saskatchewan and spent the 2018 season there before moving on to another team. This past May, he was visiting family in another province when he sought help from a nearby hospital. Per published reports, Uko was directed to a mental health clinic, then later turned away and physically removed by security.
Later that night, Uko’s body was found in a lake. He was 20.
“He was a teammate and a friend of mine for a pretty long time there,” Claypool, who also has been vocal about social justice and racial inequality, said Wednesday. “I just like to write the name because I couldn’t put it on the back of my helmet, just to remember his name. The community knows who he is and loved him, so I think it just means a lot for everyone if I go ahead and represent his name for this season.”
The Saskatchewan Health Authority
apologized for “improperly denying” care, and Sanghera calls it a “controversial” case in Canada, given that Uko’s family has recommended more “cultural sensitivity” and diversity in the health care system. And when it comes to mental health, “nobody knows it more than Chase, because he’s seen it twice now,” Sanghera said.
Months before Claypool’s star turn, his parents both called Sanghera about Uko’s death. A GoFundMe page was set up to help with funeral expenses, and right away, Claypool donated. Through the good and bad times, he keeps finding ways to make his village proud.
“The fact that Chase is over there, and still, he’s not too big for Uko, that shows he’s really grounded,” Sanghera said. “After the games, he does FaceTime his mom, and we all give him a little, ‘ Hey, great job!’ But he just smiles and nods. We’re telling him what he did, he knows what he did, but he kind of just lets us be in the glory.”
Khul Sanghera, from left, Jasmine Claypool, Chel Sanghera, John Mensah and Luis Garcia pose after Chase Claypool’s four- touchdown breakout Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Sangheras and Garcia coached Claypool in youth football, and have remained friends with Claypool’s father, John, and mother, Jasmine.
Chase Claypool shakes off a tackle en route to his second touchdown against the Eagles.
Chase Claypool and Chel Sanghera, a family friend and president of his youth football league in Abbotsford, Canada.