MORGANTOWN — For some time, Pat Hawthorne had heard stories about Terrell Chestnut, about how a gifted athlete and smart young man struggled in class, talked back to teachers and punched his peers.
One day, Chestnut sat across from Hawthorne’s secretary desk outside the assistant principal’s office at Pottsgrove Middle School in Eastern Pennsylvania, in trouble yet again. In that moment, she saw something in the sixth-grader’s eyes, a basic goodness and compassion that didn’t befit someone making regular visits to the school’s disciplinarian.
So, in a moment of inspiration, Hawthorne unloaded.
“What are you doing throwing away such God-given talent?” Hawthorne later recalled in a letter nominating Chestnut for an award. “A good-looking boy like you who can see the entire basketball court as a point guard, deliver precise passes and make plays like you do and excel with speed and agility on the football field has intelligence and no right to be struggling in the classroom and sitting in this office.”
Chestnut didn’t respond, but the next day he flashed Hawthorne a small smile. The message had gotten through.
That moment nudged Chestnut, now a senior cornerback for West Virginia, away from a troubled childhood. As he prepares for his final college game, the Cactus Bowl Jan. 2 against Arizona State, he’s always mindful of the people — from Hawthorne to his grandmother — who helped a lost young man save his life.
“It just changed my mindset about certain things, made me mentally stronger and allowed me to cope with certain things,” Chestnut said. “What I went through, even when I got to college, it helped shape me into what I am today.”
Understanding the depths from which Chestnut rose is difficult without knowing the circumstances from which he came.
His upbringing was anything but settled. With his father out of the picture, Chestnut and his siblings moved from one place to another, from his original home in Philadelphia to a foster home and, ultimately, to a two-bedroom house with his grandmother in Pottsgrove, Pa.
For all that turbulence, nothing shook him more than the loss of his older brother, Don.
When Chestnut was 8, the two were hanging out one night when Don had an asthma attack. The next morning, Chestnut learned his brother had died.
The trauma of that event festered into an internal rage, one that got him into scuffles and made him something of a bully. He befriended a drug dealer or two. Academically, he staggered, so much so that he had to repeat the sixth grade.
“That was my way of coping, getting in trouble and crying out for attention, but not in a positive way,” Chestnut said. “It was an outlet for me to release my anger.”
Then, early in his second year of sixth grade, Hawthorne gave her talk. The two had never met before, but she gave him a stern, vocal lecture rooted in the same principle by which she had raised her own children — live and perform to the best of your abilities.
“I thought for sure I was going to get fired,” Hawthorne said with a laugh.
What came from that speech was a lasting bond. Chestnut secured the coveted position of office aide, where he spent 45 minutes every school day doing various chores and, most important, talking with Hawthorne about life and the difficulties he faced.
A promising athlete even in his lowest moments, Chestnut’s life changed that much more when he started playing football in seventh grade.
“A lot of that energy and a lot of that emotion was caged up for years,” said Bill Hawthorne, Pat’s son and Chestnut’s quarterback coach and offensive coordinator at Pottsgrove High School. “Football was one of the ways where he could channel a lot of that energy loose.”
Chestnut quickly proved to be a special player. He was a four-year starter at safety, a three-year starter at quarterback and a three-time all-state selection. Away from the field, he excelled academically, blossoming into an honor roll student in high school, while volunteering with youth groups and at a local nursing home.
That charitable work has continued at West Virginia, as he spends some of his free time at the Ronald McDonald House and a local hospital, among other places. Every Thursday, he and teammate Isaiah Bruce buy McDonald’s cheeseburgers to hand out to the homeless.
“They’re really appreciative,” Bruce said. “They know us by name. Every time, they expect us to come around 11:30-12:30 or sometime around there. It’s a good feeling, giving back, and just knowing how much it affects them, even with just one cheeseburger.”
A standout in a strong Mountaineers secondary, Chestnut’s future beyond this season is unknown. But whatever he pursues, his past — from the hardships he endured to the assistance he received — pushes him to help others however he can.
“To see the amount of people that helped me get to where I am today really set me up to want to give back,” Chestnut said. “I’m in a position where I can give back and I’m going to continue to give back. As long as I have this platform, I’m going to continue to help as many people as I can.”