JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – When you think of NFL players, you may think they're fearless, considering all the contact they go through on the gridiron. But even some of the strongest players may be keeping a secret. Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver DJ Chark was.
The football player from LSU is being called the most impressive rookie of the Jaguars 2018 draft class, but when his team asked him to pick something he wished he could learn to do, his response was unexpected.
"If you could pick up a new skill in an instant, what would it be?" Chark was asked.
"Swimming, I don't know how to swim," he answered.
DJ Chark's fear of water
Chark told News4Jax none of his new teammates in Jacksonville knew he couldn't swim until the Jaguars recently released video of him taking lessons at the Winston Family YMCA.
Chark grew up in Louisiana and said he was terrified of the water. Just as his height of 6'3" is considered an advantage on the football field, his height at a younger age helped him mask the fact he couldn't swim.
"I remember, probably middle school, everybody being in the pool but I had to stay in the shallow end. I always wanted to be in the deep end, but I didn't trust myself enough to do that," he said. "And as I got taller, I was able to just stand up in most pools, so I never really took the time to learn."
UNCUT: DJ Chark's full interview
By opening up to the Jacksonville Jaguars about his inability to swim, but expressing his desire to learn how, the team arranged for Chark to take lessons at the YMCA with swim instructor Mo Eaton.
"Where you surprised that he (DJ Chark) was not able to swim and that he was afraid of the water?" we asked Eaton.
"I wasn't surprised at all," she answered. "We see so many adults and kids that are truly afraid of the water, but to have someone that is a professional athlete to say, 'I am afraid of the water but I want to learn how to swim,' was exciting."
DJ Chark learns to swim
Chark was nervous at first. Even as an NFL player, even as an adult, the swimming pool was intimidating.
"I definitely got in the shallow end first," he said.
And with Eaton's help -- just as the rookie learned different techniques and positions on the football field during training camp -- he took on the challenge to overcome his fear and master swimming basics.
"When I put my face in, I bring my face out. I don't know if I'm supposed to breathe," Chark said to Eaton during his first swim lesson. "I'll be confused."
"Their first instinct is to suck in," Eaton explained to Chark in the pool. "It goes up your nose and in your mouth, so I try to teach them to relax enough to blow out, turn, and get a breath."
For Chark, just leaving the shallow end of the YMCA pool was a major accomplishment -- let alone learning the correct swimming mechanics and breathing methods.
"Yep, that's it, relax, relax, that's it. You got it. It's all you. That's all you man!" Eaton said to Chark as he floated on his back in the pool for the first time.
"Nice, way to put your face in!"
"I can go the whole way," Chark told Eaton when he was ready to swim his first lap. "Let's do it! Yes! I love it! He's going the whole way," Eaton shouted.
"For me at first it was more mental than physical," said Chark. "I had to get my confidence up to jumping in the deep end and being like that. So that was huuuge. And then once I was able to psyche myself out to do that, then it became physical. Learning the technique."
"It's exciting to be able to conquer something that was on my bucket list, and now when I go places, I don't mind hopping in the pool," he added. "I'm really excited to continue to learn and get better and better."
Even by accident, DJ Chark inspires others
All of Chark's hard work to overcome his personal fear of the water, and take the time to learn to swim, has accidentally inspired kids who have been watching him take lessons.
"He (DJ Chark) takes the time to give every child a high-five on the way out," said Eaton. "And, when they look up at him, they're excited, and they want to work harder."
"There are kids out there who are teased because they don't know how to swim. you are a cool Jaguars player, so what do you say to those kids?" we asked Chark.
"They're not the only one. There's people older, younger than them that don't know how to swim. When the story came out, I had people way older than me tell me that they didn't know how to swim either and they was interested in taking classes," he said. "Even though some people might think it's funny, if you want to learn how to swim, do it for yourself -- not for others. Once you learn, it's going to be a weight lifted off your shoulders."
"A lot of people say, 'So you can't swim?' And then I tell them, "Well, I can now.'"
Young and old can learn to swim at the YMCA
"He was so coachable," Eaton said about Chark. "He just kept saying to me, 'I want to learn how to float, I want to learn how to swim.' And I told him, 'We're going to do it, whatever it takes.'"
It actually didn't take too much. After a few lessons, Chark was comfortable in the water.
"He (DJ Chark) can jump in come up and tread. And when he treads, he's actually smiling and kind of talking a little bit where the first time he kind a looked at me like I wasn't so sure, and that is what makes me want to keep doing this," Eaton explained.
And she wants to make sure everyone knows that anyone of any age can accomplish what Chark accomplished.
"We are teaching adults now that are 60 to 65 years old, and learning how to swim for the first time. And to be able to say to them that one of the football players is learning how to swim as an adult, just gives them that extra incentive to be successful," she added.
The goal for the YMCA is "Safety Around Water." The organization says in order to prevent drownings and save lives, everyone must learn essential water safety skills.
Free swim skills test
To make sure you or your child will be safe in a water emergency, free swim testing is offered at First Coast YMCA pools. Find out more online or call 904-265-1775.
From May to August 2018:
- 6,274 have taken the free swim skills test
- 3,076 have passed the free swim skills test
- 4,901 have taken swim lessons and/or safety around water classes