Growing up in southeast Bakersfield, there weren't a lot of role models for Anthony Chacon and Shamar Oliver.

The area where they grew up is one of the roughest in the city. It’s a well-known hotbed for drug dealers and street gangs, and the violence that typically goes with it.

That painful reality hit home for the two former Mira Monte football standouts at a very young age when they both lost loved ones in murders not far from where they call home.

Through it all, the two have overcome more than their share obstacles, often turning to each other for support, all the while defying the odds to earn college football scholarships. The two have committed to play football at Valley City State University, a small NAIA school in North Dakota.

“I knew I really didn’t have the money to go to college,” said Chacon, an All-Southeast Yosemite League tight end for the Lions. “I’d seen other people’s stories of how they make it through the game of football and that’s where it got me wanting to play football. Around my 8th-grade year I first played football and I realized that everything I had been through could just be (channeled) through the game of football.

“When I got into high school, I wanted to chase the dream of playing college football. Not just to play, but to make it to college, get a degree to better my life for the future, and to better it for my family in the future, which would be my kids.”

Oliver has similar hopes and dreams, with plenty of motivation from a pact with his older brother, Zacarias, who at just 19 years old, was killed in a drive-by shooting the day after Christmas in 2016. Just months before Zacarias' death, he made a pact with his younger brother, promising they would both play football someday.

Four years later, the then 14-year-old is living up to his end of the bargain.

“It means a lot to me,” said Oliver, who broke Mira Monte’s single-game rushing record with 305 yards against Kern Valley this season. “It’s a dream come true. When my brother was alive. That was our plan. To go to college together and play football. And now I have a scholarship and I’m about ready to go play football. This really means a lot to me.”

Tragedy strikes

When Chacon was in fourth grade, his life was turned upside down when his father, Anthony Sr., was convicted of murder in the death of a 2-year-old girl. The elder Chacon, who was never present in his son’s life, was attempting to shoot another man, but the toddler was hit by a stray bullet and died. He was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

“He was never around growing up, but at the time when I saw that happen, I broke,” Chacon recalled. “I mean no one should have to see their family on the news for taking someone’s life. As a young boy I didn’t know what to do. I just felt hate against him for doing such a thing, but now I know it was just a society that he was trapped in. And the choices he made were his choices, and that I didn’t have to follow it.”

Chacon has been determined to stay true to that statement ever since.

“It may sound kind of weird, but for us it was like a normal way of living, losing people,” said Chacon, who will be the first person in his family to attend college. “Because of where we were raised. I can’t speak for Shamar, but one thing is for certain, we were both going to change that for generations to come in our families. And for his younger sisters and my younger sisters maybe, they can see that this doesn’t have to be a constant cycle of losing family members and going down the wrong path.”

Making good choices

As early as elementary school, there were several opportunities for Chacon and Oliver to take a destructive route.

“Growing up where I have on the east side there’s drugs, there’s violence, there’s gangs … There’s a lot of things that you can get lost in,” Chacon said. “And some people want to make fast money. There’s (ways to do it). There’s many dangers of growing up in neighborhoods like this.

“It was all around me. From a very young age, even walking to the bus stop there was a corner house where people would sell drugs there, use drugs there. You would just see it. It was a normal day for a kid like me seeing that stuff. Gang members would walk up and down the street and would hang out at a certain spot. I had young friends that would have family members that were in gangs and they would join. They started doing it in school and things like that.”

Oliver had a similar experience, although he feels he’s been protected from bad decisions by the same people he’d been warned about growing up.

“I have friends that are in gangs and friends that are smoking and drinking 24/7,” Oliver said. “Everyone always says not to have friends like that because they always bring you down. But my friends don’t do that. Even though my friends are in gangs and do all that stuff, I’ve had so many motivational talks with them. They want me to (succeed). I know what they’re going through, I’ve been through it and when we talk they always push me to be better and don’t try to bring me down.”

Bouncing back

Following the tragic death of his brother during his sophomore year in high school, Oliver says he got off a track for a bit.

“It hurt a lot,” said Oliver, who rushed for 1,344 yards and 16 touchdowns in nine games this season. “When my brother passed away I fell into a hole. I didn’t know what to do. Luckily I had my mom and my mentors, and my friends and coaches to lift me back up to stay on the right path.

“When I fell into that hole, I let go of everything. I was so hurt because they took my brother away from me. Really, I didn’t know how to act. I turned into a bad person and I didn’t really like the person I was turning into. So I had to make a change.”

Prior to making that change, Oliver considered quitting football before his junior year.

“I really wasn’t going to play football, I really wasn’t,” Oliver said. “But my coaches, they told me ‘your older brother wants you to succeed in life. And the promise you made to him and he made to you … but you won’t be able to uphold that promise if you give up on playing football.’ And I took that to heart. So I went back on the team.”

Making an impact on the gridiron

In his first season of varsity football, Oliver rushed for 459 yards and seven touchdowns in just six games. He rushed for 141 yards and three scores in his varsity debut, a 37-20 victory over Rosamond.

“The kid just has a natural instinct,” said third-year Lions coach Christian Johnson, who played running back and linebacker at Centennial before becoming a long-snapper in college at New Mexico. “There are times when he might run the wrong play or do the wrong thing, but he’s just so instinctive he’ll still take it 70 yards for a touchdown. He’s just a competitor. He has such natural instincts and talent, and balance.

“He’s just hard to bring down. There’s just so many times when you're like, ‘oh, he’s going to get tackled in the backfield,’ and he makes a guy miss and makes another guy miss, and then he’s in the open field and no one can catch him.”

Chacon’s contributions may not have been as flashy, but no less important. He had 11 catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns his junior year and followed that up with nine receptions for 125 this past season. But in Mira Monte’s run-heavy offense, it was his work in the trenches that made the biggest impact, Johnson said.

“He is such a good blocker, and it’s such an unforeseen thing that I think it gets forgotten,” said Johnson, a former assistant coach in New Mexico, Colorado and Ridgeview who took over as Mira Monte’s head coach in 2018. “But he can block anybody. He is so unselfish, and Shamar is very humble in admitting this.

“Shamar would rush for 300 yards in a game, and there were a couple games that we won without even throwing a pass. And Chacon doesn’t get a lot of accolades for being a receiving tight end, and he’s actually a very good receiving tight end. But he’s one of the best blockers in the city. Shamar couldn’t have done what he did without Anthony Chacon blocking. And they just work so well together. And I’m excited because they get to continue that at college level.”

'Brothers' for life

Chacon and Oliver first met in middle school, but their friendship didn’t really start to take off until they were teammates on the frosh-soph football team at Mira Monte. Despite a few rough patches, the two consider each other part of their family.

“He’s my brother,” Oliver said. “Over the years we stuck with each other even during very, very bad times where we’d get into arguments and we actually wanted to fight each other. But I started seeing where it would be like three days when we wouldn’t talk to each other, but after that third day we’d be like apologizing to each other. That’s when I knew that I’d always have him by my side.”

Chacon feels the same way about Oliver. It’s a close relationship that helped push each other to reach their goals.

“Through the game of football, we became really close friends,” Chacon said. “He’s like a brother to me. We used to talk about how sweet it would be if we went and played college football and played against each other. We pushed ourselves to be better. I was willing to block for him to help give him the stats he needed. And he was willing to run the ball as hard as he can to show that he was a good tight end and offensive lineman.”

Now the two are excited for the next chapter in their football career, something they get to share even as they move halfway across the country.

“It’s really important (having Chacon with me at college), because when I’m down there I’m going to have Chacon’s back and I know that he’s going to have mine,” Oliver said. “In the football game when I didn’t score a touchdown or if I messed a play up, when we got back into the huddle he would always tell me ‘it’s cool, just shake it off, you’re going to get ‘em this next play.’ His motivation has helped me and I love him for that.”

Johnson shares that emotion when talking about his former players. He has a pride that extends beyond the football field.

“A lot of people just get to see their accolades on Friday nights, but I get to see them in a whole other light,” said Johnson, who sent game highlights of the two to several colleges to help with the recruiting process. “On campus and in the community, and all the hardships they’ve gone through, the choices that they could have made …. And for them to stay away from bad choices … they’ve seen some things and been around some things, and they’ve really bought into our program and they’ve been able to make some really good choices.

“And that’s not a testament to me, that’s a testament to them. They didn’t have to listen to me and what I wanted for them, they not only chose to listen to it, they dove into it. They’re great athletes, they’re great students and they’re even better human beings. They’re going to be great employees, great fathers. They’re just everything you’d want in a high school athlete.”

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