FOXBORO — Patrick Chung is unique. There’s no way around it.
He was born in Kingston, Jamaica and lived there for the first 10 years of his life. Chung’s mother, Sophia George-Chung, is a famous Jamaican reggae artist, who’s 1985 hit “Girlie Girlie” reached No. 1 in the Jamaica charts for 11 weeks and was a top-10 hit in the U.K. His father, Ronald, who was his mother’s manager, is half Chinese and half Jamaican.
When the family relocated to Rancho Cucamonga Calif., life wasn’t easy for the then 10-year-old. He dressed differently and spoke Jamaica’s native language, Jamaican Creole, or patois. His classmates were tough on him.
“It was kind of hard. You don’t have many friends, you speak patois,” Chung said. “You speak a different language, which is English but it’s broken down slang. That was kind of hard. Other than that, it wasn’t too bad of a transition. I used to get made fun of for my clothes and stuff like that, but that’s just kids. The longer I was here, the easier it became.”
Football wasn’t even on the radar back then. Chung’s first two sports were swimming and soccer. When he asked his mom if he could try out for the freshman football team, she suggested he stick with swimming.
Chung, 31, is a 10-year NFL veteran who has become a key member of the Patriots defense. He’s a hard-hitting safety and captain, who Bill Belichick loves and his teammates adore. But that’s not all. He runs a charity, Chung Changing Lives, which helps children. Chung’s also an accomplished chef — just ask the players in the Patriots locker room.
“You’ve got to have fun,” Chung said. “You only have one life.”
Beyond his years
In Jamaica, kids start school earlier than here, so the Rancho Cucamonga school system placed him in the grade relative to what he had already completed, and not according to his age. So when he was a high school freshman, he was only 12 years old.
Chris Vanduin had no idea. When Chung made the varsity football team as a sophomore, the then-head coach still had no clue. At that time, if you were 14 or under, it required extra paperwork to play varsity football. Vanduin asked the students who needed the forms, but Chung didn’t raise his hand.
“Later on, within a week, we find out he’s 13,” Vanduin said. “We asked him, ‘Why didn’t you raise your hand?’ He said, ‘Well, you asked who was 14?’ I never had to ask anyone who was a sophomore if they were 13. From that standpoint it was comical. From a physical development, size [standpoint], his speed and athletic ability were way above the average 12- or 13-year-old.”
Considering Chung’s introduction to football was as a high school freshman, he was behind some of his peers when it came to terminology and some football basics. That’s why Vanduin asked two upperclassmen, cornerback Terrell Thomas and safety Gerald Alexander, to mentor Chung. Both players eventually went on to become second-round picks in the NFL.
Alexander and Thomas taught Chung how to practice and prepare. They talked to him about going beyond the minimum if he truly wanted to be a great player. By the time he was a senior, he had earned a scholarship to Oregon.
“You just saw a guy who was hungry and at a very, very young age just trying to attach himself to the guys he felt like were doing it right,” Alexander said. “He just tried to emulate [us] and get better and do everything that he could. You could be a young guy and not have great plays and be discouraged, but he just continued to work, man.
“That’s really been the foundation of what he’s done with his career — just continue to work, regardless of the circumstance.”
Toughing it out
Chung was in tears on the sideline. That made his secondary coach, John Neal, tear up, too.
A red-shirt freshman at Oregeon, Chung had a complete tear of his labrum. The pain was immense, but the safety never missed a game. He finished that season with 91 total tackles. For Neal, it’s stories like that that stick out. Chung was always willing to put the team above himself.
“We’re getting ready to play a bowl game [his senior year] and this guy would play his reps on defense and then run over and play wide receiver on offense,” Neal said. “It never happened before. It never happened again. … His freshman year, he had a torn labrum. I mean, gone, torn. He would cry it hurt so bad. I’d look at him, he’s my player, he’s crying and I’m crying basically. He goes, ‘Coach, I’m OK, don’t take me out.’
“When you meet him, you go, ‘gosh is this guy real?’ And he is.”
Chung’s football journey wasn’t easy. In high school, he battled to learn the game. In college, he battled a short bout with complacency. Chung was close to losing snaps to a younger player, future NFL safety Jarius Byrd.
“I remember this day, Jairus Byrd came in. … I’m getting complacent,” Chung said. “I’ve never been a complacent person. Maybe a little. I remember coach Neal telling me, ‘There’s this young guy coming in, he’s working hard, running full speed. … If you don’t start working like you did, that guy is going to take your spot.’
“I remember like it was yesterday. That’s when I was like, ‘All right, I’ve got to get going.’ ”
Chung became an All-American after that, starting more games (51) than any other defensive player at Oregon. The Patriots drafted him in the second round in 2009. After struggling, the Patriots decided not to re-sign him. He became a free agent and signed with Philadelphia in 2013, but was released in 2014 after struggling again.
Chung came back to Foxboro in 2014 and has turned his career around. On March 19, 2018, the Patriots signed Chung to a two-year, $7.80-million contract extension through the 2020 season.
A Patriots favorite
Belichick isn’t known to dole out compliments to his players. It comes sporadically. For Chung, that’s not the case. Belichick often praises Chung. Last week, he compared him to legendary Patriots like Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison. In September, the coach said the team was so lucky to have Chung and added he was impossible to replace.
“You’ve got to hear it,” Chung said. “Those are great compliments coming from probably the greatest coach ever. The best coach ever. It’s good to hear, but like I always say, you say that and it really means nothing if I don’t do it. ... I take the compliment, I listen to it and I kind of take it as an undercover message — this is how I feel about you so keep doing this [stuff].”
As much as Chung has helped the Patriots on the field, he’s done just as much off it. The captain serves as a mentor for younger players. He also gets back to his Jamaican roots in the kitchen and often cooks dinner for his teammates at his house. His meals are as legendary as his play.
Chung has the ability to play strong safety, linebacker and cornerback for the Patriots. As a friend, he’s just as valuable.
“Light-hearted, a very fun person, positive person to be around,” said Nate Ebner. “If something was to go down and you really needed to count on somebody, I know without a doubt I could call Pat and he’d be there. That type of friendship says a lot. … He’s a special dude.”
Chung's first stint with the Patriots taught him a lot. Now, he’s grateful.
“I’m just never going to give up, man. You grow up and become a professional,” Chung said. “We’re all young at some point. It’s all a matter of how fast you can grow up. Just being through all those things, being not re-signed and then being cut. You sit down and you either complain about it, be about it, be worried about it or you kind of keep grinding. I’ve never been the type to quit. That’s just how I’ve always been and it worked out.”