By Zach West
Staff Writer
BETHANY — Four days a week, for a good portion of the summer, Chris Chamberlain could be found at Bethany High School's athletic facilities, lifting weights and running.

Working out with prep and middle school athletes, Chamberlain heard plenty of outlandish stories.

Tales about how incredibly strong he was when he played at Bethany. How big he was. How much weight he lifted. One brave youngster even had the nerve to ask him about the rumors.

"I was like, ‘No, that is not even close to true,' ” Chamberlain said of the incident, laughing.

"It's pretty funny, just hearing some of those rumors that you wish were true, but there's no way they are.”

Chamberlain opened his first NFL training camp with the St. Louis Rams on Friday. As a seventh-round draft pick, the 22-year-old has an uphill battle to make the 53-man regular season roster.

For Chamberlain, it's business as usual.

From his days as a scrawny, 150-pound freshman at a Class 2A high school to the doorstep of the NFL, one thing has remained constant: He has had to prove himself on the field.

So far, that hasn't been a problem.

High school hopeful Chamberlain didn't exactly stand out at Bethany, at least not at first.

As a freshman, he was a lanky reserve player. But by his junior year, the still-rail thin Chamberlain began to make quite an impact. On defense, he was a high-flying, big-hitting safety; on offense, a slippery, hard-to-catch quarterback who enjoyed running people over. Still, big-time college football, much less the NFL, couldn't have seemed more distant.

"I always wanted to play college sports,” Chamberlain said. "But I never thought I'd have the opportunity coming out of Bethany, you know, small school, no one's ever gone Division I for football.”

Then Chamberlain had a monster year. In leading Bethany to its first state title his senior year, he rushed for over 2,000 yards, passed for over 1,000 yards, accounted for 36 touchdowns and was named The Oklahoman's Little All-City Offensive Player of the Year.

"Nobody could tackle him,” then-Bethany coach Rob Renshaw said. "I think he liked to run over people on offense as much as he did on defense. He had that killer instinct about him that he wanted to punish you. It was pretty rare.”

On defense, he notched 147 tackles and 10 interceptions. And people began to take notice.

"I just kept working hard, developing and getting better,” Chamberlain said. "Late in my junior year, my senior year, when coaches started talking to me … I was like, ‘Hey, I'm going to have a chance to go play in college.' ”

There was one slight problem: "I was weak,” Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain's stats were spectacular, and he consistently ran a sub 4.5-second 40-yard dash, shocking coaches. But because he played three sports, he never had time to lift weights. So when he and Renshaw started filling out forms for colleges, they weren't quite sure what to do when asked about figures such as the 185-pound bench press.

"We would look at each other and just start laughing,” Chamberlain said. "Because I probably could do it maybe two or three times. We'd say like, ‘two, one … whatever.'”

Renshaw said, chuckling: "We maybe had to fudge the numbers a little bit.”

Whether it was his lack of strength, being from a small school, or his late emergence, Chamberlain didn't draw much interest from the upper levels of college football.

But after Tulsa coaches Keith Patterson and Todd Graham caught wind of Chamberlain and offered, Chamberlain canceled his other plans. He wanted to play Division I football.

Same song, next verse

Chamberlain was nearly back to square one when he arrived at Tulsa. Not that he minded being the undersized guy no one had heard of from a small Oklahoma school.

"I just wanted to play,” Chamberlain said. "My thing was just to prove these guys wrong … maybe the coaches in college that passed on me, to prove them wrong.”

And he played – immediately. Chamberlain started five games as a true freshman linebacker. As a sophomore, he started all 13 games and finished third on the team in tackles. Despite a knee injury, he earned third-team All-Conference USA honors his junior year, scoring his first collegiate touchdown on an interception return.

Once again, Chamberlain took it to a different level as a senior. In 2007, Chamberlain earned All-America honorable mention and All-Conference USA first-team honors after setting the school single-season record with 165 tackles. In a dιjΰ vu moment, Chamberlain also saw spot action on offense, catching several passes and rushing for a touchdown.

In all, Chamberlain started 40 games at Tulsa, recording 352 tackles – fifth most in school history. He also had 12.5 sacks, six interceptions, six forced fumbles and 32.5 tackles for a loss.

He packed on the muscle, too. Using Tulsa's strength program, he bulked his 6-foot-2 frame up to more than 230 pounds.

"Strength coach my freshman year, he told me ‘By your senior year, you'll be about 235, squatting 600 pounds.' I was like, ‘Yeah right.' ” Chamberlain said, laughing. "It's crazy. I've come a long ways in that the last four years, because that's all you do, and you get a lot better.”

Unexpected surprise

Even with those numbers, Chamberlain wasn't exactly confident of getting looked at by the NFL. At one point, he wasn't even sure if he was going to participate in the Tulsa pro day, because he didn't know if it would be worth his time.

"But I ended up having such a good year that the stats kind of got me out there,” he said.

When the draft rolled around, Chamberlain didn't want to watch. He didn't want to see all those names scroll by – names he had outperformed on the field – and be disappointed. That April Saturday, he played golf and went fishing. Sunday, however, he couldn't help himself. After church, sitting at his parents' house in Bethany, he got hooked.

"I knew there was a chance, but I wouldn't have bet on it,” he said. "So I was watching, waiting for my phone to ring.”

And it rang. But the New York Jets just wanted to discuss free-agent possibilities. Several minutes later, Chamberlain was on the phone with Graham when he got another call. It was St. Louis head coach Scott Linehan.

"How would you like to be a St. Louis Ram?” Linehan asked.

"And I just started freaking out,” Chamberlain said. "And then I looked at the TV and saw they were picking … and we all started freaking out.”

With the 21st pick of the seventh round, the Rams picked Chamberlain.

"I was really surprised and shocked and just happy to finally know that I'm going to have an opportunity,” Chamberlain said. "With hard work, I'll at least get a shot.”

Chamberlain could get more than just a shot. While most seventh-round draft picks don't have much in the way of job security, St. Louis coaches have made it clear they drafted Chamberlain with the intention of him contributing, especially on special teams. In spring mini-camps, he ran with the second-team linebackers.

"He'll be competing for a job to play some,” said Rick Venturi, the Rams' assistant head/linebackers coach. "My top four (linebackers) are all kind of battle-tested, and they're all pretty good, and I would love to be able to say I could go through the whole season with just those four guys. But that's not going to happen, so sometime in that season, a young kid is going to have to help us.”

It wouldn't be a surprise to those who have coached Chamberlain in the past.

"I'll be shocked if he doesn't make it,” said current Bethany head coach Regan Roof, who was an assistant when Chamberlain played. "I think he's got a great chance. He always seems to exceed everybody's expectations.”

Said Renshaw: "He worked his tail off in high school. He developed himself into a college player, and he developed himself into an NFL player. I think it just shows that if you've got a lot of desire and a lot of heart, it doesn't matter where you go to school.”