Randy Charlton and his mother, Gigi Harper, climbed into the car on a warm January day, ready to hit the road.
Charlton was about to start his football career anew at Mississippi State. That called for a road trip.
Along with Charlton’s father and sister, they left their home in Goulds, Florida, on Jan. 3, five days before Charlton needed to arrive in Starkville. They stayed with Harper’s brother in Daytona Beach; they spent time with her father-in-law and her brother-in-law in Atlanta.
On Jan. 8, they arrived at Charlton’s new home. Already, Harper could tell her son would fit in.
“She felt like I needed this,” Charlton said. “She felt like this is where I belong.”
For the former UCF defensive lineman, that arrival signaled the end of a much more painful trip — a path filled with fear, confusion, disappointment and depression.
Not all of it has been easy to leave behind. Charlton still carries the weight of it on his broad shoulders. But with his family by his side, he’s found a much-needed second chance in Starkville.
“They love it in Mississippi,” Charlton said. “I love it, too.”
A scarring moment
A three-star recruit out of Southridge High School in Miami, Charlton once picked three colleges in three days.
The morning of Dec. 20, 2017, during the Class of 2018 early signing period, the defensive lineman announced his commitment to Florida International. That night, he flipped to Indiana. On Dec. 22, Charlton officially signed with Central Florida. Quickly, he found a home with the program.
“He fit in quite fast once he got there — with the team, with the coaches and everything,” Harper said.
As a freshman, Charlton started the Knights’ first game against UConn and played in 11 more contests, racking up 21 tackles — three for a loss — and recording a sack.
But against LSU in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1, 2019, with UCF leading 14-3 in the first quarter, Charlton was called for an unsportsmanlike penalty for an apparent spike of the football after teammate Kyle Gibson sacked quarterback Joe Burrow on third-and-12.
Instead of having to punt, LSU had the ball at the UCF 32 and a first down. Burrow soon found Justin Jefferson for a touchdown pass, and the Tigers came back to win, 40-32.
The support of NFL cornerback Richard Sherman — who tweeted in Charlton’s defense after seeing the play — helped things. But the impact of Charlton’s penalty made the freshman feel guilty.
“That’s actually a moment in my career that I say scarred me,” he said.
He put it behind him as a sophomore in 2019, appearing in 10 games and starting five of them. Charlton accrued 28 tackles — 3.5 for a loss — and added a sack.
He stepped up his numbers in 2020, posting four tackles for loss and two sacks through five games. But midway through his junior season, Charlton’s time at UCF came to an abrupt end.
Early on Oct. 29, 2020, Charlton was on Gemini Boulevard near campus behind two cars belonging to his teammates. Safety Antwan Collier drove one car with linebacker Eric Mitchell and defensive backs Aaron Robinson and Brandon Moore as passengers; defensive lineman Kenny Turnier drove the other vehicle.
Charlton turned on University Boulevard, headed home toward his apartment. Less than two minutes later, he got a phone call from a passenger in Collier’s car. The senior had been pulled over for running a red light.
Charlton’s teammates wanted the junior — described by his mother as a “big teddy bear” and often a role model for younger football players — to come to the scene.
“For some reason, they always called him,” Harper said. “Anything that these guys ever went through, they always called for him to come.”
Charlton and four other football players arrived on Gemini Boulevard, where Collier’s car was stopped. UCF campus police found a backpack with a pair of guns in it, but Mitchell showed a valid concealed carry license, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Collier said a third gun was under the driver’s seat. (Harper said it belonged to Collier’s mother and that the senior didn’t initially know it was there.) He said he had a concealed carry license, but police could not confirm it. He also had an ID card but no driver’s license, saying he was planning to get one.
Collier was placed under arrest for driving without a license and carrying a firearm without a license. The charges were later dismissed, Harper said.
But for Charlton, as soon as the handcuffs clicked around his teammate’s wrists, everything changed.
In June 2019, Charlton was 19 when his older brother Anthony was pulled over while driving with three friends.
Police had heard reports of gunshots in the area and suspected four men together in a car. Anthony tried to explain there were no guns in his vehicle, but officers became frustrated, according to Harper. One policeman started to handcuff Anthony, and when he objected, a second officer moved in aggressively.
Charlton and Harper were on the scene within five minutes. They took Anthony to Baptist Urgent Care, where he was treated for scratches on his wrist, a swollen knee and bruises on his back, and they watched the cell phone videos taken by the car’s other occupants.
“You hear different stories,” Harper said. “You see it on the news. But then once it hits home, it’s totally different.”
Less than two years later, Charlton and his teammates watched as Collier was handcuffed in front of a squad car.
They began to accost the arresting officers, asking them what was going on. What started as questions turned into insults. They painted the policemen as “pigs”; according to the Sentinel, one incident report stated that a player said officers would probably plant cocaine in Collier’s car.
Harper said she’s not sure exactly what her son said. But it wasn’t good.
“He used words that he wasn’t proud of,” she said. “It was all out of frustration and hurt and him being afraid for his friend.”
Charlton was suspended by UCF for the Knights’ Oct. 31 game at Houston along with Collier, Mitchell, Moore and Turnier. He thought that would be the extent of his punishment.
The morning of Nov. 4, Charlton, Collier, Mitchell and Turnier were called to the team facility. They thought they were coming in for COVID-19 testing.
Instead, the four players found out they were being removed from the football team, effective immediately.
Shocked, Charlton turned to defensive coordinator Randy Shannon.
“You’re just going to dismiss me like that?” he asked. “On what grounds?”
According to Harper, head coach Josh Heupel wouldn’t give Shannon a chance to respond to his player. Charlton asked Heupel point blank if he would let Shannon answer. Neither of the men who told Charlton they were “away fathers” to their players responded.
“He said he didn’t feel any of that fatherly love and support at that time,” Harper said.
She said she cried when Shannon sent her the body cam video of Collier’s arrest over the weekend before Charlton’s dismissal, showing her what her son and his teammates were saying. The coach told Harper the incident brought out a side of Charlton he hadn’t seen in the player’s three years at UCF.
“Nobody just took the time to talk to him, to ask him what was going on, what was he thinking, to find out,” Harper said. “I told the coach, ‘If you had just sat down and talked to him, you would have found out the incidents that traumatized him in his life.’”
‘Go for it’
Instead, Charlton was left with guilt and without a football future.
He had the talent to continue to play, but the motivation wasn’t there.
Depressed, stressed out, Charlton ignored calls from coaches at other schools for two weeks after his dismissal.
But when he began feeling better, he picked up the phone once again.
“It felt like a burden lifted off of my heart once I saw him feeling better about the situation and reaching back out to the coaches and getting back into what he loves doing,” Harper said.
Texas came calling. So did Miami, Syracuse and — once again — Indiana. But Charlton knew what he was looking for: the same atmosphere he had at UCF before everything went south in a hurry.
“Off the field, we were a family,” he said. “Going into the portal, the only thing I was really looking for was another family.”
He found it in Mississippi State. Meeting defensive line coach Jeff Phelps stuck immediately in Charlton’s mind.
“I’ve just got this good feeling about the coach,” he told Harper. “I’ve just got this good feeling, and I’d like to go with it.”
“Go for it,” she told him.
Charlton did. On Dec. 3, he committed to Mississippi State, barely four weeks after UCF removed him from the team. He signed with the Bulldogs on Dec. 16.
So far, he’s made the most of his second chance. Starting at defensive end, Charlton leads Mississippi State in quarterback hurries with three, has 11 total tackles and owns a sack through three games.
“One of the things he always says when we talk about that situation is that he’s grateful that he has another chance to get on the field and do what he loves to do,” Harper said.
It’s why she’s expecting Charlton to play his hardest when another shot at a second chance materializes. Harper, who plans to attend every game, will be there when LSU comes to Starkville at 11 a.m. Saturday with a big game from her son likely in store.
“It’s the same thing again,” Charlton said. “It’s LSU. I’m at Mississippi State; I’m a Bulldog. We fight. That’s the mentality over here. So we’re going to go out and fight again.”
Perhaps the same mindset applies when it comes to one of the worst moments of Charlton’s life: the words he uttered on that dark Orlando street; the guilt he felt; the consequences he faced.
“Everybody has those plays in their career that you just think about,” Charlton said about the penalty. “‘What if I didn’t do that? What if this didn’t happen?’ Everybody has those plays, but…”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.