Opelika alum and Duke offensive lineman Rakavius Chambers dreamed of taking his talents to the NFL since his early days of playing football.
Now, when Chambers could be awaiting calls from pro teams eager to bring him on board, he’s putting his focus on another lifelong dream.
Chambers has decided to end his football career after a four-year stint at Duke and will instead pursue becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon, which means specializing in surgical procedures of the heart, lungs, esophagus and other organs in the chest. Chambers’ decision ends an important chapter of his life as a football player, but it marks the beginning of a journey he’s been interested in since he was 12 years old.
“I’m so excited. It’s something that I just love to do,” Chambers said. “I know that it’s weird – the juxtaposition of someone being excited about going into a hospital, a place where people are sick, but the prospect of me being able to help these people who are sick and make a difference in the world, it’s a huge thing.
“It’s just something that I’ve been waiting for for a long time, and I’m extremely excited to finally get the ball rolling.”
‘Achieve my dreams’
Chambers’ inspiration for entering the medical field was one that hits close to home.
Chambers remembers his paternal grandfather, Hermie Chambers, having chronic heart issues during Chambers’ youth, leaving him to wonder why people could still face those kind of issues in this country in this day and age. He eventually attended a medical camp at the University of North Carolina – where he watched an open heart surgery – and then toured Duke’s medical school, which further piqued his interest.
Chambers’ efforts on the football field soon helped him return to Duke for a much longer stay. He was a force up front in high school for the Opelika Bulldogs during a stretch of play in which the Bulldogs won three straight region championships and played for the Class 6A state championship in 2016.
Chambers was a two-year captain for Opelika and took care of his responsibilities in the classroom as well. As a senior he was given the Franklin D. Watkins Memorial Award, presented by the National Alliance of African-American Athletes to the nation’s top African-American high school scholar-athlete.
Chambers’ hard work at Opelika set the stage for an impressive playing career at Duke.
Chambers hit the ground running as a Blue Devil in 2017 and became only the second offensive lineman in the David Cutcliffe era to play as a true freshman. Chambers quickly became a mainstay on the Blue Devils’ offensive line, going on to start 38 games and play 2,832 snaps in his four-year career.
Chambers received plenty of recognition along the way, too. The 6-foot-4, 335-pound biology major was named academic All-ACC in 2018, 2019 and 2020. The ACC tapped Chambers for a Weaver-James-Corrigan Postgraduate Scholarship Award, while the American Football Coaches Association named him to their Good Works Team, which recognizes off-the-field work.
The National Football Foundation also recognized Chambers as a Hampshire Honor Society member, the result of achieving a cumulative 3.2 GPA at Duke.
“Rakavius has been an incredible representative of our program in every facet,” said Cutcliffe, Duke’s head football coach. “Athletically, academically, socially, he has excelled, and that is a tribute to his family and community back home for preparing him for this challenge.
“Rak has been a major contributor on the field and was playing the best football of his career as a senior, and off the field he set an example for his teammates – an example of commitment and dedication to everything it means to be a part of this program.”
Chambers still had a love for the game when his senior season ended against Florida State on Dec. 12, but he realized his other dream was calling him.
“The NFL is what people who play football are striving to go toward. I think there just came a time where I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t want to spend any more time pursuing the NFL, even though I love football with all my heart. The medical field was calling,” Chambers said.
“I want to go and achieve my dreams and become the surgeon that I want to be. It felt like the right time. I had done pretty well at Duke and had a pretty good career, and I was satisfied with where I was. I decided that it was time for me to hang up my cleats and finally start pursuing my dream.”
What comes next
Chambers is already formulating plans for what’s next. He intends to take a gap year in 2021, though he’ll stay busy by shadowing Duke cardiologist Schuyler Jones and earning clinical hours, before taking the Medical College Admission Test in June with the goal of attending Duke’s medical school.
The road ahead for Chambers is a somewhat lengthy one. If he attends Duke, he’ll be there for three years with his third year spent completing research of his choice. Chambers would then go through his residency before taking on general surgery prep followed by cardiothoracic training. In total, Chambers expects the process to take 7-10 years.
“The race is not given to the swift,” Chambers said with a laugh. “I’m looking forward to keeping that journey going and keeping the fight.”
While the next steps of his life are exciting ones, Chambers admitted leaving football won’t be easy. He said he’ll miss his teammates the most, explaining that it’s a rarity to experience a team’s all-in mentality away from the game.
By that same token, Chambers explained football has given him lessons he will carry with him as a surgeon. He said the top takeaway is the importance of teamwork, elaborating that football can serve as a blueprint for how multiple people can strive toward a common goal.
Chambers has been a standout on the field and off it for years now, and while his football career delivered special moments it also opened the door for something outside the sport. As his focus shifts from the huddle to the world of healthcare, he explained he’s better prepared for what’s next thanks to life as an offensive lineman.
“What football brings to the table is teaching young men how to fight through adversity over and over again and how to get back up and keep going,” Chambers said. “That’s part of what football has taught me: you can’t stay down when adverse things happen in your life. I think that is going to play a role in being a surgeon because if you make a mistake, a person’s life is in your hands.
“There’s no option to just lay down and roll over. You have to get back up, rethink, get back up and keep fighting. I’m always going to take that away from my time in football.”