Senior Feature: Chance Melancon
This appeared in the Sept. 16, 2017, edition of the Princeton Athletic News (the San Diego game program)
This is a script that Princeton fans are familiar with, and one for which they wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel. Perhaps they already are?
Three decades ago, a Tiger senior roamed the defensive backfield, creating havoc to opposing offenses one
Saturday after another. He switched coasts after
graduation, called Hollywood home and
introduced himself to the world as Superman.
Dean Cain ’88 had a record-breaking Prince-ton career — he still holds the team record for interceptions — and he set the path that Chance Melancon will try to navigate, even if it doesn’t ever make him a world-wide sensation the likes of his predecessor.
Melancon wants to head to Hollywood, though his focus is on the written side, not the acting side. He has already authored two screenplays — a football one (“obviously” he says), and a mystery. He has studied finance at Princeton, so perhaps that could be the focus of his breakout piece.
For the time being, though, he’s proud to be working on a different sort of tale — one of a football player who believed his time would come, and turned that opportunity into a championship run few would forget.
Fourteen months ago, Melancon was a total unknown to most Tiger fans. He had been an understudy in an upperclassman-loaded secondary, though two multi-year starters had graduated in the Class of 2016. Though two seniors would return, Melancon believed he would at least see the field on Saturdays, and he wasn’t about to let his teammates down.
“I’m a person who really thinks towards the future, so I had a feeling I might play heading into that summer,” Melancon said. “I worked really hard, in the 100-degree heat in Texas, thinking I was going to play. I wanted to make sure I was prepared for it. I didn’t want to look like a chicken with its head cut off.”
The Allen, Texas, native had caught the attention of the Princeton coaching staff earlier than any other Ivy program, a fact that gave the Tigers the edge they would build on throughout the recruiting process. He had a successful camp, ran one of the fastest 40s head coach Bob Surace had witnessed from a recruit, and, despite a flurry of interest from other programs during his senior year, never wavered from his path to Princeton.
Now his path was to gameday, and he took advantage of it once again.
“As a coach, it’s so great to watch somebody blossom the way he did,” Surace said. “His confidence, his ability to play the ball, his work ethic and focus, it all came together last year. He’s one of the fastest guys we’ve recruited since I’ve been here and to see him play with that energy and lock down receivers over the second half of the season was really rewarding.”
Melancon got on the field during the first two weekends of the season, but the Tigers gave up a ton of points over those two contests, so Surace felt a change was needed. He moved the inexperienced junior into the starting lineup, opposite a senior cornerback (James Gales) who was on his way to a first-team All-Ivy League season.
It’s a daunting challenge to jump into the starting role at such a public position; at some positions, a simple mistake may go unnoticed by most on any play. When a cornerback makes a mistake, it can easily lead to a long touchdown — and no place to hide.
Yes, you need talent to play cornerback, but you need the demeanor too.
“Just being a naturally calm and tranquil person, it really lends
itself to a position that can break some people emotionally, mentally and
psychologically,” Melancon said. “I played Level 5 football in Texas, which I think is the toughest state at that level, so I think coming from that was very beneficial.”
Melancon’s impact was immediate. After giving up 36.5 points per game over the first two weeks, Princeton gave up a total of 37 over the next three games. His speed allowed him to stay with receivers across the field, but he was a tough, physical presence on the perimeter, which paid dividends against both the run and short passing game.
He also never allowed himself to be unprepared for anything on Saturdays.
“I asked [former defensive coordinator Jim] Salgado a lot of questions, so I could make sure I knew the defense cold,” he said. “I watched a lot of film. I just did everything I could to win, and I think if you try your hardest, you’re going to see the results.”
Melancon has the proper blend of humility and confidence, especially at that position. He knows that he has to put in the work — in the summer heat, watching film, at practices, wherever — but once he does that, he also believes he’s better than the guy lining up across from him.
He didn’t win every time. Nobody does. But he won more than enough to help Princeton produce the Ivy League’s leading defense in three major statistical categories (total yards, scoring, and rushing).
Like any great author, he didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder. So he went back to work this past summer.
And he may just have another hit on his hands.
His co-author this season is new defensive backs coach Marvin Clecidor, who joined the Tiger staff when Salgado moved to Sunday football with the Buffalo Bills. Clecidor has coached future NFL players, and he wants his guys to make impact plays whenever possible.
“He wants us to make plays on balls; he wants turnovers,” Melancon said. “He wants us to create plays. He has an acronym, FAST: fundamentals, aggressive, speed, and turnovers. He coaches that way. We’re two peas in a pod.”
While Melancon has prepared himself for one more run at a championship, he is also the veteran presence of a backfield with several highly touted underclassmen. He may not be the player you’ll see screaming in teammates’ faces on gameday, but don’t think his impact doesn’t get felt by his position mates.
“I’ve always been more of a leader by example,” he said. “I am enjoying the role. I am known on the team for punching the ball out. The ball is always on my mind. One of the DBs came up to me after a practice and said he punched the ball out because he saw me do it. I do enjoy this role because I am influencing the next generation.”
But he also made big strides himself, battling against a talented set of receivers ready to take over for a senior-heavy trio that paced the 2016 offense. Melancon knows well what they’re dealing with, but he also knows that his best could be as good as anything they’ll see on Saturdays.
“Chance is a poised individual,” Surace said. “Nothing seems to get to him. Even when he struggles, he doesn’t let the emotion out. Like every player, the first time you do it, there is that sense that ‘Yes, I can do this.’ And then you do it against a good player, and you really feel good. He got good work in at camp, going against Jesper Horsted, Stephen Carlson … those matchups were some of the most fun battles in camp.”
Like his classmates, Melancon has 10 more Saturdays in Orange and Black, 10 more chances to author a story that will stand the test of time. Eleven Princeton teams have won Ivy League titles, but only one team (1964) did it as a repeat champion.
Maybe it wouldn’t make it big in Hollywood, and that’s OK. Melancon’s got time to create that masterpiece.
But that story would last forever at Princeton.
by Craig Sachson