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Chandler Zavala "stayed hungry" en route to NFL future

Chandler Zavala

CHARLOTTE – Chandler Zavala knew he needed to gain weight once he'd gotten to Fairmont State.

Upon arriving at the Division II football program, the young offensive lineman didn't need to look far for assistance adding pounds. It helps when your father is a celebrity chef who can send a 25-pound package of beef on dry ice right to your freshman dorm.

"It was a prime rib cut," Zavala explained. "So you can break a prime rib, and you get ribeyes out of it and everything. I just cut all the fat down, trimmed it down, made my own cuts, and put them in the freezer for days and weeks."

When Chandler would call his "Pop" for food, Demetrio Zavala sent everything from that pile of ribeye to prepared chicken, radishes, potatoes, or carrots. 

Those pounds of food served more than one purpose for the Zavalas. It certainly played a role in Chandler's 60-pound weight gain between his freshman and sophomore years of college, which propelled him into the Fighting Falcons' starting left guard spot before a transfer to N.C. State and his eventual fourth-round selection by the Panthers in this year's draft. 

It also called back to the phrase that has served as his family's foundation, which Demetrio printed onto a proudly-worn T-shirt: "Stay hungry." 

"(The shirt means) never be complacent or settle for mediocrity," Demetrio said. "Like never just be average. You have so much. If you're willing, and you're willing, and you're eager to do something, you can do anything."

Demetrio Zavala

Today, Demetrio counts cooking competition victories on Food Network's "Chopped" series and boasts a successful career as a chef and executive culinary director. He started as a 15-year-old working in a small restaurant and noticed the impact food could have, working his way into long hours in a demanding field. He said he worked seven days a week for 20 years, prepping Sunday dinners with Chandler and his younger sister, Chase, before they'd enjoy the meals together.

Demetrio said Chandler and Chase turned prep work into contests, racing to see who could finish faster. What was fun for his children turned into life lessons. 

"I helped develop a work ethic in them," Demetrio said. "Because they saw that I would go to bed at 1 o'clock, and I'd get back up again in the morning around 5 and start over again. I never stopped working, and I did that for years."

Chandler wasn't always on the fast track to an NFL career. Demetrio admitted he never thought his son would play football; he was an athlete who started in soccer and basketball and was "never much of an aggressor." When he was young, Chandler didn't even like getting his hands dirty, running to his parents when he didn't feel clean. 

Chandler came around to football in high school and played a single season before college. Demetrio, a fullback and defensive tackle in his high school years, described himself and his daughter as "aggressors," but he never saw those behaviors in Chandler.

Chase, Demetrio, and Chandler Zavala

Instead, he watched his son carve out his niche as a protector – perfect for the position he plays.

"He's always trying to protect everybody," Demetrio said. "He's always trying to make sure everybody's OK. … After a while, he knew he had to just go hard, so basically, that's kind of how that unfolded. He had to keep going as hard as possible."

Demetrio said Chandler's close relationship with his family, including his sister and niece, Catalaya, plays a crucial role in his life, and he sees his son's desire to take care of others carrying on in his professional football career.

Demetrio went through a serious health scare in December 2021 when previously unknown diverticulitis caused his appendix and intestines to rupture. It sent his body into sepsis, and the months-long recovery that followed changed his life. He said he doesn't have the stamina he did before life-saving surgeries, and Chandler expressed a desire to provide for him after watching his father move up in the culinary world.

Demetrio had always helped take care of him. Now, Chandler tells his father he wants to return the favor.

Demetrio and Chandler Zavala

"The biggest thing about my son is he wants to help everybody, and he always puts himself last," Demetrio said. "I'm the same way. He always wants to take care of everybody. He was like, 'I'm going to take care of you. I want you to stop working, and I want to take care of you because you have just been taking care of everybody else your whole life, but nobody's ever taken care of you.'"

Chandler's role in the NFL is a step toward that future. But first, he has to make the most of the opportunity.

The day his son was drafted to the Panthers, Demetrio called to share in the pride and joy of the moment, counting the blessings. But after all, Chandler reached one part of his goal. Now, he has to seize it.

And Demetrio isn't going to let his son forget to stay hungry.

"I always tell him this – I say, 'You're a Zavala. We don't stop; we just keep pushing ahead. We don't let anything get us down. We just keep pushing. We never stop grinding. We never stop,'" Demetrio said. "You have to stay hungry for life and stay hungry for achievements and goals and everything. Without that and without any drive, you will just become complacent. And life isn't complacent. You can't be complacent in life. You'll never meet your full potential if you do that."

View photos of N.C. State guard Chandler Zavala, drafted by Carolina in the fourth round of the 2023 draft.

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