A PLACE TO CALL HOME
THE COMPLICATED STORY OF COLT LYERLA, A FORMER TOP RECRUIT AND PROJECTED FIRST ROUND DRAFT PICK STILL SEEKING TO FULFILL HIS POTENTIAL
by Mike Piellucci
The title of the "Lost" episode flashes on the screen, and Colt Lyerla can't help but laugh.
"Not in Portland," it's called, and he doesn't need the reminder. He is exceedingly aware of where his itinerant life has taken him this time, 2,000 miles away from that city and the nearby suburb, Hillsboro, where he was raised. He's holed up now in a temporary, pre-furnished apartment in De Pere, Wisc., an airy second-story unit with a living room balcony and warm wood paneling, a place that in no way announces itself as the home of a professional football player apart from a thin white nameplate featuring a Green Bay Packers logo, his last name and his jersey number — he didn't get to pick it — nestled atop the door frame to his bedroom.
It is the closest thing he has to a permanent address. In a week, he'll pack up and move again, crammed into a dormitory a few miles up the road and attempt to make the Packers roster as an undrafted free agent, chasing the dream he was supposed to have caught up to already. Within a matter of weeks an injury will put it out of reach again, but even so, there is still optimism and hope: Finally, he is free to play the game for himself and his own reasons.
there is still optimism and hope: Finally, he is free to play the game for himself and his own reasons.
In person, he appears impossibly large. His measurements — 6'4, 242 pounds, as of February's NFL Combine — are plausible enough, but up close, the body appears to be something out of a create-a-player generator in a video game, his outsized proportions more virtual reality than man-made. It starts with the hands, soft tensile masses perfectly engineered to catch footballs. His enormous calves challenge the elasticity of his socks, while his forearms seem as thick as telephone poles. Even as he sits at the small glass kitchen table, in a baggy white T-shirt and black basketball shorts, he seems to loom over it. His dark brown eyes, cleft chin and strong, smooth jaw line complete the look of someone who has never been an underdog on the field, and who has never lacked attention.
This body, and the things it can do, has brought him to the precipice of the NFL. Almost from the beginning, it meant more to others than it did to him, to so many who wanted to latch onto the talent he possessed and make a piece of it their own. It's been a symbol of hope, something he didn't ask for yet obliged all the same. It made him different, when he ached so badly to be normal.
Now, it's viewed as a referendum on his morality. The diamond earrings, the tightly buzzed scalp, the tattoos scattered across his upper half — together, they're taken as visual affirmation of a bad seed, a burnout. For months, he has watched silently, reading every word written about him as his life spiraled out of control, each one scraping a little more skin off a tender hide. Drug addict. Quitter. Prima donna. Thug. Another Aaron Hernandez. Maybe if they knew about the broken home, one without structure or stability, they would understand the burden of fumbling through adolescence largely on his own. Maybe if they realized the strain of suffocating in a town that asked so much of him, all because of the way he played a game, they could grasp why so many mistakes were predicated on wanting to escape. Maybe if they understood how hard he's tried to do the right thing, despite never being taught how, no one would send him Bibles and tell him that Jesus needs to save his soul.
So he leans forward at the table, and begins to speak. About growing up alone, about his abrupt departure from the Oregon Ducks football team, about the subsequent arrest for cocaine possession, and the sentence that left him toiling on a road crew mere days before the NFL Combine, about the controversial tweets about the Sandy Hook school shootings, and the near-implosion of his football career, about how he went from a surefire first-round draft pick to radioactive, undraftable, in under a year. And then, after all of that, about the one decision he believes could have prevented everything, if only he had the power to make it for himself.
None of this is easy to speak about, but his eyes mostly focus straight ahead as he talks. Occasionally, they veer off to the side, probing the horizon for a happier memory or thought, usually about his family or the cluster of teachers and coaches who have steadfastly stood by him, perhaps the only ones left who still believe in him. Sometimes, when he recounts a particularly bad chapter, they tilt downward and he speaks more slowly, nervously puffing out the bottom of his shirt with his thumbs and punctuating the gaps in conversation with heavy sighs. At least once, he appears to be on the verge of tears. But he presses on, the sentences spilling out, one purpose in mind.
"I just don't want people to think I'm a bad person," he says, an almost-pleading quality to his voice.
He wonders whether anyone will believe him.
There are 1.1 million high school football players in the United States, and no shortage who harbor NFL dreams. Of those, just over 70,000 — one out of every 15 — will play collegiate football. The lucky few who are both talented and healthy enough to reach professional ranks then must grapple every year over the same 1,696 NFL roster spots. The odds of making it all the way from high school to an opening-day roster are 653 to 1 — a .08-percent chance at glory.
And of all these, only a few have been the best athlete on field in every game they have ever played at every level, from Pop Warner through high school and college all the way to the NFL, for their entire lives. There is no way of telling how many members there are, exactly, but it is a fraction of a decimal, a tiny number with a host of zeroes in front of it.
Lyerla is among that elite few.
There is the standard-issue strongman toolkit — stiff arms and busted tackles on offense; bone-rattling hits and blockers nonchalantly tossed aside on defense. But in Lyerla it has always been augmented by the octane of a much smaller man, one as quick and deft as he is powerful. The word "freak" is often exhausted in sports, but to delve into Lyerla's high school highlights is to remember why the word is used in the first place, that even in a time when there are more resources, data and airtime plugged into dissecting the intricacies of athletic performance than ever before, some things still cannot be explained. The biggest target on the field conquered as a running back and receiver, not only with brute strength but also through sharp cuts, quick hips and a tightrope walker's balance. He returned kicks, too, bursting through angles and spotting creases yards before they revealed themselves. And in spite of all that, just one of his countless scholarship offers came to play offense. The rest were for defense, linebacker, where he could blitz off the edge, snuff out the run game and patrol the secondary.
"In high school he could have been all-state at almost any position, except for corner," says Ken Ingram, his coach at Hillsboro High School. "I could have plugged him in anywhere and he would have dominated."
"In high school he could have been all-state at almost any position."
For most athletes, such versatile dominance ends in high school. Yet Lyerla played much the same role at Oregon, principally a tight end but moonlighting once again as a jumbo back partly out of necessity — the Ducks were without a dependable red zone threat — but more so because he, the 6'4 freak, simply could. When tested at the Combine, after only training for a week, he turned in the third-fastest 40 time among tight ends. So wide is the spectrum of his talents that nearly every observer cites a different gift — his agility on returns, for instance, or the way he carries would-be tacklers. But a majority of them notes the tool that dwarfs all the others: his vertical leap, the skill that's allowed him to jump over tacklers in a single bound and pull down impossible passes. There are plenty of conventional measurements on hand to document it — the official record shows that he turned in 36 ½ inches at the Combine — tops among his position group. But the most effective way is to pore through his parlor tricks on YouTube, which includes, but is not limited to: Colt leaping out of a waist-high pool of water onto concrete; Colt hopping sideways into the bed of a pickup truck; Colt bounding atop a 62-inch Plyometric Box; and Colt uncorking a two-handed windmill dunk despite not playing competitive basketball in years.
In a pre-draft evaluation of Lyerla, CBS Sports' analyst Rob Rang compared him to the Patriots' other famous tight end, Rob Gronkowski, before arriving at the only logical conclusion as to his ceiling: "With dedication to his craft, Lyerla is a Pro Bowl tight end."
In a football sense, this is why he matters. His virtually limitless potential made the destination of this undrafted free agent national news and, once he signed a three-year deal with Green Bay potentially worth $1.53 million, caused fantasy football websites to pump out breathless updates on his standing on the Packers' depth chart. It is also, in part, why so many of those closest to him refuse to give up on him.
"It'd be like if somebody salvaged Michael Jordan before something [bad] happened to him," says Dirk Knudsen, a mentor of Lyerla's who covers Oregon and Washington high school football for Rivals.com as well as his website NorthwestPrepReport.com. "Would you just let it go by the wayside and say, ‘Oh, that was a nice little flash of energy while we saw it, but it's gone? That star is gone, let's move on and look for another one?'"
The notion of Lyerla becoming the Michael Jordan of football is more than a touch grandiose, of course, but little about him has ever been placed in the proper context. Lyerla's talent would have been astonishing even in a football hotbed like Los Angeles or Houston or Miami. Tucked away in the Portland suburbs, it was miraculous.
He was born in Banks, Ore., the son of Roger and Tammy, native Hawaiians who met in their home state before moving to Oregon and bouncing around the Pacific Northwest, from Banks to Gladstone, Ore. and then Vancouver, Wash. Colt, their only son together (he has several half siblings through his father), was in the fifth grade when he arrived in Hillsboro, a town of 95,000 located about a half hour west of Portland. Soon, he became friends with a boy down the street who played on the youth football team for Hillsboro High School, known around town as simply "HilHi." One of the team's coaches was Steve Drake, the high school's athletic director. In time, he would become a surrogate father to Lyerla, quite possibly the most dependable figure in his life. At first, though, the trim man with close-cropped hair and boundless energy for guiding young athletes stood in the way of Lyerla beginning a football career of his own.
"It was about a month into the season, and I just came to practice," Lyerla recalls. "The first day, he told me it was too late. ‘You can't play.' I think I came for about a week and a half, and I think after eight or nine days of me imitating the drills on the sideline — it's kind of embarrassing, but I just wanted to play so bad. After all that, they came up to me and were like, "OK, well, let's get you signed up."
There was little indication then of what he would develop into physically; Lyerla was more spindly than stout, with long, flowing hair. But immediately, he stood out.
"At that particular stage, he kind of looked like a 'colt,'" Drake says. "His name was perfect. Long legs. Extremely athletic. Not filled out but a long, lanky stride."
He soon played up a grade level, and became part of a wave of talent unlike any HilHi had encountered in years. There was an impact player at almost every position, from Dominique Mims at quarterback and defensive back to Zack Hickman, the two-way lineman, to receiver Robbie White, to Mikie Rodriguez, the pint-sized cornerback and return man who doubled as one of the greatest high school wrestlers in Oregon state history. Lyerla was the central piece that made a good team great, still football green, but capable of splitting a game wide open on either side of the ball.
"You could tell easily by eighth grade that he was a better athlete than a lot of the guys," says Mims. "You just couldn't tell where it was going to go. He just had that engine that, when he wants to go, he goes full throttle. He was playing with us as a seventh grader and he'd be starting and he'd lead the team."
Between his sophomore and junior seasons at HilHi, Lyerla became a full-fledged phenomenon. By then, he had sprouted from a 5'9 eighth grader to 6'4 16-year-old, and under the tutelage of Mark McLaughlin, an Olympic-level performance coach based in nearby Beaverton, Ore., packed on pounds of muscle. He was named MVP at a regional football camp in Salem, Ore., early that summer and earned an invitation to Dave Schuman's Ultimate 100 Camp, a showcase for elite football recruits in Oklahoma held in July.
the camp didn't expand his horizons so much as create a separate universe, one where the game could take him anywhere.
He started by posting a 40-inch vertical leap, setting what is widely believed to be the national football camp record once held by former Oregon and current Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart. Later, he set the camp mark in the standing broad jump with a leap of 10'10, a full 6 inches farther than what Jadeveon Clowney recorded at this year's Combine as a 21-year-old.
The performance made him a national prospect. Previously unknown outside of Oregon, and coming off a sophomore year truncated by a hip injury, he returned home as the camp's top-ranked prospect and a scholarship offer from the Oklahoma Sooners. For a kid who had never imagined life outside of the Pacific Northwest, the camp didn't expand his horizons so much as create a separate universe, one where the game could take him anywhere and let him do anything.
"It was the first time seeing what I could actually do," he says. "I definitely surprised myself. Before that, I never really had the idea of playing college or pro football, or anything like that.
"It was almost like winning the lottery."
As Lyerla's life was evolving, the town of Hillsboro was in the midst of its own transformation. Ask a local to describe Hillsboro and you're apt to hear that it is a blue-collar town, rooted in sweat and agriculture. While there are high-end homes that tiptoe into the seven-figure range, as well as Section 8 housing, the lifeblood of the town live in the space between, hardly desolate yet zip codes away from ostentatious. The sleepy streets of most neighborhoods are lined with modest, functional homes. Most residents work nearby in manufacturing; branch further out and there's a network of wineries. Only 18 miles separate Hillsboro from bustling Portland, but the two places look and feel states apart.
However, the outside force that shapes Hillsboro's identity isn't Portland, but Intel. The technology megalith, founded in 1968, arrived in town in 1979 and over the next 35 years ballooned from one factory to six distinct campuses. As of October 2013, Intel was by far the top job creator in town with more than 16,000 employees; the next 20 collectively employed barely half that. Intel has pushed Hillsboro forward, but at the cost of its autonomy; it is no longer only a town but the ridgeline of the Silicon Forest, Oregon's version of the famed Silicon Valley of Northern California. Natives wonder if the town's core values are going extinct as a result.
"I tell people that nobody works harder than a Hillsboro kid," says Adam Reese, a Hillsboro native who was Lyerla's defensive coordinator at HilHi and is now the school's head football coach. "So that's what it was like growing up here. It used to be the outskirts of a farming community, a blue-collar town. I think it's kind of in an identity situation right now. What do we want to be? ... Are we still trying to be the blue-collar town, or are we now the Intel town? I think we're trying to find ourselves."
Nowhere are the town's fragmented identity politics more evident than within its four high schools. HilHi is the oldest, originally founded in 1908 and installed on its current campus in the south side of town since 1970. Glencoe came a decade later, in 1980, and became HilHi's foil, the archrival with the perceived advantage in district favoritism and the very real advantage in gridiron dominance, including — until Lyerla — the biggest football star the town had produced, former Tennessee and New York Jets quarterback Erik Ainge. Even today, much of the town's identity stems from the HilHi-Glencoe binary, a fact that owes itself to nearly the entire adult population graduating from one side or the other. But for all their mutual enmity, the old foes now share rivalries following the establishment of the two newer high schools on the north side. Century, which opened in 1997, and Liberty, built in 2003, are appropriately corporate-sounding names for schools built largely with the children of Intel workers in mind, flanking the company's properties and designed to accommodate Intel transplants settling in Hillsboro. The geography embodies Hillsboro's growing ideological divide: The blue-collar kids and the offspring of Hillsboro lifers stayed south at HilHi and Glencoe; the Intel kids from transplanted families went north, to Century and Liberty. So did the money.
In only a few years, HilHi changed from a school that that was two-thirds white and securely middle class to one that is now half white and half Latino, with more than half the students eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches. At the same time, as needs grew and racial tensions increased, resources were cut. Conflict at the campus became commonplace, and trouble became easier to find.
"There was a period where, every day, you're waiting for the next big fight or the next big incident," says Dean Miyama, Lyerla's biology teacher.
"the potential that he had was kind like a beacon of hope for a school that was still struggling through these demographic shifts."
For all of his atypical gifts, Lyerla was the consummate HilHi kid, sharing a two-bedroom apartment with his mother in state-assigned housing and subsisting on welfare and food stamps. Those circumstances only amplified the power of his junior season, during which he channeled his summer combine success and his super-sized body to become perhaps the most heralded football recruit in Oregon history.
"The excitement that he brought, the specimen that he was, the potential that he had was kind like a beacon of hope for a school that was still struggling through these demographic shifts," says HilHi principal Arturo Lomeli. "There's all these things that we're not because we don't have the new building, we don't have the money flowing in and the new gym, and we don't have this, and we don't have that. But you know what? We had a winner during that time. We're the school that was winning."
When he helped the Spartans steamroll Century and Liberty in back-to-back weeks by a combined score of 87-0, the symbolic victory of the blue-collar town over the Intel suburb was lost on no one at a time when there were so few of those victories to go around. There had never been anything like Colt Lyerla in Hillsboro. The town was being redefined around its high tech factories, but its most precious asset was still not anything Intel could create or money could buy. Hillsboro made Lyerla, and that made him theirs.
Although nominally a running back and linebacker, in function he roved everywhere, and in 14 games averaged 110 yards per game rushing and 60 receiving, along with 39 total touchdowns. He wasn't the only reason why the Spartans morphed into a juggernaut — there was also Mims, White, Hickman, Rodriguez and others, by now almost telepathic in their understanding of how to play with one another. Yet no one was naive to the reason why so many absent fans and alumni were trickling back into the stands, nor were they deaf to the chatter around town of what the Lyerla kid did in that week's blowout. Everyone saw how men and women, adults and children of all colors flocked to him for autographs or pictures. They understood how a fractured student body came together on Friday nights.
"That's how it was," says Marla Lyle, a counselor at HilHi. "I'm not going to watch a football team; I'm going to go watch Colt. I'm going to see what he can do today in this game. Because we always knew that he was going to do something amazing."
One moment epitomized his impact on the town. It came in Week 5 of his junior season against Glencoe, in their shared home stadium on Grant Street, Hare Memorial Field. HilHi entered the game ranked fourth in the state, one spot behind their rivals, and had beaten the Crimson Tide just seven times since the schools first began playing in 1981. It was a game of two contrasting halves, the Crimson Tide taking a 13-6 lead into break before Lyerla wrested it back with 151 second-half rushing yards, culminating in a 24-yard scamper that gave the Spartans a 20-13 lead with less than three minutes remaining. Glencoe responded with a time consuming, 93-yard touchdown drive, the exclamation point coming in a two-point conversion off a fake extra point that made it 21-20 and saw HilHi take possession with 19 seconds remaining. One play later, with the ball just shy of their own 40, the clock ticked down to six seconds.
It was the ultimate backyard fantasy, one the kids who grew up playing the game together prepared for their entire lives. Lyerla lined up wide right. Mims was in the shotgun.
"I told Colt instantly — I told everybody — just give me time," Mims says. "I told them to run as fast as you can, as far as you can. I'll get it there. We'd run them throughout the years and I knew I could get there."
The ball sliced 56 yards through the air, the perfect pass, high and tight — "It looked like a punt," Lyerla remembers — down to the 5-yard-line, where it hung in just the right spot for Lyerla, wreathed by three defenders, to snatch it. He stumbled backwards the rest of the way, caroming off a would-be tackler before plunging into the end zone as time expired. HilHi 26, Glencoe 21.
"Kids from the other half of the stadium and the other team were ready to rush the field because it was that emotional of a win," says Knudsen, who was on the ground level. "When he caught it, you felt him suck all of the energy off the field. It was unbelievable."
They called it The Miracle on Grant Street, and when ESPN's SportsCenter tabbed it as the play of the night and, later, of the week, Colt Lyerla was no longer just a name on the tongues of recruiting sharps. In Hillsboro, it was taken as further proof of his infallibility. Of course, he made the catch — what couldn't Lyerla do?
HilHi went on to win the 5A state championship, the school's first since Mouse Davis led the Spartans to the 1973 title prior to his Run and Shoot days at Portland State. The title validated Lyerla's legacy as a Hillsboro icon. But it was the play — The Miracle — that canonized him.
"That vaulted him into his legendary status," Ingram, Lyerla's coach at Hillsboro, says.
From the moment he dove backward into that end zone, Lyerla understood how everything he did from then on in a football game would be weighed against that catch. He also realized, but chose not to say aloud, that nothing he could ever do would eclipse this moment. "It was probably going to be the best play I ever have in my life," he says now.
But it quickly ballooned into something bigger and became a line of demarcation in his personal life as well, one that signaled the de facto end to his adolescence.
"People started treating me differently," he says. "I got put on a pedestal by some people, and I got ignored by others. Some people thought that I thought that I was better than them, when really I just wanted to fit in with them. I didn't want to be different. I lost a lot of relationships, and I gained a lot of relationships that only would be there because they thought I was going to be this big football player or whatever. It was very confusing, and I could see it right away. I didn't like it at all.
"After that, you either absolutely loved me, or you absolutely hated me."
The hate came from all directions — Glencoe, Century and Liberty, not only from the kids, but from adults, too. It played out in the subtle glares at a restaurant, in the whispers whenever he walked past, and in the friends who stopped talking to him because they felt they could no longer relate to him. He heard it in the booming chants of "HE'S ON STER-OIDS" that resounded off the gymnasium walls whenever he made a big block or a dunk during basketball season. The words fueled his performance on the court, but after the final whistle blew, they left him hollow.
In some ways, the adulation was even worse. From the outside it appeared as if no 17-year-old could have it better: boundless athletic ability, scholarship offers from every school in the country, and rough-hewn good looks that made him the object of desire for every girl in school — "and half the moms, too," Knudsen adds, only a trace of sarcasm in his voice. But the attention made Lyerla wary; at least the hatred was genuine. If nothing else, he knew where he stood. But the love? Allowing someone to get close was less certain, and more emotionally dangerous; it entailed a constant parsing of their motivations, always trying to determine what people wanted from him. He felt trapped, an unintended and unwanted consequence of playing the game for its own sake. He wanted no part of any of it.
Colt Lyerla's All-American jersey hangs in the HilHi gym. (Photo by Mike Piellucci)
"He told me that, in an ideal world, he would play football with the lights off and nobody watching," says Miyama, Lyerla's biology teacher.
His parents are the reason why he endured. He is fiercely protective of them, and they of him; love has never been a question, even when just about everything else was. Yet his motivations moving forward depend on his desire to care for them, even as so much of his past is defined by their inability to care for him. Roger divorced Tammy when Colt was 6 and when Roger, a plumber, could find work, Colt often lived with him. Other times, Colt stayed with Tammy, who is on disability and unable to drive. He always had a roof over his head, but a home was out of reach.
"I wasn't really in control of where I was living," he says. "It was a matter of going back and forth between my mom and my dad, whoever was more stable at the time to keep me."
Stability, in some cases, was synonymous with sobriety. Each of his parents battled substance abuse, sometimes both at once, so even during the rare times when he was settled geographically, peace of mind was hard to come by. The best year was his first in Hillsboro, when he lived with Roger and his third wife, Lisa, and started playing football. Drake can still see his carefree fifth-grade smile as he ran around the field with none of the world-weariness that set in his eyes after his father's third marriage dissolved and the Lyerla men moved in with Colt's grandparents. His grandmother had Alzheimer's and his grandfather coped by screaming — at his wife, his son and his grandson. Roger Lyerla, from whom Colt inherited his size and athleticism, eventually left for good just before his son emerged as a star, returning to his birthplace, and a remote Hawaiian fishing village called Miloli'i
Tammy became his legal guardian, and he lived with her through high school in a household with little structure. Their relationship is often strained and sometimes borders on estrangement, but despite that, the very tattoos often portrayed as symbols of his undoing are in many ways an homage to her. They include a Native American design to commemorate her heritage; the sun, in remembrance of how she would sing "You Are My Sunshine" to him as a child; and her guiding maxim, "May your neighbors respect you, trouble neglect you, angels protect you, and heaven accept you."
"My mom is a really good person, but she was devastated after my parents got divorced. She never really recouped from that," he says. "She just wasn't in the right state of mind ... It'd be on and off. There would be times when it was fine, and then there'd be times where she would sleep for four or five days at a time."
When his mother was in a particularly bad state he often fended for himself, kept his own hours and sometimes slept elsewhere. A few nights at the Drakes', perhaps; with any assortment of teammates; with the family of a girlfriend. Predictably he pushed the boundaries the way a 17-year-old without a curfew or anyone to reprimand him would, reminiscent of the character of Tim Riggins from "Friday Night Lights," the big hearted rogue who was forced to take on far more than what he was capable of handling.
"Ken and I always looked at him as seeing the lost little boy inside," says Ingram's wife, Stacy. "He's a huge man, but if you look deep in his eyes there's this lost little boy that ... [You] just wanted to take care of him."
He always returned to Tammy, who beamed at his every achievement and shared her scrapbooks with anyone who walked in the door, but he needed more than she could provide. Money was so tight that Trish Guerechit, HilHi's athletics secretary, kept extra food in the fridge in case he came to school hungry, always careful to play it off as if she cooked too much so he wouldn't feel ashamed. Holding tight to his dignity, he almost always scheduled in-home recruiting visits elsewhere. He met with one of his favorite recruiters, then-USC linebackers coach Joe Barry, at a Starbucks, because, according to the AD Drake, "He just didn't want to have Coach Barry see where he was having to live and grow up in."
HilHi, in a sense, became his real home, a place he felt safe, cocooned by a ring of teachers and parents who not only tried their best, but were able to help him, too. They saw a gentle, conscientious kid who never hurt anyone but himself, the star athlete who also looked out for the freshmen and didn't use his status to curry favor. He was smart — an honors student during more tranquil times in middle school who still turned in solid grades even as the absences piled up later — and intellectually curious, even if his interest in the day-to-day life of classes sometimes ebbed and flowed. He was also unusually kind and caring. Midway through his junior year, he and a group of friends began eating lunch in Miyama's classroom to escape the fishbowl of the cafeteria. The teacher still marvels at how Colt always made sure everyone's trash was thrown away, the desktops were cleaned and the chairs were back in their rightful places before the bell rang.
"That's him," Miyama says. "Your typical 17-year-old kid wouldn't do that. Nonetheless, he had already exploded, so he was already Colt Lyerla" — carefully enunciating the name's syllables to reflect the gravitas — "and he was still doing that."
Despite all his athletic ability, Lyerla was almost cripplingly insecure. He relished practice for the anonymity it brought, allowing him to play with the unfettered joy of that fifth grader. Playing actual games was different. That meant expectations, of bearing the burden that was Colt Lyerla, the hero who the whole town looked up to.
"Colt would make a mistake on the court like any other kid — you know, he'd commit a silly foul, he'd leave his feet, maybe be in foul trouble," says Louis Galian, who coached Lyerla during his freshman season as an assistant on the basketball team. "He was never angry at the officials, I never saw him angry at his coaches, not even angry at the other team. He was often angry with himself. He was so down on himself. He would say, ‘I suck, I can't play, I'm a terrible player, I don't know why he plays me.' I remember being very struck because all of us saw his athleticism, his talent — all of us were ecstatic that a high school freshman was starting on the basketball team and making an impact, rebounding, blocking shots, playing defense. He had such low self-esteem relative to what you would expect for a guy who is the most dominant athlete on the court."
More distressing was his tendency to accede to nearly any request if it meant pleasing others, even ones that ultimately worked to his detriment. He hadn't lived in a home where decisions were talked over at the dinner table, and so he never learned to think through his choices — "I always had a hard time saying ‘no,'" he says. "I think that comes from that I made all my life decisions. I didn't have anyone giving me real advice, as far as my parents, because they were dealing with their own stuff at the time. I'm making all these decisions at 16, 17, 18."
Lyerla craved the life of a typical teenager, but first his upbringing and then his talent made that impossible.
There is a sense, though, that even if he knew how to choose correctly, he still might not have had the strength to if it impeded his fondest wish: To be normal. Lyerla craved the life of a typical teenager, but first his upbringing and then his talent made that impossible.
"If he had the white picket fence and the mom and dad and all that good stuff, that's all he wanted," says Drake. "He just wanted to be a normal kid, growing up in a normal atmosphere, not having all this attention because of everybody knowing his dirty laundry and everybody also wanting a piece of the potential next football star."
He began to look at his body and all the things it could do differently, seeing it as a curse, something that betrayed him by fulfilling every ambition he had but the one wanted most. He knew he was special, but special was just another word for different — better than being the kid from the broken home or the one too poor to pay for his high school yearbook, but different all the same. Special meant being alone.
"I've always wanted to fit in, especially with my friends and my peers, but after I grew and hit my growth spurt and started to succeed, I was always an outlier after that," he says. "I was never able to just be one of the guys." After the miracle catch set him further apart, even the comfort he found at HilHi became constricting, turning him into a stock everyone could buy into and then demand dividends. That was why his absences at school, which began after his father left for Hawaii, spiked in his junior year: He was tired of being prodded over by people who had no interest in his well-being beyond his potential to play professional football.
"It always amazed me how, as soon as you become good at a sport, that people will just automatically think that you're not a human being anymore," he says, "It was almost like, if I didn't make it to the NFL, then 'You shouldn't even be here.' That was it. I have no excuse not to now. It's just like 1 percent of college athletes make it to the NFL. It's such a small percentage of people in the entire world that make it, but then all of a sudden, I'm just expected to be that, out of nowhere. It felt out of nowhere."
He couldn't just walk away; he would always be Colt Lyerla in Hillsboro, whether or not he was playing. Not that he would have wanted to, anyways; he still loved the game, even if there were days when he gladly would have given up his talent to fit in, had such a trade been possible. He began to see his only way out as earning a scholarship and going to college somewhere far, far away, where he was just another face, and no one knew anything about him or cared about where he came from. But that was well over a year away, which meant another year of everybody watching, everybody demanding, everybody judging.
At first, football was his escape.
Now, it made him feel more confined than ever. He felt like an outsider in his hometown.
Whenever things got rough when he was young, Lyerla usually chose flight over fight. He would hop on his bike and tear across town, or ride the MAX — the greater Portland area's rail system — as far as Gresham, 35 miles away, and back. "I knew Hillsboro like the back of my hand by the time I was 13 years old," he says.
So when the town itself had begun to close in on him and he couldn't stand to be in it any longer, he fell back on old habits: The summer before his senior year, just as the recruiting wars over his college choice were heating up, he left.
The summer before his senior year, just as the recruiting wars over his college choice were heating up, he left.
It had been three years since he'd last seen Roger, but it hardly felt that way when they reunited in Hawaii in the summer before Colt's senior year. They were always better suited to be peers, twin goliaths who operated best on their own time. "They are not father-son, they're brothers," says Drake. "It's best buds sitting and having a drink and telling stories and having a good time."
For two months, that's exactly what they did. For Colt, the weeks bled together into a tropical dream, as he awoke each day to the warm island breeze, spent the afternoon fishing and then grilled his catch for supper, just Roger's boy. "Living the life," he says of that time with disarming sincerity, as though he could want for nothing else if he were back in that tiny village with his father, sleeping in a hammock at the tent on the beach adjacent to Roger's one-bedroom shack, a place so secluded that there was no access to power lines or running water.
He didn't want to leave and so, with the summer drawing to a close, he called Dirk Knudsen.
Knudsen is a HilHi alum, but he has friends at nearly every high school in the Pacific Northwest that fields a football team. He does real estate by day; football is a side gig. Although he had known of Lyerla ever since he was a sixth grader, the two didn't meet until Lyerla's sophomore season. He found Lyerla to be the most impressive athlete he'd ever seen come out of Oregon, Ndamukong Suh included. Yet he had no idea that Lyerla left for the summer, which made the ensuing phone call all the more startling.
"He said, ‘Dirk, if I don't come back to Hillsboro for my senior year, will I still be recruitable?'" Knudsen recalls. Lyerla's talent would play anywhere, and Dirk knew of at least two coaches in Hawaii who would be thrilled to have him for his senior season. But that wasn't what Lyerla meant.
"If I'm staying here, I'm talking about not playing," he said. He told Knudsen how great it was to be around his father again, that he had become more in touch with his Hawaiian roots. Knudsen said he understood, but asked one question in response: "Is part of this really about you couldn't really do more than you did your junior year? Like that was the ultimate you could have done?"
"It was just easier for me out there," Lyerla says now. "I didn't really have everyone knowing who I was and expecting things from me. I think that was the allure. Dirk [was] right. That was exactly it. I thought I could get a year there without anybody really knowing who I was. Even if they found out by the end of it, I'd be leaving soon."
In the end, he returned to HilHi. It was close — "a flip of a coin," he says — but he missed his friends and he wanted to finish where he started. Yet Knudsen thinks that something bigger was in play, the ongoing story of the place that asked for everything and the boy who couldn't refuse. He came back because "he didn't want to let the town down."
He returned home midway through two-a-days, and was ineligible for the first game of the season because he did not participate in the minimum number of padded preseason practices. Most of his teammates from the state championship team, like Mims and Hickman, had graduated, leaving him to shoulder an even tougher physical burden. The Spartans had moved up a division, too, to Class 6A, which meant they would play against unfamiliar competition from bigger schools.
Despite that, after dropping two of their first three games — one coming during his suspension — HilHi won seven of their next eight to set up a matchup with Portland Jesuit in the state quarterfinals. Hillsboro was the underdog, but led 25-21 with 5:18 remaining after Mikie Rodriguez scored on a 35-yard interception return. Yet Jesuit was driving, and another touchdown seemed inevitable. Then, with Jesuit at their 4 yard-line, Lyerla did the exact thing that he thought impossible: He outdid his junior year, he made the Miracle seem run of the mill — for a moment.
Facing second-and-goal, Jesuit quarterback Eric Williams lobbed a pass off his back foot into the end zone. But the ball sailed and wobbled, giving Lyerla enough time to jump in front of the receiver and snag it. He shrugged off an arm tackle in the end zone, then shimmied past another defender at the goal line to work his way into space. He saw a hole and accelerated, exploding through it just before a horde of defenders could reach him, and then tore down the left sideline. As he neared the end zone, The Miracle popped back into his head and he realized the 105-yard return was another once-in-a-lifetime moment, the clock running out as he saved the day. "I thought it'd happened again," he admits.
The pair of flags came swiftly. The first, on Jesuit, for an illegal man downfield; the second, on Hillsboro, for pass interference on the ineligible receiver. Still, the score should have counted, almost certainly giving the Spartans an inconceivable win, but the officials erred and ruled that the penalties offset and ordered the down replayed. The ruling sent HilHi into an uproar and the Oregon School Activities Association later apologized to Drake for the mistake. Instead, Jesuit scored on the replayed down to win 28-25 and end HilHi's season.
"Really, it broke my heart," Lyerla says. He stood stunned on the field after the game, then sobbed in the locker room, the last player out the door. He had rushed for 171 yards, caught 48 more, made seven tackles and scored a pair of touchdowns, and yet he couldn't shake the feeling that he had failed everyone, that if he had only broken one more tackle or got open one more time, he could have put the game out of reach. He thought of Rodriguez, perhaps his closest friend, his other teammates, and of course, of his town.
Four years later, the disappointment still hovers in his words. "I really wanted to do it again for them," he says, and then his voice trails off into silence.
As his senior season was playing out, Lyerla was also trying to choose a college. He was overwhelmed by the task and it taxed his desire to make everybody happy; no matter what school he chose, he'd have to tell 50 more no. Drake volunteered to act as liaison between Lyerla and the recruiters, but Lyerla struggled to pare down the list of potential destinations, and at times there was no rhyme or reason to how he handled the attention. One day, he'd flake out on scheduled meeting with a school he was interested in hearing from. The next, he'd grant BYU an unplanned audience, shooting Drake a sideways glance when the recruiter mentioned the school's honor code, which forbade premarital sex and alcohol use.
Yet as complicated as the recruiting process could be, he was certain about one thing: He planned to leave the state of Oregon.
"I wanted to go to Florida, Oklahoma, or USC, and get out and just be on my own, just see the person I was without anything else, any of my former past behind me," he says. "I didn't even have to visit those places. I knew I would have loved them, just from looking online and the fact that it was far away."
He did end up visiting one school — USC. "They dazzled the hell out of me," he says, and he called Drake from in front of the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles to tell him as much. It was everything he wanted, a big-time program with a position coach whom he trusted in Joe Barry, but most importantly a place where he could blend in. Drake cautioned him not to make a hasty commitment, but he knew Lyerla the way he knew his own sons; "I knew in my heart of hearts that he wanted to go to SC," Drake says.
This was fine with Drake. Better than fine, actually; even something he encouraged. Drake knew that "there's a good Colt crowd and a bad Colt crowd," that some of Colt's friends lived from party to party and that it would be much easier for the bad crowd to follow him to Eugene or Corvallis than it ever would be Los Angeles. "He needed to start over," he says. "He grew up in a fishbowl ... I wanted him to get away from [that], as any father would." Lyerla's family was on board, too. "There was a point where me and my mom and everyone in my family was like 'Yeah, like, go to USC,'" he says. "'We can't wait for you to go to USC.'" For once, everything was lining up exactly how he'd planned.
If Lyerla went to Oregon, "I was promised a house, a car, all these things."
Their enthusiasm dampened when an unofficial adviser weighed in. Lyerla declines publicly to identify the man, a powerful University of Oregon booster known to the family. The adviser made the benefits of that decision clear. If Lyerla went to Oregon, "I was promised a house, a car, all these things."
Lyerla knew the man had the means to deliver on his guarantees. Tammy knew that as well, too, and now she leaned on her son to sign with the Ducks, a change Lyerla believes was made with the best intentions, but inspired by her precarious living situation. "All of a sudden, it was ‘You need to go to Oregon. That's the best place for you. They're going to take care of you,' he says. "My mom was really impressionable. When it was me and my mom in high school, it was $600 a month for the both of us. That's how we lived ... anything good financial-wise that would take care of me or take care of her, she was going to go for it."
Just as his talent had come to belong to everyone else, now so too did the decision on where to take it. His teachers and coaches tried to assist him in the decision, to ensure that he was doing what he wanted, but they were nearly as ill equipped as he. None of his teammates even had a Division I football offer, let alone their pick from among the best programs in the country. "We never had a recruit like this at Hillsboro High School and so it was kind of new to us too," admits Reese, now head coach at HilHi. The only unbiased people he found willing to volunteer their opinions were his friends, who could hardly empathize with the problem at hand. "I'm making huge, massive life decisions talking to 17, 18 year olds playing Xbox," he says ruefully.
The more his mother and the adviser pushed, the less anyone pulled back in the other direction and so he began to convince himself that going to Oregon could be the right decision. More importantly, he felt he owed a debt and was expected to pay it back.
"I was kind of not enticed, but almost entrapped by [him]," he says.
He finally wore down, and gave a non-binding verbal commitment to Oregon a month before National Signing Day. It never felt right, though, and he dreaded going to school that first Wednesday in February to sign his national letter of intent and make the decision official. Even now, as he speaks of this, he pauses, letting out a drawn-out sigh, deflated even by the thought of reliving that morning. His head is tilted firmly downward until the moment he begins to talk.
"I just remember that day really clearly," he says softly.
He was in Drake's office with his mother, Drake and several others, including Trish Guerechit, the school secretary who kept him from going hungry. "Most people probably would have been super ecstatic that day, but I wasn't," he says. "I just remember being like, 'I'm just kind of giving up.' Like a, 'Let's do this'-type of feeling."
"I could tell sitting here watching him that he was scared to death, and I didn't think it looked like he wanted to sign it," says Guerechit. "He had the pen in his hand, and was kind of taking some deep breaths, and kind of shaky, and one of the people said, 'Come on, Colt, you got to get it done. Just sign it. Come on, we got to get this done.'
"And he signed it."
The next day, he took one last shot at trying to wrest himself away from Oregon and the decision he'd made. He told Drake, Knudsen and Lyle that he wanted to get out of his letter of intent and go to USC, and asked them what it would take to make it happen. They spoke to Barry, who said USC would honor their offer, but that the letter of intent was legally binding, and Oregon coach Chip Kelly would have to sign off on his release. But before it got that far, Lyerla gave up and told them not to bother. He would go to Oregon.
"I wanted to please everybody," he says now.
He never received any of the benefits that were promised to him, not the house and not the car. "It ended up being the exact opposite," he says. "I didn't get any of that. There were always excuses as to why I didn't get those things — [like] I wasn't doing [something] right. I felt played."
He had no way of knowing that then. Instead, he made the best of the situation, and looked forward to getting the ball in his hands in the Ducks' turbo-charged offense. He graduated a trimester early so he could get started, and on his last day of school he gave his senior presentation to his favorite HilHi faculty members — Drake, Miyama, Lyle and Guerechit. They turned it into a party, with cake and cookies and a room full of balloons. But they knew that when he walked out the doors of Hillsboro High School, he was entering a world he might not be fully prepared for.
"I think all of us just looked each other and basically we were crossing our fingers," says Miyama. "Have we done enough? Is this kid going to be able to transition to the next step? The next stage? And we were hopeful.
"We were hopeful."
Sometime after Lyerla went away to school, Drake added a new wrinkle to his morning routine. He sits down at his desk, logs onto the Internet and scans the headlines for Lyerla's name. Only when he doesn't find anything can he begin his day in earnest.
He knows that Lyerla thinks it's unnecessary. Whenever Drake texts him to check in — usually two to three times a week — he tends to get the same message back: I'm good, Steve. He still checks all the same.
"Every day that I knew this kid, from probably his mid-freshman year on when he encountered those family issues, going all the way through till today, there is not a day that I don't wake up thinking, 'Oh, am I going to get a call from the police?'" he says. "Am I going to get a call from someone that he's done something? Every day, because I know that for a variety of reasons there's no guidance to make him make sure that he has that person to watch over him."
So when he opened his web browser on the morning of Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013, in what should have been midway through Lyerla's junior season at Oregon, and saw that Lyerla had been arrested for cocaine possession the night before, he wasn't totally surprised. Although Lyerla had enjoyed some success at Oregon, there had been signs of trouble. His teachers reacted to the news as though Lyerla had died and this was his wake. "At two points during the day, it took all my strength not to break down in front of my class," says Miyama. "Hearing about him and having to come to work that next day was the second-hardest thing I've had to do after having students pass away."
As Lyerla feared, from the start he found Eugene as stifling at Hillsboro, if not more so, and he struggled to feel at home. Before he even took a snap in a Duck uniform, he could feel the air swelter with the expectation of being Colt Lyerla again. "Because I was like the hometown hero for Hillsboro," he says. "I was a celebrity there, big time. I think staying in Oregon and going to Oregon kind of followed me down ... Everything I was kind of apprehensive about just multiplied itself by 10 by going down there."
"The Ducks get a lot of big-name guys [but Marcus] Mariota's from Hawaii and DeAnthony Thomas is from L.A.," says Galian, a self-identified Duck fan. The idea that an Oregon kid was going to be a star for Oregon was a big deal."
On the field, at least, he seemed ready to fulfill those expectations. He was eased into the offense his freshman year and only caught seven balls on the season, but five went for touchdowns and he averaged 21 yards a reception. In his sophomore year came a much-hyped return to tailback and a more substantial role in the passing game; he finished the year with seven total touchdowns and 469 all-purpose yards on just 38 total touches.
But away from the field, he was never truly happy. It wasn't so much about Oregon itself — Lyerla enjoyed and appreciated the program, and still stays in touch with several teammates, like Philadelphia Eagles draftee Josh Huff. After everything, he still keeps his keys on a black and green Oregon Ducks lanyard. Yet every time he was recognized in town or he met someone else who claimed to know all about him, it was another reminder that none of this had been his decision, not really, and that he had been manipulated into using his body to fulfill someone else's ambitions, instead of going to USC, as he wanted. When he'd visit HilHi, his teachers noticed that some of the spark in his eyes had dimmed out, that parts of him seemed dead. "In the back of his mind, he was probably ‘What if?'-ing himself to death," says Miyama.
His dissatisfaction played out in the way he managed his free time, or rather how others sought to manage it for him. Hardly any of his friends had made it out of Hillsboro; while Lyerla cobbled together a new life in Eugene, they were doing the same things they had done the year before, and as his mentors feared, found it easy to follow him to Eugene to bask in being the friend of a football star.
Although nothing in his play indicated that he was going out too much, or that he was willfully making decisions that could damage his future, they knew Lyerla found it hard to say no and there was always the lingering concern that his parents' addiction issues could be passed down to him, that the extraordinary body they gave him could also be a time bomb that destroys him. "He's been [gifted] God-given ability that his genetics from his father and mother have given him," Drake says. "There are also some genetics that are some demon genetics, and those are things that he's had to fight."
The worst decision he made as an Oregon student calls into question how many of his choices were byproducts of conscious decision-making versus sheer naiveté. On March 21, 2013, in the spring of his sophomore year, he tweeted out a link to a YouTube video that debunks the Sandy Hook school shootings as a conspiracy, writing "If you have a half hour you should watch this and enlighten yourself." He then answered a response by tweeting, "The parents of the kids that supposedly died in the sandy hook situation are liars."
The reaction was predictably incendiary — words like "sociopath" and "Un-American" slithered through his mentions; the top comment on a video of his apology to the Oregon media two weeks later reads, "I pray this c***'s family gets gunned down, so I can mock him." He still has not lived the tweets down, and whispers swirled that certain NFL teams would not touch him because of those 125 characters. Based on conversations he's had with Vinnie Porter, his current agent and the third he has employed since leaving Oregon, he believes them to be true.
He says he didn't intend the tweet to come off as it did, that he had watched the video and wanted to crowd-source feedback. "I wasn't saying I believe this or I don't believe this," he says. "[I was] just seeing what people thought about different things ... I wouldn't do it again, that's for sure." More revealing is how, incredibly, he had no idea how large the ramifications could be. "I didn't see myself as a celebrity or a football player," he says, in spite of a lifetime of reminders of how he could only be those two things to so many around him.
His promise was expected to reach fruition heading into his junior year. He made the preseason watch list for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end, and prognosticators eagerly slotted him into the first round of their mock drafts, drooling over his skill set and buoyed by what would invariably be eye-popping Combine numbers. What none of them knew was, up until the very last moment, he planned on leaving.
What he feared would happen in Eugene was happening, and none of the promises to him had been kept. (USA Today Images)
Chip Kelly bolted for the Philadelphia Eagles in the offseason, replaced by Mark Helfrich, the Ducks' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Lyerla was Kelly's recruit and with him went the uneasy detente Colt had made with his circumstances at Oregon. What he feared would happen in Eugene was happening, and none of the promises to him had been kept. So when Kelly left, he decided that this time, he would take his life into his own hands, and right what was wrong. He intended to transfer.
In the spring and summer of 2013, he was so set on leaving that he blew off a number of offseason workouts and players-only practices, events that are technically voluntary, but rigidly scheduled and attended by most everyone on the team. What was the point? He figured he'd be moving and would have to sit out the year, anyway. But what eventually happened next was the same thing that had always happened: "People kind of talked me out of it," he says. He was told that if he really felt so strongly about leaving, he should just stick out one more year and turn pro; he wouldn't have to sit out the extra year that comes with transferring between BCS schools, and he could make NFL money that much sooner. He understood, but as a result, when he changed his mind he went into the season out of shape. Helfrich was fed up.
"We had some discrepancies because of things that I had missed because I thought I was going to transfer," Lyerla says. "He'd kind of pull me in the office and reprimand me ... I think he was having the ‘I'm the new coach. I need to put my foot down' type of thing. I'm thinking 'Am I even going to be here?' So it was just two opposites clashing ... I don't think I was right by missing things previously before the season or anything like that. I just think that's what ended up happening because of the whole way I got to Oregon, and that after Chip left, I wanted to leave. It culminated to the point where I don't think [Helfrich] was fond of me anymore."
As his junior year got underway, Colt sensed that Helfrich wanted to get rid of him as badly as he wanted to leave. (Ed. note: The University of Oregon did not respond to a request for comment.) After a pair of mediocre performances to start the season, he missed the Ducks' third game, against Tennessee, due to a stomach virus that had sidelined him for three practices. Yet when asked why Lyerla sat out, Helfrich answered with a single word — "Circumstances" — then repeated it again when asked for clarification, and when asked to elaborate again, a third time: "Circumstances is extremely specific. That's one word." And one word that led the press to speculate what happened.
Colt told The Oregonian's Jason Quick the next day that he felt betrayed by his coach. "I think that kind of just describes the whole year before, what built up to that," he says now. "I think he didn't even believe that I was sick, type of thing, so he was maybe kind of pissed off."
His relationship with Helfrich and the Oregon program only would deteriorate further when, three weeks later, he was suspended for the Ducks' game against Colorado. The details were not disclosed to the media, but Lyerla says it resulted after he was late to a weightlifting session. "By ‘late,' the lift was at 8:15, and I got in there at 8:13," he says. "Because everyone else was already up there and I was the last one, I was late, so they kicked me out of the weight room."
The morning after the Colorado game, on Oct. 6, he received a phone call telling him to report to the team's athletic facility at 2 o'clock that afternoon, or he would be dismissed from the program. Upon arriving, he found a half-dozen athletic department officials waiting for him, and he was informed that he was being called in for a non-football manner. A month earlier, he had purchased a shotgun with the intention of going shooting with several other members of the team, who also owned guns. He was told, in no uncertain terms, that if he did not return the shotgun that day and bring back the receipt, he would be kicked off the team.
"At that point, everything else had just happened — I'd been suspended, the circumstances thing, and the whole thing," he says. "I'm just sitting there like, ‘They're literally looking for reasons to get me off the team, for me to leave,' At that point I was just like, 'These people don't want me here anymore.' I was just like, 'I'll just leave then.'"
Though a couple of staffers tried to talk him into staying, he sensed relief from the rest of the room. He then walked to Helfrich's office and told him he was leaving the team. This time, the coach chose two words instead of one: "Good luck." The team announced his departure on its website the next day, Oct. 7. He ended the year with three runs worth 17 yards, and two receptions for only 26 more.
If he has a regret, it was only that he was viewed as quitting on his teammates, because "I never looked at it like that."
"That really upsets me because it wasn't that I wanted to leave my team. Like I said, it was almost like they didn't need me there," he says. "Because of how the season was going, I knew that I wasn't really helping my team, anyway."
Within hours, he had secured an agent and started formulating a plan. Instead of struggling to play his way into game shape, he would now have four uninterrupted months to rebuild his body and prepare for February's Combine. Disappointment gave way to relief and even enthusiasm.
"'This could be good. I'm still OK.'" he remembers thinking. "I knew I was going to take a hit, but I was still going to get drafted. I was excited, and I was ready. I kind of had a chip on my shoulder: 'If they don't want me there, then I'm going to go and make it in the NFL.'"
"I kind of had a chip on my shoulder: 'If they don't want me there, then I'm going to go and make it in the NFL.'"
But four days later, on Oct. 11, he found himself in another spot when his license was suspended after multiple traffic infractions, including three speeding tickets. For the time being, he was stuck in Eugene, waiting to formalize arrangements on where he would go to train for the Combine. Then, 12 days later, on Oct. 23, he was arrested. According to the police, they found him sitting alone in a parked car "snorting what appeared to be a white powdery substance." When confronted, Lyerla confirmed to police that it was cocaine.
Although he says he only used cocaine once prior to the arrest, on the night before, and he takes some issue with the police version of the events of that night, he admits he made the decision to use cocaine. He dictated his own fate, and consequently bears his own guilt.
"I shouldn't have been around it. I don't even have an excuse," he says. "I just wasn't going to school, wasn't playing football. I was in a college town, and about three days away from moving away and starting to train for the Combine, so I was letting loose a little bit."
He spent the better part of the next two days in the Lane County Jail, sobbing and shivering in a white T-shirt and a pair of Levi's cargo pants.
"Just waves of emotion, from crying to being mad," he says. "I just didn't know what was going to happen or whether I was going to get out. I don't know how to describe it. Two months before that, I was a projected first-round pick, nominated for the John Mackey Award, and playing for the No. 2 team in the country. Then I was sitting in a jail cell." He knew that simply by swiping his finger into a mostly empty bag, "a split-second decision," he says, his bio was reduced to a drug charge and a mug shot.
After being bailed out, he spent the next two months biding his time alone in Eugene until the case was resolved, the setting of so many triumphs, but without a reason to be there anymore, a pariah. "It was the worst time in my life," he says.
Finally, on Dec. 27, 2013 he pled guilty to cocaine possession and was sentenced to two years of probation, 40 hours of community service and a 10-day prison sentence on the road crew. To keep his NFL hopes alive, he opted out of a drug treatment program that would have forced him to stay in Eugene for a calendar year in exchange for doubling the length of his probation. He had his freedom, but his hopes of being a first-round pick had disintegrated and the life he imagined for himself gone with them. He does not mince words when he discusses this outcome, nor does it come with any of the hesitation or softness or sighing. Sitting at the kitchen table that won't even be his in another week, he is firm and direct in his assessment of his decision:
"It clearly ruined my entire life."
Eight months removed from his stint on the road crew, Colt remembers every second. For 10 days in January, he showed up at 7:45 a.m. to report for duty, digging ditches, filling potholes, cutting down trees or, worst of all, moving around trash around a Eugene landfill. "For some reason, I got elected to go to the dump all the time," he cracks, mischief in his voice. "The guy was an Oregon fan that was distributing the jobs." Ever curious, he passed the time by befriending other convicts on the crew, listening to their stories as they waded through the garbage. Their backgrounds varied, but they were more like him than he expected, people who meant well and had made a mistake.
"I really learned that a lot of people there are just normal people," he says, and he hopes that others will one day afford him the same grace, to take the time and empathize with who he tries to be instead of repudiating him when he falls short. "They think that because I can catch a ball and run fast that, A, I'm supposed to realize that I have a politician-like notoriety, and, B, I'm all of a sudden going to make the world's best decisions," he says. "That's not the case. I'm still learning like anyone else."
It's a courtesy he feels would be afforded to the average person, and while he's reluctantly come to terms with how he'll never be that — at least not for the foreseeable future — he also works to try and carry himself as nothing less. It isn't as though he used his talent or status to harm someone else and skirt any repercussions for his behavior. He has only hurt himself, and he has dutifully accepted his punishment. "I've done everything that I can," he says. "My community service. I've given up freedoms. Probation. I got my license suspended. I paid all my tickets. I've done everything that's been asked of me by the court. I'm not asking for any kind of break or anything, because I did what I did. But I also paid the consequences. People are trying to treat it like I'm getting away with it, when I'm not at all."
When Lyerla finally made it to the Combine in February, he did so knowing that the route he took there was unlike any other player's. He was used to being an anomaly because his body enabled him to do things that defied what so many others had hardwired into their genetic code, a hacked iPhone when everyone else still operated on factory settings. But in Indianapolis, he was the player who walked out on his college team and who had spent the weeks leading up to the event doing manual labor instead of training in the gym.
As a result, he approached the Combine not with optimism, but nerves and insecurity. "My confidence wasn't there at all," he admits. "I did bomb most of my interviews." He only managed 15 reps on the bench press, the biggest casualty of hardly training, but the rest of numbers still stood out among the rest of his position group. Still, he was nonplussed; it didn't matter that he outperformed others when it fell woefully short of his own standards. "I put up those numbers sophomore year in high school," he laments. "I could have done more."
"I just want to put down some roots and know what's going to happen." Colt Lyerla during Packers training camp. (USA Today Images)
His regret only increased in May when he went unchosen in the draft, and it won't go away until he finds a place on an NFL roster, if he ever does. He won't let it go away, either, not when he knows he could have provided for his family already if he hadn't dabbled in cocaine, or if he had stood up for himself sooner and started over at USC or, failing that, least followed through on the transfer out of Oregon. It has jeopardized his greatest motivation of all: Finding a home.
"My whole life, I've been moving around constantly, whether it's back and forth to my parents, or different cities, or different couches, hotel rooms, everywhere. I don't want to do it anymore," he says. He sounds weary, all the baggage from two decades on the move unloading themselves into his words. "I just want to put down some roots and know what's going to happen."
It is the ultimate irony: A man famous for the way he defies gravity, wanting nothing more than to be planted into the ground. That's how, in an especially cruel twist, he would tear his MCL and PCL in his right knee a week into training camp with Green Bay, by pulling out one of his old tricks and hurdling a defender after catching a pass in an almost meaningless no-contact public practice at Lambeau Field. So now, instead of taking his place on the field against the Seahawks this week with a chance at redemption in his own backyard, Lyerla's future is once again up in the air and out of his hands. Green Bay first placed him on Injured Reserve, then settled his contract and waived him, leaving his future uncertain. After Week 8, he is eligible to sign with any team.
Yet he does not regret the ill-timed leap that cost him his chance. "I needed to prove a point," he told the local media, one that has nothing and everything to do with football. He was leaping as high into the air as he could to try to land in some better, more permanent place.
He hoped that he would find stability in Green Bay; now it may be somewhere else, but it's probably not the last time he'll attempt to make such a leap. Despite the injury, he is invigorated again in a way he hasn't been in some time, resolved to get healthy and take football as far as he can. And it is that resolution — his choice, at last — that is as important a win as any he'll earn in the NFL. If he does fulfill his immense potential there, it will come hand-in-hand with far more pressure and attention than what Hillsboro or Eugene could ever muster. But the difference is that, for the first time in his life, he will do so having taken ownership of his future.
"I think one of the biggest things I've learned is to start trusting myself more instead of allowing others to make decisions or being susceptible to any kind of outside pressure," he says. "Just to make decisions on my own, and to realize that I have to live with the consequences, so I better make sure that I want to do something before I do it."
After shepherding Lyerla through so much, Drake wants that for him far more than a successful football career. He'll keep browsing the headlines — probably always will — but it is a start toward a time when he hopes to do so out of joy rather than concern.
"It's time for Colt to now go be Colt Lyerla, and not do it because somebody else tells you to go sign with Oregon, or not because somebody else tells you to do this," he says. "If the NFL's really what you want to do, and you're doing it because Colt Lyerla wants to make the NFL, then do it.
"Do what Colt Lyerla needs to do, and good things will happen in his life."
The NFL is, in fact, what Lyerla wants right now. He has left Green Bay and returned to Oregon, to Portland, where he realizes there are people nearby who care and are looking after him, determined to take advantage of his next opportunity, still looking ahead. He recently told Steve Drake that as soon as he can afford it, he'd like to buy a house. Maybe someday, football will finally give him a home.