Packers take a chance on Lyerla
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
GREEN BAY--Everyone around Colt Lyerla has a “wow” moment—a play, a catch, a power clean, a day they knew this athlete was different. Potentially transcendent.
Those at Hillsboro High School have the “Miracle on Grant Street.” Defensive coordinator Adam Reese remembers a palpable anger this night against a crosstown rival. His defense was just burned for a touchdown off a wacky deflection with 45 seconds left.
On the sideline, Reese threw whatever was in his hands, looked up and Lyerla hauled in a 61-yard Hail Mary touchdown. The sideline rushed the field. ESPN picked up the catch for its top 10 plays of the night.
“When you make a play like that,” Reese said, “you’re kind of legendary.”
With Oregon teammates, the word “beast” runs on repeat. He was pure, rock muscle. Wide receiver Josh Huff was first thunderstruck by Lyerla’s talent in their 2011 “Civil War” with Oregon State. The tight end twisted his torso 270 degrees for a catch, maintained balance, broke two tackles and dove into the end zone.
“Right then,” said Huff, “I knew he had the opportunity to become special.”
“There are tight ends in the league now I know he’s better than—an all-pro tight end like Jimmy Graham,” said Huff, Philadelphia’s third-round pick. “That’s saying a lot. Guys like Tony Gonzalez, who’s no longer in the league. Those athletic guys. Rob Gronkowski. I feel like he can be better than those guys.”
Yet, this athletic anomaly with the 4.61 in the 40 and the 39-inch vertical was treated as a toxic chemical by NFL teams.
In October, Lyerla abruptly quit the team. The details are buried in what Lyerla later described as “a mistake I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life.” Soon after, he was arrested for cocaine possession.
Tweets claiming the Sandy Hook mass shooting were a government conspiracy. Charges in 2012 of physical assault that were later dropped. Skipping high school classes, practices. A total distrust of others.
It all overrode the talent. The Green Bay Packers offered Lyerla a rookie tryout, signed him and this week at organized team activities, he joins a new locker room.
So who is the real Colt Lyerla?
Call his cellphone and he (politely) declines to speak for now. Contact Oregon and interviews with assistant coaches are declined—the school says they’re unavailable through recruiting. A hollow “we wish him well” quote from head coach Mark Helfrich is issued.
Those back in Hillsboro, his teammates at Oregon, the ones who worked with Lyerla daily, do have a clue.
Green Bay has added a 6-foot-4, 247-pound beast. This also is a complex individual they must handle with care.
“I’m not sure what the Green Bay locker room is like,” former Oregon safety Avery Patterson said, “but if he gets around some veterans, he definitely could be something special. But, I mean, you can never really change a person. So one day, when he starts to succeed, he’s still going to have to make sure he’s still doing the right thing.”
Watch any MVP speech in any sport. There’s one dominant theme.
Mom. Dad. Grandma. There’s always “a rock” in that athlete’s life. This month—hands gripping the podium at his MVP news conference—Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant quivered and fought back tears in thanking his mother.
Watching that speech, Steve Drake immediately thought of Lyerla.
“This was never the case for this kid,” the Hillsboro athletic director said. “There was no one rock in this kid’s life. The only rock in this kid’s life was the Hillsboro community.”
To understand Lyerla, first understand his upbringing. He moved to Hillsboro in fifth grade. That point forward, Drake said, he was constantly moving. His parents endured financial hardships and divorced. His mother was on disability. As a result, Lyerla lived with his father and a stepmother one moment, someone else the next.
A bed. A ride. A meal. Outsiders often provided basic human needs.
Growing up, Drake’s son became close friends with Lyerla, who was (and still is) “always welcome” in his home.
“It was a community effort,” Drake said. “Whether it was myself, other youth coaches, high school coaches, everybody was involved in this. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh we’re going to do this because this kid’s going to make it in the NFL someday or this kid’s going to be a Division I athlete.’ That wasn’t the case. It was all the way through.
“People realized what a nice kid this is, so he got help. Lots of people did that.”
On the field, Lyerla grew into an athletic marvel.
As a junior, the running back rushed for 1,543 yards, had 843 yards receiving and scored 40 touchdowns in leading Hillsboro to a state title. He shattered high school combine records in the broad jump and vertical jump set by future NFL running back Jonathan Stewart.
But trouble at home persisted.
When Lyerla was 15 years old, his dad disappeared. For eight months, he had no clue his father had moved back to Hawaii. So in attempt to reconnect, Lyerla spent a month the summer before his senior year with him. Many in Hillsboro worried if he’d even return to graduate.
Lyerla would eventually cross the Pacific Ocean again, missing a pair of two-a-days that led to a one-game suspension.
And into his senior year, Lyerla missed classes, skipped some practices, showed up late to others. At which point, Reese would bench him on defense.
When it was Reese’s turn to drive Lyerla home, he’d catch a glimpse of the rickety foundation to Lyerla’s life. Many times, the coach (like others) would need to buy Lyerla dinner.
“It takes a toll on you,” Reese said. “You get sick a lot. Injuries start to build up a little bit when you’re not eating right and not living right.”
Above all, Lyerla hated the recruiting process. Loathed it. Oregon, Oklahoma, USC, UCLA and Miami (Fla.) all were after Lyerla. Coaches would come to practices, would ask to visit Lyerla at home…and he hid. The pressure ate at him.
“By not showing up,” said Reese, now Hillsboro’s head coach, “he was able to get away from it for a while. … I think he might have been embarrassed of his home life, that he didn’t want recruiters to come to his house. Sometimes, he didn’t want to deal with the recruiters on campus. He was trying to avoid them.
“I know he loves his family. His family loves him. I just think in the situation he was in, he had to make adult choices way too early. And I don’t think he was ever taught how to make the right choice.”
Looking back, Lyerla should have moved far, far away from Oregon.
Off the field, Drake only heard faint rumors of drug use—and he’d address it immediately. Counselors talked to Lyerla on a constant basis. Reese didn’t hear anything substantive either, admitting today “maybe I’m naive.” They did know he partied. They did know this hometown hero could get pulled by negative forces.
So when Lyerla signed with Oregon, some in Hillsboro quietly worried.
Colt Lyerla was on his own. His star was building.
Issues in Oregon
Around teammates, Lyerla’s worst crime was probably a prank. One day, scheming with Huff, he stacked chairs atop each other in front of Ryan Clanton’s locker.
The lineman arrived. He was livid. A few minutes later, all three laughed it off.
Around teammates, Lyerla capitalized on his physical gifts. In 2012, he caught 25 passes for 392 yards with six touchdowns, and carried the ball 13 times for 77 yards with another score.
“Just a monster,” Oregon cornerback Terrance Mitchell said. “Colt is a beast. I don’t know how to explain it. A monster, a beast. … He could be anything he wants to be. He could be a top tight end in the NFL for sure.”
Football IQ? Reese remembers Lyerla scoring a perfect 100 percent on written defensive tests at Hillsboro. Work ethic? Lyerla was a one-man spectacle in the weight room.
This past fall was supposed to be his breakout season. Instead, his collegiate career capsized.
Lyerla was suspended for Oregon’s Oct. 5 game against Colorado for a violation of team rules. On Oct. 6, he quit the team. On Oct. 23, police caught Lyerla snorting cocaine inside his parked vehicle. He was arrested, spent one night in jail and another nine days on a road crew. The drug may have been an ongoing problem.
Teammates defend Lyerla, but they also describe him as an erratic individual who began to distrust those around him.
“He felt like some people turned on him when he needed them the most,” Huff said. “He felt like he couldn’t trust anybody and that led to him going back to his high school friends who weren’t doing the things that he was doing. So that influenced him to become whatever the issue was.
“He went back to his high school friends, who he knew he could trust, and that didn’t turn out too well for him.”
Added Patterson, “He may have felt like the team was against him, and he really wasn’t a part of the team at times. … Just because players and coaches were attacking him in all different types of ways. He probably felt like he didn’t have the support necessary. He probably felt like it was an attack on him.”
On the field, Patterson believes Lyerla can “easily” be one of the best tight ends in the NFL. Off the field, he rarely saw Lyerla.
“Sometimes,” he said, “he could go away from that facility and change.”
Being Colt Lyerla in Oregon was different. Some athletes are campus celebrities; Lyerla was more state celebrity. Everyone was drawn to him. Patterson didn’t know Lyerla was using cocaine at the time but heard this “was something he had been doing for quite a while.”
In addition to cocaine, three men in an Eugene, Ore., police report accused Lyerla of assaulting them for no reason, via the Hillsboro Tribune. On April 27, 2012, at 3 a.m., they claim Lyerla was either extremely drunk or under the influence of drugs and pushed them to the ground. They later dropped the charges.
And in March 2013, Lyerla tweeted that, “The parents of the kids that supposedly died in the sandy hook situation are liars,” claiming it was a government conspiracy.
How malicious is this all? That depends on one’s own moral compass. Blaming the media, Huff says none of Lyerla’s misdeeds were as bad as they were portrayed.
Mitchell is more pointed with a terse, “He didn’t kill anybody.”
Either way, Colt Lyerla is now a Packer. Ted Thompson has assumed the risk.
“He’s a good person,” Oregon defensive tackle Ricky Havili-Heimuli said. “I’m not going to lie. You might need to keep an eye on him.
“You have to keep him around the right people. Just keep him busy.”
After Hillsboro won its state title, Reese remembers an elated Lyerla calling it “the best Christmas present ever.” That day, that whole junior season, Reese sensed a true joy in Lyerla. A “gleam,” a “glimmer.”
Then on—through the recruiting, through the Oregon trail of tumult—that look vanished. Chatting after Ducks practices and games, Lyerla seemed empty. His texts lacked pop.
And before this spring’s NFL draft, when Lyerla returned to Hillsboro to visit, the gleam was back.
“He’s been told by everybody, ‘You won the lottery. You’re a billionaire, if you just get through school,’<UN>“ Reese said. “He’s been told that over and over and over and over. At some point, you’re like ‘Why can’t this kid figure it out?’ Maybe he’s running from it. Maybe that’s the best situation, that he’s not going to be a millionaire.
“Until you make it until that third year, you don’t make the big money. Maybe that’s the best.”
Maybe. The Packers are about to find out.
Everyone realizes the talent. Green Bay is gambling on the person.
Nobody, Drake says, “should ever be scared for their safety” around Lyerla. To him, Lyerla is “like a son.” Frankly, he believes Lyerla needs a true family. Oregon was not a family. Green Bay’s up next.
This is leave-your-home-unlocked country. A Packers player hasn’t been arrested since Erik Walden in November 2011. Still, trouble can find trouble. The Packers are banking on a changed man. Those closest to Lyerla say he is sincerely apologetic.
“I think what really happened in the fall,” Reese said, “an addict has to hit bottom. Some people may argue he didn’t hit bottom because he didn’t go to jail for two years. Well, he was still put in jail.”
And received two years of probation. And 40 hours of community service.
Before drafting anyone, Thompson asks aloud how the player fits into the locker room. With Lyerla, he surely did again. A plan must be in place. Possibly this is a project for the quarterback.
“Aaron Rodgers can put his arm around him and say, ‘Hey, this is the way it goes,’<UN>“ Huff said. “That’s going to elevate his game, to know that an all-pro quarterback is in his corner. That’s going to make him climb to the next level.
“People need to forgive Colt for what he did, and know that’s not Colt as a person. People should get to know Colt as a person.”
And if he steers clear? If he stays focused? If he manages all of these atomic ifs? Huff isn’t backing down.
The wideout repeats that Lyerla will become another Jimmy Graham.
Said Huff, “I know that as a fact.”