Packers gamble big on Lyerla

• Former Duck has had a troubled past, but his talent gives him another chance

By Tyler Dunne / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

2009

Leads Hillsboro High to Oregon Class 6A football championship

2010

Ranks among the top high school recruits in the country, signs with Oregon. Selected to play in U.S. Army All-American Bowl

2011

Enrolls at Oregon early to participate in spring practice. In the fall, appears in 12 games as a true freshman

2012

Starts nine games, named honorable mention All-Pac-12

Oct. 2013

Suspended one game for violation of team rules

Oct. 6, 2013

Quits team, leaves school

Oct. 23, 2013

Arrested for unlawful possession of cocaine, serves 10 days in jail

May 2014

Not selected in NFL draft

May 19, 2014

Signs with Green Bay Packers as a free agent

GREEN BAY, Wis. — 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 Oregon’s Hillsboro High 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 University of 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 game 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.”

Real 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, the Philadelphia Eagles’ 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-seconds time in the 40 and the 39-inch vertical was treated as a toxic chemical by NFL teams.

In October, Lyerla abruptly quit the Oregon 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 and signed him. And this week at organized team activities, he joined 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 the coaches are unavailable through recruiting. A hollow “we wish him well” quote from Ducks 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 the Packers 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.”

Family problems

Watch any MVP speech in any sport. There is one dominant theme.

Mom. Dad. Grandma. There is always “a rock” in that athlete’s life. Earlier in May — hands gripping the podium at his National Basketball Association 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 High 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 — a Portland suburb west of the city — in fifth grade. From 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, with 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 that 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 would 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 would 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 him. 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.”

Can’t escape home

Looking back, Lyerla should have moved far, far away from Oregon.

Off the field, Drake heard only faint rumors of drug use — and he would address it immediately. Counselors talked to Lyerla on a constant basis. Reese did not hear anything substantive either, admitting today that “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, about two hours away in Eugene, some in Hillsboro quietly worried.

Last 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, and he 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.”

In addition to cocaine, three men in a Eugene 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.

Either way, Colt Lyerla is now a Green Bay Packer. Ted Thompson, the Packers’ general manager, 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.”

High praise

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,’ ” 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.

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,’ ” 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 is not backing down.

The wideout repeats that Lyerla will become another Jimmy Graham.

Said Huff, “I know that as a fact.”