By Adam Hoge-
INDIANAPOLIS (CBS) — When Kyle Long arrived at the University of Oregon for fall camp in 2012, there was someone the coaching staff wanted him to meet.
The Ducks had a young tight end with an endless amount of talent, but the kid had a tough upbringing, and despite him catching five touchdown passes as a freshman in 2011, they knew he needed some guidance.
“They said, look, ‘You’re a big guy, you’re an athletic guy, but we got this kid Colt Lyerla, young kid, who would benefit a lot from hanging out with a guy like you, having had your past,’” Long said in a phone interview Friday evening.
The “past” referred to the trouble Long went through when he was a freshman baseball player at Florida State in 2009. It was in Tallahassee where Long was arrested for a DUI and ended up failing out of the school. From there, he moved on to Saddleback Community College, where he played both on both the defensive and offensive line before getting a shot at an NFL career at Oregon.
Now he’s a Pro Bowl offensive guard for the Chicago Bears.
But back in August of 2012, Long didn’t know he was only eight months away from being selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. His road back from the bottom was far from complete, and the Oregon coaches felt like he and Lyerla would be good for each other.
They were right.
“Having known a little bit of (Lyerla’s) back story, that was kind of my in with him, and we hit it off from jump street,” Long said.
The two hung out after games, and Long knew exactly what Lyerla was up to. He was around good people and behaving himself.
“I know what he did when he was around me and was around guys who had similar goals in mind, and that’s get to the NFL and being good people,” Long said. “And Colt is a good guy. He’s someone I consider a friend. And I don’t say that about many people.”
While Long had to wait until later in the season to crack Oregon’s starting lineup, Lyerla was busy wowing NFL scouts with his speed and athleticism. He lined up as a tight end, he lined up as a receiver and he even lined up as a running back.
“You talk about the eyeball test — when you see Colt Lyerla for the first time, it kind of blows you away how big the guy is,” Long said. “And then you if you go on YouTube and you see him jump out of a four-foot pool, and you see him running routes, you see him playing running back blasting people and he’s the first guy to congratulate teammates. He’s a hard worker.”
That’s the Colt Lyerla the Ducks knew in 2012.
But things were about to change.
A Fall From The Top
Lyerla entered the 2013 season with the hype of a potential first-round pick, but he seemed to be missing in action on the football field during the first five weeks of the season.
Then, suddenly, he was suspended for violating team rules. Even more shocking, he left the team all together in early October.
Things started to make more sense on Oct. 23, when undercover police officers spotted Lyerla snorting cocaine in a car in a Eugene, Ore. parking lot.
Sitting in a jail cell, that night proved to be a moment of clarity for the tight end whose NFL dreams appeared to be derailed.
“That was huge for me,” Lyerla said Thursday at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. “It gave me time to self-reflect and realize that’s a place I never want to be again.”
Lyerla calls his decision to leave the Ducks “a mistake I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life” and believes he wouldn’t have been arrested had he not quit. But he also refers to the arrest as “the best thing that ever happened to me.” It forced him to re-evaluate his life and prioritize what was important.
“The biggest thing was just making the choice to move away from home and get myself in a place to where I’m only doing positive things and just continuing to stay on the right track,” said Lyerla, a Hillsboro, Ore., native.
But it wasn’t easy to get out of Oregon. The courts wanted him to accept a deal that would have put him in a drug program for a year, preventing a run at the NFL. Lyerla had to turn down that deal and eventually plead guilty to cocaine possession. That came with a nine-day road crew sentence and two years of probation that includes random drug testing, attending a certified treatment program and regular Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
But it also allowed him to get out of Oregon. Lyerla’s now training in Arizona, where he only has one thing on his mind: the NFL.
“I’ve put myself in a position where my back’s against the wall to a point that if I don’t do everything perfect and the right way, that I won’t be able to play football, let alone be successful in any shape and form,” Lyerla said.
And how does he keep himself on the straightened path?
“The biggest thing is just not hanging out with the people that I was hanging out with before, concentrating and focusing only on football and just staying positive with it,” he said.
Clearly, the people Lyerla was hanging out with in 2013 were not the same people he was hanging out with in 2012 when Kyle Long was on campus.
Showing His Support
Long has not been shy about showing his support for Lyerla both privately and publicly.
On Feb. 6, Long went to Twitter and suggested Chicago would “fall in love” with the tight end if the Bears drafted him.
Ten days later, Long responded to Lyerla’s tweet about the NFL Combine by simply saying: “be u.”
On Friday night, Long planned to shoot Lyerla a call or text message as the tight end prepares to go through workouts at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday.
“The Combine is meant for Colt Lyerla. This is the kind of thing that gets Colt Lyerla another opportunity. Because that’s exactly what it was for me,” Long said. “All I told him was for him to be himself, wow people with athleticism, fly around, have fun, have a smile on your face, which I know he’ll be doing.”
It worked for Long, who was denied a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA and arrived at the NFL Combine in 2013 with only five career FBS starts and a whole slew of question marks.
“I’m a guy who had to answer in 17 private meetings at the combine — formal interviews — 17 of those in one day,” Long said. “Every single one of those, I was grilled from every angle about every instance in which I could have screwed up the last 22 years — whatever it was.”
And that’s exactly what Lyerla went through Thursday and Friday in Indianapolis.
“They are going to find out a lot about Colt Lyerla and that’s Colt’s information to share and I’m sure he’ll be extremely candid through the process, because that’s the kind of guy Colt is,” Long said. “And I think teams will see that and have an appreciation and respect that the kid is not trying to hide from his past.”
The offensive lineman took a similar approach a year ago, and it’s obvious that Lyerla sees the parallels — the troubled pasts and high potential for success — between he and Long.
“He’s doing really well, and he’s definitely someone that I would want to emulate and be like in the future,” Lyerla said.
The Final Verdict
If Lyerla can convince teams his troubles are behind him, someone is going to end up with a talented tight end on their roster. Everything else — the measurables, the workouts, the medical clearance — will be a breeze for the freak athlete.
Lyerla measured in at 6-foot-4, 242 pounds in Indianapolis, having lost 12 pounds during the training process. He’s more likely to be playing around 255 pounds when games roll around.
Where the tight end will be drafted is anyone’s guess, but it was only a year ago when the Arizona Cardinals took Tyrann Mathieu — who left LSU earlier because of marijuana problems — in the third round. They paired him with former college teammate Patrick Peterson, who had been considered a good influence on the cornerback when they played together at LSU.
Long said he hasn’t been consulted by Bears general manager Phil Emery about Lyerla, but he does feel like the tight end would fit in all 32 NFL locker rooms if those locker rooms are anything like the one the Bears have.
“I feel like him being around like-minded individuals, grown-ups, people with families, people with responsibilities, people that have to put food on their table for their families, those are the kind of guys he needs to be around,” Long said. “I love the University of Oregon to death, I love college football to death, but there’s kids that are fresh out of high school there, they’re doing their own thing, they’re away from home for the first time. He just needs to have some good guys around him, and I feel like the NFL is a fraternity of great guys.”
Long was once one of those guys struggling when he left the house for the first time, but he turned it around and made it all the way to the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Lyerla has that same potential.
“Colt is a tough kid. He had a tough upbringing. And I think that’s what he brings to the table as a football player and a teammate,” Long said. “He’s a tough guy, he’s going to show up every day and he’s going to put in his work and he’s going to be extremely productive on game day. He’s a gamer.”
And if Lyerla stays on the path he’s currently on, he’ll be a gamer on Sundays in the NFL next fall.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.