GREEN BAY, Wis. — Colt Lyerla wasn’t sure if he’d ever get a chance to play football again. The life of the 21-year-old talented but troubled tight end had deviated away from the game, first by choice and then by necessity.
Lyerla was suspended by the University of Oregon early in the 2013 season before eventually parting ways on a permanent basis. Football clearly wasn’t at the top of his priority list then. Being arrested for possession of cocaine soon after certainly didn’t help his situation, either.
All of those factors forced him to put football on the backburner. Lyerla wasn’t practicing catching passes, he wasn’t working out and he wasn’t studying playbooks. Instead, he was dealing with the challenges that came about as a result of his recent mistakes.
"I was trying not to get evicted at that time," Lyerla said. "A lot more important things to think about than football at that time."
Lyerla wouldn’t divulge details about whether he was working part-time jobs or what it was he did to try to avoid eviction, simply calling it "a really complicated situation." What is clear, however, is that Lyerla had found himself with few options.
"That was a pretty low point time of my life," he said. "I didn’t have any resources, I didn’t have any support. I was stuck in Eugene (Oregon) because of things that had happened. Thankfully when I was able to get out of there I took advantage of every opportunity I could and made the most of it."
Still, despite being invited to the NFL Scouting Combine and putting up very impressive athletic testing numbers, Lyerla’s past issues were too much for any team to consider using a draft pick on him. Even with the on-field talent of an early-to-mid-round selection, Lyerla also wasn’t signed by any team immediately following the draft.
Lyerla settled on a tryout offer from the Green Bay Packers. It was a bit of a surprise considering that the Packers often talk about bringing the right type of people ("Packer people," as they’re sometimes called) into the organization. Lyerla’s track record was far from that of a player who typically qualifies under the "Packer people" guideline.
Head coach Mike McCarthy admitted that the Packers "haven’t really participated in this type of situation in the past." But there was something about Lyerla — with talent, of course, playing a major role — that made Green Bay decide to see what he can do.
"Everybody is excited about helping a young man that’s been through what he’s been through," McCarthy said. "We’re excited to impact this young man’s life. Everything else will take care of itself professionally. I think this is a real credit to our program. I think this will be a real credit to the resources that we have, and this is what you’re supposed to do."
Understandably, Lyerla was very grateful that the Packers took an interest in him, both as a football player looking to get comfortable again on the field and as a human being looking for a better path to take.
"I’ve spent the last six, seven months doing hard thinking and making changes and doing the right things," Lyerla said. "I think me being here today shows that I am moving in the right direction."
Lyerla doesn’t believe that his conversations with Green Bay’s front office and coaching staff were any different from the rest of the Packers rookie class. That seems hard to believe, though. Lyerla isn’t your normal rookie. His life experiences (self-inflicted and otherwise) make Lyerla the type of rookie who needs guidance if he’s ever going to become the player that his skill set could allow him to be.
"I think they (the Packers) believe in second chances," Lyerla said. "Maybe they didn’t read into some of the things that were said and decided to give a kid a chance, and that’s what’s happening."
Though Lyerla missed a recent voluntary practice during offseason training activities, McCarthy was "fully aware" of his whereabouts and didn’t expect the absence to extend any further.
Training camp is still more than seven weeks away, but Lyerla has already progressed from tryout player to a player who’s signed to a contract. An established organization with a stable support system in the NFL’s smallest city might have been the perfect situation for him.
"I feel like I have a new home," Lyerla said. "I was kind of lost for a little while, but being here and being accepted here is truly great."
Fans have helped Lyerla make the transition, too. When the 6-foot-4, 242-pound tight end made a leaping grab during the first OTA practice that was open to the public, the crowd quickly noticed who it was and gave him the loudest ovation of the day.
"It’s kind of weird," Lyerla said of the applause. "It’s my first day, the fans are out there and saying my name. It made me happy, made me feel good, so I can’t complain."
This is the same group of fans who made Johnny Jolly one of the most popular Packers last season as the defensive lineman made his NFL return after being away three years (with some of that time being spent in prison).
"I couldn’t ask for a warmer welcome," Lyerla said.
Lyerla is still a long ways away from making Green Bay’s active roster. He claims achieving that is where his focus is now.
"Whether that be on special teams or tight end or water boy," he said. "Whatever it is, whatever I’ve got to do."
It should help that eviction notices won’t be popping up and that he’s more than 2,000 miles away from Oregon, where he was "stuck" for too long.
Lyerla won’t have the leeway that his teammates do, so one slip-up could put an end to the progress he’s making. But having a team that’s giving him a chance and showing a belief in him is a positive first chapter in a story that Lyerla hopes will continue on an upward trend.
"Once you’ve been to the bottom, you see what you need to do as a person and the changes you need to make," Lyerla said. "I think that’s going to help me become a better person in the locker room."