Growing up in this freight railroad hub, Lache Seastrunk was reared with plenty of help.
With his father incarcerated for much of his life and his mother in and out of incarceration after numerous convictions ranging from delivery of cocaine to assault causing bodily injury, he was taken care of by family members, churches, coaches and other families in this Central Texas city of 66,100.
“We’ve basically raised that kid,” Bryce Monsen, Temple High School’s former football coach, who coached Seastrunk, told FOXSports.com last month.
But after Seastrunk emerged as one of the nation’s top high school running backs with a spectacular sophomore season of 1,532 rushing yards with 19 touchdowns on just 130 carries, a new person suddenly entered his life: Will Lyles.
A reputed Houston-based “street agent,” Lyles met Seastrunk at a Texas A&M camp the summer before the player’s junior year of high school. Shortly thereafter, the two attended a summer football camp at LSU with Seastrunk’s mother, Evelyn Seastrunk.
Soon, Lyles was staying several days a week at a house where Seastrunk and his mother lived. Not long after that, Monsen was told by Seastrunk’s mother that he would no longer be involved with her son’s recruitment.
And after what Seastrunk described as his father’s vision from God some 20 months later, he shockingly chose Oregon just a few days before signing with the Ducks on Feb. 3, 2010.
Last week, Oregon released an invoice for which it paid $25,000 to Lyles in March 2010 for a “2011 National Package" from his business, Complete Scouting Services. He submitted the invoice on Feb. 22, 2010, less than three weeks after Seastrunk signed with the Ducks.
Oregon maintains it has committed no wrongdoing, and that the purchase of scouting services from Lyles is allowed under NCAA rules. Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said the Ducks are cooperating with the NCAA’s request for documents related to their purchases of services from scouting agencies.
But the NCAA is looking into Lyles’ relationships with Seastrunk and Ducks star tailback LaMichael James, who also is from Texas, according to an ESPN.com report last week.
If Lyles assisted in or were involved in the recruitment of players to Oregon, the NCAA would consider him a booster, and any payment to him would be considered a violation of Bylaw 13, which prohibits boosters from directing a recruit to a school.
Efforts to reach Lyles and Evelyn Seastrunk were unsuccessful as of Saturday. A message left on Oregon coach Chip Kelly’s cell phone was not immediately returned Saturday. NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson did not immediately return a message left on his cell phone Saturday.
A ‘NEW BEST FRIEND’
In January at media day for the BCS title game, Seastrunk was noticeably frustrated about redshirting this past season. He told FOXSports.com that Lyles gave him advice, but did not help him choose Oregon.
He also said he didn’t recall how Lyles became involved in his life.
“To be honest, I really do not remember,” Seastrunk said.
But Monsen does. The veteran coach said he first recalled hearing about Lyles after Seastrunk met him at a Texas A&M camp in the summer of 2008.
“All of the sudden, he was like Lache’s new best friend,” said Monsen, whose contract at Temple High was not renewed after this past season.
Monsen said he became suspicious when Seastrunk called from a camp at LSU and said Lyles was there with him and his mother, who had just gotten out of jail. Monsen said Seastrunk described Lyles as “a scout/mentor.”
“He’s just really trying to help me, Coach,” Monsen recalled Seastrunk telling him. “He knows all the college coaches out there.”
During the conversation, Monsen said he warned Seastrunk about getting too close to Lyles.
“Lache, man, make sure you’re careful,” Monsen recalled telling Seastrunk. “There’s a lot of (NCAA) rules out there. I don’t understand them all. I just don’t know this guy.”
After his conversation with Seastrunk, Monsen said he was so nervous about it that he called Major Applewhite, Texas’ co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach, and asked him about Lyles.
“Coach, he’s bad news,” Monsen recalled Applewhite telling him. “He’s a street agent. He’s not good for kids.”
After hearing that, Monsen said he got his assistant running backs coach and the two drove 7 1/2 hours all night to LSU. When they got there, he said Seastrunk was glad to see them both.
As they all talked, Monsen said a man walked up and said, “I’m Will Lyles” and handed a card to Monsen. Monsen told Lyles that he had heard that he and Seastrunk had become friends.
But Lyles insisted that he was simply helping Seastrunk, like other players, go to college, Monsen said.
“Well, that’s interesting because I don’t think Lache needs a lot of help,” Monsen recalled telling Lyles. “He’s already a top-flight kid.”
When Seastrunk returned from the LSU camp, Monsen said “things kind of got weird.” During a telephone conversation between Applewhite and Seastrunk, the Texas assistant coach repeated his description of Lyles as “bad news,” Monsen said.
Seastrunk was upset by the conversation with Applewhite. But when Monsen went to Seastrunk’s house to talk to him about it, he found Lyles there.
“The guy, Will Lyles, is moved in and he’s living in Lache Seastrunk’s house with the mother and Lache,” Monsen said. “Very weird.”
Monsen said he didn’t know whether Lyles lived at the house every day, but knows he was there three or four days a week.
“The mother and this guy I think had become friends,” Monsen said. “What kind of friends? I couldn’t tell you. How far it’d gone? I couldn’t tell you, but the guy’s over there all the time.”
Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell, the Ducks’ primary recruiter for Seastrunk, said he did not know Lyles was staying with Seastrunk and his mother.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that,” Campbell said.
A MALE FIGURE
Eventually, Monsen said he and his running backs coach called Seastrunk into his office and warned him once again to be careful with Lyles.
“If this guy has anything to do with anything illegally, giving you money, giving you clothes, watches, whatever he’s doing for you, hopefully you’re not taking anything or he’s not doing anything improper,” Monsen recalled telling Seastrunk.
Monsen said Seastrunk again emphasized that Lyles was only helping him. But Monsen said he told Seastrunk that he didn’t need Lyles’ help.
“That’s what we could never get Lache to understand,” Monsen said. “He’s not the reason you’re getting recruited.”
Seastrunk said the advice that Lyles gave him was beneficial because he didn’t have “a male figure at the time” in his life.
“He would just tell me things I was doing wrong,” Seastrunk said. “He would tell me to correct them and work on them and that’s what I did. It helped me.”
But regardless of Seastrunk’s explanation of Lyles, Monsen remained concerned.
“I’d gotten scared,” said Monsen, who had been organizing Seastrunk’s rides to camps and unofficial visits to schools.
Still worried about Lyles’ involvement with Seastrunk, Monsen said he went and talked to Seastrunk’s mother.
“You coach Lache, but recruiting has nothing to do with you, Bryce,” Monsen said Seastrunk’s mother told him. “All of his recruiting will run through me and his family.”
Monsen then informed Seastrunk of his mother’s edict.
“Lache, to be honest with you, I think that’s probably the best thing because I don’t know where all this is headed,” Monsen recalled telling Seastrunk. “I don’t want any part.”
A PERFORMANCE DECLINE
From then on, Monsen said his relationship with Seastrunk began to suffer. As did Seastrunk’s performance on the field.
Seastrunk had 171 carries his junior season, 41 more than his sophomore year, but ran for only 9 yards more (1,541 yards). His touchdowns declined from 19 to 14. His senior year, he rushed for just 1,179 yards and 11 touchdowns on 177 carries.
“I know I’ve had other coaches tell me the same thing that you know, ‘Coach Monsen, it’s too bad Lache tanked it on you a little bit,’” Monsen said. “I’d always think about that going, ‘Is he tanking?’”
Monsen said he’s unsure if there’s a correlation between Seastrunk’s declining play and Lyles becoming involved in his life.
“That’s a very good question,” Monsen said. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I think it’s a very fair question. I really do.”
Monsen said he talked to Lyles on just two other occasions, once at Seastrunk’s house and the other time at a Temple High game.
“The only thing I ever said to him was, ‘Lache really doesn’t need your help,’” Monsen said. “I said, ‘If you really want to help our kids, why don’t you come help some of our younger kids or some of our other kids that don’t have quite the spotlight?’”
But Monsen said Lyles declined those opportunities.
“Oh, no, Lache’s asked for my help,” Monsen recalled Lyles telling him. “I’m just making sure he’s taken care of.”
During Seastrunk’s recruitment, Monsen said Seastrunk made a trip or two to USC that were not paid for by the Trojans. He said he asked Seastrunk and his mother how they had the money for those trips.
“His mother would claim that she had some,” Monsen said. “I think his grandparents have a little bit of money. I just figured through the family.”
Initially, Monsen said Seastrunk was interested in LSU and USC, but not Oregon until late in the recruiting process. Monsen said Campbell and Oregon coach Chip Kelly both visited Temple High during Seastrunk’s recruitment, but neither was ever with Lyles.
Campbell said he and Lyles never saw Seastrunk together. He said Lyles directed Oregon to Seastrunk as part of the scouting service that the Ducks paid him for.
Lyles also told the Ducks about Seastrunk’s family background.
“There was no wrongdoing at all,” Campbell said.
At one point during Seastrunk’s recruitment, Campbell said Lyles warned him that he thoughtSeastrunk was going to go to USC.
“I told him that I chose to keep recruiting him and I did,” Campbell said. “Lache decided he was going to come to Oregon. That was Lache’s decision.”
Monsen said he didn’t know Seastrunk was headed to Oregon until two days before signing day last year when Seastrunk came to his office and asked if he wanted to know which school he had chosen.
Seastrunk told him he was going to sign with Oregon.
“That shocked me,” Monsen said.
But choosing Oregon made plenty of sense, according to Seastrunk.
“I just really leaned on God and asked Him where I really need to be,” Seastrunk said. “This is where I came to.”
Seastrunk said he considered USC, Auburn and Oregon. He said he prayed to God and asked him for a sign as to which school he should attend.
Shortly thereafter, Seastrunk said his father called from prison and told him that he had received “a vision.”
“He said he just saw me in an all-white jersey,” Seastrunk said. “I was like, ‘OK, Oregon has an all-white jersey.’”
Reminded that Auburn and USC as well as most other teams have white jerseys, Seastrunk said, “True.”
And while Seastrunk couldn’t recall how he got to know Lyles, he does remember first seeing him with Auburn wide receiver Trovon Reed, who redshirted as a freshman this past season.
“Me and T-Reed was real close after that,” Seastrunk said.
Last month, NCAA investigators interviewed Reed’s former high school coach, who said he was questioned about Sean Nelson’s relationship with Reed and another of his former players, Auburn signee Greg Robinson. Nelson, who claims to be Reed’s guardian, took both players on multiple unofficial visits to Auburn.
The NCAA is also looking into Lyles’ relationship with Nelson, according to an ESPN.com report last week. A message left on Nelson’s cell phone was not immediately returned Saturday.
Baylor sophomore safety Ahmad Dixon said he, Seastrunk, Reed and other players all went with Lyles and Nelson on an unofficial visit to Auburn, where they met with Auburn assistant coaches Trooper Taylor and Curtis Luper.
Dixon said Lyles was heavily involved in Seastrunk’s personal life, and Seastrunk always spoke highly of him.
“He was a big influence,” Dixon said. “Lache said he looked at him as a father figure. Until this day when I talk to Lache, I’m asking him how’s him and Will doing. He said they’re still keeping in contact.”
Since Seastrunk left for Oregon last summer, Monsen said he hadn’t seen Lyles. Not that he is surprised.
“I still couldn’t tell you what he ever did or didn’t do to help Lache,” Monsen said. “I don’t know what his purpose was.”
Campbell said Oregon followed NCAA rules in its recruitment of Seastrunk.
“If they start talking about investigating, I know Lache’s mom went other places with him and everything,” Campbell said. “I don’t know how he got there, but I know Lache’s mom didn’t come to Oregon and she was pissed at me because we didn’t bring her up here and everything. We couldn’t do it and we told her there was no way that we could bring her in. We didn’t do that and I don’t know what other people did.”
If Lyles did influence Seastrunk to go to Oregon, Seastrunk may be re-thinking his decision. He didn’t sound thrilled to be with the Ducks just a few days before they played Auburn in the BCS title game.
“Do I want to stay here? I’m here,” Seastrunk said. “Only time will tell, sir. I’m here right now.”