Looking back, my dad had real foresight to get us out of that area of Miami. I had a best friend named Derrick in Miami. He was one of the guys who taught me how to play football. He was a smaller, scrappy guy who was always looking for a fight. During those impressionable years as a teenager, when you come into own as a man, he was involved in fights and thefts before he ended up murdering a man. He’s been in jail since I was 16 years old. As I think about it, that could’ve been me, being the one in jail.
God really blessed our family. And it started with my dad. He’s a strong, prideful man – former marine, disciplinarian, 5 mile run, 100 pushups type of guy. Family is most important to him. And that’s what he instilled in me: Christian values and a strong work ethic. Everything he did was for our family. And he was doing that as a young guy. He set the stage. We’d have family bible studies on Tuesday night. He brought us together as a family and we bonded as a tight nucleus. He’d tell me, ‘Your job was to get grades in school – so you help yourself out and be a good example for your younger brother.’ I can’t tell you how many times my mom said, “Just keep God first, Lake, and work hard and things will work out.” That’s been the family mantra. That was my home. There was a lot of love and structure, tight knit, and very competitive. We competed in cards and family games like Connect Four. It was so competitive that sometimes tears would fall – usually mine when I lost to my dad.
My dad created a biblically-based atmosphere. I can see all that now, but I hated it then. My dad was really strict, so there were things like parties that I couldn’t go to. As I got older, I appreciated it because he was trying to keep me out of bad situations. This may be silly, but I remember when a basketball buddy wanted to get this haircut with a lot of different lines and a lot of creativity. I told my dad that I wanted to get this haircut. My dad, straight-laced, said, “Why do you want to get chopped up and looking all crazy like that? You don’t want to be a follower.” The very next day, my buddy, who is a little older, ends up grabbing his girlfriend and the police took him off to juvenile. When I told my dad the story, he related it to being a follower. “Look Lake,” he said, “if you’re going to follow someone, follow them for the right reasons. I’d prefer that you be the one leading.” He equated that haircut to that guy being a bad decision-maker. He was basically saying that you need to associate yourself with the right people who are doing the right thing – and it all started with a haircut. I learned it was OK to be comfortable with myself.
In high school, I had a lot of success athletically. I kept my grades up primarily because my mom was involved in education. In sports, I wasn’t the best athlete – I wasn’t the fastest or the biggest guy. But I always worked hard and made some plays here-and-there. Long story short, I played football, basketball and track. Being successful in football was weird because during my sophomore year I was actually the equipment guy. I was taking stats on Friday night because I was pretty skinny and my mom didn’t think I should go out for football – but I still wanted to be affiliated with the team.
But it turned out to be a good thing. I met some of the media people and built a good rapport with them. They thought I was a good kid, so when I went out for football during my junior year and had a decent year, the guys in the media wrote favorable articles about me.
Things really broke for me going into my senior year. I went to an All Northwest Football Camp run by [Hall of Fame Wide Receiver] Fred Biletnikoff. Initially, I wasn’t planning to go because we didn’t have the money. The night before the camp, my coach called my dad because I hadn’t signed up. He told him that there would be college scouts there and that I had a chance to play at that level. So my dad talks to me and then literally goes to the ATM in the middle of the night and withdraws $500. That was big. It was an act of faith that he was investing in me. And I end up winning the award for being the top receiver at the camp. Biletnikoff was showing me the fundamentals of catching the ball and he was the first person who made me feel that I could play at the next level.
I can remember before my senior year, my dad and I were sitting at the table and he turns to the sports section and it said I was supposedly one of the top players to look for in the fall. It was shocking! We were like, ‘Seriously?’ — and we laughed. I put a lot of big numbers up during my senior year. That’s when all the recruiting started with the opportunity to go to schools like Stanford, UCLA, Miami and even Ivy League schools like Harvard and Brown. It all paid off with my mom harping on me to keep my grades up. A lot of the schools wouldn’t have looked at me if my grades had been poor.
For me, Notre Dame was the complete package. It would give me the chance to compete against some of the best athletes in the country, but also to get a degree where I’d be challenged academically. In 1990, Notre Dame was a top five program and they were always on television.
When my dad and I flew to Notre Dame for the big recruiting weekend, he reminded me that this was my first visit and I got five visits total. “Just compare and take notes,” he said. Eventually, we get there and the music is playing in the stadium. You see your jersey hanging in the locker. It’s overwhelming. You’re so excited. You feel the ambiance. And they finish off the recruiting weekend by taking you off to Coach Holtz’s house, where he would meet with the recruits individually. When it was my turn to talk to Coach Holtz, my dad reminded me, ‘Listen to what coach has to say and take down the information. You don’t have to make a decision today.’ So I sit down with Coach Holtz and we talked about the university and the team. He told me how they had a young quarterback coming up named Rick Mirer and how they were going to throw the ball a little more. He wanted me to be a part of that. And he talked about how I fit with the culture. After he goes through the spiel, I go, “Coach, what would it take for me to go to Notre Dame?” And he replies, “Lake, all it will take is for you to give me your word and that’d be good enough for me.” Before I knew it, I was saying, “I want to come here, coach” – just like that! As soon as we walked out of the room, my dad was like, “What happened?” I just said, “I feel so comfortable meeting the people and the players here. This is what I’m looking for academically and athletically.”
There is an adjustment when you step onto campus as a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame. You’re trying to figure out where you fit in and how to balance both the athletic and academic sides. That can be challenging, being on the outside looking in. From a time standpoint, you’re not able to exhaust all the avenues that the other students have when you’re balancing your sport. But they do a tremendous job in structuring your experience so that you have a lot of resources at your fingertips, such as tutors and study hall. I tried to take full advantage of that – I needed that. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I will put the time and effort into working towards something. I was the type of guy who would get his work done early so it could get proofread and corrected ahead of time. Academically, my brother was extremely smart. I didn’t have that. I had to work at it.