GREEN BAY – Ted Thompson paused. It only lasted a beat – barely perceptible amid that slow Texas drawl of his – but it was there.
The Green Bay Packers general manager was talking about Colt Lyerla, the former University of Oregon tight end who’d taken part in the team’s two-day rookie orientation camp on a tryout basis. Because of a variety of off-the-field red flags, Lyerla had gone undrafted and unsigned the previous weekend during the NFL Draft, and the Packers, one of only three teams who’d even bothered to attend his pre-draft workout in Portland, had decided he merited a closer look.
Thompson had made the final call on Lyerla’s invitation to the camp, and he did so knowing what he was getting the Packers into. He had used one of his 60 official interviews at the annual NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in February on Lyerla, who’d abruptly quit the Ducks in early October for what he termed “personal reasons” that have not publicly been explained. Before leaving the team, Lyerla had been suspended for a game by coach Mark Helfrich for an unspecified team rule violation. After leaving the team, he was arrested for cocaine possession. And in December, Lyerla pleaded guilty to that charge and was sentenced to 10 days in jail, 40 hours of community service and 24 months probation. (Lyerla said he only spent one day in jail and served the rest of his sentence working on a road crew.)
In March 2013, he also posted a series of Tweets about the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newton, Conn., being a conspiracy, comments he later deleted and the university condemned as “insensitive and offensive.”
Thompson knew about all of it, as he and his personnel staff had “talked to a lot of people” about Lyerla, Thompson said, and “did a lot of work” on him before even considering the rookie camp invite.
They also had done extensive study of Lyerla’s on-field talents. At Oregon, he’d caught 34 passes for 565 yards and 11 touchdowns in 28 career games (12 starts). At the Combine, he’d run the third-fastest 40-yard dash in the tight end group (4.59 seconds) and had the best vertical leap (39 inches) and tied for the best broad jump (10 feet, 8 inches).
And now, Thompson had a decision to make.
“You weigh it all. And every case is an individual case,” Thompson said on Saturday afternoon, after the camp wrapped. “We have always believed that, or I have always believed, that there are certain things …”
It was there that Thompson hesitated, ever so briefly. You can bet he did it on purpose, too – to emphasize the point he was about to make.
“…that people can atone for, acknowledge their mistakes and get on with their lives. And I am a proponent of those kind of people that try to do that. And that’s where we’re at with Colt.”
Even before Lyerla came along, though, Thompson had already shown his willingness to give players an opportunity for atonement, if he found them to be sincere in their desire to turn their lives around.
There will be critics who will decry Lyerla’s signing, saying it is hypocritical given the team’s “Packer People” mantra. (For the record, that term was invented not by Thompson but by head coach Mike McCarthy, who used it in the mission statement he shared at his introductory press conference in January 2006.) But in truth, Lyerla is hardly the first to get a second chance from Thompson.
In 2006, when injuries struck at receiver, Thompson signed troubled wideout Koren Robinson, whom he’d drafted in Seattle in 2001 but had run afoul with the law both with the Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings because of alcoholism. His Packers tenure was interrupted by a one-year NFL suspension, but over the 2006 and 2007 seasons, Robinson played in 13 games for the team and kept out of trouble the entire time.
“This is a good kid. I'm not making excuses; he's made some mistakes. But this is a good kid,” Thompson, who was Seattle's director of player personnel when the Seahawks selected Robinson ninth overall out of North Carolina State, said the day the Packers signed him. “He is a good character guy, for all intents and purposes. He's made some mistakes.”
Seven years later, Thompson would say some of the same things about defensive lineman Johnny Jolly, whom the team brought back after a three-year NFL suspension and six-month prison term resulting from a codeine addiction. Jolly’s future in the NFL and with the Packers is unclear because of a December neck injury, but many of his teammates – including quarterback Aaron Rodgers – praised him for the attitude he brought to the Packers locker room last year. Like Robinson, he did not run into trouble last season.
“I don’t think any of us can really speak to the journey that he’s been on because I’m not sure any of us know all the things that’s encompassed in that journey,” Thompson said of Jolly during training camp last summer, as Jolly tried to beat the odds and make the 53-man roster – which he did. “I admire him. I’ve said this all along: I liked him before when he was here, and I like him now that he’s here. When he wasn’t here, I can’t speak to that. I just know that different people have different challenges as you go through life.”
Lyerla certainly has been through his own challenges. As chronicled in a lengthy profile by Aaron Fentress in The Oregonian in 2012, Lyerla came from a dysfunctional home life and struggled with family problems. He also got into trouble both in high school and in college seemed to use football as an escape from his problems while it also gave his life much-needed order.
“The common theme was if you create the structure for him and the support, he'll have success,” Oregon tight ends coach Tom Osborne told The Oregonian in 2012, before Lyerla’s troubles last fall. “He's proven that when he's gone along that path, within that structure and maintained within those boundaries, he's done well.”
Monday night, two Oregon athletic department sources said perhaps the best thing for Lyerla was to be somewhere other than Oregon. Lyerla was not available to reporters during the two-day rookie camp, but when he spoke with the media at the NFL Scouting Combine, he indicated that part of his plan to move forward with his life was to get away from his hometown of Hillsboro, Ore., and he did his draft preparation at EXOS (formerly Athletes Performance Institute) in Arizona.
“If he can get/stay clean, deep down he's a good, smart kid,” one source said. “I sure am rooting for him. If he can overcome everything life handed him, it would be an amazing story.”
For his part, Lyerla seemed to show some self-awareness when he spoke with reporters in Indianapolis, saying his decision to leave the team was “something I deeply regret” and taking responsibility for what he’d done to hurt his draft stock.
“As much as I hate to say it, I think some of the mishaps that happened and me getting in trouble probably is the best thing that's happened to me,” Lyerla said then. “Because it really put me at a point in place and gave me time to self-reflect and just really helped me realize exactly what I want out of life and what I need to do to get it.”
Let’s not be naïve here. Lyerla plays a position of need – tight end, where unsigned starter Jermichael Finley’s career-threatening neck injury has caused uncertainty. While it was admirable that Thompson gave Robinson and Jolly second chances, he didn’t do so purely out of the kindness of his heart. He believed those players helped the team at positions of need.
But Thompson also clearly believes that he has a strong enough locker room that the Packers can absorb Lyerla into their culture, give him the support system he needs and at least allow him the opportunity to be successful.
“Here in Green Bay, we are very conscious of the kind of players we want to put in our locker room,” Thompson said in advance of the 2007 NFL Draft. “There are players that we would not choose to put in our locker room. “That doesn't necessarily mean it's not going to work out for that player. It's just a risk-reward ratio that we try to put together."
Thompson has determined that the potential reward with Lyerla outweighs the risk. Now it’s up to Lyerla to prove him right.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.