Lache Seastrunk was once the poster boy for the rot of college football.
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THE TRICK IS TO KEEP UP.
Lache Seastrunk talks the way he runs with the football, with a sprinter's speed and a gymnast's moves. The words bounce every which way, the topic changing at irregular intervals. Funny, cocky, gracious, frenetic -- following along is like trying to corral him as he treats defenders as pylons in an open field. Track every move or be lost forever.
The Baylor running back is sitting in an office in the athletic department in a chair that can barely contain him; his head shifts up and down and side to side as his neck-length braids keep time, his anatomy-sketch calves flexing like a quickened pulse. His clothes -- from baggy basketball shorts to striped socks to one of the 498 pairs of Jordans he owns -- are as bright as his personality.
"I want to be great," he says. "I don't want it to be, 'Okay, he was a good back.' I want it to be, 'He was a great back.' Nobody wants to be remembered as good."
As he prepares for his junior season, Seastrunk looks and sounds like a new man, someone finally ready to be introduced to a world of college football without the taint of Will Lyles, Oregon and the NCAA investigation of both that centered on Seastrunk's recruitment to Eugene. He's waited a long time: a redshirt year at Oregon, half of it spent in a state of suspended accusation; a mandatory season of ineligibility after his transfer to Baylor; the first half of last season spent mostly watching from the bench before his revelatory second half -- 637 yards on 9.1 per carry in the final four games, three against ranked teams -- that reminded everyone of the transformative talent that caused all the fuss in the first place.
For two-plus years, he was viewed as a symbol of the sham of amateurism at Oregon and a 5'10", 210-pound embodiment of college football's institutional rot. He was called a liar and a cheat on the take and, in his words, "a cocky son-of-a-you-know-what." "I wrote all of that down," he says. "Prayed about it and used it as ammunition. When I'm running with the ball, I'm running with a lot of passion and a lot of anger. Actually, that's what makes me so great. People don't understand that."
EVEN AFTER TWO years in Waco, Seastrunk and his mercurial personality -- on the field and off -- can turn his otherwise articulate coaches into verbal contortionists. Asked to describe him, they start, stop and look off into the distance, as if the perfect words might suddenly appear in the endless Texas horizon. They start, stop, start all over again, words losing their utility.
"The thing about what he does -- it's not just physically impressive, it's impressive because he's humble ... no, not humble, that's not the right word," says Baylor strength coach Kaz Kazadi. "But he's honest about what he's telling you. He's not ... goll-ee ... I don't know what it is … he's not naive, but ... it's a refreshing naivete."
They all go through the same routine, from Kazadi to head coach Art Briles to running backs coach Jeff Lebby, trying to find the right adjectives to counter the ones -- notorious, controversial, enigmatic -- that trailed him to Waco. "Everybody knows he's different, he marches to his own drummer," says Lebby. "But he's as kindhearted and unselfish as there is."
His first name is pronounced "lake" because his mother, Evelyn, vowed at a young age that her children wouldn't be saddled with pedestrian names. She says Lache means "strong like a lock," and his sister is named Scy, pronounced "sky," which Evelyn says means "miracle."
Evelyn spent time in jail for drugs and other charges during her son's childhood, and Lache's biological father spent time incarcerated and was never a major part of his son's life. So Lache grew up primarily under the care of his paternal grandparents, John and Annie Harris, in Temple, Texas, about 30 miles south of Waco. He was relegated to special education classes in elementary school because, he says, the teachers looked at his family situation and made assumptions.
"They never thought I was going to amount to anything," Seastrunk says.
But John Harris, an Army veteran, made sure his grandson grew up to be a yes-sir, no-sir, look-you-in-the-eye young man who channeled his exceptional energy through sports. Seastrunk always had a big appetite, turning a two-yard gain into a five-yard loss but with the ability to turn a five-yard loss into a 70-yard touchdown. He claims he dunked a basketball for the first time as a 4'11" eighth-grader, a feat he swears is preserved on video somewhere.
About that time, he started running away from bigger kids and through smaller ones on the football field regularly enough that Lache Seastrunk became one of those names that imprints itself on the college football culture before its owner is old enough to drive. He had a nickname -- Flash -- and a custom-made T-shirt with a lightning bolt across the chest. He wore it often and proudly and was not without opinions. (Briles wears a look of bemused wonder when he says: "You won't have the chance to end the conversation. He'll talk to you as long as you want.")
By the time Seastrunk was a junior in high school, his fluid family unit had a new member: a Houston scouting analyst named Will Lyles. Lyles, with his smooth line and slick delivery, met Seastrunk through the Houston-area recruiting circuit, and the two became so close that Lyles would occasionally stay at Seastrunk's home, where Evelyn was running her own debt-relief business and again closely involved in her son's life.
Seastrunk finished high school with a plume of superlatives, including opinions from experts who called him the best running back in the class of 2010. The suitors lined up -- Texas, Auburn, LSU. USC's Pete Carroll made an appearance at a Temple High practice. Against that backdrop, the prospect of going 30 miles up the road to Baylor was about as enticing as switching to defensive end. When Carroll left USC for the NFL, Seastrunk, like Texarkana's LaMichael James two years before him, chose Oregon.
BEFORE HE EVER carried the ball, Seastrunk announced that he planned to win a Heisman. At one point during his freshman year, he says, then-Oregon head coach Chip Kelly sat his redshirt down and said: "You're trying to win the Heisman. You need to try to figure out how to get on the field." Recounting the story, Seastrunk slides to the edge of his chair, leans forward and says, "That was a discouraging thing, you know?"
More ominous developments took place outside of Seastrunk's field of vision. After his redshirt season, the NCAA took an interest in Lyles and found that Oregon's football program had paid him $25,000 for some old, useless scouting reports about the same time Seastrunk announced his decision to play for the Ducks. In the eyes of the NCAA, the money was payment for delivering Seastrunk to Eugene.
Worse was the speculation in the blogosphere that some of the money had ended up in Seastrunk's pocket. "If people know Lache Seastrunk, they know I'm not the type of person who would sell my soul for a few dollars," he says. "I can get way more than that if I keep working and keep my head on straight."
Whatever the truth of his recruitment, Seastrunk and Oregon became a bad fit the second the star-for-hire accusation became public. Every mention of his name became an operatic reminder of the shadow following Kelly and the Ducks program. The stigma would never wash clean in Eugene; Seastrunk decided to transfer without ever playing a down. And the penalty finally handed down this June was equivalent to a second-grade teacher swiping the bottom of one index finger across the top of the other. Tsk-tsk. The NCAA took away one scholarship a year for three years and effectively prevented Kelly from coaching college football for the next 18 months. Given Kelly's current job coaching the Philadelphia Eagles and five-year, $32.5 million contract, it appears to be a punishment the man can survive.
Meanwhile, Seastrunk's reputation took a hit, his career was interrupted and his character was left open to interpretation. Even when used to defend Seastrunk, the words coming from Eugene were less than definitive. Ducks running backs coach Gary Campbell told The Oregonian in December, "I won't get into it, but I don't think Lache did anything intentionally." "Oregon tried to degrade me," Seastrunk claims, insisting he did nothing, intentionally or otherwise. "They tried to throw my name in the mud, tried to make it seem like I was the one who had character issues, which is not the thing."
At Seastrunk's core, beneath the torrent of words and yards, there's a lack of guile that is both endearing and alarming, a wide-eyed, open-book personality that straddles the line between arrogance and innocence. For instance, he seems surprised to be asked about the expense involved in owning 498 pairs of Air Jordans, saying they were made possible by his grandfather's military discount. "They're actually cheap that way," he says. Maybe those are the qualities -- the apparent innocence and openness -- that made him susceptible to the words of a man like Lyles.
Lebby, who tried to recruit Seastrunk out of high school, stays quiet when this scenario is presented to him.
After a pause, the Baylor assistant says, "The process definitely wasn't being run by Lache. That naiveness? Well, there were people taking advantage of him."
Without hesitation, Seastrunk says he remains in touch with Lyles, who remains in the Houston area and could not be reached for comment. "He did not do anything wrong," Seastrunk says. "I went to Oregon because I wanted to go to Oregon."
But Evelyn says her son must have been misunderstood. "Those ties were severed when that stuff came out," she says. "We don't want problems. Just keep moving this thing forward."
AFTER ALL THE complications at Oregon, Seastrunk's narrative at Baylor is charmingly simple, a chicken-soup-for-the-local-boy's-soul version that emphasizes comfort, familiarity and the folksy football atmosphere of a smaller, Christian university. There was also a nonfootball reason behind his choice of school: Back in Temple, the grandmother who raised him was sick with cancer (she has since recovered). "He was a hometown guy who came back home," Briles says. "That's it."
When Seastrunk became eligible last season, he first had to show Briles that he could stifle his fastest-guy-on-the-field tendency to head to the outside and try to outrun the defense. Baylor's spread offense calls for Seastrunk and fellow star back Glasco Martin -- the 6'1", 220-pound bludgeon to Seastrunk's scalpel -- to get most of their yards between the tackles, or at least start there, and once Seastrunk realized he could break through the line and the secondary, he became a convert.
"He was hungry to begin with," says Briles, the master of aphorism. "But once he got a taste of food, he was ready to clean the plate."
Once he found success on the field, Briles adds, Seastrunk no longer had to be leery or jaded off of it. Today, even Seastrunk's criticism of Oregon is expressed more as disappointment than bitterness.
"When we first got him, there was a certain degree of skeptical, anti-trust attitude, which was understandable," Briles says. "You come out of high school and you're walking on water, but you better have your life jacket on too. There's going to be a wave that comes along and knocks you off balance. His wave was the year at Oregon and the transfer."
Seastrunk agrees that his Oregon experience created "a little faith problem. But God is a giving God, and he just said, 'Be patient, son. You've got to weather the storm to get to the sunlight.'"
THE GAME IS a sacrament. Before each one, Seastrunk gets down on both knees in the locker room and opens a vial of anointing oil his pastor gave him. He pours it on his legs for safety and his chest for fortitude and his forehead for clarity. He reads Good to Great in God's Eyes and the Bible. He gives thanks for his renewed relationship with his mother and the acceptance of his teammates and the people at Baylor who took him in. The thoughts of gratitude inevitably take his mind back to the two years he couldn't play, then ahead to this moment before he steps onto the field and turns word to action.
"People criticize me for setting my goals high," he says. "Who are you to criticize? If I don't have dreams, who am I? It's in the Bible: If you don't have dreams, you shall perish. If you speak it into existence, it will happen."
He tells himself his talent is superior and his calling divine. Before he leaves the locker room, he runs through all the film he's watched and the tendencies he's deciphered until he can see the moves he'll make and the yards he'll gain. Inside the game, there is the solidity and certainty he's never had. Inside the game, the rules are defined and the objective clear.
"I said my freshman year I wanted to win the Heisman," he says. "You know how you say something a long time ago and then it ends up being true?"
Briles, who coached Robert Griffin III to a Heisman two seasons ago, laughs and shakes his head and says he has no problem with any of it. "I'd like to have 85 guys saying they want to be the Heisman Trophy winner," he says.
Meanwhile, the 22-year-old former special education student recorded a 2.95 GPA for the spring semester and is now two semesters from graduating from Baylor with a degree in -- what else? -- speech communications.
He went back to his old elementary school this past spring and ran into one of his former special ed teachers. The past thick between them, the teacher said, "You exceeded our expectations."
He looked her in the eye, held out his hand and said, "It's okay. I forgive you."
He's beating longer odds than winning a Heisman would require -- by earning a college degree, exceeding the expectations of all those people who saw the son of criminals as a future criminal. Whether it's magical thinking or humility or bluster, he wants to win the Heisman, and he's not afraid to say it.
His coaches, the guys who see him every day, nod their heads and echo the words of Kazadi the strength coach, who says: "When you hear the comment 'I'm going to win the Heisman,' I'm like, 'Yeah, you could.' He's talking to you innocently, because why couldn't he win?"