Payback Isn’t Enough
Radio City Music Hall has a stairwell that runs from behind the stage to a brightly-lit corridor underground into a wide-open basement lobby. The floor is tile, the hallway lined with the lockers of Music Hall staff members and painted in an unremarkable yellow. Freshly former college football players on hand for the first two rounds of spring’s NFL draft walk the 20-yard path to a downstairs lobby for press conferences after being selected. It’s the first time these 20 or so players invited to watch the draft at its source get asked what is essentially the only question any of us ever ask those in the NFL: What’s it like to be a pro football player?
Eddie Lacy didn’t hear that question. He was invited to the draft, and he showed up, in the first suit he’d ever bought: a blue pinstripe deal paired with a fat, striped brown, grey and red tie and a vertical-striped lavender and white shirt. But in the green room behind the stage on the first day of the draft, the running back from Alabama via Louisiana kept picking up the phone at his table and hearing "wrong number" on the other end. Three times. The next day, rather than stay for the second round—when he'd ultimately be chosen by the Packers 61st overall, the fourth back taken—Lacy left. So he never learned of the hallway until 10 months later, when he took the stage in the second suit he’d ever worn and accepted the award for the NFL offensive rookie of the year.
Lacy smiled wide that night, the evening before the Super Bowl, walking through the Hall from the press conference to where the NFL Honors ceremony continued. He told the reporters it was an honor to be chosen, and he chuckled and agreed when defensive rookie of the year Sheldon Richardson of the Jets walked by and shouted "We need to have a rookie of the year party tonight!"
How did it feel, then, to be back there; to have redeemed that night in April?
"That definitely wasn’t a highlight of my life," Lacy says of draft night, "so I didn’t think about it too much."
That’s the way Lacy speaks. As for what he’s thinking, who knows? In 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped through his hometown of Gretna, La., and destroyed his home. He and his family evacuated to Texas; anything left behind was either taken by looters or ruined by mold. Somewhere between the house in Texas where his family ran out of money, his aunt’s three-bedroom home in Baton Rouge with four families stuffed inside, the stranger’s house they shared and the trailer where his parents live now in Geisner, La., Lacy shut down emotionally. His responses grew shorter. He said he’d yet to achieve that pre-2005 happiness. He called football a "childhood game." When he said he’d had more fun playing in Gretna than winning championships at ’Bama, scouts began to question his love of the game. In an interview in Green Bay after the draft, he spoke of depression.
His mother, Wanda, tries to get a read on his feelings but often fails. During the draft she told him and the rest of the family that it was an honor to be invited, and they ought to cherish the experience whether Eddie was drafted in the first two rounds or not. Eddie’s response: "Cool."
"That’s usually his response to everything," she says.
"I don’t know what my true happiness is, what I have to accomplish, or what goes into being completely happy. . . . Football can’t do it, honestly."
It doesn’t discourage his mom, a helicopter parent by most definitions. She was in touch with Packers doctors nearly every day when he suffered an early-season concussion. You might dote over your son too if he was in the NFL and said his happiest days were behind him. Not that Eddie minds the attention from her. When she visits, he falls back into their old rhythm, from those days before football got serious, and the priority was being home when he said he would.
"One night while I was visiting him this season they went bowling," says Wanda. "At 9 p.m. he said, 'Mom I’m going bowling with some players and I’ll be home at 12:30.' I said, 'This is your house. You don’t have to tell Mom you’re when you’re going to be home.' ”
The money and the responsibility—it’s all new, and all very overwhelming. He’s got cash on hand now, and says he’s afraid to spend it. (Lacy signed a four-year rookie contract for a reported $3.4 million, with $1.4 million guaranteed.) He’d like to do one thing: Move his parents out of that trailer. But his mother would rather see him save the money. He was mortified to address the crowd in accepting the rookie of the year award. Only two words in his 25-second speech, delivered with one foot out the door, came out with any authority: "Roll Tide." Then, after the ceremony, came the inevitable question: Less than a year after the draft, with newfound financial freedom and professional respect on his side, is he happy?
"I’m happier," he said after a pause. "I don’t know what my true happiness is, what I have to accomplish, or what goes into being completely happy. But I’m better than I was.
"Football can’t do it, honestly. Obviously I love this sport and I’m going to accomplish as much as I can, individually and as a team, but it’s beyond the game."
This kind of talk may come as a surprise to his closest friends. Days earlier he glowed to former Alabama wide receiver Kenny Bell about what an honor it was to be considered for the award, and during the season he told his mother it felt "amazing" to finally have money. If there was something gnawing at him, now or during the last four years, it never came up in conversation with Kenny, his closest friend.
"When we were around each other you never knew that anything was affecting him because we kept each other up," Bell says. "If there was ever anything wrong, I’m guessing he solved it on the field."
That's what coaches are talking about when they say the 5-11, 230-pounder runs angry. He did it for 1,178 yards this season—a Packers rookie record—and helped carry Green Bay to the postseason despite a severely sprained ankle. It was the perfect rebuttal to anyone who suggested he didn't care about the sport or his potential in it. But what happens if Lacy finds that another 1,000-yard season or even a Super Bowl won’t bring him true peace of mind? What happens when finally buying his mom that house he promised doesn’t restore what Katrina washed away? What if the childhood game never feels like a man’s pursuit?
Lacy’s got a fallback. A career he’ll wait patiently on. An alternative to football, which comes to mind with no hesitation: Helping people, not with words or money or television exploits, but with his hands.
"If it ended today, I’d be a fireman," he says. "I want to be a fireman. My uncle is one in Louisiana. And when I was little I used to go spend the night over there with my cousin and he’d take us to the fire house and we might get to ride in the fire truck. I’ve loved it ever since."