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Speaking his mind


Oregon Duck tight end Colt Lyerla opens up to the media, and it turns out he has a lot to say

Oregon Ducks tight end Colt Lyerla did not have his best game against Oregon State in the Civil War.

Lyerla caught two passes for 26 yards and did not score a touchdown. As he ran off the field and up through the tunnel, though, you would never know that.

To watch the hulking 6-foot-5, 246-pounder run off the field, shout his joy to the fans gathered around the outside of the tunnel and give numerous high-fives, you would have thought that Lyerla had just bench pressed the world, or scored a game-winning touchdown.

He did neither of those things, but his team had just won 48-24 and Lyerla was as happy as any player on the Ducks.

As Lyerla neared the locker room doors, I slowed up to walk with him and talk.by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: CHRIS ONSTOTT - Oregon tight end - and former Hilhi star - Colt Lyerla gets tackled by Tyrequek Zimmerman (8) and a host of Oregon State defenders during Saturdays Civil War football game.

Flash back for a minute.

A few months ago, for the first issue of the Hillsboro Tribune, we decided that we wanted Lyerla to be the centerpiece story. Part of that decision was based on the fact that we had great art of Lyerla from his freshman season with Oregon. A bigger part of the decision, though, was that Lyerla is one of the biggest names in Hillsboro sports right now.

After a stellar career at Hillsboro High, in which he led the Spartans to the Class 5A state championship in 2009, Lyerla made waves last year as a true freshman. He caught seven passes for 147 yards and scored five touchdowns. He was the heir-apparent to senior tight end David Paulson. With ungodly physical attributes — size, strength, speed and power — Lyerla was on the nation’s radar.

It was the perfect story to run for the Tribune’s first ever issue.

The only problem?

Lyerla was not granting media interviews.

This has been an ongoing problem for reporters covering the Oregon football team. Last season, Lyerla refused to grant interviews until after the Pac-12 championship game.

I was the first print journalist to talk to Lyerla that day. After I had grabbed a few quotes, I was struck by how articulate and polite he was with his answers to questions.

Both selfishly and to help out my journalist brethren, when my interview with Lyerla on the Autzen Stadium field ended, I told him how I really appreciated him talking with me. I said that he had spoken well and that I hoped he would continue to talk to the media in the future.

Before last year’s Rose Bowl, Lyerla was available to the media upon request. After one practice, he spoke to a group of reporters for upwards of 15 minutes.

I had hoped that Lyerla had turned the page on his reluctance to speak to the media.

At the time we were planning out the first Hillsboro Tribune sports section, Lyerla had missed several summer practices because of “personal reasons,” according to Ducks coach Chip Kelly.

Still, I hoped that he would take a few minutes to talk about the upcoming season.

No such luck.

When I put in a request to talk to him, Lyerla declined the request through the UO sports information department.

The Hillsboro Tribune wound up having to run the story with quotes about Lyerla from Oregon coaches. No regrets. The coaches who spoke about Lyerla painted a good and accurate portrait of the tight end.

What was missing, though, was the most important person for the story.

During the 2012 season, Lyerla has lived up to expectations. He has caught 22 passes for 340 yards and six touchdowns. He has also sporadically granted interviews. At times, Lyerla was willing to talk. At times, he turned down the requests.

A few weeks ago, I talked with a Pac-12 player whose team had played Oregon. He told me that he talked with Lyerla for several minutes during pregame warm up. The player was shocked by how big Lyerla was, also by how soft his voice was.

His opinion of Lyerla?

“He actually seemed like a nice guy,” the player said.

Flash forward now. Lyerla and I are walking up the tunnel toward the locker room, side-by-side.

I briefly considered taking out my recorder and trying to grab a few quotes for a story. I left my recorder in my pocket, though. Instead, I talked to Lyerla as one person to another.

We talked about a mutual acquaintance of ours who had worked out with Lyerla at the Hillsboro Velocity athletic training center while Lyerla was in high school. We talked about him seeing his family after the game.

Working as a journalist you find out a lot about someone as an athlete from on-the-record interviews. But, those interviews can be very deceiving. When people know that recorders are running, they often act very differently from the way they act in real life. When you are talking to someone off the record, though, you get a better sense of the kind of person someone is.

During that walk to the locker room, Lyerla was engaging. He looked me in the eye as we talked. I got the same feeling that the Pac-12 player had gotten: he seemed like a nice guy.

When we reached the entrance to the locker room, I told Lyerla that I would talk to him after he came out of the locker room.

Lyerla nodded. As I walked toward the press conference room in the Gill Coliseum, I was left wondering whether Lyerla would really come out to talk.

I put in a request with the Oregon sports information department to talk to Lyerla.

“I’ll see if he wants to,” I was told.

Long after Kelly and quarterback Marcus Mariota and running backs Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas had talked to the media, Lyerla still had not come out of the locker room.

I continued to wait.

Finally, Lyerla walked into the hallway.

I asked Lyerla if he wanted to talk.

“Sure,” he said.

For the next five minutes, Lyerla answered every question I asked him. He answered them thoughtfully and gave me new perspective on both himself, the Ducks football team, and the athletic culture of the city of Hillsboro.

The first thing Lyerla told me was that the Civil War reminded him of the rivalry between Hilhi and Glencoe.

“In high school, I had a huge rivalry between Hillsboro and Glencoe, but this is magnified across the state,” Lyerla said. “Playing in the Civil War as an Oregon Duck with the whole state behind you, or against you, it’s just a huge game and it’s a very good win for our program. (Rivalries) are little bit different in college when every game is a big game, but to win the Civil War is special no matter what your record.”

Lyerla looked back fondly on those rivalry games against Glencoe.

“I always played my best games against our rivals,” he said. “I don’t know what it is. You get pumped up a little bit more, or whatever. It was always a good game.”

Lyerla also felt a bit of nostalgia about playing at Reser Stadium.

“The last time I played here was in the 5A state championship with Hillsboro versus Jefferson back in 2009,” Lyerla said. “That brings back a lot of memories.”

Lyerla talked about his development from being a backup tight end last season to being a starter this season.

“It’s a complete 180 turnaround from last year when I wasn’t really involved,” Lyerla said. “Now I’m involved the whole game. One game now is like four games of experience last year as far as playing time. Where I am now, compared to last year, I’m more able to know what’s going on.”

Lyerla talked about missing practices earlier this season.

“I had a lot of ground to make up because I missed half of fall camp,” he said. “I just stayed focused and with the help of my coaches and teammates I was able to pick up that slack real quick and pick up where I needed to. I’m completely confident with what I’m doing right now.”

Lyerla was surprisingly candid about the possible benefits to missing some practices early in the season.

“Fall camp is really hard on everybody physically,” he said. “So, missing the first couple of weeks wasn’t all negative.”

During this season, journalists around the country and broadcasters alike have marveled at Lyerla’s talent. He said that he does not pay too much attention to what is being said about him, though.

“I just listen to my coaches,” Lyerla said. “That’s all I get to hear. I never get to watch the game, I never get to see what they’re saying on ESPN. But, my family tells me that they’re saying positive things about me which is good. It’s just more motivation.”

Lyerla also joked about how fans might think that he is a little more unstoppable than he really is.

“In Division I football, you have to be physical or you’re going to be pushed around,” Lyerla said. “You’ve got to lay the hat sometimes. That’s what you’ve got to do. I hear (what people are saying about me being impossible to tackle) but players are still tackling me. It is good to have the fans on your side in that way, though.”

When Lyerla is speaking, he emphasizes what he is saying by talking with his hands. Early in the interview, Lyerla swung a big, meaty paw and knocked a reporter’s recorder onto the ground. He apologized for it instantly.

A few moments later, Lyerla knocked the same reporter’s recorder to the ground again. Lyerla rolled his eyes and laughed self deprecatingly about his clumsiness.

In that laugh, I learned as much about Lyerla as I did from anything he had to say. The kid might look like a big, scary monster, but he had empathy for the reporter whose microphone had been knocked to the ground for a second time. Lyerla seemed to get that the guy was just there doing his job.

During that interview, Lyerla also seemed to understand that by talking to the media, he was fulfilling his responsibility.

I understand that a lot is asked of college football players. They are required to put insane amounts of time and effort into being the best football players they can be. As student athletes, they are also required to go to class and do homework just like every other person attending their college.

The thing is, though, college football players are also public figures. By virtue of 40,000-plus fans cheering for them every Saturday, they are ambassadors for both their school and the community.

The football players cannot talk to every fan who wants to talk to them. That is where the media comes in.

In its purest form, the job of media members is to inform the public about public figures, both what they accomplish and who they are as people.

Lyerla has more of a responsibility to speak to the media than most members of the Oregon football team. He is a star on one of the most prolific offenses in the history of college football, yes. But, even more than that, Lyerla is a representative of the city of Hillsboro.

As a sophomore, it is impossible to predict how good Lyerla will someday be. After watching him play in high school and over the last two seasons with the Ducks, though, it is not going to surprise me if one day Lyerla is heralded as the greatest athlete to ever come out of Hillsboro. A lot of things have to fall into place for that to happen. But, it is well within the realm of possibility.

Because of that, it is essential that Lyerla makes himself available to the media. When he does, he comes across as someone the city of Hillsboro can be proud of. When he does not talk, he is turning his back not just on the media, but on the people of Hillsboro who want to continue getting to know him.

After Lyerla finished talking with the media, he thanked everyone for their questions and walked toward a buffet table to pick up a snack.

As I watched Lyerla walk away, I thought about catching up with him and telling him to keep talking.

I did not. I have done that once already.

Lyerla is smart enough to know that everyone in the media wants him to talk. He should know that the people in Hillsboro want him to talk, too. The decision is up to him, though.

I am hoping that Lyerla continues to talk. He has a lot of good things to say and a city that wants to hear it.