ABILENE – X-Golf is right off the loop in Abilene, Texas, a relatively new installation in a town where trends can hit up to 5 years after they happen everywhere else. On any random Saturday, X-Golf would be packed with people coming to whack golf balls at screens and have a couple beers, but today is different.
On this day, X-Golf is hosting the draft party of Keevan Lucas, a wide receiver out of Tulsa. Keevan had a very real shot at being drafted, his 5’10, 195 lbs frame was ideal for a slot receiver in the later rounds of the draft, and his records at Tulsa were nigh unassailable. His big knocks were a lack of explosiveness that has its roots in injuries, and the injuries themselves.
On a day like today, you’d expect a guy like Keevan Lucas to be nervous. However, he’s in high spirits, his smile inspiring confidence in the most nervous of his family members gathered to celebrate with him. He’s bouncing from room to room, shooting some golf balls at the screen here, talking to a family member there, making sure that everyone was having a good time. Keevan Lucas doesn’t really get nervous anymore. After what he’s been through in life, what’s there to be actually nervous about?
In the rooms crammed with TVs, the sounds of Mel Kiper and Todd McShay blast through everyones eardrums. The adults drink a beer or two and laugh, reminiscing on good times, excitement for the future infecting their voices. In the hallways, kids run and play with squishy balls from the crane machine, blissfully unaware of the tension that fills the entire room, except for one man. A ball bounces lazily down the hall, and approximately five of them dash after it, giggling along the way. One of them, in passing, asks a friend, “Didn’t his mom die?”.
A Town, A Team, And A Shattered Dream
Possibly the most famous body of work that describes West Texas is Friday Night Lights, the novel by Buzz Bissinger that chronicled the exploits of the 1988 Odessa Permian football team. Mentioned in that book is a town called Abilene. It’s wasn’t highly thought of in the mid-80’s, the football team is described as “those goody two-shoes hacks from Abilene.”
This wasn’t always the case in Abilene, and it wouldn’t be the case in the future. The Abilene Eagles have two major claims to fame – they were given the title of “Team of the Century” by the Dallas Morning News, and their 7 state championships is good enough to be tied for second on the all-time state championship list. Abilene was unquestionably dominant in the ’20s and the mid ’50s, the field house at Abilene High is named after Chuck Moser, the architect of the ’50s teams, and the stadium that’s split with crosstown rival Abilene Cooper is named for P.E. Shotwell, who was part of the ’20s dominance.
Originally a stock waypoint Texas and Pacific Railway, it was named after Abilene, Kansas, the historical end of the famous Chisholm Trail in 1881. Abilene might have fizzled out as a town before long if not for the addition of Simmons College, later to be called Hardin-Simmons. It was the first of three universities in Abilene, which have been the very lifeblood of the medium sized town.
Football is in the foundation of this town, football is woven into the things that made it what it is, football is what it was known for, before it became known for Dyess Air Force Base and being an middling to average college town. This is a football-crazed town in a football-crazed state, if you could play a little ball, your name was etched into stone in the annals of the town’s history. It is the home of Keevan Lucas, his birthplace and one of the catalysts for his football obsession.
It was September 13th, 2009. Keevan was a freshman at Abilene High, and few knew it then, but the Eagles were in the middle of an undefeated state championship season. Their family went to the movies. Afterwards, Keevan’s mother pulled him aside, in tears, and told him, “I want you to be good and graduate.”
Two days later, she was dead of a brain aneurysm.
Having to deal with the grief of your mother dying is one thing, but in Keevan’s case, bad things seem to always happen in twos. Only three days later, Keevan’s grandmother had a massive heart attack and stroke, and perished as well.
Lucas was 14 years old. His younger brother, Keylon Stokes, was nine. The task of breaking the news to his younger brother fell to Keevan.
At the age of 14, at arguably one of the most pivotal times in his life, Keevan Lucas was forced to grow up faster than he was already growing up. In terms of football, he hadn’t faced adversity. In terms of life, he had seen more in a short time than many had seen in their many years.
It’s not accurate to say that Keevan Lucas is a product of his environment, or his losses. It would be more accurate to say that his environment changed the way he saw the world. He lost his mother and his grandmother within one week of each other as a freshman at Abilene High, and that doesn’t define him. His father was in prison for all of his youth and for the majority of his adult life until now, but that can’t tell you the Keevan Lucas story either.
So, what is he? How did he get here? How do we tell the story of a man who refuses to be defined by loss and alienation, even though loss and alienation are huge parts of his life? In order to do that, we must look at the way Keevan plays the game.
Keevan Lucas plays the game of football like a stampede. There are no concerns for personal safety, there are no reservations about being hit or hitting another. While he may run his routes around a defender, with the ball in his hands, he’s more than likely to simply crash into you after the catch. It’s a pummeling style that hearkens back to the old days of football, times when throwing a move on someone in the open field wasn’t encouraged, if not outright banned by many coaches.
It’s a driven style of play, and in this play style Lucas reveals more about himself than his words ever could. In an age of soundbites and bravado, it’s very easy to say that you’re working hard, it’s very easy to give off an impression that you’re putting in the time and effort required. With Keevan, as with a select few, that style of play reflects his reality. There is no ball that is uncatchable. There is no route that can’t be better. There is no defender that cannot be left behind, if not beaten as fine as the dust that blows through West Texas in the spring.
A highlight tape doesn’t do this aspect justice, as a highlight tape obviously only shows the best plays of the player. You only see the passes caught, you don’t see the wideout diving for a pass that’s clearly off the mark, you don’t see the vicious blocks downfield, your only view is the plays made. What makes Keevan Keevan is the unmade catches, the ball thrown two yards behind him, the one that he still attempts to make the play on. There is no quit, there is simply a drive, a rage that’s visible behind an infectious smile, one that is harder on himself than any critic has been and ever will be.
Many have profiled the image of the athlete running from something, but the only qualm in Keevan’s mind is how he takes on the obstacles. He gets down on himself, sure. He has his moments of personal torture, a sadness that coalesces into a rage, a rage that could have made him an angry young man, one that’s more violent off the field than on it. The difference between these young men and Keevan Lucas is that he’s harnessed that rage from his youth onward, the anger and sadness transformed into passion and will. The thing that should have destroyed Keevan Lucas is the thing that makes him great, and it speaks to what anyone that knows him will tell you if you ask them what the best part of him is – that he’s a giver.
“You know, a lot of people would’ve completely shut down after that. And who could blame him if he did?” – Steve Warren
If Keevan Lucas does struggle with anything, it’s fighting himself. His mentor, Chad Mitchell, legitimately believes that his biggest struggle is his perfectionistic tendencies. The image of the athlete so obsessed with winning is commonplace as well, it’s shared on the social media of players, it’s in hype videos, and behind-the-scenes cuts that show athletes that look like they had a gallon of water unceremoniously dumped on their heads flipping tires, pushing trucks, or doing deep squats. Keevan is all of those things and more. He’s a gym rat, a weight room freak, a man so obsessed with winning every single snap that he shrugs off talk of the records he broke at Abilene High and Tulsa, instead focused on what he could have done if he had caught the footballs he didn’t.
All of this sounds like hyperbole, clichéd almost. Painting a picture of an athlete with drive has almost become commonplace, and painting the picture of someone who came up from loss almost always copies a few brush strokes from other paintings, and often twists the truth to gain a similar image, one that’s inspiring and easy to digest. This is something different. There is no twisting of words, there are no false interpretations, he simply is the prototype gym rat that everyone wants to actually be.
It is through this lens that we must view Keevan Lucas – not an angry man, but with anger inside him. Not as a perfect man, but with perfectionistic tendencies. Not as merely a receiver, but as one who gives.
When you ask those around Abilene when they knew Keevan was going to be great, you get a mixed bag of responses. His childhood friend, Conlan Augirre, cites two instances – one during Pop Warner football, when Keevan played for the Cowboys, and their entire gameplan was to stop number 2. The other instance came much later, during Keevan’s senior season. Abilene was squaring off against Lewisville Hebron in the season opener, it was the beginning of that roller coaster senior season for Lucas. In the Hebron defensive backfield was a young man named Jamal Adams, who just went 6th overall in the NFL Draft. The two combined for the bulk of the game’s scoring: one receiving touchdown for Lucas, and a pick-six for Adams, in what became a heavyweight slugfest.
Chad Mitchell recalls a time Lucas phoned him in the middle of the night during his sophomore year, asking about scripture. He had been struggling, and was searching for something, searching for truth. According to Mitchell, Lucas had every reason to give up, but at that moment he knew Lucas was serious about living his life in a perpetual cycle of moving forward, not backwards.
His high school head coach, Steve Warren, cites his loss as the pivotal moment, saying that he knew Lucas was going to be good when he “threw himself into football” directly after his family’s losses, saying that his work ethic was like few others that he had ever seen. He said, “You know, a lot of people would’ve completely shut down after that. And who could blame him if he did?”.
Keevan Lucas practically rewrote the record books as a junior at Abilene High. He was everything you could want out of a receiver – he could catch in traffic and make explosive cuts to get open deep. That’s why it was such a tragedy when his football career was almost cut short in high school.
The Eagles were squared off against Midland Lee, and Lucas was in the middle of what could have been a record breaking senior season at Abilene High. He had already come close to breaking Lyle Leong’s record for most receptions in a year, only eight receptions had stood between him and the #1 slot as a junior, and he was on pace to shatter that record. The Eagles were undefeated, and had just come off a close victory over crosstown rival Abilene Cooper. On a seemingly innocuous play in the first half, he planted and twisted. By the second half, he was on crutches. The next day, an MRI confirmed that the meniscus in his left knee was gone.
Keevan’s knee injury that late in his senior year meant that most of what we consider “big names” in college football were gone. Gone was the interest from Texas Tech and their high-flying offense, gone was the interest of Colorado, gone was mostly everyone; except for a smaller school in Oklahoma called Tulsa.
In 2013, Tulsa announced that they’d be moving from C-USA to the reworked Big East Conference, which was quickly reworked into the American Athletic Conference. It originally was one of the six “Power” conferences that sent a team to the BCS, but the “Power” label was put down again when the BCS was scrapped for the College Football Playoff in 2014. The conference shares one bid for the coveted “New Year’s Six” bowls, just one bid for the entirety of what’s known as the “Group of Five”, which is just beyond making the cut.
When Keevan Lucas arrived at Tulsa, he immediately began making an impact. He started a game against the in state power Oklahoma Sooners as a freshman, caught his first touchdown a few games later, but it wasn’t until his sophomore year rolled around that he truly exploded on the scene.
To say that Lucas exploded on the scene might be selling it short. In Tulsa’s season opener against Tulane, he had more of a volcanic eruption than an explosion. He caught 13 balls for 233 yards and three touchdowns, and the Golden Hurricane prevailed in overtime. The rest of the season, however, wouldn’t be as successful on the team level. Lucas would catch 101 passes for 11 touchdowns, but Tulsa would struggle to a 2-10 record. Head coach Bill Blankenship was fired for only winning five games in a two year span, and Tulsa would hire Phil Montgomery.
Montgomery’s first season was a blur, in more ways than one. The golden Hurricane were vastly improved, and their new Air Raid offense guided them to a 6-7 record that culminated in a close loss to a Frank Beamer led Virginia Tech squad in a game that no one really thought they could win.
This was all well and good for Tulsa, but during the course of the season, the unthinkable happened again for Keevan Lucas.
“I felt so helpless, even when I took my brace off I couldn’t bend my leg, when I showered, when I’d use the bathroom, I couldn’t bend my leg at all.” – Keevan Lucas
It was Saturday, October the 3rd, and all was going well in pregame preparations. At halftime it was getting worse for Tulsa, they were down 21-10 to a Houston team that would go on to post a 13-1 record under Tom Herman and beat the absolute tar out of Florida State in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.
Lucas was going up for a pass in the end zone during the third quarter of the game, hoping to bring Tulsa back within striking distance of Houston. He didn’t grab the pass, and as he fell, he clutched his right knee, the supposedly healthy one. The diagnosis this time was no meniscus, it was his patella tendon, and it was torn. His season was over, any thought of leaving early for the draft was abolished, and it lead to what Keevan describes as some of his darkest hours.
“With (the injury at) Abilene High, it definitely was a heartbreaker. I felt like we were gonna win state that year, you know, it was just a shock to me. I had already committed to Tulsa, but my recruiting process was starting to heighten up with Tech and all those guys, and for all of that to come to a halt, I didn’t know what happened. It was definitely a time of unknown.
But, I feel like my injury in college was the injury that was most significant, because it grew me up the most…I was already mature for my age, but I matured a lot more this last year due to this injury. The rehab itself for it was so hard, the whole first month I was in a straight brace, and I stayed on the third floor. In college it’s different because you’re by yourself, you can’t have anyone come over to take care of you like that.
It was a real dark time for me. Like I said, that first month was miserable. I felt so helpless, even when I took my brace off I couldn’t bend my leg, when I showered, when I’d use the bathroom, I couldn’t bend my leg at all. After that month it became a mental thing, I had to break the barrier, I had to bend it when it’s been straight for so long, and it’s gonna hurt now trying to bend it.
It was a hard, hard rehab, but it paid off” – Keevan Lucas
When Keevan took the field for the 2016 season, no one really knew what to expect. He had just undergone major knee surgery, the type of injury he had not many people came back from.
On the first offensive play of the season, Dane Evans, Tulsa’s quarterback, dialed up a pass play. He aired out a 40-yard bomb, which Keevan caught for a 46 yard gain. The only reason he didn’t score was an exceptional shoestring tackle form the San José State defender. Keevan could now breathe a sigh of relief. He was back.
In his senior year, Lucas would catch a massive 15 touchdowns en route to legitimate Tulsa football history. He’s second in all-time receptions, third in all-time receiving yards, and tied for first in all-time touchdowns, records that will take a while to be broken.
He technically received a medical redshirt for his junior, so he was still had another year of eligibility after Tulsa’s 10-3 season. At that point, Keevan elects to attempt what should have been impossible at the age of 14 for him: enter the NFL Draft.
He was invited to the NFL Combine, a blessing most in his situation couldn’t fathom. His trials, however, were not over. In some cases, they were only beginning.
The Sound Of Silence
INDIANAPOLIS – For being based entirely around human physical exertion, the NFL Combine is a clean, crisp event. Every single event has a time, and if they don’t run on time, it’s because they’re running early. The floors have been meticulously vacuumed, if not ran over with a comb. Every piece of wayward dusk is eradicated. The dullish chrome of the booths sparkles as fans try on virtual reality headsets, a video board lights up behind them as they try to run the 40 yard dash in an acceptable time.
In the distance, there is a crash, a loud clanging reverberates, and there are cheers and clapping. The attention of those in attendance quickly flips in that direction, and a crowd begins forming. A few yards over, the real event is going on: the bench press testing has begun, and this year, the fans are privy to the spectacle.
It’s a tense place, where the players are trying to distract themselves from the cold, hard facts: they will either make or lose literal millions of dollars based on how they perform over the half-week. They’re friendly, but distant. They’re available, but focused. They know that part of doing this is making themselves seem confident, but with most of them, you can simply see the nerves in their eyes, you can feel it in their voice.
It’s a spotless palace, a brand new metal playground that shines in the sun, but the people that inhabit it are a complete mess.
The questions shot up by the media have nothing on the intense questions that go on behind closed doors, where teams have been rumored to ask all sorts of questions, like who do the players pick when they play Madden, do you wear a G-string or a jockstrap when you play, and they might even pseudo-accidentally insinuate that your mother was a prostitute. These all happened, and are not made up. They are real, because at times, reality intersects with parody a little too closely.
There’s a strange, backwards procedure to the NFL Combine, a science to determine who will be the better NFL player.. There are players here that were incredible in college, that have all the measurables and character, that will flame out. There are guys here with character issues that will start for six years. There are guys here without a chance to get drafted because of their weight who might be the hero of a future Super Bowl.
The Combine and really, the Draft process in general is an inexact science. No one really knows what will happen in a few years, and it’s the reason for the strange questions from teams. There has to be a roundabout way to ask players if they’ll function well in an environment that is snowy four months out of the year, there has to be a way to get inside the head of kid with a history of drinking in public, to determine if there’s a dependence on it there or if it’s merely a college phase.
In a world of inexact science, mistakes must be minimized, the error percentage must shift into as small a number as it can. Football is possibly one of the last true team sports, and every piece must be optimized. No one wants to fire their coach and start all the way over, but that’s what you have to do if you can’t get the correctly motivated players into the building.
“Do you feel counted out?”
“Definitely” – Keevan Lucas
In the corner of a secluded room, late on Friday morning, Keevan Lucas waits. The bench press, the first of his physical events, is next. Lil Boosie’s Mind of a Maniac is pulsing in his ears, the beat slowly winding its way through his brain as he walks the hallway towards the event.
He shrugs his headphones off, takes a deep breath, and steps onto the stage. Almost breathlessly, he speaks his name and school into the microphone.
“Keevan Lucas. Tulsa.”
He stretches, and pops under the machine. Keevan pumps the weight again and again until he cannot anymore. The final tally is eleven reps, a decent amount for the wide receivers, not in the elite percentile, but certainly not the worst.
The first test is over. Keevan Lucas puts his Combine hoodie back on, and heads to the area designated for interviews. All around him, the wideouts have TV cameras in their faces. Everyone has reporters all over them, local publications of NFL towns, national publications, and a few scattered publications from college towns. Everyone is here, everyone with a stake in the NFL or in the Combine attendees is interviewing these prospects.
The interviews are set up strategically, with podiums and tables labeled one through nine lining the room. Bigger prospects are settled in at the podiums, massive names like Myles Garrett, who would eventually go #1 overall in the draft, have at least a hundred reporters around them. The tables are for the smaller prospects, those who are slated to go in the later rounds of the Draft, or not at all.
Keevan Lucas heads to his assigned table, table number nine. I am the only reporter there for around five minutes. We talk, about the strangeness of the Combine, the discomfort of being in front of strangers in nothing but your boxers, the stress of the event in general. It didn’t take long for the big question to come up.
“Do you feel counted out?”
“Definitely. Of course, just to be invited is a privilege, an honor, and a blessing, but of course man, I feel like the low man on the totem pole, which I like. I’ve been feeling like that since I was at Abilene High, you know? I’m not a guy who complains about it, but I love that underdog mentality that I have to have.”
Night comes. The reporters leave to file their stories, and the prospects meet with NFL teams or sleep. Day comes as quickly as the night comes. The testing is about to begin. This test is arguably more important than the quizzes, the bench press, the measurements, because today is about football – for Keevan Lucas, it’s 40 yard dash day.
The 40 yard dash exists in a reality somewhere between truth and embellishment. This year, Adidas has promised to give whoever breaks the 40 yard dash record their own private island, provided they’re wearing Adidas cleats. John Ross of Washington broke the 4.24 mark set by Chris Johnson with a time of 4.22, but Ross is wearing Nike cleats. He will not get his own private island.
As a receiver, your stock partially depends on your speed. If you aren’t fast, you can’t get open and stay open, no matter how excellent your routes are. Keevan Lucas steps up to the mark, takes a deep breath, gets set, and takes off. In the background, the announcers are making jokes about Bill Raftery. Lucas is the last runner in his group. They will not say his name on the broadcast until well after he finishes running. The first unofficial time is 4.60. Lucas, while not discouraged, appears to be hiding frustration. This event is crucial for him, if he does not have an excellent time, he will not be drafted.
The second attempt is much better. Lucas runs a 4.55, once again, not in the best category, but certainly not the slowest in the Combine. After the 40 yard dash, it’s time for the position based drills. Keevan is the last person in his group to run the 40.
Another motivating factor in all of this for Lucas was his positioning in the drills. He ran last out of all the receivers there.
Lucas begins with his back to the camera, but once he spins, you see the expression again, the hyper-focused, angry, prepared Lucas. He catches each pass flawlessly, without breaking stride, running a tightrope down the white stripe that stabs through the middle of the field. It’s a good performance, once again, not inarguably the best, but not the worst.
What this means for his draft stock, no one knows. He’s obviously a talent, but two injuries to two different knees is not something that NFL GMs just laugh off, neither is the competition that Keevan played against.
Mock drafts get updated, rumors fly, and different projections begin to surface. None of them have the name “Keevan Lucas” on the full board of 253. This too, means nothing, as anything can happen on Draft Day.
“I’ve Faced Worse”
ABILENE – Keevan Lucas wasn’t expected to be drafted until the last day of the Draft, Saturday. The texts and calls came in, at 11:30 the Bills call, at some point during the day another franchise texts him, and the GM of another franchise texts him again. The crowd is excited, excited but tense, this is a difficult situation, as no one actually knows where he’s going to be drafted, or if he’s going to be drafted.
Chad Mitchell, Keevan’s mentor, is on edge. He’s pacing around, constantly on his phone, giving quick updates in between greeting people in attendance. This morning he simply broke down in his prayer time, he says, simply in awe of everything that was finally coming to fruition. He knows that it’s time, time for the texting to end, and for someone to call with some good news for a young man who seemingly can’t catch any breaks.
Fans crowd around the table, clamoring to get a “2 Mile” shirt, which according to their Facebook page, encourages fans and everyone to go the extra mile. Nearly everyone is wearing the shirts, various colors emblazoned with the slogan, “when you’re forced to go one mile, go two more”, a reference to Keevan’s number at Abilene High and Tulsa and the extra effort required to be an underdog. There are pictures, countless pictures, with everyone imaginable, at its peak Keevan’s draft party will draw in 300 people.
The fourth round begins, and the tension is minimal. Keevan is calm, he’s been through much, much worse than this. The fifth round starts, then the sixth, and the tension builds. The rumors fly, and at this point, Keevan is beginning to show outward signs of nervousness. The adults crowded around their drinks begin following Keevan closer, as name after name begins flying off the board, including all-important wide receivers.
It’s the seventh round, and the picks are dwindling. With around five picks left in the entire draft, Keevan and a select group retreat to a conference room. The Draft officially ends. An audible yell comes out from the conference room.
Keevan exits the room, and heads into the main area of X-Golf.
With his award winning smile on full display, he shrugs, and plainly states, “I’m going to Buffalo.”
There is verifiable proof that Keevan has an NFL home, and the room erupts. Keevan hugs, high fives, then goes outside to answer a call, a call that seems innocuous. Everyone else revels in the mirth. Reporters head outside for a quote. Keevan disappears to the back of the building, and everyone still waits.
Around five to ten minutes later, Keevan reappears in the main room of X-Golf in Abilene, Texas. He announces that Buffalo still has lingering questions about his knee, and that the Bills have pulled the offer.
Around 15 minutes later, rumors fly again, and are quickly shut down, this time with the Rams, who have reportedly offered him, but the rumor was quenched by his agent.
For the moment, it appears that Keevan Lucas will not be playing in the NFL.
What exactly happened is ultimately unclear – Keevan could have misinterpreted what the Bills meant, or they could have legitimately pulled an offer after learning about his two knee injuries. The next day, things became a little clearer upon reports that the Buffalo Bills had fired their GM, along with their entire scouting staff.
The time that was meant to be the most celebrated, when everything was supposed to come together, when something was supposed to go right, it fell apart, again, exactly twice, like the other times before it.
The journey is not over for Keevan Lucas, who has defied all expectations up until this point.
- On May 6th, he will graduate, just like he promised his mom.
- His brother, who he had to tell about the passing of his mom, has committed to play football at Tulsa. He will be a freshman in the fall.
- Keevan has accepted an offer to try out for the New York Jets. He will work out alongside his college quarterback, Dane Evans.
The journey through life still has a ways to go for Lucas. However, he’s fairly versed in adversity, and thinks he will come out fine no matter what happens.
Hours after the chaos of Draft Day, after approximately 80% of his well-wishers have left, Keevan Lucas leans against the X-Golf bar, a Tulsa hoodie on, talking on the phone. What should’ve been the most embarrassing and difficult moment of his life is already in the past. He’s moving on, there’s a workout scheduled for the morning, and that’s the only thing in his thoughts.
In his own words, he says, “I’ve faced worse”.
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