Linebacker or defensive end? (For that matter, offense or defense?) From Florida to little Norfolk State, how Trail grew into the 2015 draft’s most intriguing mystery man
INDIANAPOLIS — At the combine, Lynden Trail faced the usual questions about character, love of football and what move he would use when a left tackle’s first step is so quick that it cuts off an inside rush. Then he would get some version of two additional questions your average prospect never hears.
1) What can we do with you?
2) What do you want to play?
Trail is 6-7 and 269 pounds, with arms that measure 34 7/8 inches long. At Norfolk State, he played outside linebacker in a 3-4 but put his hand on the ground when the Spartans wanted to show opponents a four-man defensive front. When their offense neared an opponents’ goal line, coach Pete Adrian would use Trail at tight end. He also served as a gunner on the punt team for two of his three seasons in Norfolk.
Trail could fit at any of three different positions (3-4 outside linebacker, 4-3 defensive end or tight end). Or he might not fit at all. After all, he started his college career at Florida but couldn’t crack the two-deep, and the rise in competition from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference to the highest level of professional football is steep. Interested teams will spend the next two months trying to solve one of the biggest mysteries of the 2015 draft: Who is Lynden Trail?
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Trail doesn’t hesitate when he answers the two questions from above.
2) Wherever your team needs me.
Rather than put himself in a box by choosing a position, Trail wants to keep his options open. A spot on an NFL roster means not having to enter what he calls the Real World anytime soon. “If you hate your job, you’re in the Real World,” Trail says. “It’s a struggle for you every day. You’re not excited to go to work.”
Trail has lived in the Real World. He watched his mother, Dorothea Williams, work as a nurse and struggle to raise four boys on her own in Miami’s rough Overtown neighborhood. Trail never wants to live in that world again, and he never wants his loved ones to live there either. If he succeeds in the NFL, he wants to give his mother some peace. “She doesn’t have to do another single thing in life if she doesn’t want to,” Trail says. “God willing, if I get drafted and make some money, she’ll never have to lift another finger.”
Not that Dorothea would relax even if Trail begged her. She grew up in Turks and Caicos, lived in the Bahamas for two years and moved to the United States in 1979. She laughs easily, a Caribbean accent spicing her stories. She always protected her youngest boy, and she always will. When Trail was a student at Miami’s Booker T. Washington High, he got a summer job as a pool attendant at a South Beach hotel. He had to rise before dawn and take two buses to reach work. Dorothea accompanied her son on the bus the first day and watched him walk into work. Later she tried to tail him secretly—Trail noticed. So did the bus driver. “Mama, he’s all right,” the driver told her.
The summer before his senior year of high school, Trail learned never to question his mother’s protective instincts. “Did he tell you about the time I didn’t let him go to the party?” Dorthea asks.
In July 2009, a man threw a block party three blocks from Trail’s home. The entire neighborhood was going. “This dude just got out of jail. So he threw a party,” Trail says. “A lot of people from different spots around Miami didn’t get along with him, so a lot of people went to the party for the wrong reasons.” Trail thought it would be fun. Dorthea can still recite the argument with her teenage son.
Lynden: Mommy, it’s only three blocks away.
Dorothea: I don’t care if it’s one block.
Lynden: All my friends are going.
Dorothea: I’m not their mom.
Trail went to bed early that night. “You’ll thank me later,” Dorothea told him.
Three blocks away, fireworks left over from Independence Day made a crowd accustomed to the sound of gunfire jumpier than usual. Finally, someone looked at someone else the wrong way. Guns were drawn. At least one AK-47 and five pistols, police would later tell Miami’s NBC 6. The shots sounded just like the fireworks. Eleven people were hit. One was Michelle Coleman, a pregnant 21-year-old Florida A&M nursing student who died that night. Another was Anthony Smith, a Booker T. Washington linebacker and one of Trail’s best friends since kindergarten. The next morning, Trail got the news. “I heard him scream,” Dorthea says. Trail maintained a vigil at the hospital as his friend clung to life. Smith died four days after the shooting.
Trail still thinks of Smith daily. “I feel like I’m living out the dream for both of us,” he says.
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The pre-draft process feels like a fantasy for Trail, especially since three years ago he assumed he’d never play professional football. At Booker T. Washington he had more than 70 scholarship offers. The one he accepted came from Florida coach Urban Meyer. At the time, the 6-6, 200-pound Trail reminded Meyer of former Gator Jarvis Moss, who had grown from a skinny speedster into a devastating edge rusher during his time in Gainesville. Trail redshirted as a freshman in 2010 as he tried to pack on weight. He couldn’t believe the difference between high school and the SEC. “Everything about me was speed, speed, speed,” Trail says. “Then I got to Florida, and there was speed there. Even the linemen were fast. They weren’t just fast. They were big.”
Accustomed to blazing past lead-footed tackles from a 4-3 defensive end spot, Trail had a limited pass-rushing repertoire. During practices this proved problematic when he faced experienced tackles like Florida’s Marcus Gilbert, who now starts for the Steelers. “You can imagine how that matchup went,” Trail says. “They would just ruuuuuuun me past the quarterback.”
In December 2010, Meyer left and was replaced by Will Muschamp. Trail bulked up to 225, but his performance in practice didn’t impress the new staff. By the end of the ’11 season Trail wasn’t even dressing out for games. That November he met with Muschamp and decided to transfer.
When Trail received his release from the Gators, many of the same name-brand programs who had offered scholarships out of high school called again. So did a few Trail had never previously considered. One of the recruiters was Norfolk State defensive line coach Mark Thurston, a Miami native who connected with Trail and, more importantly, with Dorthea. (“He said, C’mon, Mama. I’m from the 305, too!”) And she listened. Trail could have gone to another Football Bowl Subdivision school, but NCAA transfer rules would have required him to sit out a season. If Trail dropped to the Football Championship Subdivision, he could play immediately. He hadn’t played a down in a game in two years; he didn’t want to wait another. He also wanted a school with a quality program in mass communications. Norfolk State fit the profile.
Trail assumed he’d enjoy his three seasons in Norfolk and then enter the workforce. He had been editing video as a hobby since high school, and he planned to train in all aspects of media production in college. He guessed he’d graduate and work his way up to ESPN. He did not think he might still have the chance to play on ESPN. “I never in my wildest dreams, after transferring, thought I’d have a shot at the NFL,” Trail says.
That changed quickly. Trail cracked the linebacker rotation immediately and racked up a team-high 70 tackles (17 for loss) as a redshirt sophomore in 2012. In ’13, his first season as a starter, NFL scouts took notice as Trail piled up 94 tackles (11.5 for loss), two interceptions, eight pass break-ups, 10 pass knockdowns, 10 quarterback hurries, five forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two blocked kicks. On offense, he caught three passes—all touchdowns.
Trail packed on weight thanks to an eight-meal-a-day diet that often required him to set alarms as reminders to eat. He wore himself out worrying that he wouldn’t be able to duplicate his production as a senior. “My junior year was ridiculous,” he says. “The stats were so ridiculous I was afraid my senior year would be nowhere near it.”
Opponents began scheming away from him. “His senior year, everybody’s game plan was ‘Where’s No. 7?’ ” Adrian says. “He made the other guys better, because they weren’t going to run at Seven.” Still, Trail finished with 91 tackles, including 11.5 behind the line of scrimmage. That earned him an invitation to the Senior Bowl, where he spent the week of practice working at three positions: outside linebacker, defensive end and tight end.
So where will Trail play in the NFL? That depends on the team that drafts him. His 40 time (4.91) will scare off teams that might have been considering him as a full-time tight end, but one that takes him as a defender might try a goal-line package that matches Trail against linebackers in the end zone. Adrian believes Trail would be best-suited playing linebacker for a 3-4 team. With NFL offenses going faster—just like their college counterparts—Adrian believes Trail gives a team an advantage because a defense can morph from a three-man front to a four-man front just by having Trail line up in a three-point stance on the outside eye of the tackle or tight end. This wouldn’t require any substitution, and it would allow a team to throw two distinct looks at an opponent pre-snap. Adrian also believes Trail can carry enough weight to be a full-time 4-3 end. “Once they decide where to play him, he could easily be 280,” Adrian says. “Or he could be 255 and [play] tight end. He’s got good leverage, and he’s a strong kid.”
John Blake, the former Oklahoma head coach who also worked as defensive line coach for the Cowboys in the ’90s, has been training Trail in Dallas, and Blake said he has never worked with a player this tall and rangy who could open his hips wide enough to change directions and drop into coverage. “He can turn over really fast for someone as long and tall as he is,” Blake says. “A lot of guys who are long striders have to gather themselves. He’s pretty quick. He changes directions really well.”
Meanwhile, Hall of Fame defensive lineman Randy White, who shares an agent with Trail, has worked with him on developing a pass-rushing skill set that had already expanded at Norfolk State. Trail took karate and jujitsu classes growing up, and White’s advanced hand-fighting techniques remind him of martial arts. White wants Trail to learn an array of counter-moves that will allow him to adjust if an offensive lineman fends off his initial onslaught. “You go with a preconceived move in your mind. Well, that’s going to change if the guy does something different,” White says. “You’ve got to be able to adapt to that. In working with Lynden, he’s got the ability to do that.”
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The snarling, 300-pound offensive tackles couldn’t do it. Trail didn’t know true fear until a little more than a year ago, when he sat at a Chili’s in Norfolk, getting quizzed by an elementary schooler.
Michelle Dorsey wouldn’t let just anyone meet her 8-year-old daughter, Jade. The guy had to be special. He had to have a future. He had to potentially be The One. This Lynden character might meet those qualifications. So, three months after they started dating, Michelle invited Trail to dinner at Jade’s favorite restaurant.
It was more terrifying than anything he has or will face during the pre-draft process. On the football field, Trail always had the next play. Here, he thought, he had one shot. Jade is Michelle’s whole world. If he didn’t impress, they were gone. (And he thought Michelle might potentially be The One.) Trail couldn’t afford to screw this up. Like the coaches and front-office types in Indianapolis last week, Jade came prepared.
“She had her little list of questions that she wanted to ask him,” Michelle says. Forget Do you love football? Try answering an 8-year-old when she asks How do you feel about having children? in front of a girlfriend who might someday be something more. “I just sat back and let them have their own conversation,” Michelle says. “It was quite funny to see a little girl intimidate this huge guy.”
Trail passed the test at Chili’s. He and Jade clicked. By the end of the meal, they chattered like old friends. They now text constantly as he trains for the draft hundreds of miles away in Dallas. This week Jade proudly sent Trail a screen shot of a sterling report card. Trail couldn’t help but smile as he recalled their first meeting. If he can survive the scrutiny of a girl looking out for her mother’s best interests, he should ace all his pre-draft interviews.
When Michelle met Trail, she was amazed at his will to succeed. Having a daughter pushed her to be her best. Trail didn’t have that motivation, but he had an internal drive that came from somewhere else. After meeting Dorthea, Michelle understands. “I think it’s his mother,” she says.
But now Trail has two more reasons to succeed. He and Michelle grow closer every day. So do he and Jade. When he talked about Jade’s report card, Trail beamed. “There’s a pretty great quote from my mother,” he says. “Clothe them, feed them, care for them, they’re yours.” The past year has also given Trail an even deeper respect for how hard his mother worked to raise him. “I can totally see the difference between a single-parent home and a two-parent home,” he says.
Trail received his bachelor’s degree from Norfolk State on Dec. 13. His mother, who hadn’t cried since her own mother died, bawled. If football doesn’t become his full-time profession, Trail knows he’ll still find a way to succeed. The Real World is not for him.
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