Packers running back Eddie Lacy is primed for a breakout season
This story appeared in the Aug. 4, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
In the past 20 months Eddie Lacy has been named the MVP of the SEC, the offensive MVP of the BCS championship game and the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. Lacy, who turned 24 in June and stands 5-foot-11, 230 pounds -- mostly muscle, some dreadlocks -- is almost certainly one of the 10 best running backs in the world. Fantasywise, he’s top five. And yet he spent this offseason in Geismar, La., living in a trailer that his family rents for $800 a month.
That meager three-bedroom living space is the same one to which the Lacys -- including father Eddie Sr., mother Wanda and younger sister Brittany -- decamped eight years ago. That was after Hurricane Katrina had rousted them from their home in Gretna, just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, and sent them on an itinerant, savings-depleting journey to Texas and then back to their home state. When the Lacys left Gretna in August 2005, believing they would return in three days or so, a 15-year-old Eddie chose to take with him his Nintendo 64 and not his brand-new pair of Carmelo Anthony Nikes, which he still mourns. “Prettiest pair of blue shoes I ever had,” he says.
On June 10, one week before he was due to fly to Green Bay for his second training camp with the Packers, Lacy sat at the trailer’s kitchen table -- just feet from the green recliner on which coach Nick Saban had once rocked while persuading the teenager to play for Alabama -- and reflected on all that his brief life as an NFL running back has brought him. It has, by most any measure, made him financially comfortable; after being drafted in the second round with the 61st pick in 2013, Lacy signed a four-year, $3.4 million contract with Green Bay, roughly $1 million of which was guaranteed. But it hasn’t made him fabulously wealthy, a point of concern given that he knows his career can end in a heartbeat.
Lacy still drives a 1995 Chevrolet Caprice. He has splurged on a single piece of jewelry -- a thumb-sized, diamond-encrusted bust of Jesus Christ that hangs from his neck -- and paid this spring to build a proper house for his family in Geismar. The four-bedroom abode, once completed, will cost just over $200,000.
Alongside Brittany and Wanda and Eddie Sr., Lacy -- frugal as ever -- passed one final summer in a trailer about which he’s long been ashamed. “Got a dog named Bentley, but I don’t have the car,” he says. “I’m definitely on a budget.”
That, in large measure, is a result of the position he plays and the new era in which he plays it. Being a running back, perhaps the most physically brutal job in all of sports, once ranked just below being a quarterback on the NFL’s star scale. But in recent years an evolution in the pro game has greatly diminished the position; for the most part, even the rare backs with job security are considered less valuable than left tackles, defensive ends, cornerbacks and receivers. Among the league’s 59 highest-paid players, based on average salary, just one, the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson, is a running back. Rules changes and increasingly sophisticated offensive schemes have made teams more pass-happy than ever. In 1973, four decades ago, 57.1 percent of the league’s offensive snaps resulted in rushing attempts. One decade ago that figure had dropped to 45.2 percent. Last season it was 41.7 percent, an all-time low.
As a result teams have started to devalue running backs, to view them as fungible. Lacy’s predecessors at Alabama, Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, were first-rounders in 2011 and ’12, respectively, and commanded contracts that guaranteed them $6 million and $20.5 million. Lacy, meanwhile, had the misfortune of entering the draft in ’13, the first time since the 1970 AFL‑NFL merger that no back was selected in the first round. This year no back heard his name called before Washington’s Bishop Sankey, by the Titans at No. 54.
The new philosophy for many NFL franchises has been to throw a handful of relatively cheap young backs into the meat grinder, then see which ones thrive. As in baseball, where pitch counts are limited, NFL teams have begun to understand that the typical back might only have a certain number of attempts within him, after which he will almost inevitably break down. (Plus: Fewer carries translates to less money at contract time.) Lacy rushed just 355 times during his three years at Alabama, and his coaches with the Packers have pledged to keep his carries down this season (he carried 284 times in 15 games last year, fifth most in the NFL) by liberally sprinkling in his backups, James Starks and DuJuan Harris.
The first back taken in Lacy’s draft, the Bengals’ diminutive Giovani Bernard (No. 37), had only 170 carries as a rookie, and he’ll most likely continue to bear a meager portion of Cincinnati’s load. A third second-rounder, the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell, had nearly one-fifth as many catches (45) as he did totes (244) during his first pro season, a balance that he feels might keep him healthy.
“It eliminates a lot of hits when you’re not running inside of the box,” Bell says. “When you’re worried about one or two guys, not seven or eight, you can make them miss instead of lowering your shoulder.”
In 2003, during what could be described as the golden age of the feature back, 13 players had more than 300 carries. Last season only two did: the Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch and the Eagles’ LeSean McCoy. That trend has given hope to today’s young backs, including Lacy, who believe they will be able to equal their predecessors’ wealth and prestige with their increased longevity. Lacy, who is currently the 32nd-highest-paid player on his own team (based on average annual salary), can renegotiate his contract after the ’15 season. “So, I have to make it through two more seasons at the same -- if not better -- level,” says Lacy, who rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns in ’13.
In the NFL, though, two seasons is a long time, particularly for a running back. After all, it was just one year ago that the Packers drafted two of them. And Lacy is the only one left.
As a senior at UCLA in 2012, Johnathan Franklin rushed for more yards than all but six running backs in the country, and for 400 more than Eddie Lacy. At pick No. 125, he became the seventh back taken in last year’s draft, which got him only $400,000 in guaranteed money. As he and Lacy lay on their double-stacked, dormitory-grade mattresses during training camp last summer, in the cinder-block-walled room that they had been assigned at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., the 23-year-olds found common ground.
“I come from South Central L.A.,” says Franklin. “Rather than hurricanes, we have gunshots, robberies, drug dealers. It was a struggle for me growing up, as well.”
It was actually the 5-10, 205-pound Franklin who had the roommates’ first 100-yard game, on Sept. 22 against the Bengals. But it would prove to be his last, most likely ever. A month later, in Minnesota, he fielded the opening kickoff return and took a vicious hit. “Woke up on the ground, was kind of out of it,” Franklin recalls. “At first you think you have a concussion, you’ll have to miss a game. [Then you] get the scan that week and it’s like, Well, we have to wait a little bit.”
Franklin, it turned out, had suffered not just a concussion but also a spinal contusion that refused to heal.
He still has big plans. He aspires to one day become the mayor of L.A., where in college he interned for then mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He will work this season in the Packers’ front office. And though he still has hopes of coming back, in June he announced his retirement, after just 11 games.
“My whole life working for something -- to have it taken away, it makes me want to cry,” says Franklin. “But I’m not going to complain. To play in the NFL, to score a touchdown. ... It was a dream.”
Even before he reported to his second training camp, Lacy felt Franklin’s absence. “It makes you want to cherish the game and act as if every play is your last,” he says, “because you don’t know when that last play will be.”
Behind Lacy on the Packers’ training camp depth chart, there are five running backs. Four of them are entering either their first or their second season.
Eddie Lacy’s parents met in 1989, when they both worked at F. Edward Hebert Hospital in New Orleans. Wanda was a nurse, Eddie Sr. a nurse’s assistant. Early in their careers they both saw a high school football player come in paralyzed from the neck down. Neither Wanda nor Eddie Sr. had grown up playing organized sports, and they cringed when they later watched their son on the football field. Eddie was small through high school, he says, “until I got big.”
“These are huge, grown men running into my baby,” Wanda says today, shaking her head.
It was in only the second game of Lacy’s NFL career, against the Redskins last Sept. 15, that he sustained an injury of the type that his parents had long feared. Wanda was coming out of church when her phone started to ring. Brandon Meriweather, Washington’s oft-fined safety, had concussed her son with a helmet-to-helmet hit. As Lacy began his recovery in a hospital, his parents called and insisted he reconsider his career choice. “I prefer to have you whole than paralyzed,” Wanda told him.
“Where else am I going to make this type of money?” Eddie asked.
Lacy says he has never enjoyed watching football -- “I just can’t see 11 guys a side running into each other; what’s the point?” -- but has always loved to play. The sport was a constant for him after Katrina ripped him away from his friends. “It was my way to cope with everything I had built up inside,” he says. Then it took him to college and on to a career far more lucrative than his backup plan, to be a fireman.
Still, his calculus is the same as it is for Bell or Bernard, or any of the 20 backs drafted in 2014. “A lot of guys play because they want to take care of their families,” Bell says. “The other part is, you love the game. The negative effects -- that’s just something you might have to deal with. All you can really do is try to be productive and get that second contract.”
“A lot of our coaching staff is made up of former players,” says Lacy, “and you’ll see them limping through the locker room. You think, Man, is that how I’m going to look when I’m done? Right now, I’m living in the moment, trying not to take too many hits to the head. I have no idea how you do that. But I’ll figure it out.”
And then? “I want to have a Frank Gore career,” he says, referring to the 31-year-old 49er, a five-time Pro Bowler whose second contract, for four years, was valued at roughly $28 million. “Ten years? Man, that’s a long time for a running back.” Perhaps, if Lacy can keep at it for that long, the NFL’s preferred style will have cycled back to highlight the run. Perhaps not.
At least the game has allowed Lacy to help out at home. Once he persuaded his parents to let him put a down payment on their new place, which is being built seven minutes from their trailer, they began texting him photos of the construction nearly every day. “They’d be like, Look, they put the cement down!” Lacy says. “They put the wood up! Now you can see the garage!”
The Lacys’ new house has a portico with three columns, which Wanda requested. “I always had a dream: If I had a home, it’d have columns in front of the door so I could sit under them in a rocking chair, watch the cars go by,” she says.
The Lacys were scheduled to move in on Aug. 22, the same day that Eddie will play the third preseason game of his second NFL campaign. “Whether it’s three seasons or seven, as long as he comes out knowing he did his best and as long as he can still function cognitively and physically, I’ll be happy,” says Wanda.
Says Franklin, “That boy, he can run, he’s strong, he’s smart, he can block -- I believe he can be one of the greatest to play this game. As long as he lasts.”