All around Carnell Lake there was chaos. Backstage at last
week's Steeler Fashion Bowl '97, in downtown Pittsburgh, Santa
Claus was having trouble fastening his pants. "Somebody help
me," pleaded offensive tackle and St.-Nick-for-a-Night Justin
Strzelczyk, but there were no takers. Meanwhile, beaver
coat-clad inside linebacker Levon Kirkland was angling for
compliments--"How do I look?" he wanted to know--and wide
receiver Yancey Thigpen was being dressed down by an actual
model. "My name is Charley," she pouted. "Why can't you get it
Three days before a 24-21 overtime win over the New England
Patriots virtually wrapped up the AFC Central title for
Pittsburgh last Saturday, 40-some Steelers and their significant
others moonlighted as models at a charity fashion show
benefiting Pittsburgh's Burger King Cancer Caring Center. While
his teammates struggled with their ensembles, Lake leaned back
in a folding chair, suave as Sinatra, in a Polo cream-and-brown
sweater with an eggshell turtleneck and brown corduroy pants. He
was an island of serenity.
Lake, more than any other Steeler, would be within his rights to
succumb to an occasional panic attack, considering that lately
he doesn't know what position he will be playing from season to
season, from week to week. Plagued by free agency defections,
injuries and ineptitude at cornerback, Pittsburgh coach Bill
Cowher has repeatedly turned to his 30-year-old All-Pro strong
safety for help. In two of the past three seasons Lake has
played as much at cornerback as at his regular position. This
season's shuttling: five games at safety, followed by four at
right corner, one at safety, one at corner, two at safety and
two at corner, including Saturday's win over New England, in
which Lake's biggest challenge was to remain awake while
Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe tortured Steelers rookie
corner Chad Scott on the other side of the field.
Is Lake resentful? Does he long for the safe haven of safety?
Does he wish things could get back to normal? "Sometimes normal
is boring," he says. "You lose your edge when things are normal.
You get in a routine, and your mind doesn't have to work as
hard. You get lackadaisical." In other words, it's when he's
taking on such daunting challenges as the ones Cowher has placed
before him that Lake feels most alive. To paraphrase Descartes:
I risk being burnt to a crisp on every play, therefore I am.
Ten times during a 20-minute interview last Thursday, Lake was
interrupted by teammates wishing to congratulate him. An hour
earlier Cowher had read off the names of the six Steelers voted
into the Pro Bowl. For the fourth straight year Lake made it. As
a strong safety. Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis thinks
this year's voters rewarded Lake for both his excellence as a
defensive back and his courage. "Leaving a position that you
play at a Pro Bowl level for a position you might be mediocre
at--that takes guts," says the Bus, who knows from guts and who
is also Honolulu-bound.
The fact is, Lake has been sensational at cornerback. No
receiver has had a big day against him this season, which is not
surprising. It was his adaptability as much as his athletic
ability that initially intrigued the Steelers. A running back at
Culver City (Calif.) High, Lake rushed for 956 yards in five
games as a senior before a dislocated elbow ended his season. At
running-back-rich UCLA he was switched to outside linebacker,
becoming one of the few collegians at that position to return
kickoffs. In his spare time he worked on pass coverage
techniques. At 6' 1/2", 204 pounds, with 4.37-second speed in the
40, Lake knew where his NFL future lay. After his senior season,
in 1988, he was asked to play safety at a pair of postseason
all-star games, and he covered receivers, said one hard-boiled
judge of NFL talent, "like he'd been doing it all his life."
That smitten individual was Hall of Famer Chuck Noll, the
Steelers' coach at the time. Pittsburgh selected him with the
sixth pick in the second round of the 1989 draft, a choice draft
analyst Mel Kiper Jr. described as "a reach." In his first
training camp The Reach backed up a perfectly capable strong
safety named Cornell Gowdy. After four preseason games
Pittsburgh stunned Cornell and Carnell, waiving the former and
handing his job to the latter, whose team-high five fumble
recoveries as a rookie foretold a big-play penchant that has
never been more in evidence than in this, Lake's ninth NFL
season. Witness two plays on consecutive Sundays in October:
--Blitzing from his cornerback position against the Indianapolis
Colts on Oct. 12, Lake stripped the ball from quarterback Jim
Harbaugh, recovered it and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown
in a 24-22 win. (The play evoked a similar strip, recovery and
85-yard touchdown run by Lake against the Jacksonville Jaguars
--With Pittsburgh leading the Cincinnati Bengals 23-10 in the
fourth quarter on Oct. 19, Cincy wideout Carl Pickens eluded
zone coverage, caught a short pass and headed for the end zone.
With an astonishing burst, Lake overtook Pickens at the 14-yard
line and punched the ball from his grasp. The ball bounced
through the end zone for a touchback. Game over. "One of the
greatest plays I've ever seen," says Steelers director of
football operations, Tom Donahoe.
Pittsburgh has become accustomed to being bailed out by Lake.
Seven games into the 1995 season, the Steelers were 3-4, in
large part because of the loss of cornerback Rod Woodson, who
had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the
season opener. When Cowher asked Lake to switch to cornerback,
Lake wasn't sure he wouldn't fall on his face. (Not everyone
would have gone along with such a change. When Cowher moved
outside linebacker Greg Lloyd to inside linebacker in '92, Lloyd
sulked and deliberately made mistakes in practice until Cowher
was forced to move him back.) Lake, however, accepted the
challenge; the Steelers won 10 of their next 11 games en route
to the Super Bowl.
Might Pittsburgh be headed back? "This is a special team,"
Kirkland said on Thursday, two days before the Steelers filched
from the Patriots a game they had no business winning. "We've
got great players but no real egos. That goes back to a guy like
Lake--a star who works hard at all times, who does unselfish
It was Lake's selflessness, in addition to his talent, that
persuaded the Steelers to designate him as their franchise
player after the 1994 season. But he's more than that. "With
Carnell," says Donahoe, "we get a franchise player and a
franchise person. There are times you look at him and you almost
say, This guy's too good to be true."
Monica Bragg harbored no such thoughts when she met her future
husband. As UCLA freshmen in 1985, she and Lake took the same
English course. On the first day of class the instructor asked
the students to get to know the person next to them and then
introduce that person to the class. Lake concluded his
introduction of Bragg with surprising bluntness, saying, "She
doesn't have a boyfriend, and I'm glad about that."
Bragg, a graduate of Beverly Hills High, found this
overture--and Lake himself--a bit coarse and heavy-handed.
Still, they became friends. By the end of their freshman year,
they were more than friends. Bragg started attending Lake's
games the following season. "When he played linebacker, it was
easy to see what his job was," she says. "He sacked the
quarterback." Indeed, Lake had 22.5 sacks in three years as a
Bruins starter. "When he switched to safety [in the NFL], it
took me a long time to figure out what his job was," she says.
Recalling Carnell's days as a sack artist, she has often told
him he should blitz more. This season, she notes with pleasure,
someone seems to agree with her: His six sacks lead the Steelers.
After his senior season at UCLA, Lake hired agent Leigh
Steinberg, who says he was struck by the 21-year-old's
"Yoda-like" maturity and self-possession. "Carnell isn't
self-centered," says Steinberg. "When he asks how you're doing,
he actually wants to know."
Lake signed a three-year, $850,000 contract with the Steelers.
Then, in what was possibly the least acrimonious holdout in NFL
history, he missed the first 25 days of training camp in 1995
while Steinberg negotiated a four-year, $9.2 million deal. "What
typically happens during a holdout is, at 10 in the morning the
player is ready to hold out for the rest of his life," says
Steinberg. "By noon he wants to sign. At four o'clock he's back
to 'Screw the team.' Carnell never wavered. He was a rock."
The Pittsburgh brass took its sweet time during those
negotiations, knowing Lake would report in superb shape. He
always has. At the Steelers' Latrobe, Pa., training camp, Lake
often runs the treadmill for 20 minutes and then jumps rope for
another 15 before heading out for a two-hour practice, after
which he runs sprints up a hill adjacent to the field. During
the season he runs before and after practice. On game days, to
the mystification of his teammates, he puts in a brisk mile on
the treadmill before heading out for the warmup.
These habits go back to his days at UCLA. "There were so many
world-class track athletes," says Lake, "and I would watch to
see how they warmed up. They would run and run and run, but
then, when it was time to race, they were ready."
On Sept. 2, 1995, 19 days after Carnell ended his holdout,
Monica gave birth to their daughter, Siena. The following day
Woodson was injured. Eight weeks later Lake was starting at
cornerback. The timing of the switch was brutal. Lake was
hosting a weekly television show for the first time; he was
taking a night class in accounting at Duquesne and had just
started taking taekwondo lessons. Now he needed to spend extra
time every night studying video and trying to learn a new
position. "There was a four-month stretch when we didn't go out
once," says Monica. "It was very stressful."
"From Safety to Corner: The Sequel" has been less traumatic.
Monica has since convinced Carnell of the importance of their
getting out at least one night a week. He still spends extra
time each week self-scouting--"Stay low!" he scribbles in the
notebook he keeps for each game, "Focus!"--and studying tape of
opposing wide receivers. But as far as playing corner, "I don't
have much anxiety about it at all now," he says.
Often, though, he must wedge his film work around his frequent
training runs. To see Lake on a treadmill, a common occurrence
at Three Rivers Stadium, is to be struck by the thought that
he's running to the rescue.