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NFL Draft Enigma Lynden Trail Has Seen It All and Can Do It All

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMarch 28, 2015

USA Today

It's not uncommon for future stars, regardless of their industry, to have that one moment when they realize that they may, in fact, be future stars.

For Lynden Trail, one of the hottest NFL draft prospects available, that moment happened when he saw himself. 

He wasn't watching tape of his dominance at multiple positions during his sophomore year at Norfolk State University, he wasn't looking in the mirror during a period of introspection, and we're not being philosophical. 

He literally saw himself—his face plastered to the side of a bus as it passed by.  

"And it wasn't just like a Norfolk State bus," Trail told Bleacher Report of the startling moment in 2012, "it was a Norfolk community bus. So any and everybody that saw this bus knew that was me. At that point in time I was like, 'You know what? You just might be able to get to the next level.'"

About two-and-a-half years later, Trail has become one of the most fascinating prospects in the lead-up to the 2015 NFL draft. He can be big if you want him to be, and he's fast depending on which position he plays. He also has one hell of a college resume, but he comes from a Division I-AA school that has produced just one NFL player in the last 18 years. 

We spent some time this week with the man many believe could be the first FCS player drafted in four weeks' time. Here's what you need to know.  

Authentic versatility 

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Trail played some tight end in Mobile.
Trail played some tight end in Mobile.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

You hear the cliche all the time. If you were to take every scouting report at face value, you'd think about 74 percent of the players in this year's draft possess versatility. It's often just a word analysts throw out there to describe multidimensional prospects. 

So that doesn't do justice to what Trail brings to the table. 

The 24-year-old has consistently played multiple positions and on both sides of the ball throughout his football career. If he has a primary position, it's as a 3-4 outside linebacker who focuses on rushing the passer, but Trail also frequently puts his hand in the dirt and rushes from a defensive end spot.

And he actually got his start on the offensive side of the ball, which might explain why Norfolk State head coach Pete Adrian wasn't afraid to use him frequently as a tight end in goal-line packages. 

"It's always a blessing to be able to showcase my versatility," said Trail. "Going out there and being able to play on either side of the ball is something that I don't just talk about, it's something that I actually do."

He played all three positions at the Senior Bowl and has been working out for teams as both a defender and a tight end during the predraft process. It's one thing to be tall and strong enough to box guys out, but in order for a player to succeed professionally as a tight end, he needs hands and route-running prowess, and it appears Trail—who was a wide receiver in high school—has what it takes. 

"They had him running routes on his pro day," Adrian told Bleacher Report, "and the guy throwing him the ball, who was a former NFL quarterback, couldn't believe how well he ran his routes and how good his hands were."

As a junior in 2013, Trail scored three touchdowns on offense while also recording 94 tackles, 12.5 tackles for a loss, two interceptions, eight pass breakups, 10 pass knockdowns, five forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two blocked kicks. 

"It's cliche for people to say, 'Oh, I can go out there and play anything,'" Trail said. "Some people look like they're out of position, and to tell you the truth, it does look like I'm out of position—especially being 6'7" and playing linebacker. A lot of people wouldn't think I'd be able to move so swiftly. But I can move quicker than your average big guy. It's a blessing to be 270 [pounds] and not run like I'm 270."

That height offers him a clear advantage as a tight end. "The majority of the corners or safeties are too small," he says, "and most linebackers are too slow to keep up with me." But he weighs 269 pounds and ran a 4.91 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, so he might not have the ideal makeup to consistently play that position. 

But he ran a 4.77 at NSU's pro day and has flashed enough speed to keep up with slot receivers in coverage. He's also learning to use that tremendous length to his advantage as a rusher by keeping strong offensive tackles at bay. (His arms measure 34 7/8 inches.)

"He can play three different positions," said Adrian, "and he's taking up just one spot on your roster."

That, combined with the fact Trail comes from a relatively obscure school, explains why scouts and analysts are having trouble pegging his draft projection. He's a physical specimen, but he's never played against top-flight competition and he may not have a true position. 

Adrian's original design, though, might be Trail's real destiny. He brought him in to be an overwhelming presence as an outside linebacker in Norfolk State's 3-4 defense. "And he obviously did a good job, because everybody would run away from him," said Adrian. "They couldn't run at him.

"Whenever you game-planned against us, you had to find out where No. 7 was first. He really was dominant."

But of course he was. We're talking about a kid who had a 6'10" high jump and was an All-State basketball player as well as a football star in high school. He received over 100 scholarships in three different sports (about 75 in football, 20 in basketball, several in track and field and even some dual offers for basketball and football). 

Through that process, Trail learned not to force anything. And now he realizes he's no longer in the driver's seat, which is why, unlike many prospects, he refuses to admit to even preferring a position. 

"Until a team drafts me—God willing—and chooses a position for me," he said, "I'm working at all three positions."

Late bloomer...sort of

To be big in the football world, you must be both long and wide, which explains why I'm about to call Trail a late bloomer despite the fact he guesses he was 5'7" in the fourth grade. 

See, he wasn't always 270 pounds. In fact, Trail weighed only about 200 pounds when he was receiving scholarship offers from dozens of Power Five conference schools, including Florida, LSU, Florida State, Purdue, Georgia, Miami (Florida), Michigan, Tennessee and USC. 

Over the last five years, Trail has increased his body mass by about 35 percent. Without that growth, he simply wouldn't be on the NFL's radar right now. 

He picked Florida, by the way, redshirting in 2010 because he wasn't big enough to battle with SEC offensive linemen. And that's when Trail realized he had to transform himself physically to fulfill his dream of making a living playing this game. 

"It was kind of hard to just watch football," he said, "but I knew realistically there wasn't much I was going to be able to do at defensive end weighing 200 pounds in the SEC." 

He spent that "off year" gaining weight. The Florida strength coaches had him eating eighteight!—meals per day, with Trail setting timers to remind him to consume calories. 

"I just kept telling myself, 'Do you want to go to sleep, or do you want to wake up, make yourself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, drink some milk and then go back to sleep?'" he said. "Because greatness doesn't sleep." 

By the time he jumped to Norfolk State after the 2011 season, Trail weighed over 230 pounds. He was ready, but the next step would take him out of his home state of Florida. 

Stood out in a football hotbed

You get the feeling Florida and the rest of those Division I FBS schools offering scholarships to Trail knew he wasn't ready and his redshirting was inevitable, not only because he was tremendously undersized, but also because he was simply raw. 

That's because Trail couldn't play football during the majority of his childhood, which was undoubtedly painful for a young, athletic kid growing up in the Miami area. He was surrounded by the sport in one of the nation's top football breeding grounds, but because he suffered from epilepsy, his mother, Dorothea Williams, didn't permit him to play. 

Once he had gone several years without a seizure, Williams finally relented and gave her son a chance to add to a sports repertoire that already contained basketball and track. He had to play catchup at first, which is why he didn't immediately take to the game. 

But then he met Teddy Bridgewater. 

As pre-high school tweens, Trail and Bridgewater—who now quarterbacks for the NFL's Minnesota Vikings—teamed up and won a pair of Pop Warner Super Bowls. Bridgewater got the majority of the attention behind center, but Trail was the 6'3" 13-year-old on the other end. 

"Me and Teddy kind of clicked and dominated," said Trail. "Sometimes he'd just scramble around and just throw the ball up [to me]." 

That out-of-this-world height separated him from a pack of future NFL talent. 

"Everywhere I went," he says, "they'd ask to check my birth certificate."

By the way, Trail has an official visit scheduled with the Vikings, so don't count out a reunion with Bridgewater. 

"That would be beautiful," he said.  

Almost lost hope

Life in Gainesville wasn't what Trail expected. Not only did he redshirt in 2010, but he didn't see the field in 2011. With head coach Urban Meyer gone, he saw the writing on the wall and decided to transfer.

But even that process was strenuous. You can't typically jump from one FBS program to another without having to sit out a year, and Trail says Florida restricted his movement so much that finding loopholes with fellow top-tier schools was nearly impossible. His transfer attempts to Ohio State and Louisville were blocked, and he couldn't remain in the state of Florida. 

"I was at a breaking point," he said, "to the degree that I just kind of lost sight on football and I pretty much just wanted to get my degree. It didn't really matter where." 

That's why Norfolk State made sense. Its graduation rate is among the highest in college football, and it has a strong department of mass communications, a field Trail is passionate about. (He earned his degree in the fall.) 

Before NSU defensive line coach Mark Thurston reached out to Trail, he had never heard of the school. 

"All I really knew were D-1 schools," he said. "In my mind, I figure if you go to a D-1 school, you ball out, get your degree, you have a shot at the league. I never considered a D-1AA school would give you the opportunity to actually get to the next level." 

But Thurston, who also had Miami roots, convinced him and his mom he'd have a chance to flourish on and off the field at the Virginia-based public school. Trail was naturally skeptical when they promised him everything he wanted, "but what they said actually came true."

"In this case," he added, "it turned out to be a blessing."

He realized that quickly when he saw his face on city buses, and things only took off from there on the field. He was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award as the top FCS defensive player in the country back-to-back years, and in 2013, he was named the National FCS Defensive Performer of the Year by the College Football Performance Awards. 

"When I look back," Trail admits, "my junior stats were ridiculous."

Those numbers came back to earth a touch with opposing offenses keying on him in 2014, but Trail had already proved he was worthy of a chance at an NFL gig. 

Nowhere without Mom

Williams worked as a nurse while single-handedly raising Trail and his three brothers in the rough Overtown neighborhood northwest of downtown Miami. Trail seems certain that football indirectly saved him from gangs and drugs, but there's little doubt his mother had a more distinct impact on his potential path. 

That became jarringly apparent on July 4, 2009, when Williams forbade Trail from attending a block party being held in honor of an acquaintance who had recently been released from jail.  

Trail begrudgingly followed Mom's orders, which might be the only reason he wasn't shot and killed alongside one of his best friends, Anthony Smith. The official story indicates Smith and a 21-year-old pregnant Florida A&M nursing student were in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught by crossfire. 

Trail, who doesn't go a day without thinking of Smith or of the fact that he could have been at that party, now has a tattoo on his left forearm commemorating his lost friend and is dedicating his football future to him.  

"That could have been you," he tells himself, "had you not listened to your mom."

Williams kept telling Trail and his siblings that they didn't have to be products of their environment, but that didn't hit home until he lost the typical teenage sense of invincibility. 

"I'm a kid from Overtown," he said. "You gotta watch The First 48 in order to see my neighborhood. It was an eye-opening experience regarding what was really going on around me, because I was kind of clueless to it." 

Now living with his longtime girlfriend, Michelle Dorsey, and her daughter Jade, Trail has already successfully avoided becoming a product of Overtown. 

"His mother did a real nice job at raising him," said Adrian. "Lynden likes to have a lot of fun, but he's no-nonsense when it comes to working at football and doing everything he's supposed to do."

He and Dorsey recently bought a home in Portsmouth, Virginia, which has an extra room for Williams. He plans on bringing her up from Florida for the draft. 

"There's been so much that I feel like I've accomplished outside of just football," he said. "It's more so life. Football's beautiful, but I feel like what I've accomplished off the field is even better."

Regarding his mom, the first order of business if he lands an NFL contract will be "to put some money in her hand and take care of some things for her."

"I mean, my mom has done so much to raise four boys on her own," he said, "so it would be the best feeling in the world to just tell her, 'I got it, don't worry about it.'"

Williams' job is just about done, so now it's time for Trail to take care of business. He's confident that'll happen regardless of his football future, which remains in his own hands as well as those of former NFL great Randy White, who is helping to train him. 

White is Trail's new mentor, and Michelle and Jade make up his new family, but he knows he wouldn't likely have any of them in his life if not for his mother. 

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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