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Remembering Big Luke

From Associated Press

Al Lucas never forgot where he came from. Even after he went off to play pro football, Northeast High School kept pulling him home.

Lucas filled in as a substitute teacher, a mountain of a man who strolled the halls in designer suits, epitomizing success and providing hope to a downtrodden neighborhood in desperate need of both.

Lucas served as an assistant coach, inspiring his starry eyed players with prodigious feats of strength, passing along the skills and passion that took him all the way to the NFL.

“He didn’t have to come back,” said Daquan Lee, who plays center for the Raiders. “He came back because he loved it.”

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On the field, conversations with Lucas usually ended the same way: “Play like it’s the last play.”

How poignant those words turned out to be.

Lucas died four months ago in an Arena Football League game, the victim of a devastating spinal cord injury that occurred on an innocent-looking tackle, the kind of play that still seems incapable of harming a 300-pound behemoth known as “Big Luke.”

He was only 26, with a wife and 1-year-old daughter.

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“I’ve looked at the film. It wasn’t a violent hit,” said David Lucas, the player’s father and longtime member of the Georgia state legislature. “I guess God just needed someone big and strong like Al.”

The Raiders have moved on to a new season in the inevitable circle of life, which no longer includes their coach, their teacher, their friend. But they won’t forget the lessons gleaned from Lucas’ all-too-brief life.

When the defense breaks the huddle, players no longer bark out the traditional cry of “Ready, break!” Now, it’s “Ready, Luke!”

“Once a Raider, forever a Raider,” Lee said defiantly. “Fight to the death.”

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Big Luke graduated from Northeast in 1996 and went on to play at Troy State, where he was the Division I-AA defensive player of the year and played running back in goal-line situations, scoring seven touchdowns.

But Lucas was passed over in the 2000 NFL draft, the scouts concerned about a bowed left leg that his friends always kidded him about.

“Al was mad that he never got drafted,” his father said.

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Motivated by the snub, Lucas signed with the Carolina Panthers and made the team. He was never more than a fringe player -- he got in 20 games over two seasons -- but he beat the odds.

Lucas’ next stop was the indoor game, a high-scoring hybrid played in a hockey rink. He took to it right away, earning all-rookie honors and helping the Tampa Bay Storm win the 2003 AFL championship. That earned him a three-year contract with the Los Angeles Avengers.

Lucas was the cornerstone of the Avengers’ front line, but he also was building a rich life away from the field. He got married and had a child, Mariah. He attended Bible study each week. He always remembered a teammate’s birthday, usually marking the occasion with a dousing of Gatorade.

“He was doing everything right,” David Lucas said. “It’s hard to see someone who’s doing everything right get killed, then you see all these people acting crazy, cutting the fool, gang-banging, getting shot -- and they’re still alive.”

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The son of politically active parents -- Al’s mother, Elaine, is a member of the city council -- Big Luke knew he couldn’t forget the predominantly black neighborhood not far from downtown Macon, where poverty and hopelessness work hand-in-hand to stifle the American dream.

“This was someone who made it to the NFL, but he wanted to come back and help,” quarterback Rodrico Dennis said. “That made us feel good. Someone cared about us.”

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Lucas got a degree in criminal justice from Troy State, but he was thinking about returning to college to get his teaching certificate once his playing career was over.

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He had a good touch in the classroom. While Lucas wasn’t much older than the kids he taught, there was no messing around with this sub.

“You walked into class, he gave the instructions,” receiver Steven Billue said, shaking his head, “and no one said anything the rest of the day.”

Big Luke was always easy to spot, “coming down the hall with those big arms sticking out,” Lee said. And the suits. Ahh, the suits, custom made and hanging just right on Lucas’ massive frame, the calling card of a kid from the ‘hood who made good.

“He had the pretty-boy look, right down to those matching Stacy Adams shoes,” offensive lineman Joshua Denmark said with an admiring smile.

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Once Lucas joined the AFL, which opens its season right after the Super Bowl and crowns a champ just as summer is beginning, there was time to help out the Raiders’ football team. He accepted the role of assistant coach on a team that hasn’t had much success recently.

Lucas would hang out with the players in the weight room, bench-pressing close to 600 pounds when he really wanted to impress them. The bar would buckle at the ends with each effortless hoist, looking as though it could snap in half at any moment.

“He would just throw it up there like it was nothing,” Denmark marveled.

The day before a game, when the Raiders usually do a light workout in shorts, Lucas would come out wearing his old Carolina Panthers uniform -- yep, even the helmet -- and run some plays as a receiver. The players were both amused and inspired.

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As a coach, Lucas was hands on. He didn’t just bark out commands, he showed his players how it’s done in “the league.” And when he got down in the trenches, he expected the player on the other side to come at full speed.

Not that it mattered much.

“Going against him,” linebacker Robert Vanzant said, “was like going against a brick wall.”

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When the school’s head coach, Bruce Mullen, heard about Lucas’ death, the awful memories came flooding back.

Mullen’s son was killed in a car accident two years ago.

“Al reminded me so much of my son,” the coach said, struggling to hold back the tears. “Even now, it’s hard to talk about both of them.”

Then there’s Lenny Lucas, Al’s older brother by 16 months. They were as tight as two siblings could be, playing football together most of their lives, staying in touch by cell phone once they headed in different directions.

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“I’ve still got his cell phone number in my phone,” said Lenny, who spent this past season with a minor league arena team in Macon. “It’s just hard not talking to him. I can deal with not seeing him. But not talking to him, that’s tough.”

Lenny went on, his voice becoming more melancholy with each word.

“We planned on doing a whole lot together after we finished football. One of the things we wanted to do was build our own business. Maybe a gym or some other small company that me and him could manage.”

Lenny paused, then said, “I’ll have to do it by myself now.”

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His father misses those calls he used to get from Al after a game. They would talk frankly about the way he played, the father chiding his youngest boy for every missed tackle or quarterback who got away.

“Sometimes,” David Lucas said, “I’ll be sitting there thinking that Al is coming through the door. But I know he’s not coming.”

The family is healing through its religious faith, though times like this can test a person’s soul.

“I’ve not talked to anybody who’s ever been there and come back,” the father said. “I believe what I’ve been taught. But you just don’t know.”

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Before his death, Big Luke was collecting shoes and gloves to give the Raiders for their upcoming season. The kind of stuff the pros use. The kind of stuff that makes a high school kid feel special.

When Lucas’ widow, De’Shonda, went to California to pack her husband’s belongings, she found a box of gloves.

“Al loved you all so much,” she told the student body during a memorial service at Northeast. “He was always thinking about you.”

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