Lauderdale endures a turbulent path to ASU

“No way. Never.” This is how Eric Lauderdale responded to the question of if five years ago he would have believed he would be living in Tempe playing for Arizona State University. However, the past five years have not been filled with highlights many similarly elite athletes experience as his life and football career have taken dramatic and tragic twists that ultimately made him a Sun Devil.

When Lauderdale was an infant his father was killed, and roughly 16 years later the standout receiver for Fayetteville (Ga.) Fayette County High School’s mother passed away after a battle with cancer.

An unbearable weight for any teenager, the difficulties surrounding the loss of his mother drastically affected Lauderdale’s performance in school, which ultimately also impacted his otherwise abundant athletic options.

At the time, Lauderdale had widespread recruiting attention from programs including Clemson, Memphis, Mississippi, Tennessee, Tulane, Vanderbilt and others, but due to academic qualification issues his next stop became Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., an institution with football alumni such as NFL Pro Bowlers Ahmad Brooks, Brandon Flowers, Jay Ratliff and Carlos Rogers, among others, as well as former NFL star Torry Holt.

“I knew I had the divison one talent, I just didn’t know how long it would take me or where I would end up at,” recalled Lauderdale. “But I knew I wanted to play football because that’s what would take me far in life. So I just had my mind set on making it to the division one level.”

Lauderdale’s time at Hargrave was short lived, as his family had difficulties meeting the $18,000 semester tuition requirement. Despite his preference to avoid using playing eligibility at the junior college level, Lauderdale was faced with the need to pursue that route.

While visiting family members in California, he evaluated a few options in the Golden State and ultimately settled on Saddleback College in Mission Viejo – a destination approximately 2,200 miles from Lauderdale’s Georgia home.

Upon Lauderdale’s arrival prior to the 2012 season, not everyone around him at the time knew his potential, but after catching 60 passes for 916 yards with seven touchdowns as a freshman his skill set and future prospects became widely known.

“I had the talent to go to the divison one level,” reflected Lauderdale. “I had that energy that nobody was going to stop me from getting to where I was going to go. I had 12 or 13 offers going into my sophomore season and my coaches were shocked because I was getting them fast.”

As Lauderdale entered his second year at Saddleback College, his relationship with head coach Mark McElroy blossomed – not only because Lauderdale became a hotly recruited star, but also because of the trials that preceded the Georgia native’s trek to California.

“I told him my story; at first I never talked to my coach like that personally,” admitted Lauderdale. “I told him my story of my mom and my dad and that’s what drives me—that’s what puts some ferocity in my eyes—I told him my story and ever since then, he calls me to check on me and he sees where I get my energy from and I have a close relationship with him.”

Despite missing four games in 2013, Lauderdale was Saddleback’s leading receiver with 54 catches for 703 yards with nine touchdowns, helping him ultimately become one of only four junior college wide receivers in the nation last year to be tabbed as a four-star prospect or higher by Scout.com.

By the time Lauderdale’s two-year JUCO stint concluded, he had a bounty of scholarship offers from top-tier schools including Florida, Miami (Fla.), Nebraska, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin in addition to Arizona State.

Despite a July commitment to Tennessee, as the fall arrived Arizona State and Florida remained in the picture for Lauderdale’s services and ultimately he de-committed from the Volunteers and pursued official visits at Florida, Nebraska and finally ASU in mid-January.

A week after his visit to Tempe, Lauderdale pledged to the Sun Devils, fresh off a 10-win, Pac-12 South division championship season in which ASU’s offense was a highlight of the team’s overall successes – an appealing sight to a high-octane target such as Lauderdale.

“I saw what they did last season, they passed the ball a lot and they were winning, too,” said Lauderdale. “I like Tempe, I like the area and I like Coach Graham as a person. With him, there’s discipline – there’s discipline for everyone. That’s what builds champions. Coming from a military prep school, I’m used to that.”

Despite his connection to Arizona State, on the morning of National Signing Day, a brief bit of uncertainty on his behalf and slight delay in faxing his Letter of Intent to ASU caused mild panic among the Sun Devil faithful.

“That morning, I woke up and I was thinking – I thought I committed to ASU too quickly,” said Lauderdale. “A coach from Florida called me like six in the morning, asking what I wanted to do. I was thinking and I just went with my gut, I felt like Tempe was home for me. I told the coach I was going to go to ASU. A few months later, the wide receivers coach [Joker Phillips] was fired at Florida, so I knew I felt something, that Tempe was home.”

As a Sun Devil, not only does Lauderdale have an opportunity to hit the gridiron for a ranked team with national championship aspirations, but as a scholarship member of the program his family no longer has to carry the burden of high tuition costs as it did after Lauerdale finished high school.

“I value my scholarship a lot because now no money is coming out of my family’s pocket,” admitted Lauderdale. “I’m here, so it’s all business here. They’re paying for my school so they need all my attention. And I need all their attention as well.”

Now officially a Sun Devil in his first preseason training camp with ASU, Lauderdale has experienced typical ups-and-downs of a first-year player in terms of acclimating to the nuances on the field, but he has no shortage of inspiration to use his immense skill set to catch on quickly as possible.

Lauderdale’s motivation to perform is reinforced on a daily basis as he, like all members of the program, has photos of those who inspire him displayed in his locker.

“It’s good that we do that because we’re at our locker every day,” said Lauderdale. “I put my mother, my dad, my sister and my grandmother on there and those. They just motivated me every day. Even when things are going good, I talk to them—I always talk to them—they look down on me and things always end up going well for me.”

In addition to his family support, Lauderdale also draws encouragement from fellow receiver Jaelen Strong, a player who also experienced a cross-country journey from high school to junior college as Strong traveled from Philadelphia to Los Angeles before becoming a All-America candidate in Tempe.

“Jaelen tells me that things are going to be difficult and I have to prepare for that,” said Lauderdale. “Practices are going to be hard and there is a lot of competition out here, but he tells me what I’m doing is bigger than football. I’m out here for my family and everyone who supports me and I represent them every time I’m on the field.”

With his family now having expanded to include the Sun Devil Brotherhood and having the perspective of his growth through personal tragedies, Lauderdale has the support system in place to maximize the opportunites he will be provided the next two seasons.

“I have aunts, cousins, a lot of my family members are around always, they call me to check up on me,” said Lauderdale. “But when things are rough for me, I just always think about how things used to be and that just drives me every day. When I get a little frustrated I keep going hard because I didn’t come all this way for no reason.”

With the 2014 season opener approximately two weeks away, Lauderdale is working to be a key part of a receiver rotation that assuredly will get open looks from defenses with Strong demanding coverage attention.

Unselfishly as well, Lauderdale hopes to be part of a memorable team season above merely collecting personal accolades.

“My goals this year are to play, contribute to the team and to get to the National Championship,” stated Lauderdale. “’NC-15,’ that’s our goal. We have a brotherhood. I want to help the team, be all-conference. I know I can do it, I just need to put my mind to it and stay humble.”

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