More than a decade and over 120 miles separate the 23-year-old from that unforgettable conversation and where he stands in this exact moment: on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus, where he’s taping a pre-draft special for local TV. But old memories often forget to fade and instead hover in the recesses of our minds, coming to light when we least expect them. And now that Lauletta is on the cusp of accomplishing the dream he envisioned growing up in Exton, Pa., he can’t help but remember the people, the coaches, the colleges that doubted his potential.
His MVP performance at January’s Senior Bowl, an all-star game featuring most of the top-ranked senior draft prospects, followed by an impressive showing at the NFL combine, helped raise his draft stock significantly. Since then, draft analysts have projected he will be selected anywhere between rounds 2-5. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Lauletta is garnering attention because of his leadership and accuracy. He threw for 10,465 yards, 73 touchdowns and only 35 interceptions, while completing 63.5 percent of his passes over four seasons (three as a starter).
“Watching him at Richmond and the way he played at the Senior Bowl, he just didn’t seem to be in awe of anything,” ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper said on a media conference call. “He just fits in, goes out there and competes.”
Lauletta already has been linked to New England due to his family’s connection to the Naval Academy, where Patriots Coach Bill Belichick’s father, Steve, was a legendary assistant and scout; his similarities to Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers starter and former Patriots quarterback who played FCS football at Eastern Illinois; and his love of lacrosse, just like Bill Belichick.
While Lauletta has been advised not to say which teams he has worked out for or visited with, he acknowledges “by the end of the whole process, you pretty much talk to everybody.” He also has “a pretty good relationship” with quarterback coaches from two nearby teams: Kevin O’Connell of the Washington Redskins and James Urban of the Baltimore Ravens, both of whom talked to him at the combine.
“I think I’ve proved that even if you go to a small school, you can still perform,” Lauletta says. “And if you’re good enough to play in the NFL, they’ll find you.”
This moment here is about the journey, and how an unwavering belief in himself can yield gratifying validation for a quarterback who many doubted was capable of playing the highest level of college football.
“It makes you want to work harder and achieve your goal because it feels sweet when you can prove people wrong,” Lauletta says. “None of those schools out of high school thought I was worth anything.”
‘We’re just football junkies’
All three of Kim Lauletta’s boys loved football, “but Kyle,” the second-oldest of her four children, “was just different,” she says by phone one evening. “It would be dark outside and I couldn’t get him to come in. He was just relentless.”
Her voice trails off as if she’s been transported in time, still envisioning Kyle playing alone at the side of the house as a young boy.
“Yeah . . . ” she finally says. “He just loved it.”
The challenge for Kim and her husband, Joe, was always straddling the line between encouraging their son to pursue his passion while trying to protect him from the disappointment that plagues so many young athletes whose dreams never materialize.
“It’s every kid’s dream, right?” Kim asks, referring to her son’s quest to become an NFL player. “Show me a kid that doesn’t dream that.”
They encouraged him to focus on incremental and “realistic” goals, so Lauletta became the starting quarterback in middle school and then in high school, where he played behind his older brother Trey until his junior year. The “real struggles,” Kim says, came toward the end of high school, when Lauletta didn’t receive the scholarship offers he had expected from major college programs.
“There were promises,” his mother says, “And they never came through.”
At Richmond, Lauletta found “the best of both worlds” — an opportunity to play FCS football, which is the lower tier of Division I, for a university with a strong academic reputation and the first undergraduate school of leadership studies.
“Even if you play 10 years [in the NFL], you’re going to have to work someday,” says Lauletta, who also played high school lacrosse and double-majored in business marketing and leadership studies.
He has not forgotten the broken promises of the college coaching community, however. And neither has his mother.
“I think he has a mental list of people who have doubted him, and a lot of those colleges,” Kim says, chuckling. “Can’t say I wouldn’t also like to see a few of those people in a dark alley. I would give them a piece of my mind. Because it was brutal. It’s a brutal process. And I understand it’s a business, but they can sound like used car salesmen.”
Football is a way of life for Lauletta’s family. His paternal grandfather, Joe, played football at Delaware and later coached football and lacrosse at Tufts and West Chester University. His father and his uncle, Lex Lauletta, both played football at Navy while Steve Belichick was on the staff.
Lauletta’s maternal grandmother would offer to babysit her grandkids, “but not during an Eagles game,” she would say sternly. Lauletta’s 16-year-old sister, Brooke, won’t sit in the student section at football games “because they don’t pay attention to the game,” according to her mother. And Kim’s sister still refuses to watch Eagles games with the Lauletta boys because they’ll rewind each play “five times” to see what every player on the field is doing.
“We’re just football junkies,” Kim says.
‘The million-dollar question’
The Senior Bowl was Lauletta’s breakout moment, but it almost didn’t happen. He spent his first night in Mobile, Ala. vomiting “every hour, on the hour.” He couldn’t eat or drink. Finally, he went to the hospital.
Tests ruled out the flu or an appendix issue, so he was given intravenous fluids and eventually cleared to return for practices.
“That was the start to my week,” says Lauletta, who was named the game’s MVP after throwing three second-half touchdown passes, including a 75-yard strike, to lead the South team to a 45-16 victory.
His performance may have surprised others, but not him. Although he was under-recruited in high school, Lauletta always was confident in his ability. Still, he doesn’t know why more schools failed to see his value.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” he says. “That, more than anything, put that fire in my gut, like, man, I want to prove all these guys wrong.”
Lauletta pauses, looks around the cavernous Cole Field House, and cites Maryland as “a perfect example.”
“I had the frame. I was tall. I thought I had a great arm. I thought I showed that I could play at that level on my tape, but just nobody wanted to pull the trigger,” he says. “But that’s okay. Everything happens for a reason.”
Lauletta plans to watch the draft on TV at home in Pennsylvania, surrounded by his parents, his three siblings, and aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents — the inner circle of supporters who were with him from the beginning.
“He just wanted it to be family. And he’s already requested the cheesesteaks,” Kim says. “So, just family and, you know, sweatpants.”
No matter where he’s drafted, Lauletta will forever see himself as the underdog, and he’ll likely always remember the people who didn’t think he had a chance — like his close buddy from seventh grade who told him he’d embarrass himself after he tried out for the starting job.
A decade has passed since then, but Lauletta still can’t bring himself to identify his detractor on the record.
“I’m not dishing out names,” he says, laughing. “I actually reminded him of that years later and he was like, ‘I never said that.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, yes, you did.’ That stuff sticks with me.”
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