- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2005

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Chad Lavalais was an easy target when he showed up for his first workout with the Atlanta Falcons.

After all, here was a rookie with an ample waistline, an irritating dose of cockiness and a former job that attracted plenty of barbs from his new teammates.

Hey, Chad, how did you enjoy your time in prison?

“We gave him all kinds of stuff about that,” Falcons defensive lineman Ed Jasper said, breaking into a sly grin. “We tore him up. But he took it good.”

For the record, Lavalais didn’t wind up on the wrong side of the law, as many athletes do. But the defensive tackle did serve time as a prison guard, a discouraging job that made him yearn to return to football.

The story is one Lavalais doesn’t enjoy recounting.

“Oh, man, you’re not going to ask me about the prison guard thing?” he said when approached by a reporter.

It was just a job, he said, a way to put some money in his pocket while he figured out what he wanted to do with his life.

In a nutshell, here’s what happened: Lavalais was a high school star in Marksville, La., who wanted to play for Louisiana State. But he failed repeated attempts to earn a qualifying score on his college entrance exam, forcing him to sit out two full seasons. During that depressing time, he needed something to do. So he filled out an application to be a guard at the Avoyelles Parish Correctional Facility, not far from his home.

“They were always looking for guys,” Lavalais recalled. “I had to work somewhere, make a little income, instead of just sitting around on my butt.”

He was a guard for about eight months — more than enough time to realize he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life guarding those behind bars.

“It was a reality check — especially the fact that three guys I went to school with were in there [as inmates],” Lavalais said. “I had to get out of that small town.”

He worked 12-hour shifts as a guard — dealing with a restless inmate population, breaking up the occasional fight, getting a glimpse of what life could be like for someone who wound up on the wrong side of the law.

“In a way, it was like football camp,” Lavalais said. “When you’re around a bunch of men all the time, stuff builds up. Eventually, the slightest little thing irritates you. That’s the way it is in prison.”

Then-LSU coach Nick Saban didn’t forget Lavalais, encouraging him to take the ACT exam again. After working with tutors, Lavalais finally passed. That was the pardon he needed to escape his old life. Instead of getting a new suit when he walked out of prison, he received a helmet and shoulder pads.

Lavalais went on to have a brilliant career with the Tigers as a massive presence in the middle of their line. As a senior, he led an inspired defensive effort against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, helping LSU claim a share of the national title.

But Lavalais’ college success didn’t translate into fame and glory at the NFL Draft. At 25, he was older than most rookies. There was plenty of concern about his weight (which had ballooned to more than 300 pounds) and his work ethic.

Looking back, Lavalais said he put on the extra weight because most of the teams he talked with envisioned him as a nose guard in a three-man line. But no one called his name on the first day of the draft. He went to bed that night wondering what went wrong.

The next morning, Lavalais got word he had been selected by the Falcons in the fifth round, the 142nd pick overall. But he wasn’t going to play in the middle of a three-man front. Atlanta was switching back to the 4-3 — and wasn’t too pleased when the rookie showed up for his first camp weighing 319 pounds.

“When you look at his body, I don’t think any of us would aspire to have that body,” coach Jim Mora quipped.

In training camp, the veteran linemen pinned a nickname on the newcomer — “Jelly,” as in jelly belly. Lavalais’ confident demeanor made everyone pile on even more.

“A rookie is always going to get a hard time but especially Lavalais. It was nothing bad, but he’s got this little swagger to him,” Jasper said. “When a young guy comes in and goes against the grain, he’s going to get it.”

The Falcons ragged Lavalais unmercifully — about his girth, about his old job, anything they could do to get under his skin. But he took it all in stride, gradually earning the acceptance of the veterans.

“If he didn’t take it good, we would still be rolling him,” Jasper said. “You see rookies who can’t take it. They don’t even want to walk into the locker room because they’re afraid of getting talked about.”

Lavalais worked hard to get his weight down, settling at around 295 pounds. He didn’t take anything for granted, knowing that fifth-round picks were capable of being cut without playing a down in the NFL.

As it turned out, Lavalais was one of the key picks of the draft for the Falcons. He has provided valuable depth on the interior behind Jasper and Rod Coleman, helping fill one of the biggest holes in the Falcons’ defense.

Because quality backups were lacking, the starters spent way too long on the field. By the end of the game, they were exhausted. Lavalais and another newcomer, Antwan Lake, gave the Falcons a seven-man rotation that keeps everyone fresh.

“It makes all the difference in the world,” Jasper said. “We have something left in the fourth quarter.”

Lavalais isn’t bitter about slipping all the way to the fifth round, but he does feel a bit of redemption when he looks at some of those who went in the earlier rounds.

“I’m not going to call anyone out, but I know there are plenty of guys who went ahead of me who aren’t even playing,” he said.

Despite a life filled with ups and downs, Lavalais has no complaints about the way it’s all turned out. Just one year after winning a college championship, he’s on a team that captured the NFC South title and finds itself just two victories away from playing in the Super Bowl.

The Falcons (11-5) earned a first-round bye and will play host to at least one game in the playoffs (Saturday night against St. Louis).

“You can’t change anything, so you just move on and do good with what you’ve got,” Lavalais said. “I count my blessings every day.”

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