My Story: From NFL Executive To Kelley MBA Student

Lake Dawson

Lake Dawson

For Lake Dawson, winning teams are built long before they hit the playing field. They are first the product of vision, strategy, and execution. They are the extension of a larger culture that values character, communication, consistency, and commitment to craft. And they are the fruits of staying true to your philosophy and purpose.

These are the beliefs that guide Dawson as an NFL executive. Currently the Senior Player Personnel Associate for the Cleveland Browns, Dawson embodies the success of these beliefs. As a wide receiver at Notre Dame, his teams went 40-8-1, including three bowl wins and three Top 10 finishes. In the pros, he played alongside Joe Montana in Kansas City, making the playoffs three times in his first four years. In his first front office role with the Seattle Seahawks, his teams made the playoffs four out of six years, culminating with a Super Bowl appearance in the 2005 season. From there, he climbed the ladder to become the Vice President of Player Personnel with the Tennessee Titans. His work is so respected that he has been interviewed to be the General Manager of such organizations as the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins – the MBA equivalent to heading up a firm like Coca-Cola or Deloitte.

To the layman, Dawson is a scout – those guys who dissect players’ size, speed, skill sets, and temperaments to gauge their fit to a team. But that has been just the tip of his job description. In reality, Dawson’s work is about profit-and-loss as much as wins-and-losses. In Tennessee, he oversaw budgets and managed departments ranging from video and information technology to scouting and player engagement. He has recruited top free agents, negotiated contracts worth tens-of-millions, hired a coach, and even built a company division from scratch. A man of faith and family, Dawson understands that his job description (in this order) is to win games, be relevant in the community, and protect the brand. 

Lake Dawson celebrating a victory in the Titans locker room

Dawson celebrating a victory in the Tennessee Titans locker room

“From a financial standpoint, the NFL is a very strong business,” Dawson tells Poets&Quants. “For me, I still think it is a people business that’s built on trust and getting the right people into position.”

After two decades in the NFL, Dawson also understands that his industry is continuously evolving. From roster churn and to overseas expansion, an NFL executive is expected to be a master generalist, who can navigate both a board room and a locker room. To help him expand his executive toolkit, he enrolled in Indiana University’s NFLPA Partnership Program through Executive Degree Programs (EDP) at the Kelley School, where he is scheduled to earn his MBA in early 2017. And Dawson, a man accustomed to working in high performance teams, feels right at home in the Kelley MBA program, ranked as the top online MBA program by U.S. News & World Report.

“At Kelley, you’re working with people from all over the entire world,” he explains. “And then you have to come together on a group project to put something together. It’s exciting to hear about the different worlds that they’re coming from. You have engineers, business majors, artists – everyone has their own expertise and they’re trying to find a way to work together. Ultimately, that’s what a team is all about.”

It’s been a rewarding journey for Dawson, who traded in his helmet and cleats for Hugo Boss suits and Cole Haan shoes. So how did a high school stat keeper become a starting NFL wide receiver and later a coveted executive? Here is Lake Dawson’s story in his own words.

I was raised in a two parent home to two teenage parents. My father, Lewis, comes from Orlando. Marlene, my mom, is originally from Miami. She was raised by her father (Lake Mathis) and seven other siblings – all of whom were girls. Her mother passed when she was nine years old – a major blow in her life. Her father only went to the sixth grade. He wasn’t the most academic guy, but he was a very, very hard worker.

My mother is a very strong lady. She is very focused with Christian beliefs. She always said to me that she didn’t want to be another statistic of a young African American woman from a poor background. And she wasn’t going to let being pregnant with me get in the way of her dreams. But in any trying time, you need help from people around you. So she moved up to Boston, where her older sister was, and had me.

My mom went to Boston State College, where she got a degree in education. She was literally taking me to campus after she had me. My father moved up to Boston in pursuit of my mom and enrolled in school there. And the two of them tried to make it work. Eventually, they moved back to Miami. My parents were young people trying to work it out. It was a difficult time with the financial pressures of providing for me and one another – and just growing up and trying to figure out what direction you want to go. They’d separate here-and-there, but for the most part they were together.

Lake Vance wearing his grandson's Kansas City Chiefs jersey

Lake Mathis wearing his grandson’s Kansas City Chiefs jersey

My dad was looking for a better opportunity economically. It was the early 80s and he saw how the economy was shifting. So he went out west to Alaska. At the time, my mom and I were living in what we called “the shack,” a small two bedroom house that my grandfather had built, where you could see the dirt the house was sitting on in some spots.

Eventually, my dad left Alaska and found a job in Seattle in the mid 80s. He sent for us, including my younger brother, Lewis, Junior, who is six years younger than I am. So we went to Washington to be a family again. I remember spending seven days on a Greyhound bus. One day, I was sitting next to this guy who’d just gotten out of prison. I was 12 and playing my head-to-head football video game while my mom was sleeping across from me. And this guy was talking to me about being obedient and listening to my mother so I would never go to prison. He talked about the things he had to do, like fighting, to get through prison and how he was happy to be free. It was scary. But it was his way of trying to help a younger person out. He warned me not to follow the same path he did with stealing and drugs. I’ll never forget how big he was. He had all my attention.

We get to Seattle and it became like the land of milk and honey for my family. I hated it initially. All of my relatives were down in Miami. Plus, it was polar opposite of Florida. We went from the Sunshine state to the rain state. We moved from a predominately black area to a predominately white one in Federal Way. It was an adjustment, culture-wise. But it turned out to be a great decision for my family in terms of economic opportunities and education. My dad became a correctional officer in the King County Jail – he recently retired after working 30-plus years there. My Mom worked in education in the Federal Way School District, eventually becoming the Sciences Center Supervisor there. Things just took off for us.

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