My Story: From NFL Executive To Kelley MBA Student

Dawson (far left) celebrating graduation with teammates at Notre Dame in 1994

Dawson (far left) celebrating graduation with teammates at Notre Dame in 1994

Socially, Notre Dame was a vastly different. You’re sitting in class with some tremendously smart people. Although I graduated high school with honors, I was sitting next to people who were school valedictorians! So it was competitive that way. So I had to learn to compete, not only in the classroom but also on the football field. On a daily basis, I was playing against the best-of-the-best in practice: Bryant Young, Aaron Taylor, Tom Carter, Jeff Burris, Jerome Bettis, Tim Ruddy – all these guys ended up moving on to play in the NFL. Not only were they great football players, but they were good people. Some of the best times in my life  and I loved the camaraderie that we were able to build. On the football field, we were able to find synergy. I didn’t know it then, but synergy is something that I look for on both who I sign on the football field and who I work with in the office.

Coming in as a freshman, you’re also learning about people. You’re thrown into a six man roommate situation with people from all over the world. One of my roommates was from Panama. His dad was a high figure in the government and he talked about a time when his dad had been kidnapped. Another guy was from Nebraska. He was home schooled and I was the first black guy that he’d ever gone to school with. All of that was different. I just have a love for Notre Dame and the type of people they bring to campus that can help bridge that gap that you might have racially or just in terms of different backgrounds.

At Notre Dame, I played football and ran track (the hurdles). When I think about Notre Dame, I think about family. Many of the core pillars that I follow, both in terms of family and business, I formulated when I was there under the tutelage of Coach Holtz. First and foremost was trust. In terms of people and relationships, you have to first establish trust. If people don’t know they can trust you, it can be difficult to work together. Caring is also important. If I know that I can trust you, I know you care about me and you’re going to care about your job and your work. If you care about something, you’re going to give it your best. And these are the things that are taught through football. The best thing that Coach Holtz did for me was he not only wanted us to be good student athletes, but also good people. And those three pillars – trust, care, and commitment to excellence – guide my interactions with people today.

Lake and Lori Lawson, high school sweethearts, celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary

Lake and Lori Dawson, high school sweethearts, celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary in 2015

I love every opportunity that Notre Dame gave me. I would not be the person I am today without the University of Notre Dame and the people that I met there. It took some adjustment, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

I’m also blessed by having my wife, Lori, in my life. We met in high school when I was 17. We’ve been married now for 20 years and we have three beautiful kids. She has been there every step of the way. She went to the University of Washington when I went to Notre Dame – and this is before texting and email. So there was a lot of calling back-and-forth – remember the “please deposit a $1.25 in the phone type of thing.” It’s been amazing having all those moments, dating back to high school, with her.

I was drafted in the 3rd round by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1994. Coming into the draft, I was completely excited about the opportunity. I remember being a little depressed initially about not being drafted higher because several of my friends had been first round picks. When you go to Notre D ame – and you play against these guys everyday – you think, ‘If they can do it, I should be able to do it.’ So I came into the NFL with a little chip on my shoulder.

I ended up starting some of my rookie year and having some success.Just to give you a picture of what it looked like: I am standing in huddle and to my left is Joe Montana and to my right is Marcus Allen. These guys were legendary – Joe Montana was like a rock star. We went over to Japan for the American Bowl and people were following him around like he was Elvis Presley. Joe actually threw me my very first NFL touchdown. Since he’d gone to the University of Notre Dame, Joe took me under his wing. He told me to continue to work hard and perfect your craft and work with a purpose.

It was great in Kansas City. Besides Montana and Allen, I played with Will Shields, Derrick Thomas, and Neil Smith. We had some good years there. We went to the playoffs, but we didn’t go as far as we’d liked. And one thing you learn about the NFL is that it’s “not for long.” You see guys come and go. At some point in time, it’ll be your turn to go. I had some injuries slow my progress. In 1998, I was a free agent and the Chiefs were ready to move on. The late Lamar Hunt was the owner of the Chiefs then and he was a great man. He was all about people. He didn’t treat his players like they were just employees. They were part of his family. When I left the Chiefs, he wrote a handwritten note to me about how much he appreciated my work and what a good representative I was for his organization. He didn’t have to do that. I think it is that type of leadership and communication that I aspire to emulate.

Dawson making a catch as a Chief

Dawson making a catch as a Chief

Carl Peterson was always the type of general manager who, while he was stoic, would always take time to talk to the guys he brought in – and I appreciated that. And Marty Schottenheimer was an English major who loved teaching and knew how important it was to football. I say that because those are some of the same criteria I look for in coaches – and I’ve been in a position to hire a coach. And it’s the same thing with players when I evaluate: I think about players I played with and the traits that those guys had when I’m trying to find guys.

It’s just unfortunate that your body fails you in some point in time. That’s something, unfortunately, that a lot of football players don’t realize until it is too late. My body started to break down too. After Kansas City, I spent two more years with the Indianapolis Colts early in Peyton Manning’s career, but I really didn’t play. I was doing all these extra things—ice and heat treatments for example – just to get onto the field and practice. One or two surgeries later, it was time to move onto something else.

In February of 2001, I found myself sitting in the office of Bill Polian, who was the general manager of the Colts.Bill was basically cutting me. He says, “Lake, your ankle has taken a little too long to get better. We’re going to have to part ways.” Now that I’m on this side of the table, it’s very bizarre that someone would take the time to talk to me as long as Bill did that day. It can be an awkward talk when you’re telling a player that his services are no longer needed. What I learned from this experience is that you never know when someone is watching – you want to give your best effort. I say this is because Polian told me, “I noticed in the meetings that you take a lot of notes.” I didn’t know he even sat in on our meetings. I never saw him. And he said, “Lake, have you ever thought about being a coach?” I said, “No, it seems like coaches move every two or three years” — and I’d just had my first baby with Lori.”

Bill Polian, Hall of Fame General Manager

Bill Polian, Hall of Fame General Manager

And Bill goes, “Well, have you ever thought about getting into personnel?” So I asked him to tell me about it. So he went on to explain player acquisitions. There are two sides to building a team. There’s the college and the pro sides. College scouts are information gatherers. Their jobs mostly take place from August to December. They’re on the road two weeks at a time, evaluating prospects at schools in a specific territory. They watch film and interview people on campus about particular players in preparation for the NFL Combine and the college draft.

Then he goes on to tell me about pro scouting, which are mostly in-house roles. Their job is to act almost as outside consultants to the coaches. For example, if a player gets hurt, the pro personnel department will furnish a list of free agents who are ready and available to play. And they also evaluate the current roster to help decide which players they want back. With free agency and the salary cap, your roster is going to change every single year. Aside from knowing the team and the available players, their other job is to scout opponents two weeks in advance and write a report on their strengths and weaknesses. Then, you would present that information to the coach to help them develop a game plan.

I told Polian that it sounded interesting. He offered to get me a pass into the NFL Combine (held in Indianapolis) and encouraged me to reach out to every coach or personnel guy that I’d ever came into contact with. So I did just that. I put on my suit and cleaned up my resume. I went to the combine and networked…but nothing really happened. I was doing a lot of hustling and writing letters and emails — and some people did give me face time. I hadn’t done an interview since I entered the NFL. I didn’t know what it meant to sit down and research someone. It was good training for me.