Might Pittsburgh be headed back? "This is a special team," Kirkland said on Thursday, two days before the Steelers filched from the Patriots a game they had no business winning. "We've got great players but no real egos. That goes back to a guy like Lake—a star who works hard at all times, who does unselfish things."
It was Lake's selflessness, in addition to his talent, that persuaded the Steelers to designate him as their franchise player after the 1994 season. But he's more than that. "With Carnell," says Donahoe, "we get a franchise player and a franchise person. There are times you look at him and you almost say, This guy's too good to be true."
Monica Bragg harbored no such thoughts when she met her future husband. As UCLA freshmen in 1985, she and Lake took the same English course. On the first day of class the instructor asked the students to get to know the person next to them and then introduce that person to the class. Lake concluded his introduction of Bragg with surprising bluntness, saying, "She doesn't have a boyfriend, and I'm glad about that."
Bragg, a graduate of Beverly Hills High, found this overture—and Lake himself—a bit coarse and heavy-handed. Still, they became friends. By the end of their freshman year, they were more than friends. Bragg started attending Lake's games the following season. "When he played linebacker, it was easy to see what his job was," she says. "He sacked the quarterback." Indeed, Lake had 22.5 sacks in three years as a Bruins starter. "When he switched to safety [in the NFL], it took me a long time to figure out what his job was," she says. Recalling Carnell's days as a sack artist, she has often told him he should blitz more. This season, she notes with pleasure, someone seems to agree with her: His six sacks lead the Steelers.
After his senior season at UCLA, Lake hired agent Leigh Steinberg, who says he was struck by the 21-year-old's "Yoda-like" maturity and self-possession. "Carnell isn't self-centered," says Steinberg. "When he asks how you're doing, he actually wants to know."
Lake signed a three-year, $850,000 contract with the Steelers. Then, in what was possibly the least acrimonious holdout in NFL history, he missed the first 25 days of training camp in 1995 while Steinberg negotiated a four-year, $9.2 million deal. "What typically happens during a holdout is, at 10 in the morning the player is ready to hold out for the rest of his life," says Steinberg. "By noon he wants to sign. At four o'clock he's back to 'Screw the team.' Carnell never wavered. He was a rock."
The Pittsburgh brass took its sweet time during those negotiations, knowing Lake would report in superb shape. He always has. At the Steelers' Latrobe, Pa., training camp, Lake often runs the treadmill for 20 minutes and then jumps rope for another 15 before heading out for a two-hour practice, after which he runs sprints up a hill adjacent to the field. During the season he runs before and after practice. On game days, to the mystification of his teammates, he puts in a brisk mile on the treadmill before heading out for the warmup.
These habits go back to his days at UCLA. "There were so many world-class track athletes," says Lake, "and I would watch to see how they warmed up. They would run and run and run, but then, when it was time to race, they were ready."
On Sept. 2, 1995, 19 days after Carnell ended his holdout, Monica gave birth to their daughter, Siena. The following day Woodson was injured. Eight weeks later Lake was starting at cornerback. The timing of the switch was brutal. Lake was hosting a weekly television show for the first time; he was taking a night class in accounting at Duquesne and had just started taking taekwondo lessons. Now he needed to spend extra time every night studying video and trying to learn a new position. "There was a four-month stretch when we didn't go out once," says Monica. "It was very stressful."
"From Safety to Corner: The Sequel" has been less traumatic. Monica has since convinced Carnell of the importance of their getting out at least one night a week. He still spends extra time each week self-scouting—"Stay low!" he scribbles in the notebook he keeps for each game, "Focus!"—and studying tape of opposing wide receivers. But as far as playing corner, "I don't have much anxiety about it at all now," he says.