All around Carnell Lake there was chaos. Backstage at last week's Steeler Fashion Bowl '97, in downtown Pittsburgh, Santa Claus was having trouble fastening his pants. "Somebody help me," pleaded offensive tackle and St.-Nick-for-a-Night Justin Strzelczyk, but there were no takers. Meanwhile, beaver coat-clad inside linebacker Levon Kirkland was angling for compliments—"How do I look?" he wanted to know—and wide receiver Yancey Thigpen was being dressed down by an actual model. "My name is Charley," she pouted. "Why can't you get it right."
Three days before a 24-21 overtime win over the New England Patriots virtually wrapped up the AFC Central title for Pittsburgh last Saturday, 40-some Steelers and their significant others moonlighted as models at a charity fashion show benefiting Pittsburgh's Burger King Cancer Caring Center. While his teammates struggled with their ensembles, Lake leaned back in a folding chair, suave as Sinatra, in a Polo cream-and-brown sweater with an eggshell turtleneck and brown corduroy pants. He was an island of serenity.
Lake, more than any other Steeler, would be within his rights to succumb to an occasional panic attack, considering that lately he doesn't know what position he will be playing from season to season, from week to week. Plagued by free agency defections, injuries and ineptitude at cornerback, Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher has repeatedly turned to his 30-year-old All-Pro strong safety for help. In two of the past three seasons Lake has played as much at cornerback as at his regular position. This season's shuttling: five games at safety, followed by four at right corner, one at safety, one at corner, two at safety and two at corner, including Saturday's win ewer New England, in which Lake's biggest challenge was to remain awake while Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe tortured Steelers rookie corner Chad Scott on the other side of the field.
Is Lake resentful? Does he long for the safe haven of safety? Does he wish things could get back to normal? "Sometimes normal is boring," he says. "You lose your edge when things are normal. You get in a routine, and your mind doesn't have to work as hard. You get lackadaisical." In other words, it's when he's taking on such daunting challenges as the ones Cowher has placed before him that Lake feels most alive. To paraphrase Descartes: I risk being burnt to a crisp on every play, therefore I am.
Ten times during a 20-minute interview last Thursday, Lake was interrupted by teammates wishing to congratulate him. An hour earlier Cowher had read off the names of the six Steelers voted into the Pro Bowl. For the fourth straight year Lake made it. As a strong safety. Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis thinks this year's voters rewarded Lake for both his excellence as a defensive back and his courage. "Leaving a position that you play at a Pro Bowl level for a position you might be mediocre at—that takes guts," says the Bus, who knows from guts and who is also Honolulu-bound.
The fact is, Lake has been sensational at cornerback. No receiver has had a big day against him this season, which is not surprising. It was his adaptability as much as his athletic ability that initially intrigued the Steelers. A running back at Culver City ( Calif.) High, Lake rushed for 956 yards in five games as a senior before a dislocated elbow ended his season. At running-back-rich UCLA he was switched to outside linebacker, becoming one of the few collegians at that position to return kickoffs. In his spare time he worked on pass coverage techniques. At 6'�", 204 pounds, with 4.37-second speed in the 40, Lake knew where his NFL future lay. After his senior season, in 1988, he was asked to play safety at a pair of postseason all-star games, and he covered receivers, said one hard-boiled judge of NFL talent, "like he'd been doing it all his life."
That smitten individual was Hall of Famer Chuck Noll, the Steelers' coach at the time. Pittsburgh selected him with the sixth pick in the second round of the 1989 draft, a choice draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. described as "a reach." In his first training camp The Reach backed up a perfectly capable strong safety named Cornell Gowdy. After four preseason games Pittsburgh stunned Cornell and Carnell, waiving the former and handing his job to the latter, whose team-high five fumble recoveries as a rookie foretold a big-play penchant that has never been more in evidence than in this, Lake's ninth NFL season. Witness two plays on consecutive Sundays in October:
?Blitzing from his cornerback position against the Indianapolis Colts on Oct. 12, Lake stripped the ball from quarterback Jim Harbaugh, recovered it and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown in a 24-22 win. (The play evoked a similar strip, recovery and 85-yard touchdown run by Lake against the Jacksonville Jaguars last season.)
?With Pittsburgh leading the Cincinnati Bengals 23-10 in the fourth quarter on Oct. 19, Cincy wideout Carl Pickens eluded zone coverage, caught a short pass and headed for the end zone. With an astonishing burst, Lake overtook Pickens at the 14-yard line and punched the ball from his grasp. The ball bounced through the end zone for a touchback. Game over. "One of the greatest plays I've ever seen," says Steelers director of football operations, Tom Donahoe.
Pittsburgh has become accustomed to being bailed out by Lake. Seven games into the 1995 season, the Steelers were 3-4, in large part because of the loss of cornerback Rod Woodson, who had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the season opener. When Cowher asked Lake to switch to cornerback, Lake wasn't sure he wouldn't fall on his face. (Not everyone would have gone along with such a change. When Cowher moved outside linebacker Greg Lloyd to inside linebacker in '92, Lloyd sulked and deliberately made mistakes in practice until Cowher was forced to move him back.) Lake, however, accepted the challenge; the Steelers won 10 of their next 11 games en route to the Super Bowl.