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This article was published 4/2/2015 (2418 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When Jamel Lyles agreed to play football at the University of Manitoba, the red-hot recruit planned to leave his British Columbia home this summer, do things the usual way.
Then life handed off a devastating carry, one Lyles had no choice but to run with, and all those plans changed.
Now, six months before training camp opens, the explosive 18-year-old running back is already in Winnipeg to stay. He arrived alone last week, leaving everything behind in Surrey, B.C.
On Tuesday, he enrolled at Dakota Collegiate, where he'll polish off his Grade 12 credits before his Bisons career starts in earnest.
Initially, he brushes off the unique arrangement. "I just want to start getting my career going," he tells a news conference.
But there's so much more to this story, a mixture of triumph and tragedy.
It starts with a friendship so close it was almost family.
'That was something that really took me down to my knees, and took me out. But then again, it's also so motivating, because he always believed in me... It's going to be a reason why I train, and reason why I get on the field'‐ Jamel Lyles on the killing of his best friend, Jaylen Sandhu
Jaylen Sandhu was just one year younger, but Lyles fondly called him "little brother." Their mothers were best friends and neighbours, so the boys grew up thinking of each other as siblings, and played on the same football teams.
When Lyles decided to commit to the Bisons, Sandhu cheered him on. "Jamel you're going to make it, you're going to kill it," Lyles recalls his friend telling him. "You're going to do big things in Manitoba."
Whatever Lyles' future holds, Sandhu did not live to see it unfold. On the afternoon of Dec. 18, he was stabbed at a home in Surrey, surviving just long enough to escape the attack. One day after Christmas, while police still hunted for a suspect, Sandhu's loved ones laid him to rest.
"That was something that really took me down to my knees, and took me out," Lyles says. "But then again, it's also so motivating, because he always believed in me... It's going to be a reason why I train, and reason why I get on the field."
For Lyles, one of the top running backs in the country, Winnipeg is the future. It's where his mother, Sharon, grew up, and where his cousin Jordan Linnen recently carved out a fine career as a Bisons DB. This is the city where he'll take the next steps in his football dream.
And Winnipeg marks a fresh start, just seven weeks after an outburst of violence stole the life of someone close to his heart.
Struggling with grief, Lyles and his mother came up with a new plan. They decided it was time to get him our of Surrey and start his new life in Winnipeg, far from the turmoil and trauma of what happened.
"I think for him to be in a new environment, he'll be able to focus a bit easier," Sharon Lyles said over the phone from Surrey. "Just get away from what's going on here, and focus on what he needs to do. His dream is coming. This is the first step of being in the right direction."
'He was a star, right from the very beginning'‐ Sharon Lyles, Jamel's mother
Just before Christmas, Sharon called Bisons head coach Brian Dobie. In the weeks that followed, the three worked hard to get things in order, arranging for Lyles to study at Dakota and billet with the family of another Bisons athlete.
Dobie can't remember another situation like this in his career. The other five recruits the coach announced on Tuesday were all locals, who came to the U of M the typical way. There was Murdoch McKay defensive end Jared Lazarenko and his teammate, defensive linebacker Tristan Bredin; Sisler High offensive lineman Randy Sanderson; Brandon-raised receiver Cassidy Obijiaku; and Oak Park quarterback Ethan Diakow, who may switch to DB this season.
Then there is Lyles, and he is something special. Dobie long hungered for a commitment from the 6-1, 215 lb. teen, who the coach considers to be one of the two best running back recruits in the nation. (The other is Winnipegger Brady Oliveira, who committed to the University of North Dakota.)
Lyles is a tough back, a powder keg already: After just a few workouts in Winnipeg, Bisons strength coach Matt Barr called him "a beast" of an athlete.
It was always like that, though, ever since his mother put him in football when he was about six years old.
"He was a star, right from the very beginning," Sharon said. "He's almost like an old-soul football player. From the day that child started playing football, it was just him. He loved it, and he was great at it."
For the next 11 years Sharon, who raised Lyles alone as a single mother, threw everything she had into supporting her son's football dream. Although she worked long shifts as a youth support worker, she can count on one hand the number of his games she missed. During their countless rides to the field, she'd play along gamely when her young son eagerly cranked recordings of motivational speakers, or blasted Queen's classic We Are The Champions.
It was just the two of them, mostly, learning to make the sacrifices work as their own tight-knit team. (Lyles is also close with his older half-brother, UBC soccer player Adriano Clemente.)
That is where Lyles gets his strength, he nodded, and a big part of his drive to compete.
"Growing up, with her having to work so hard and me being able to do so many things because of her and her efforts, that's my number one," he said.
That drive showed on the field. In high school at Surrey's Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary school, Lyles smashed five records. In 2012, he was named the province's top Grade 11 football player. The next season, he busted out almost 2,400 yards on the ground and 37 total TDs in just 11 games en route to being named league MVP.
Today, Dobie is eager to see how hot that fire will burn in the Bisons' fold. Depending on what happens with running back Kienan LaFrance in the upcoming CFL draft, Lyles could have a chance to fight for the starting tailback job.
Lyles believes he's ready, and for inspiration, he pulls out his favourite quote from the movie Soul Surfer. " 'I don't need easy, I just need possible,' " he said. "That's my life right there, in one sentence."
And what comes next won't be easy. It won't be easy for Sharon to be away from her son, to take a second job in B.C. to help support him in Winnipeg while he pursues his dream.
It won't be easy to live with the grief of Sandhu's death. But this is what Lyles does: He keeps running. That is the lesson football taught him.
"It made me always be able to fight for something, and never giving up because you never know what the outcome's going to be," he said. "There's four quarters in a game, and there's lots of time on the clock to get the winning score. That's like in life, you have a lot of challenges that you're going to have to overcome. All you can do is keep driving your feet, and you'll come out on top."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.