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Florida offered fresh start for East Lake's Carson Lydon

East Lake High School's Carson Lydon sacks Largo quarterback Donavan Hale during a game earlier this month. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
East Lake High School's Carson Lydon sacks Largo quarterback Donavan Hale during a game earlier this month. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Sep. 18, 2014

EAST LAKE — East Lake High linebacker Carson Lydon has made his usual assortment of eye-popping plays this season. Those hard-hitting sacks on heart-stopping blitzes, game-changing interceptions and blocked punts combined with the ability to squeeze his muscular 241-pound frame into running lanes to stop a play cold.

On those ferocious hits, the Virginia Tech recruit uncoils his body with such force, opposing players often vibrate like a jackhammer. That is Lydon's release from the pain of losing a close friend to suicide, the heartbreak of his parents' divorce and the isolation of having lived in six states.

"There's been a lot of tough things to deal with," he said. "The football field is where I can cope and take out any anger or frustration with what I'm going through."

As a tribute to his friend, Lydon writes 56, the number worn by Dominick Doyle, on his taped wrists on game days. And he has the Samoan phrase Awaiaulu 'ia Ke aloha — which is also on Doyle's headstone — tattooed on his arm.

Translation: Together we are bound by love.

"It's one of the hardest things I've ever had to go through," Lydon said. "It's something that will always stay with me. I'm an insomniac, and often, my mind drifts toward (Dominick) at night. Often, before games, I think about him and try to play for him."

• • •

It didn't take long for Lydon to know he wanted to play college football. When he turned 5, he walked into the kitchen where his mother was baking and said, "We need to talk."

His mother, Jen Lydon, initially shrugged off the conversation until her son tugged on her arm harder.

"I am 5 now," she recalled him saying. "I want to play Division I football. It is time I start taking my training seriously!"

Lydon was consumed with fulfilling his plan. He watched game film with his uncle. He did his own commentary on games. He did pushups relentlessly. He memorized the stats on all of his football cards.

The only thing he couldn't do was play tackle football, at least not at that age. Lydon played flag football until middle school then as a freshman convinced his parents to let him move from Raleigh, N.C., to Aurora, Colo., to play for his uncle at Regis Jesuit High.

There, Lydon became fast friends with Doyle, a junior on the team.

"I had met Dominick before when I would help out with summer camps in Colorado," Lydon said. "He kind of took me in and was one of the few friends I had out there. He was like a brother to me."

On Oct. 27, 2011, Lydon found out Doyle, 16, committed suicide.

"There really was no warning," Lydon said.

One week later, his parents told him they were divorcing. Lydon was lost and eventually returned to North Carolina. His mother noted the immediate change in her son.

"Obviously, being away from home was hard enough, but knowing your parents are divorcing was emotional," Jen Lydon said. "The absolute kicker was the tragedy of Dominick committing suicide. That broke Carson. I can still hear the fear and heartache in his voice when he called me that morning. It was horrible.

"That day was a turning point for Carson for sure. He was forced to face a harsh reality about life that he had previously been insulated from. Unfortunately, he withdrew into himself. He became depressed. … It took him several months to find his bearings and feel safe in his life."

• • •

Football became Lydon's sanctuary. He channeled his pain by dishing out blows unflinchingly.

"Something in me snapped at that point," he said. "I put everything I had into becoming a better player. I gained 50 pounds. I got stronger. And I got over the fear of hitting people."

As a sophomore at Raleigh's Cardinal Gibbons High, Lydon started at linebacker. That year, he began working with Chad Bratzke, a former standout at Valrico's Bloomingdale High who spent 10 seasons in the NFL and became Lydon's mentor. Lydon was good enough to get noticed by Richmond and East Carolina, but no colleges from a power conference showed interest.

His mother wanted that to change. She decided Lydon needed to be in a state with top-tier talent. Florida was her ideal destination.

"It was a tough choice," she said. "Stay and risk him not getting seen and not being pushed to his potential or uproot him again and hope to get him exposure without damaging him emotionally. We decided in the long run he would have much bigger issues with not having the opportunity to play in college than with having to move again."

After careful consideration, the family chose East Lake because of its success on the football field and in the classroom. Lydon vehemently objected to the move.

"I moaned and groaned about the whole thing," said Lydon, who also has lived in Arizona, Oregon and Washington. "I pretty much threw a temper tantrum the whole way down. But it turned out to be the best move I ever made."

• • •

Lydon made an immediate impact at East Lake. Last season, he was a Tampa Bay Times first-team all-Pinellas County selection after recording 149 tackles, eight sacks and two interceptions to help the Eagles reach the state semifinals for the first time.

"It didn't take long for us to know (Lydon) was a pretty good player," coach Bob Hudson said. "He started making plays the first couple days of practice. He's been doing it ever since."

The college offers came quickly. In May, he chose Virginia Tech over N.C. State and Wisconsin.

And while time and distance have helped, World Suicide Prevention Day (Sept. 10) and the anniversary of Doyle's death are still hard for Lydon.

"I try to talk to Dominick's family as much as I can on those days," Lydon said. "The biggest thing I want to do is help others who might be in that situation. I was in the abyss when that happened.

"It was the lowest point of my life. But I knew I didn't have it as bad as others and there was a way out. I hope others know that, too."

Contact Bob Putnam at putnam@tampabay.com. Follow @BobbyHometeam.