I was alone in a Los Angeles hotel room, asleep in my bed. It was New Year's Eve, the night before we played in the 2009 Rose Bowl. It was almost 4 a.m. when I heard a knock on my door.
At first, I was confused. I wasn't sure whether I should even get up and answer. I was thinking it could be some USC fan trying to mess with me.
But they kept knocking, real softly. It definitely wasn't a prank.
So then I thought that maybe it was something serious, like maybe the building was being evacuated. I hopped out of bed and swung the door open, and I saw Mr. Larry Johnson Sr. He was our defensive line coach, and also the man who originally recruited me to Penn State. He was standing there with his head down, and his hands were folded.
He didn't say anything at first - just came in, sat me down right away and told me the news.
"Coach Lynch was in an automobile accident earlier tonight. He didn't make it."
I grew up in District Heights, Maryland. It was a rough area outside Washington, D.C., home to a lot of drugs and gang violence. It was the type of place where, even in middle school, kids kept guns in their lockers just so they could feel safe during the school day.
Our reality became clear to most of us at a very young age: If we wanted to make it in District Heights, the options were to either join a gang or play sports. Some kids did both. I'm lucky that I got my start playing football in elementary school for the District Heights Boys & Girls Club, like my older brother did before me.
Every Friday night during football season, years before I even got to high school, I'd go to watch Suitland High play its home games.
The mystique of Suitland High wasn't just about the players. It was about Coach Lynch. I first started hearing about him from my brother. The way he spoke about Coach Lynch only made me more anxious to put on the Suitland uniform and play for this guy. I wanted to step on the field and prove that I was the best player out there from Day One.
One day I told my brother, "I'm going to be the first freshman to ever start varsity my first week."
"You're crazy," he said. "You're crazy. Coach Lynch doesn't start freshmen."
... He didn't.
When I got to Suitland, even though Coach Lynch had heard about me coming up through the Boys & Girls Club, I was on the junior varsity depth chart. I was finally able to convince him to move me up to varsity, but only after I scored nine touchdowns in one game. I genuinely do not know if eight would have been enough to impress him. That's just the kind of coach he was. No matter how much people talked you up, or how good you supposedly were, nothing was going to be promised. You had to earn it.