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NFLPA Collegiate Bowl: From Liberia to NFL doorstep

The 2020 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl will be broadcast exclusively on NFL Network as well as the NFL and NFL Network apps at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday, Jan. 18.

PASADENA, Calif. -- The NFLPA Collegiate Bowl is made up of many players who have taken the long way to reach this point, their professional football dreams still alive but up in the air. Then there's Dayan Ghanwoloku Lake.

He had just turned 5 years old and never seen a plane before when he was forced to board one and travel across the world, accompanied only by his 7-year-old sister, Yassah. They were headed from Liberia to Salt Lake City.

"Two little kids straight from Africa," Lake recalled. "It was culture shock."

With their homeland in the midst of war and their mother unable to take care of them, Lake and his sister were brought to Utah to live with their father's new wife and her parents as he continued school on a soccer scholarship at BYU-Hawaii.

Lake said he was too preoccupied with turning lights off and on at his new home and pulling rubber bands up his arms to be sad. He still remembers his first meal at the table: chicken noodle soup, when he and Yassah immediately stuck their hands into the bowls.

"We were just picking out the rice because we didn't really know what it was," Lake said. "We knew rice. It was different, for sure."

Lake also knew soccer. So when he saw his classmates in the schoolyard throwing a football, he was initially confused. But he loved the physicality of the game and wasn't shy about trying new things.

"Coming from Liberia, you have to be a sponge or you're not going to learn anything," Lake said. "I didn't have a lot of friends until I started playing sports. But I was always a happy kid."

Lake would make many friends through football but shockingly lost one in eighth grade to cancer when Tyler Smith passed away. Smith's father was Lake's first coach.

"It was hard for everyone," Lake said. "He was my best friend. His dad just took me in. ... He was the one that got me to love football."

For Lake, playing football thereafter meant honoring Smith's memory. Moreover, he was a natural. By ninth grade, people were picking him up from his junior high on Fridays to play for the varsity team at Northridge High in Layton, Utah.

His club soccer coach told Lake he was good enough to play in the Olympic Development Program. But he was in too deep with football. He eventually earned a scholarship to BYU, where he played all over the secondary and special teams and even moonlighted as a running back in special packages.

As a senior this past fall, Lake was the Cougars' second-leading tackler and broke the school record for career fumble recoveries, while recording two interceptions, two sacks, and rushing for a touchdown. Just as important, he earned his degree, something his father wasn't able to do after putting soccer aside to work soon after Dayan and Yassah arrived in the U.S.

"He was so happy, he felt like it was him graduating," Lake said.

Lake has been using this week at the Rose Bowl to graduate from the college game to, hopefully, the NFL. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound prospect is on the National team, where defensive backs coach Ricky Manning said he's been playing fast in recent days after settling in at strong safety. It's a position he didn't play a lot of in college but, per usual, he's proven to be a quick study.

"I like him," Manning said, adding that he'd expect Lake to get a rookie camp tryout.

That might be all Lake needs.

"Of course, I'm trying to play in the league and get drafted," Lake said. "If I don't, I'm going to find a way. I'm going to be on a team regardless. I just know. My work ethic, my drive for the game, how much I love it is going to get me there. I'm a hard worker, too. I'm for sure going to get there one way or another."

He's always found a way.

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