Lukas Denis couldn't wait. He was just a kindergartner, but the urge to strap on a helmet and pads was overwhelming. He was still too young to formally play football in his hometown of Everett, Massachusetts, but that didn't stop him from following Dimitris, his older brother four years his senior, to Pop Warner practice.
"I used to show up to all his practices and participate in the sprints at the end. I was too young to play, so they'd always let me run with them. My mom saw I was beating the older guys in races," Denis says. "I think that's how it all started." "It" being a spectacular amateur football career that's culminated in Denis being one of the top safety prospects for the 2019 NFL Draft. To hear Denis tell it, this was always the plan.
"I remember writing a poem in class, (at) like 6 years old, about my ambition to play in the NFL," Denis says. "Everything that I did had the NFL in mind. I took it very serious as a young kid. My mom always told me I was too serious—go outside and have fun. But I just saw it as a chance to get better at my future occupation."
He was playing pick-up games with high schoolers by the time he was 8 years old. "They definitely weren't holding back on me. But they also couldn't catch me," Denis says.
An older cousin would make him and Dimitris bang out 50 Push-Ups before they could go outside and play. Lukas's older brother never wanted to do his set, so Lukas did them for him. "To go outside, 100 Push-Ups. (This happened between) maybe 7 and 10 years old," Denis says. "As a kid people would say, 'Oh, he's a man child.' Because my body was all cut up. No, that's just from all the Push-Ups I used to do."
John DiBiaso, then the head coach at Everett High School, was working a Pop Warner practice when he noticed a pint-sized kid training on the sideline with a fire in his eyes. He recalls watching the youngster jump rope like Muhammad Ali. That kid was Lukas. DiBiaso is a legendary figure in New England high school football, a winner of 12 Massachusetts state championships. Impressed by Lukas's natural work ethic, he took the boy under his wing.
"(Coach DiBiaso) is kind of like a second father to me. Growing up, I didn't always live with my dad, I didn't have my dad around all the time. He kinda took a big role in my life," Denis says. "He prepared me to play quarterback, actually. So I went to quarterback camps, I threw all day with him and his son (Jonathan). Perfected that craft. Then he taught me how to do literally everything football related. How to backpedal, how to read the football, how to catch a football, how to run routes, how to get out of breaks."
After backing up Jonathan at quarterback during his freshman year at Everett, Denis suffered an elbow injury that sidelined him for most of his sophomore season. DiBiaso then decided to switch him to receiver and defensive back. Around that same time, Lukas also began sprouting up like a weed. He proved to be a playmaker on both sides of the ball, earning ESPN Boston All-State honors as a junior. The following spring, his mom shuttled him to Chestnut Hill—home to Boston College—with low expectations. They'd been to Boston College year after year for camps, and no matter how well Lukas performed, they never pulled the trigger on an offer.
"My mom had told me (that was) the last time I was visiting the school because they weren't offering me," Denis says. "I visited BC four times, went to four camps, showed up every year trying to get that offer. The fourth visit I went, they actually offered me. Had they not, I don't know if I would've went back there."
With offer in hand, Denis dominated his senior season at Everett. On defense, he totaled 52 tackles, two forced fumbles, 13 pass break-ups and eight interceptions (three of which were pick-sixes). On offense, he tallied 13 touchdowns. He was again an All-State selection and was named ESPN Boston's Defensive Player of the Year.
Denis was mentored by some terrific talent during his freshman year at BC. Justin Simmons, then a senior, went on to be a third-round pick by the Denver Broncos, while John Johnson, a junior at the time, became a third-round pick by the Los Angeles Rams.
"They taught us how to work, how to study film, which is something you don't really do in high school. When they taught us how to break down film, it really changed the game for a lot of us," Denis says. "In high school, you look at just plays. You see who's good, who struggles a little bit. See how well they can throw and catch...But in college, it's what yard line do they come off their break? How many steps are they taking before they come off their break? Can I jump that? Can I not jump that? Where are the quarterback's eyes going on the play? How is he reading the safety? When you start to do that, it makes the game a lot easier."
Shortly after the conclusion of Denis's freshman season, BC hired Anthony Campanile as their defensive backs coach. "(Coach Campanile) reshaped the whole game for me, transforming it into something that was easy to read, easy to see. Instilled a work habit in us that was kinda incredible," Denis says. "He turned us into dogs. The way we practiced was legit. I've never practiced that hard in my life and it definitely made the game way easier."
Campanile, who recently left BC to join Michigan as a defensive assistant, had a list of commandments his defensive backs lived by. "The ball can't ever go over your head. Receiver never makes a play on the ball in the air. And no YAC after the catch. We lived by those. You live by those, you win the games," Denis says. After a year under Campanile, his confidence was through the roof. Though he registered just seven tackles his sophomore year, he saw big things in his future.
"At practice, I was intercepting passes left and right. The game had slowed down, everything was a lot easier. I was getting people lined up and adjusted really fast. I kinda saw what I could do in practice and it made me confident," Denis says. "I wrote down goals for my junior year. One was to lead the nation in interceptions, the other to become an All-American, and the third to win an ACC Championship."
Denis indeed became an All-American, totaling 83 tackles, seven interceptions, 10 pass breakups and two forced fumbles as a junior en route to second-team All-American honors from the Walter Camp Football Foundation. His seven interceptions during the regular season were tied for most in the FBS. Boston College didn't win an ACC Championship, but a defensive back group led by Denis limited opposing offenses to a completion percentage of just 51.3%, seventh-lowest in the nation, helping the Eagles finish with a winning record.
"I think (breaking on the ball) all goes back to playing quarterback, that's why I excel at the interception game," Denis says. "I think I know where the ball is going and when it's going to be there and when receivers are getting out of their break and when to jump it."
After a solid senior campaign, Denis trained for the draft process at XPE Sports in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "(He's got) super fluid, mobile hips. Not gonna be a crazy burner, but the kid is as fast as you need to be to play in the NFL. The nice thing about Lukas is even off the field, seeing him interact with the guys, (the) kid's a great leader, everybody respects him," Matt Gates, Performance Specialist at XPE, told STACK ahead of the NFL Combine.
Denis proved the assessment correct, showing off buttery change-of-direction skills in the agility drills. His 11.42 in the 60-Yard Shuttle was tied for the second-best result among safeties, while his 4.09 20-Yard Shuttle and 6.89 3-Cone Drill ranked third and fourth, respectively. Now, he's one phone call away from achieving the dream that started when he was just 6 years old.
"I remember people thought (playing in the NFL) would be a little too far out of reach, try something else," Denis says. "That was a bigger chip on my shoulder. I love proving people wrong."
Photo Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images