J.J. Lasley: "Keepin' It Real (Estate)"

Our pal Dave Fowkes chips in with an exclusive catch-up with former Card FB J.J. Lasley. The timing's good as Lasley's former battery-mate from the '91 Aloha Bowl season, Tommy Vardell, is being inducted into the Stanford Athletic HOF Friday night. Lasley deserves "Marecic-like" credit for the stellar work he put in opening holes for "Touchdown Tommy" during the big fella's 20-TD campaign in '91.

J.J. Lasley: "Keepin' It Real (Estate)"


Former Stanford running back J.J. Lasley spent four years in Cardinal (1989-92). Over the course of his Stanford career he saw the Cardinal team improve from a 3-8 record in 1989 to a Blockbuster Bowl-winning 10-3 team in 1992, only the second 10-win season in school history.


The "Best in the West" running back had his ups and downs along the path. He had a breakout game his freshman season rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown in a season- ending 24-14 win over Cal. His senior season of 1992 saw him gather nine catches for 125 yards and a touchdown in a dominating win over USC.


After leaving the Farm, Lasley had a quick look in the NFL. He played on the USA Rugby national team. And now he makes his home in Southern California working in real estate development and finance.


Lasley was nice enough to take time to talk about what he is doing today, and of course #26 relives some stories from his playing days down on the Farm.


Q: Tell me what you are doing these days?


A: Well, I have been involved in real estate the last four years. I started off in loans, and then got into land-brokering. I was doing loans out in Irvine for Wells Fargo and then got into land-brokering. That took me up to Fresno . Then I got into the commercial side of it and was doing commercial deals in downtown South Central ( Los Angeles ) and Koreatown . Now I am striking out on my own. I have put a partnership together and we just had our first meeting of the minds. Basically, I am putting together an investment partnership to do "hard-money" lending. We are reinvesting into problem communities like South Central LA and the south side of Chicago . We will start off with single-family homes, and as we get a bunch of deals done, we will reinvest and basically become our own bank and we will start doing "hard-money" loans. We will turn it into a "one-stop shop". After we do enough deals in the single-family area, then we will start branching out and doing commercial as well.


Q: So you will be doing redevelopment of "down" locations?


We are starting off now doing single-family homes that are banked-owned REO ("Real Estate Owned"), dwellings that are non-livable. Many are either boarded-up or have specific alterations that were done on the property that would make it hard for a first-time homeowner to qualify to buy. We are primarily concerned with helping would-be homebuyers get into those properties. A small percentage the REO homes, we will able just to buy them and slap some paint on and that is it. But on a lot of them we will have to go in and add a wall, or take a wall out, or add a bathroom, or add a bedroom, make it a three-bedroom – "rehab-type" of stuff.


Q: Seems like a tough time to be doing real estate, are you finding good opportunities and why now?


Yeah, very good opportunities. The thing about the real estate market, we all know about location, location, location, but things are primarily determined by the capital market. This is a really rough time in the capital market. In fact it is so bad that I didn't get one deal done in 2007 on the commercial side because you could not get a loan for over three million dollars. You can't buy a high-rise commercial building for less than three million dollars. What is funny about the real estate market is there is always a "hot button" in real estate. You just have to know where to go.


Back when I got into this, they were just giving houses away so you could get a loan easily. Then there was a lot of development going on from ‘04 to '06, then it just stopped. So that is the land-brokering part of it. Then the commercial market was still going strong, but it has been hit somewhat now, and I think it will get hit some more. The commercial market is still searching for a bottom. Because of the challenging capital market environment, you can't find the funding to go buy a 40-story building. Not even Trump has the cash to go out buy buildings in cash. One interesting thing right now is the availability of  tax credits for first-time home buyers. We backed into this model, we are basically saying a person can buy, can qualify, for a first-time home buyer with just 3% down.


There is always money to be made in the real estate market. You just have to be in the right place at the right time. It is kind of funny, I was at the right place at the right time with loans, but I jumped in a little late with the land-brokering and a little late on the commercial, no one would have known the capital market would take the hit it did, but now when you look at cycles, this is a new cycle for single-family home buyers. The good thing is that we have created this niche. We have gone out and are looking at what is going on. Basically we are going out after the household income from people that earn between $30K-80K per year and that is combined income. We are targeting only that market. We are looking at homes ranging from $100K-$300K. In that market, we target the Latino community. They are our biggest buyers, certainly in South Central. If they qualify and can put the 3% down, it works. That market is good and open. Despite the economic downturn, many of those folks still have their jobs. Those are people who often are making $12-$14 an hour. They have been hit, but they are still out there and looking to buy. If they can push their rent up by $200-300 a month, but can actually own instead of rent…. those are the ones we are going after, with good credit and what not. So we have found a niche and that is the thing about real estate, there are certain niches that are always going.


Q: Have you always been so entrepreneurial?


A: Yeah, I haven't pushed a pen behind a desk for a corporation since I left Montgomery Securities in 1997. I have been out on my own since then, literally, just on my own. I was a professional trainer, I had my own business development company during the 12 years I lived in San Francisco . I am somewhat a risk-taker in the sense that I found out a long time ago that I am not a "suit & tie" guy, although I will put one on if necessary. I am just not a "9-to-5" guy and I won't punch a clock. I like having the freedom to do what I need to do. I don't mind risk. I take a lot of risk, but with the risk comes the reward.


Q:  Do you still keep in touch with any old Stanford buddies?


I am a networker. I was "Mister Facebook" before there was Facebook. I have 3,500 names and numbers in my phone book and this was before there was social networking. That is just something I have done throughout my life. Travel the world, make friends, just being a pleasant person I guess to be around. Making people smile, laugh, providing positive energy, never negative, I just try to keep it that way.


Charles Young was kind of my mentor, my "big brother" at Stanford and a fellow running back. He is going to be a partner in the fund. He works for a commercial firm in Chicago . I stay in touch with so many people. Eliel Swinton, I just talked to him. I knew him growing up playing Pop Warner football. He is obviously a lot younger than I am. Chris Berg, T.J. Gaynor, Glyn Milburn, Tommy Vardell, I am still in touch with them. It is a brotherhood. I tell people at Stanford, the football team and the rugby team, they were my fraternities. I did not join a traditional fraternity.


Q: As part of that athletic fraternity, do you still find a lot of kinship with those outside of your class?


A: When I was leaving in San Francisco - I did not leave until 2004 - I was still going to Stanford games regularly, and getting to know younger players. Some of my best friends are guys who went to school five or six years after me. It is a brotherhood of just Stanford University so I never felt the need to join a particular fraternity. One of my best friends is Marcus Lollie who was a starting point guard on the basketball team while I was playing football. We lived together for two years. We did not play the same sports but yet he became one of my best friends. He works for DLJ, although now they have been bought out by someone else (Credit Suisse). But he lives in Beverly Hills and I have seen his daughter growing up and the whole thing.

I would say Crespi (Crespi-Carmelite in Encino, CA, where Lasley earned six letters while carrying a 4.2 GPA!), my high school, saved my life. Stanford offered me opportunity that I would have never have gotten in my life. It has been a Godsend that I was able to go to both schools.


Q: How did Crespi "save your life"?


A: Long story short, I grew up in South Central (Los Angeles), my mom and I. We were on welfare, the whole thing, gangs, people were getting shot. I am the only one that made it out of my crew of about 15 friends. I am the only one that is still alive and functioning. My mother was smart enough to get me to understand how important school and grades were. I was getting straight A's and we literally barnstormed Crespi. During my eighth grade summer, she made me put in a collared shirt and tucked it in and we went over there. We did not know anybody, but we went and met with the principal. After three hours of meeting with the principal and academic advisors, they were so impressed with her and I guess my transcript that they offered me the scholarship to go to their high school. They did not even know at that point that I played any sports. I think they could tell from my build.


Q: And this was just all on the good work of your mom?


A: Literally on the word of my mom and my transcript, and I spoke pretty well. They said "okay. let's give this kid a chance". I was one of three black kids at the school, so that probably had a little something to do with it as well.  But they saved my life. It got me to the point where we won the CIF championship. It got me to the point where people were looking at me for what I was doing on the football field. I got offers from everywhere from Notre Dame to Harvard to USC and everything. Once Stanford called, my mom said "you are going to Stanford." I had a choice - if I wanted to push it and go to Notre Dame or USC, she would have let me. I pretty much decided to go to Stanford because of the opportunity it would give me.


Q: I would guess when getting recruited that is a mighty big phone call to get. An opportunity from a Pac-10 program and if you don't make it to the NFL, you have a Stanford degree. That has to be tough to say "no" to?


A: Absolutely. That is why I wanted to go to Stanford. One twist of an ankle in preseason and you could never play football again. Then what? USC is a great school if you want to stay on the west coast. Harvard is a great school obviously, but it probably is not going to get me into the NFL. Stanford has both. I can travel the world, I can get a job anywhere in the world, but I can also be in the Pac-10 and get a real look (from the NFL). In fact when I got there they were 0-9-1 if I remember right with Jack Elway (actually they were 3-6-2 but winless in the last five games). So I had a feeling that I might be able to get on the field sooner. People would say "why do you want to go there when they are losing?" I would say, "yeah, but I might be able to play as a freshman." It does not matter how good the team is, I will make it better. As a young kid, you think as soon "as I get there I'll make it better".


Q: And you did make it better, and as I recall you had a pretty great game against Cal your freshman year?


A: I did actually. I was lucky enough to play well. You look back at times and wish you would have done more. A lot of things went down that I wish would have gone down differently. Still, you thank your lucky stars that you were even there to have that chance.


Q: So give me a couple of memories from your playing days, what do you recall?


A: I have one story I laugh about. Spring of 1990. I saw Glyn Milburn had just transferred, this, that and the other, and I go from starting tailback to third-string fullback. I am thinking, okay, this isn't working. John Lynch was fourth-string quarterback. At one practice, both our starting strong safety and free safety got injured. So John and I were talking after practice. I said, "dude, I'll go play safety." He said "me too." I said, "so let's go in there together." So John Lynch and I together walked into Denny Green's office and said we wanted to play safety. He said that sounds great, go talk to your position coaches.

So I go talk to Coach (Tyrone) Willingham and he says "no". Lynch goes and talks to the quarterback coach, who I believe at that time was Guy Benjamin [Ed. Actually, it was Ron Turner - Benjamin joined the Walsh staff in 1992], and he says "okay". So to make a long story short, they keep me at fullback and I get my short look in the NFL and Lynch goes to safety and he plays forever. (laughter) (Lynch retired this year and is now broadcasting for FOX).  Hey, it is all timing. I am not saying it could have been me. But if they had put me at strong safety, I could still be in the league and be Troy Polamalu. One small little turn of events could have changed everything.


Q: Does that make you angry?


A: I was mad at Coach Willingham for that. But he made it up to me later. My first year, I got a look in Green Bay . I ended up not making the team and got cut. And that was fine. I jumped on the U.S. National Rugby team. I was not getting paid much, but got free stuff, got to go to Hong Kong and Japan . And then Coach Willingham called me the next year, their first year in Minnesota . Not that he owed me but he knew the kind of person that I was and he wanted to at least give me a shot of bringing me into camp. And it just so happened that I was in incredible shape from playing rugby, a whole different shape.

So I showed up in Minnesota early and I was running after practice every day. I was there with Terry Allen and Robert Smith and some of those guys and because I was a rookie there, they did not want to get out-worked. So by the end of the first week of practice all the running backs were running gassers after practice just because that is what I was doing. I just brought all these intangible things to the team. I ended up making the team but then got injured and got put on the injured reserve. So my whole NFL career never really happened. I am not mad at anyone for that, but it is pretty interesting how things go.


Q: It is very intertwined, once you know someone they move on, opportunities come and go just based on knowing people.


Here is another good story. During my recruiting trip, Larry Smith had just won the Rose Bowl with Arizona and the next year he was at USC. So he recruited me at USC. I was sitting at the desk across from him on my recruiting trip to SC. I was going to be going to Stanford the next weekend on my recruiting trip. So Larry Smith says, "I am going to be very honest with you kid. If you come to USC we are going to change you to strong safety, you probably won't play your freshman year, but you will probably be able to get in after that. You will start for at least two years and maybe three and you are a strong safety in the NFL. You will probably win a Rose Bowl here and you will probably play strong safety in the NFL." I said, "Thank you very much Coach Smith, but I want to be a running back, I am going to stay a running back."

I grew up walking distance from USC so I wanted to feel like I was going away to college so I was going to go ahead and go to Stanford. And he said thank you very much for being so candid. We shook hands and we let it go. My freshman year I had that killer game against USC, scored a touchdown, a hundred and something yards, Larry Smith comes up to me after the game. He finds me on the field, he says J.J. Lasley, "I just wanted to say I was wrong. You are an incredible running back and you can play running back in the NFL." He actually said he was wrong. Then two and a half years later, I was begging to play safety!


Q: Why did Willingham say "no" to the position change?


A: We had Ellery Roberts, we had Glyn Milburn, we had me and we had "Touchdown Tommy" Vardell. Of those four, I was the only one with a defensive mentality, meaning I was the only who liked to hit. Glyn does not like to hit and that was fine. Tommy, who outweighs me by 30 pounds, did not like to hit. Now, he hit when he had to hit. And everybody knows how hard it is to bring him down, but he did not "like" to hit. I "liked" to hit. I literally was a defensive player playing running back. So they all knew that so they moved me to fullback in 1991. I thought this was a good idea team-wise but just not for my career. But basically I was playing fullback at 200 pounds and I was lead blocking for Tommy Vardell who is 235 and I am faster than he is. So how does that work? Well, Lasley likes to hit a lot harder. Guess what, Lasley will go through the hole and hit a linebacker at 235 pounds and clear the hole for Tommy. Now, you have Tommy Vardell, who did run a legit sub-4.6, coming through the hole with a 10-yard run-up and nothing but a DB trying to make a tackle. I think he scored whatever it was 24 or 26 touchdowns that year? (20, but it goes up as the years pass!) I think I lead-blocked for almost every one of those. Again, lead-blocking did not do much for my career as a running back, it did not really help me get to the NFL, but we won a bunch of games and became Pac-10 co-champions and went to two bowl games.

 

Q: What are some other great memories you have from your playing days?


A: The 1989 Cal game was a great memory. That 1992 USC game was a great memory. I had a pretty killer game against San Jose State one year. I got a game ball for that one. I think I may have scored a couple of touchdowns in that one. The '91 Aloha Bowl was a great experience. Unfortunately, we lost the game in the final 30-seconds of the game so a lot of people don't like talking about it, but it really was a great experience, it was a great game. Then beating Penn State (on New Year's Day in 1993), that was a great way to end my career. To go out to Florida and to beat Penn State: "Bill Walsh vs. Joe Paterno". I got to score a touchdown in that game as well. It was on national TV andwe were supposed to get crushed. It was billed as Penn State and "Linebacker U" vs. Stanford and Bill Walsh's "fluffy" west coast offense…and we beat them. That was a great experience. Those two teams, the Aloha Bowl team and the Blockbuster Bowl team, you could count the number of athletes that went on to the NFL. It was just amazing. We had so many guys who went to the league and played. We just had an influx of talent.

We were not the most talented recruiting class, my 1988 class. The class that came in after us, with Bob Whitfield and those guys (1989, which included Lynch, Garnett, Cassidy, Cavanaugh, etc.), and the class after them (1990), probably pound for pound had more talent but we were the class that turned it around. We are the ones that changed the game. Seeing the last Jack Elway year, all of us watching and saying we are not going to college like this. I don't care what people have to say about Stanford. We are not a losing team. We have more talent than that. Next year is going to be different. It did not happen overnight, but we got it there until we were Pac-10 co-champions and had we not lost to Washington head-to-head, we would have gone to the Rose Bowl. We really missed the Rose Bowl by about three points. We lost to Arizona by three points (actually by 15, but who's counting!) and they chose Washington that year because we had lost to them head-to-head.


Q: Do you see similarities from your class to this current senior class? They were 1-11 their first year, benefitted from a fiery new coach and started turning things around?


A: Absolutely! Hopefully they will have some of the success we got to go through as well. Like I said, I was thankful we had our two bowl games. But even if they don't have that success outwardly in the sense that the rest of the nation was aware of it, they can realize it themselves. That they ARE the class that turned it around! There is a lot to be said about that. You might not get the national recognition. But the Stanford community knows, especially the Stanford Football community. All the ex-players, all the alumni, all the crazy people that have been going to every game since they were the Indians, all those people who line up during the walk and cheer you on, they all know the intricacies of that turnaround and who was responsible. It is just a good feeling. Okay we did not win a Rose Bowl, or we did not go to a bowl game, but you can say, hey we were the class that turned it around. Because, thanks to my class turning it around, we were able to go to the Rose Bowl several years after that. I graduated seven years prior to the 2000 Rose Bowl, but it was my class that got us back in the Pac-10, back into bowl games, to getting the program on track to go to the Rose Bowl. I am not taking credit for getting Stanford to a Rose Bowl. But we got our bowl games. So these guys, the similarities are there. If Stanford gets better and hopefully makes a bowl game this year, then they are a part of that turnaround and we all know it and can pat them on the back for it!


Q: Great stories, thank you. Any other final thoughts?


A: I am focused 100% on real estate and charities now. Each of these partnerships is going to be associated with a particular non-profit charity, a "dot-org" if you will. Each single one of these communities we will be giving back to the local YMCA or other non-profit and giving back to the community, and keeping that pride of ownership. This is not a case of a bunch of guys just trying to come in and make money in these neighborhoods. I was raised in South Central. I moved there in 1972 and did not leave there until 1985. So I know that place. I want to reinvest. One of the other partners is still living there. He has been down there for 25 years doing real estate.

We are trying to make these investments back into the community. It is "for profit", that is for sure, but we are tying it to charities as well so we can give back to the community. I think that is a little different than these predatory "vulture funds" that go in and try to flip these houses and squeeze as much as they can out of the communities. We are going to be giving back to the city of Watts (the scene of troubling social unrest in the mid-1960s). They have bought up a bunch of land around the Watts Towers (a national historical landmark consisting of 17 interconnected artistic structures made of steel, wire mesh and mortar) and they are making it a city park. Well, we are going to contribute to that because we want to help build Watts up. We want people to stay in Watts.


Dave Fowkes is a longtime Stanford Cardinal fan. Born at Stanford hospital and raised on the Peninsula, he has been a football season ticket holder since 1981. In that span he has only missed three home games, but of course never a Big Game. Dave currently works in media both on the air and behind the scenes in advertising sales. He has covered sports on and off since 1992. Currently he works as a traffic, news and sports man on several Bay Area radio stations under a few different on-air aliases. Dave blends the passion of being a fan with the perspective of being a reporter in his stories. For more Stanford football coverage by Dave Fowkes, you can read the "Stanford Football Examiner" at www.stanfordfootballreport.com  


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