The UNLV students were chatting before class started, many of them freshmen in their first college course. They were saying what city they were from, or for Las Vegas locals, which high school they attended.
When the conversation made its way to Jeremy Lam, he told the group he was a longtime Las Vegas resident and a Silverado High School graduate. Another first-year student was also from Silverado but couldn’t remember seeing Lam on campus or in class.
“That’s because I graduated a few years before you guys,” Lam recalled telling them.
He may have been stretching the truth — years should have been replaced with decades. Lam is a 1998 graduate of Silverado.
The 41-year-old Lam is majoring in communications. But he’s attending college later in life mostly in hopes of doing the impossible and earning a walk-on spot on the UNLV football team. A wide receiver, Lam knows his quest could be considered a long shot — he hasn’t played a down of football since high school. He’s also a few months older than UNLV coach Marcus Arroyo.
“Some will say why have someone that old on the team?,” Lam said. “I will say because I grew up in Las Vegas, I’ve seen it grow. Coach Arroyo is trying to give the city the winning team they deserve, and I can help be part of that.”
I’s dotted, T’s crossed
Lam was in the car when the email arrived from the NCAA Clearinghouse giving him an athlete identification number. The dream of playing football was just that until the notification arrived, which was an important step in clearing him to join a collegiate roster.
He had to pull over to the side of the road because, “I started crying that this was finally happening.”
Walk-on tryouts are this month. It’s unknown how many roster spots are available on UNLV; like all Division I teams, UNLV’s roster is capped at 105 players. It’s also unknown how many hopefuls will attempt to walk on.
What is known is Lam’s determination, as he attempts to be one of the select few who play in college later in life. Wide receiver Tim Frisby walked on at South Carolina in the mid-2000s at age 39, but he was in top physical shape after serving in the Gulf War. In 2016, Joe Thomas Sr. played running back at lower-level South Carolina State at age 55.
When the UNLV program announced the tryout dates last month, the 6-foot, 185-pound Lam said he arrived the next morning — at 4 a.m. — to the team’s training facility to express interest and register. Arroyo was already in the building, but Lam made a connection with an assistant coach.
“I sat outside the office waiting and waiting for someone to show up,” he said.
Lam initially went through the walk-on process in the spring of 2018 when he enrolled full-time at UNLV. That’s when your NCAA eligibility clock begins, giving students five years to play four seasons.
About 20 attended the tryouts that year and the staff kept three, Lam said. But Lam said he didn’t embarrass himself, running a 4.8-second 40-yard dash and impressing then-coach Tony Sanchez with his maturity in a post-tryout meeting. Others would have complained that the staff got it wrong in cutting them, but Lam wanted to know what he needed to improve to be part of the team.
He expressed to them the same narrative he’s telling anyone willing to listen: I’ve got four more opportunities to make the roster. But he had minor knee surgery in 2019 and wasn’t rehabbed in time for tryouts. The 2020 version was canceled because of the pandemic.
“He has a passion for football,” said Tricia Lam, his wife. “He’s wanted to be on the UNLV team for a long time. I am proud of him for pursuing his dream.”
Lam’s initial plan after high school was to work in church ministry. He later had employment in retail, doing carpentry work and parking cars on the Strip. The pay was good, especially doing valet, but he would go home at night unfulfilled.
“I felt like, ‘What am I doing with my life?,’” he said.
Lam had always trained at a gym and, as such, often found himself around other football players. He said he started getting the itch to try out for UNLV around the time Sanchez was hired in 2014.
Fit and driven
When Lam messaged Phase 1 Sports in 2017 expressing interest in joining the gym to prepare for college football, trainer Darian Yahyavi replied asking him to send his particulars — height, weight, high school, position. They tailor a training regime to an athlete’s specific needs, whether that’s losing weight, adding muscle or becoming faster.
Lam, afraid the trainer would balk at investing time in working with someone in their 30s, said he’d rather talk in person. “I was like OK. That’s odd. Maybe this kid isn’t much of a people person,” Yahyavi said.
It took one session for Yahyavi to see Lam’s hustle and determination and to conclude that Lam’s dream of playing at UNLV wasn’t so far-fetched. Lam’s fitness level blew away Yahyavi.
“Call it determination. Call it being crazy,” Yahyavi said. “You have to give the guy credit, he hasn’t given up. His work ethic, his drive and spirit, it’s everything like the high school football players we work with.”
Lam has been training twice daily leading up to the Feb. 25 tryout, doing speed and agility training, and building strength. The previous walk-on tryouts were all fitness — no football is allowed per NCAA regulation, he says.
Some days, he’s a little beat up. But he keeps to his regime, which includes hydration, eating well and recovery.
“I feel a little beat up, but any athlete is going to feel that way after you work out,” Lam said.
Lam says his dream isn’t some midlife crisis or an attempt to relive his high school glory days, not that there were many successes. Silverado, which opened in Lam’s junior year, took its lumps in those initial seasons. Lam’s only game film is on VHS tape in some storage room and there’s no verifiable stats — not that Lam’s would be great, because Silverado was mostly a running team.
Tricia Lam asked her husband if he would give up on his aspirations if he were cut again. She said he responded, “I’d still have one more year of eligibility.”
Age is relative
Athletes have a certain level of confidence in themselves, and Lam is no exception: He’s 100% certain that he will make the team.
While having a player in their 40s isn’t traditional, Lam would bring maturity and determination to the roster and could be a positive influence on younger players. He’s got the unique perspective of living life and would lead by example, especially when it comes to making the most of an opportunity.
He would cherish each part of the journey, even the not-so-glamorous parts of being a collegiate athlete like tough practices and late-night study sessions. He’d also continue with his career in woodwork — his source of income.
“If I can play, and be an inspiration to the younger guys, nobody is going to care about my age,” he said.
Lam envisions himself as a slot receiver in the mold of Julian Edelman from the New England Patriots, a shifty receiver who can get open and has reliable hands. He knows some, even those he is fighting for a roster spot against, will look at him as an old man. But he says this old man can play and that age is only a number. Time will tell how that sentiment changes after he’s tackled for the first time in 20 years going over the middle of the field.
“I don’t care what they say. Line up across from me and I will let my game do the talking,” he said.
And when it comes time to talk at the next first day of school, Lam won’t have to skirt around the details when introducing himself to classmates. He’ll simply state he’s a UNLV football player.