Rarely do 7-year-olds garner comparisons to the great Muhammad Ali.
Lukas Denis, star senior safety at Boston College and touted NFL prospect, is a rare breed.
Years ago, Denis tagged along with his brother to a Pop Warner football clinic. Though he was too young to participate, he caught the eye of John DiBiaso, former head coach at Everett and one of the winningest high school coaches in Massachusetts history.
“We have kids jump rope,” recalled DiBiaso, now in his first season coaching Catholic Memorial. “He picked up the jump rope at 7 years old and he jumped rope like Muhammad Ali. No one had ever shown him how. His natural athletic ability stood out at that age.”
DiBiaso kept his eye on the youngster and eventually coached him at Everett.
Denis often practiced with his brother’s friends, many of them 4 years his elder. The speedster was forced to adapt, working twice as hard just to keep pace. Denis’s height fell on the shorter end of the spectrum, adding to the difficulty.
“He was always the runt of the litter,” DiBiaso said. “He was always the smallest one amongst the older kids.”
What could have discouraged Denis instead fueled him.
“I think it gives you some sort of edge,” Denis said. “I think everybody needs an edge. I know I’m not the fastest guy out there, so I think that me honing in on my technique and trying to get my technique down, that’s the most important part to me.”
The process began when DiBiaso shuttled Denis from backup quarterback to defensive back. Working with receivers, cornerbacks, and safeties at Everett, Denis exhibited uncanny instincts, using his strength to prod at opponents and his speed to blow them away.
Work ethic was never an issue. DiBiaso credits Denis’s mother with instilling strong values in her boys. The result was a polite young man who turned heads both with his play and his drive.
“He’s very grounded thanks to his mother,” DiBiaso said. “His mom has dedicated her life to him and his brother. They’re both great kids, fine gentlemen, and that’s because of his mom.”
Denis soon became known for his big-play capability. His ability to turn run-of-the-mill interceptions into highlight-reel runbacks eventually helped him punch a ticket to Chestnut Hill.
“Young guys can cover, but they can’t complete it with an interception,” DiBiaso said. “He would finish the play. He led the state in interceptions in his senior year at Everett. The real good guys I’ve had over the years — Manny [Asprilla], Lukas, Mikey [Sainristil] — they’d finish it with an interception.”
Asprilla was another instrumental figure in Denis’s journey, and Denis was extremely pleased upon learning that he’d inherit Asprilla’s former number — 21 — at BC.
“I kind of spoke to him a bit after I got the offer, and he explained this whole process to me,” Denis said. “I came up here on a couple visits and I didn’t know I was going to be wearing 21 when I got here, so that was one of the greatest things I’ve seen. I was really happy and fortunate to be in that position.”
Asprilla’s tutelage and a strong core of coaches allowed Denis to ease comfortably into life as a college player. He hardly saw the field during his freshman year and was a role player as a sophomore.
Last year, Denis broke out in a big way after being moved from cornerback to safety. He excelled in his new role, ranking second nationally with seven interceptions and tying for third on the Eagles with 83 tackles.
Now a senior, Denis hopes he can keep the pipeline intact by handing No. 21 to another Everett game-changer, freshman Jason Maitre, after this season.
First, though, there’s business to take care of.
After starting the season 3-0, BC vaulted into the Associated Press top 25 for the first time since 2008, sliding in at No. 23. But a sloppy 30-13 loss to Purdue Saturday shoved the Eagles out of the rankings.
Denis knows a repeat of last week’s putrid performance won’t cut it Saturday at home against Temple.
He’s never accepted anything but the best.
“Just looking to stay on top of receivers and play better than we did this past week,” he said. “We can’t allow that to happen. It’s just unacceptable.”
Owen Pence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.