Lance Mehl's post-playing career seems as if it were
destined to be a script for one of those Saturday morning television shows
aimed at a young teenage audience.
After retiring in 1988 because of constant pain in his right knee, the
former Jets linebacker became a juvenile detention court officer.
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But he is not just any juvenile detention court officer.
When a kid steals a car, gets caught smoking marijuana or something of that
sort, and the judge decides this kid is close to going to juvenile detention
but he's not there yet, whom does the judge order him to see?
That big former NFL player named Lance.
And that's Sir Lance to you.
"We started the program 13 years ago as a military boot camp-style
program," Mehl, 50, said by telephone from his home in St. Clairsville, Ohio.
"But what we found out there was that we only made stronger delinquents."
So they quickly made some revisions and turned it into a four-level program
dedicated to making the troubled kid understand what it takes to be a
respected, productive person.
"All the time we're talking about what it's like being a member of a
community and what you're expected to do," he said. "These kids all talk about
respect, but they don't give it, yet they expect it in return."
In any given week, Mehl said he sees the 60 or so kids enrolled in the
program every day after school, and he rewards them with gold stars for going
to class, getting good grades or simply handing in a project on time. That
means they're close to moving to the next level in the program - and one step
closer to the door.
Mehl also sees them on Saturdays in a classroom of his own; there they are
supervised doing schoolwork, watch educational films, perform exercises and
meet with counselors.
The quickest a kid can get through the program is six months, but Mehl said
it's rare that a kid finishes that quickly. "Sometimes," he said, "it's a long
Mehl technically is on the clock all the time. His cell phone is always
on, because he's always one call away from having to step into a situation. He
said he makes surprise visits to the kids' homes at all hours any day of the
week simply to make sure they're staying out of trouble.
This is not exactly the job Mehl envisioned doing when he was finishing his
eight-year career with the Jets.
After retiring from football in the summer of 1988, he did construction
work for a few years. In 1996, a friend who worked as a juvenile court judge
suggested this job to him. Mehl was intrigued.
He still enjoys it, but he said his football injuries from decades ago have
slowed him down considerably. In the beginning, he chased kids down the street
if he had to; nowadays, knee and back pain along with nerve problems related
to spinal stenosis limit his mobility.
He has missed being a part of a football team, but he doesn't miss playing.
That might be why he said he's been to only one Penn State game since his
playing days and only one Jets game in the past 15 years.
Mehl said the NFL denied his application for workman's comp immediately
after he retired, and he hasn't asked for any assistance ever since. "I'm not
going to go begging," he said. "I can still work. I'm just not as mobile as I
used to be."
Besides, Mehl said, he enjoys his job, even if it's impossible to change
every kid he meets for the better. But whenever he runs into someone who made
it through his program, as he did recently at the mall - and the kid yells out
to him, "Sir Lance!" - Mehl said it makes all the troublesome times worthwhile.