Notre Dame WR signee Lawrence Keys III motivated by memory of fallen friend

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Lawrence Keys III couldn’t look right. The view was all wrong.

On Feb. 7, at New Orleans McDonogh 35 High School’s National Signing Day celebration, the 5-foot-11, 170-pound receiver sat at a long table on a crowded stage. Donning a blue shirt and gold bow tie that unsubtly spoiled his imminent college decision, Keys was surrounded by friends, family and fellow classmates.

And, right beside him, a jersey in a frame.

It was a white McDonogh jersey featuring a maroon No. 89, every inch of it peppered with signatures and sloppy, stunted goodbyes.

It was not Devin “Duke” Winters. He was gone.

But not forgotten.

On Jan. 25, less than two weeks before National Signing Day, Winters — a 6-4, 250-pound McDonogh defensive lineman — was found unconscious in his home, and was unable to be revived. The 19-year-old behemoth had been weighing scholarship offers from Ole Miss, Houston, Oregon State, Mississippi State and Louisiana-Lafayette.

The cause of death is still unknown.

Keys and Winters — whose 20th birthday would have been Monday — used to spend weekday mornings sitting across from each other in the school cafeteria, sharing a collective dream. They talked about college football and the NFL — and signing day. Always signing day. They planned to sign together, maybe even to play together. That weekend, they planned to take a recruiting trip to Texas together.

Happy birthday brother... love you dawg!!!! ❤️ @_duke10

— LKIII (@LawrenceKeys_) April 2, 2018

And when Duke died, Keys crumbled.

“The day it happened I was speechless,” Keys told the Tribune last month. “I cried the entire flight.”

On Feb. 7, the Louisiana speedster officially signed with Notre Dame. There was an empty seat beside him — just that jersey in a frame.

“It was very hard. He was supposed to be sitting there right next to me on signing day,” Keys said. “Every time I looked to my right I just wanted to break down.”

Instead of breaking down, he spoke up. With a blue Irish hat pulled low over his eyes, Keys leaned forward, into a microphone, and spoke directly to Duke.

“I just want to say that we love you, rest in peace and everything we do is for you, bro.”

In the months since, Keys’ Twitter account has transformed into a consistently evolving tribute.

Feb. 6: #89Forever

Feb. 9: #89Forever

Feb. 17: #89Forever

March 5: #89Forever

March 11: #89Forever

March 16: #89Forever

For Keys, forever is far from over, and he plans to honor Winters in the way he acts — and the way he plays. According to, the consensus three-star recruit recorded 58 catches for more than 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns in his senior season. Along the way, he earned scholarship offers from the likes of Georgia, Miami, Michigan, Oklahoma and Texas A&M.

But he found a fit at Notre Dame — and that, too, is saying something.

“After visiting with him and his coaches and being there a number of times, we recognized that he has a lot of grit. He’s a playmaker. He’s different,” Notre Dame wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander said on National Signing Day. “He’s different in a lot of ways. He’s different on and off the field.

“That’s what stood out to me. He’s his own individual person, and I think it helps to be different than some of the people or some of the environment that you see.”

OK, so he’s different. But how exactly is that defined?

“It’s not all about football at the end of the day,” Keys said. “It’s about your relationships, the way you carry yourself — your character, what you’re doing inside the classes and your mindset that separates you from anyone else.”

It’s not all about football. It’s about Duke. It’s about #89Forever. It’s about achieving all the dreams hatched on sleepy Monday mornings in the McDonogh cafeteria.

It’s about playing for your family, for your university, and in this case, for your friend.

“It’s going to be a tough pill to swallow,” Keys said of a college career and a life without Devin “Duke” Winters. “Everything I do, I do it for him, because I know he’ll be looking over me.”


Twitter: @mikevorel

Wide receiver Lawrence Keys III puts on a Notre Dame hat on National Signing Day at McDonogh 35 in New Orleans on Wednesday, February 7, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Chris Granger, | The Times-Picayune)