Once a budding star at Fayetteville (GA) Fayette County High School outside of Atlanta, Lauderdale got an early offer from Indiana and was getting interest from a lot of other schools during his junior year. That changed going into his senior year when his mother passed away. Lauderdale's mother handled both parenting roles for Eric growing up, as his stepfather passed away when he was just a toddler.
"My mother passed, my grades started to slip and I wasn't able to get qualified," said Lauderdale. "That's why other schools didn't offer me, because my grades were slipping. It was kind of rough."
Trusted to the care of his aunt, Lauderdale was sent to Hargrave Military Academy, a prep school in Virginia, to try to boost his grades. But at a tuition price tag of $18,000 a semester, the school sent Lauderdale home when he and his family couldn't keep up with the bills.
"I wasn't able to leave there with a new transcript, so basically I was starting from scratch," said Lauderdale. "I wasn't in school in spring of 2012, and I had to start over somewhere."
Heading out to California to visit family, including an older cousin who he viewed as a father figure, Lauderdale was persuaded by his older cousin to check out Saddleback and the football program there. He meshed with the coaching staff. He liked the area. He liked the fact the offense ran a spread offense with a downfield passing game.
"I knew I would fit in," said Lauderdale.
It was so perfect for Lauderdale that when he introduced himself to the coaches, he told them before the start of the 2013 season that he would have scholarship offers.
"The wide receiver coach looked at me like, ‘Who do you think you are?'" recalled Lauderdale. "I knew what my skill set was."
Slowly building his confidence by getting three to four catches per game at the start, the confidence Lauderdale instilled in his teammates and coaches helped him finish his freshman season with 60 receptions for 916 yards and seven touchdowns. He caught 10 passes for more than 200 yards and two touchdowns in one game, almost broke the school single-game receiving record in another and recorded, what he called, the play of his life.
"I caught a 12-yard route against a cornerback on an island, who was off-balance when I caught the ball, so I knew I would get him," said Lauderdale. "He fell, and another dude was coming as I was running up the sideline. I stiff-armed him so he wouldn't be able to grab me, and I didn't know how powerful it was because he fell right on his back. It was like, ‘Oh my God.' I went for a 50-yard touchdown and all my teammates loved that play for sure. It's probably the highlight of my career.
"Once they started getting me the ball, I started doing what I know I can do with the ball, being an athlete."
With everything he had been through, Lauderdale remembers when he was surprised by the wide receivers coach from Illinois, who called to offer him his first scholarship since starting at Saddleback.
"I don't know how the coach got my number, but he was talking to me and wanted me to know that they were offering me a full scholarship," said Lauderdale. "I paused for a moment, was really quiet. He asked me if I was still there, told them I was and I appreciated it. After I got off the phone, so much relief was off my shoulders."
The offers didn't stop rolling in during the month of April, but he was adamant that his relationship with Tennessee, its coaching staff and wide receiver coach Zach Azzanni was the perfect blend of what he was looking for out of his college experience.
Now that he's got his commitment set, Lauderdale has achieved one goal, and is pushing himself to start accomplishing more.
"My mission isn't done yet," said Lauderdale, "but the scholarships have taken a lot of pressure off of me. I knew I had the ability to play at the Division I level. It seemed like everything was collapsing. I didn't want to go to junior college. Nobody really does, but I had to do it. I didn't have an option.
"I did it. I had a good season and my mom is watching down on me. It's so much relief off my shoulders. I just feel better now. I really do."