Shaq Lawson told his story.
About his father, well known in his community as a coach and referee in youth sports, dying in a car accident involving a drunk driver who attended high school with Lawson. About his older brother nearing the end of a 20-year prison term. About his “homeboys” from South Carolina in jail for murder.
Sitting on the stage in the auditorium at Buffalo’s McKinley High School Tuesday, the Bills’ 24-year-old defensive end could envision his younger self among the students in the audience.
“I used to be the same kid sitting there, listening to older guys telling me the same thing,” Lawson said afterward. “But at the time I wasn’t listening. It was going in one ear and out the other. ... I had to learn the hard way.”
So far, the lessons are paying off. Lawson joined the Buffalo Bills as a first-round draft pick from Clemson in 2016, and has been a solid contributor while starting the last four games.
He told the students there were two major milestones in his life. One was his father’s death in 2011, because it forced Lawson to “grow up as a man” at 15 years old and serve as a father figure to his younger brothers and sisters. The other was when when he enrolled at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., after his senior year at D.W. Daniel High School in Central, South Carolina.
The second event went a long way toward removing the many rough edges Lawson had and allowed him to meet academic requirements to enter college.
After a student opened the question-and-answer period by asking Lawson about his fight with Leonard Fournette in Sunday’s victory against Jacksonville — Lawson explained he was defending himself and teammates — another got to the heart of Lawson’s cautionary tale when he asked: “If you never went to that military school, where do you think you would be right now?”
Lawson paused. He took a deep breath, then said, “Either in jail, dead or selling something.”
Somehow, Lawson had to find a way out. Otherwise, he knew he would spiral into a bad place.
“I didn’t want to be on the corner selling no weed, no things like that,” Lawson said. “I knew I had to do something better, man. I mean, do something I know I can make some legal money (doing).
“And I was just a class clown, too. Man, I always used to get in trouble. I was on this list, from ninth grade until 12th grade, called the ‘do-not-roam list.’ The only way that I could leave the classroom was unless I was with the principal. I couldn’t go nowhere unless I was with the principal. Use the bathroom, go to the nurse, anything.
“I always had sports, but at the time, I thought, ‘Man, I’m not going to get in college anywhere. My grades are bad. I'm just gonna be another dude just trying to make a dollar in the streets.’”
The one year he spent at Hargrave went a long way toward allowing Lawson to avoid that fate. It wasn’t easy. At first, he struggled with the strict discipline that included early wake-up calls and marching. Lots of marching.
Among Lawson’s bigger adjustments was taking orders from much younger cadets. And then there were the showers.
“There was a shower facing one (direction) and another shower (directly across from it) facing (the opposite way), and so we were basically butt-to-butt. It was kind of weird,” Lawson said. “I remember one time I had gotten in trouble because we had sneaked out to get some pizza because we couldn’t eat regular food. I got caught, so I had to do a total of 75 hours walking the square with a full military uniform and rifle on my shoulder. If the rifle moved one inch, I had to start my whole hour over, so I had to do that a whole two months because I had to keep starting over.”
Still, he was thankful for the Hargrave experience. He believes that, without it, he never would have gone as far as he did at Clemson, which he left before graduating to enter the NFL Draft early, or have been in the position to live his dream as a pro football player.
Lawson told the students his priority after he retires from playing — he reminded them that NFL stands for “Not For Long” — is to complete the work for his undergraduate degree in communications. He also said he would like to “make the Paralympics bigger than it is.” There’s a special place in his heart for people with disabilities, because “a lot of people in my family are disabled.”
Lawson has established a track record of giving back. In the summer, he donated a $22,000 scoreboard to the Central Recreation Department’s Bolick Field in South Carolina, where he got his start in organized football. Lawson made the donation in the name of his father, Lawrence Lawson, a star basketball player at the former Central Wesleyan College and a fixture in the department for many years spent coaching and officiating.
Marck Abraham, in his second year as principal at McKinley, was impressed with Shaq Lawson’s openness and felt it resonated with the audience of 40 students who are part of the school’s Gentlemen’s Institute Leadership Workshop.
“I really appreciated the transparency and the realness of it to say, ‘Hey, I'm a human being just like you. I have the same background just like you. I had to believe that I could do this, I had to work hard and put all of those things in place so that I can achieve a level of success,’ ” Abraham said. “And then to hear him say, after football, I have to go back and get my college education, which is huge, because what we promote here at McKinley High School is that we're sending our kids to college, we're going to graduate a high percentage of our students and we see that with the graduation rate going up. In the last year, it’s up about five percentage points; we’re in the high 80s and close to hitting 90 percent.”
“Most of those kids have seen us just on the football field, but really don’t know our story,” Lawson said. “So if you go back and tell them the story and they’re like, ‘Man, I relate to that. If he can do it, I can do it.’ ”