Gameday: Rashad Lawrence embraces role as leader of receivers

Alex Putterman, Assistant Sports Editor

It’s the college football circle of life.

A player enters a program naive to the world he’ll inhabit and progresses with the help of his elders. Before long, that player is a guardian for the next generation, and eventually he passes on, leaving his understudies as his legacy.

Rashad Lawrence entered Northwestern’s program in 2010, a precocious true freshman contributor. Now, the receiver is a senior and a grizzled veteran, educated in everything from route-running to jacket buying and thrilled to pass on his knowledge to those next in line.

Not that it was entirely easy to accept the transition from Simba to Mufasa.

“I’ve come to terms with it more as the year’s gone on, but going into this offseason it was like ‘Wow, I’m the old man around here now,’” Lawrence said. “That’s unreal.“

Not just any old man, Lawrence is a team captain and the only Wildcats senior to start every game on offense this season. He’s third on the team with 268 receiving yards, 149 of which came in prime time during NU’s narrow loss to Ohio State on Oct. 5. With five regular season contests and a potential bowl game to play, Lawrence is 30 yards short of 1,000 for his career.

On the field, he has not particularly overachieved or underachieved. His play has been steady, predictable, always essentially in line with expectations.

Before reaching NU, Lawrence was a three-star recruit from Orlando, targeted mostly by mid-level FBS programs. He followed his high school quarterback, Trevor Siemian, to Evanston because he “just fell in love with the place. Having Trevor already committed was icing on the cake.”

After playing every game and catching 12 balls as a freshman, Lawrence’s on-field role expanded gradually. His reception and yardage totals increased in each of his first three seasons, and he caught his lone career touchdown pass against Iowa in 2011.

Lawrence’s off-field role, meanwhile, swung 180 degrees, from needy to needed and mentee to mentor.

“I know when I came in as a young guy, I was a true freshman playing, and I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it without the guys above me,” the senior said. “I’m thinking about guys like Jeremy Ebert, Drake Dunsmore, Demetrius Fields, Sidney Stewart.”

And now? As one of two senior receivers heading a pack of younglings?

“I just keep that ball moving,” he said. “They did it for me, so I want to pay it forward and give it those guys.”

He’s always in the ear of sophomore Cameron Dickerson and has reached out to all the true freshmen, listing them in succession. Lawrence also made a big impact on at least one redshirt freshman as well.

Mike McHugh is full of stories of Lawrence’s mentorship, like when Lawrence helped the Missouri native buy a winter jacket when it got cold. Or when McHugh lost his temper at a coach during practice last year and Lawrence intervened to calm both parties.

McHugh says Lawrence serves as somewhat of a conduit between coaches and players and “a really huge leader on this team.”

“He’s real vocal, but he’s not in-your-face yelling at you,” McHugh said. “He’s going to take you aside, he’s going to coach you up during practice, then after practice he’ll pull you aside and really just work on the fundamentals. … He’s really (good about) not letting coaches overwhelm you. He tries to keep you calm, helps you breathe a little when you mess up.”

Lawrence’s mother died when he was 11 years old, and he was raised by his grandmother and uncle in what a 2012 Chicago Tribune story described as a “rough section” of Orlando. The personal struggle — particularly his mother’s passing — motivates him today.

“That just keeps me going,” Lawrence said this week. “Knowing where I came from, knowing how far I’ve made it. Knowing what my mother would want me to be, what type of man my mother would want me to be. Still making her proud whether she’s still here or looking down on me.”

During downtime at practice, Lawrence laughs with teammates and sometimes dances when music plays from speakers. He gets animated when asked about Dickerson’s dance moves and jokes with athletic department staff between media obligations. It stands to reason his merry attitude toward football owes to perspective gleaned from previous life experience.

“At the end of the day, we’re playing a game,” Lawrence said. “We’re blessed to have this opportunity, so we’d be wrong if we’re not having fun with it. We could be in a million different positions in our life right now, but we get to go out on Saturdays and play football in front of thousands of people, and that’s just unreal. So why not have fun with it?”

Lawrence’s time on the field, and all the fun that comes with it, is running short. But with a network of young receivers carrying his example into the future, his influence won’t graduate any time soon. He’ll soon be gone, but the circle will continue.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @AlexPutt02