News Section: Sports
Henry Lawrence Inducted into Florida Sports Hall of Fame
BRADENTON -- I sat down with local football legend and NFL Pro-Bowler Henry Lawrence to talk about a storybook career, which now includes induction into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame during a recent ceremony that will be broadcast on Brighthouse Sports next week. The Palmetto native, who won three Super Bowl rings with the Oakland Raiders, talked about a career that spanned 13 seasons and included run-ins with some of the greatest football players of all time.
Lawrence, who was part of the first post-integration football team at Manatee High when it absorbed Lincoln High in Palmetto, starred in the critically-acclaimed documentary Through the Tunnel, which tells the story of the Lincoln Trojans and their journey (click to watch). After a promising high school career, he went on to star at Florida A&M, before being chosen by the Raiders in the first round of the 1974 NFL draft.
“When young kids come up to me, one of the first questions they always ask is, how many millions did you make in the NFL?” joked Lawrence. “I always ask them, how much do you think? Their eyes get big and they say, $5 million,” Lawrence laughed, “Nope, I didn't make that much, ten million they say. Then I tell them the truth – that I made $25,000 my first year and they look at me like I'm lying.”
Lawrence played in the NFL right in the midst of the change from run dominated football to pass. As teams began opening up their offenses and quarterbacks became more essential (and thus valuable) than running backs, likewise did the men who protected them. The two offenses that came to dominate the new passing attacks were Bill Walsh's West Coast offense, a rhythmic system of short, timed passes that for the first time, made prominent use of the width of the field as much as the length, and the Air Coryell offense, so named for Charger coach Don Coryell, whose long-bomb pass attack was the original “West Coast" offense until Walsh's became more popular and misuse of the term stuck.
The Raiders used an even more extreme version of Air Coryell, passing long and often, making two things essential – cannon-armed quarterbacks and great pass blockers up front. Of course the Raiders had the arms – Darryl Lamonica, Kenny Stabler, Jim Plunkett – but they also had the blockers. Hall of Famers Gene Upshaw and Art Shell both went on to gain additional notoriety, Upshaw as head of the players' union and Shell as an NFL head coach. But while Lawrence might not be as easily recalled by the average fan, he started for 12 of his 13 years, including all three of the Raiders' Super Bowl victories, one of the only players to do so.
The popular website Bleacher Report lists him as #18 on the list of the 50 all-time greatest Raiders, ahead of such luminaries as Plunkett, Matt Millen, Todd Christensen and Bo Jackson. When asked who was the toughest defender he ever had to block, Lawrence answers Reggie White without hesitation, before reeling off a list of other greats he's played against, including former L.A. Rams defensive end Jack Youngblood, who presented Lawrence at Tuesday night's ceremony.
Lawrence also spoke about the pressure of being on the Raiders' front five.
“When you're running that kind of offense and you're giving the quarterback five seconds on every drop instead of three, man that's tough,” explained Lawrence. “They're back there throwing the ball play after play, and they have to just stay in that pocket until the receiver completes his route and turns. That's a long time to block somebody. Eventually, you're like, can't we just run the ball,” the jovial giant laughed. “If we would have had more of those timed passes and short routes, I believe we would have been unstoppable.”
Lawrence's relationship with Raider owner Al Davis was pretty much the same as everyone else – complicated. But his feelings for former coach and good friend John Madden were clear.
“We were ready every week,” he told me over tacos at Maria's in the Red Barn, as half a dozen fans stopped by for autographs from the easily-recognized Lawrence, who stands nearly 6'5 and at 60, still sports a pro football player's build. “That was Madden's greatest skill as a coach in my opinion – preparation – mentally, physically, we were ready. The game was won before it ever started because of all the hard work we had already done.”
Lawrence talked about his mentors and said that although he'd always known that Gene Upshaw was a great player, it wasn't until he got a chance to play next to him that he understood just how special he was.
“Gene was always left guard, next to Art Shell and both those guys were great, but you put them together and it was just magical,” said Lawrence. “There was so much football intelligence between them. Well one season, there were some injuries and at one point Gene ended up playing guard over on my side and I tell you, it made my world a lot easier, because it was like having a quarterback on the line, you know, the way he understood things. I kept thinking, man if I could have had a guy like him next to me my entire career who knows what I could've done – and I mean, I did okay already,” laughed Lawrence.
Upshaw actually came to the Florida A&M campus to tutor Lawrence after he was drafted, but he says it was retired Colonel and Rural Health CEO Mickey Presha that was responsible for a lot of his success when he turned pro.
“Mickey really had an impact on me as a player. He would be at my house every day, 'Wake up it's time to run.' That cat would run me and run me, then run me some more,” laughed Lawrence. “When I showed up for my first camp, I was in some great shape. I was almost as fast as the running backs. Those coaches looked at me like, 'son are you on drugs?'" laughed Lawrence who says unlike today, lineman used to come in underweight and have to bulk up for the season.
“I was maybe 248 when I arrived, and I'd build up to like 265. Then later, the weights became a big thing and you were lifting them all year round. My last season I had worked really hard with a professional bodybuilder in the offseason, and I showed up 300 pounds and in the best shape of my life. I kept thinking, man, if we would've been doing all these things back then...”
These days Lawrence is enjoying semi-retirement, with kids off in college and a successful foundation through which he helps provide guidance for at-risk youth in the Manatee area. The gifted R&B singer still performs regularly throughout the area. In fact, it was his bombastic entrance while belting out a verse of Stand by Me Jesus (which he dedicated to his brother Smitty) that saved an otherwise sleepy induction ceremony and brought it back to prime time. Lawrence charmed the crowd with his inspiring tale and left to thunderous applause. Hopefully he'll get a chance to sing it again when he joins Upshaw and Shell in Canton.
This weekend Henry Lawrence will be a featured act at Palmetto's Multicultural Festival, going onstage at 5:30 p.m. Then on Sunday it's his regular show at A Touch of Class on U.S. 41 in Bradenton. To book Henry for a speaking engagement or singing performance, visit his website. Check out the video below of Henry performing the Otis Reading hit, Try a Little Tenderness.
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