Shaq Lawson has been a Clemson Tiger at heart ever since he worked the concession stands at Death Valley.
Growing up less than five miles from Clemson University in the town of Central, South Carolina, Lawson wasn’t satisfied only hearing the roars of the crowd at Memorial Stadium.
“I used to watch the games and jump over the stands and try to get some gloves from anybody,” Lawson said. “I used to try to get a break, sneak down there and try to get the coach’s attention. In video games, I played with Clemson. I used to commentate like I was a commentator out there and everything.”
More than a decade after idolizing Clemson stars such as Kevin Youngblood and Charlie Whitehurst, Lawson has begun leaving his own mark on the program as one of the school’s defensive standouts.
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Lawson, a defensive end, was a finalist for the Lombardi and Nagurski awards this season after an impressive junior year in which he posted 9 1/2 sacks and 22 1/2 tackles-for-loss.
His contributions have been a major factor for the development of a Clemson defense that opened the season with plenty of uncertainty following the departure of numerous key starters, including the team’s previous star pass rusher, Vic Beasley.
“Vic and those guys showed me how to lead on and off the field,” Lawson said. “You don’t always lead just by saying something. You’ve got a chance to get better every day. Just waking up knowing you can go do what you love to do and practice, that makes us better.”
Lawson was one of several former backups that helped a unit that lost its entire front seven remain one of the country’s top defensive teams. Clemson enters Thursday’s Orange Bowl playoff semifinal against Oklahoma ranked 13th among FBS schools in total defense, fifth in passing yards allowed per game and seventh in overall yards allowed per game.
“We had one starter returning on the offensive and defensive lines,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “To say we would be in a College [Football] Playoff, I would have checked into an insane asylum.”
The prospect of players like Lawson not wearing Clemson orange this season might have been enough to drive their coach crazy. And in Lawson’s case, it almost happened. Despite his passion for the Tigers, Lawson contemplated leaving home for college. But tragedy kept him close to family.
“Going into my senior year [of high school] during spring football, I lost my dad to a car accident,” Lawson said. “After my pops died, I just wanted to be closer with my brothers and little sister, so that pretty much changed my decision.”
While coping with his dad’s passing, Lawson still managed to put together a stellar senior season. But he did not qualify academically and ended up enrolling in prep school at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia for his first semester of college, an experience he said humbled him.
“You had to walk every day up a dirt hill, rocks, past a graveyard … that’s why they called it ‘The Grave,’ then all the way to practice, push sleds 500 yards during practice,” Lawson said. “[Going to Hargrave] makes you a better person, a better man, just gives you instruction in life and everything. I’m really glad I experienced it.”
Lawson signed with Clemson as the top-rated prep school prospect in the country by 247Sports.com. But he still had to wait his turn.
Lawson did the most with his time backing up Beasley, the No. 8 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft by the Falcons. Lawson recorded 79 tackles and 7 1/2 sacks over two seasons and learned plenty.
“He’s still the same old kid from Daniel [High School], South Carolina,” said Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware, who attended nearby Anderson High. “It’s cool to see him grow as a person and see why he’s growing and staying so humble after receiving every award in the country.”