There was a point in late April when Justin Lawler wondered if a team would select him in the NFL Draft at a venue barely more than an hour from where he grew up. The final round was underway and his name had yet to be called. At that point the Pottsboro native started to wonder if anyone would give him a shot to continue playing a game he has had so much success with, first wearing Cardinal red and then at SMU.
Less than a year after being given a chance, Lawler finds himself playing in the Super Bowl and one win from being a world champion.
“I’ve never seen a person work as hard at their craft as Justin Lawler works at his,” Pottsboro head coach Matt Poe said. “He’s always had a great work ethic. Good things happen to good people.”
Lawler, who turned 24 two days before Christmas, is at the end of his rookie season on the biggest stage. He is a backup linebacker for the Los Angeles Rams and will try to help the franchise win its first title since 2000 as the team faces the New England Patriots at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII.
“Right after I got drafted, it was a big topic around my household,” Lawler said. “Everyone on the team, we’ve been focused on what we needed do to next. In training camp we focused on training camp. Then Week 1, then Week 2, then Week 3. It really hit once the playoffs started.”
Lawler is the backup to Samson Ebukam at outside linebacker and so almost all of his snaps come on special teams. In addition to field goals and extra points, he has been on the kickoff return, punt and punt return units throughout the season. He played in all 16 regular season games, notching six tackles, including one for a loss.
“I got Darren Sproles on a punt return. That was pretty cool,” he said.
Lawler is looking to join a select group of Texomans who have Super Bowl rings.
Celina’s Anthony Lynn, the current coach of the L.A. Chargers, won with Denver in 1997 and 1998 while Denison’s Jordan Taylor was the most recent after getting his as a practice squad player and Peyton Manning’s personal workout receiver with the Broncos in 2016.
Sherman’s Hunter Smith and Charlie Johnson were teammates when they won it all in 2006 with the Indianapolis Colts and Bonham’s Bill Svoboda won an NFL title in the pre-Super Bowl days with the New York Giants in 1956.
“Anytime you can join small company, especially when it’s winning a Super Bowl ring, that would be an amazing thing to accomplish,” he said.
His mother and father, along with his wife and father-in-law, will be at the Super Bowl. For the NFC title game, his dad and stepmom, mom, neighbor and little brother were on hand.
He also had family at the first playoff game since it was easy to plan — the Rams had clinched a first-round bye and knew they would host someone.
“It just so happened to be the Cowboys,” he said.
Lawler will play in AT&T Stadium next season as the Rams are slated to visit Dallas. The date will be announced in the spring when the league finalizes the 2019 schedule.
It took overtime against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC title game for Los Angeles to make the Super Bowl. Both times Greg Zuerlein made long field goals, including the 57-yard game winner, Lawler was on the field doing his job.
“I wasn’t watching it because I was blocking but I ran to our kicker as soon as I saw it go through the uprights,” he said. “It all hit us after Greg made that kick. It’s a blessing.”
At Pottsboro, Lawler was a two-time District Most Valuable Player and not only a first-team Class 2A all-state selection but the Class 2A Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press Sports Editors as a senior in 2012 when he totaled 124 tackles, 28 for a loss, 13 sacks, a force fumble and a fumble recovery. He added 44 catches for 719 yards and 11 touchdowns on offense, plus blocked two kicks on special teams, as the Cardinals finished 11-1 and reached the Class 2A Region II semifinals.
“For me, every level I’ve never worried about getting to the next level. The opportunities have just presented themselves,” Lawler said. “Coaches showed up and Coach Poe said I was good enough to play. I was just trying to be the best player I could be.”
He joins Saxon Judd, who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1946-48 in the All-American Football Conference, as Pottsboro natives in the pros. He is the first Cardinal to be drafted.
“Anytime you do something for the first time ever, it’s pretty cool,” Lawler said. “I wear Pottsboro on my sleeve proudly. We go back home all the time.”
In addition to football, Lawler competed in basketball, baseball, powerlifting and track at Pottsboro.
“When you compete in all those different sports, you learn how to compete,” Poe said.
After a redshirt freshman season at SMU, he jumped right onto the defensive line and began to make an impact, including showing off his receiving skills with a three-yard TD catch.
He started the final three seasons of his career and as a sophomore posted a team-high 64 tackles and nine tackles for loss, including five sacks, forced a fumble and blocked a field goal.
Lawler was second on the team in tackles with 65 as a junior, when he was first-team All-American Athletic Conference and totaled 15 tackles for loss and six sacks.
As a senior he was second on the team with 74 tackles, 42 solo stops, and led the Mustangs in three categories — 15.5 tackles for loss, nine and a half sacks and 10 QB hurries. He tied the school record with four sacks against UConn, ended his career tied for second in SMU history in sacks (20.5) and also blocked three kicks to tie for the most in the country.
The Rams selected him with the 244th pick, which was 12 selections before the end of the Draft, and the 6-foot-4, 265-pound Lawler was about to make a change in order to make Los Angeles’ roster.
Instead of continuing to play defensive end, he was now going to be a linebacker.
“I was really surprised because I was a bigger defensive end to begin with. I knew I could play,” Lawler said. “During my workouts, teams wanted to see me at least in a two-point stance. Going into the Draft you have to be prepared for everything.”
His chances of making the 53-man roster were also affected by the fact that he was picked by a team coming off an 11-5 record, a division title and playoff appearance.
“The biggest thing was making the team. Seventh-round guys get cut all the time,” Lawler said. “Once I made it, find a role and be the best I can at that role. I’m a team guy and I do whatever I can for the team.”
Lawler survived the final cut and started getting noticed.
“You look at Justin Lawler getting a chance to take some Sam linebacker reps with some of those top guys and he’s flashed some really good things,” Rams head coach Sean McVay told reporters during Organized Team Activities in late May. “And we’re looking forward to seeing really a lot of guys grow, but specifically, he’s gotten some chances and he’s made the most of those.”
He was now in the NFL and it was a big adjustment, perhaps even bigger than going from Pottsboro to SMU, which is not a Power 5 program with draft picks all over the roster.
“Living in Dallas definitely helped me get used to the big city — a lot of cars, the lights, a lot of flashy stuff,” Lawler said. “Our team facility is in Thousand Oaks and it takes us about 45 minutes, an hour and a half, to get to the stadium in L.A.”
He was part of a unit that had the reigning Defensive Player of the Year plus a couple of All-Pros. In practice he was squaring off against a former No. 1 overall pick and the guy who has led the league in rushing touchdowns the past two seasons.
“On the field, I’ve always had a cool composure. You kind of get used it,” Lawler said. “It was at first, when I’m hanging out in the locker room with Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley. People look at them like their celebrities, and they are, but they’re just guys too.”
And that wasn’t even counting the necessary evil of football being the way Lawler makes a living. It was, he feels, the biggest adjustment of all as compared to preparing for a who’s who of opposing quarterbacks this season — Phillip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Drew Brees twice and ultimately ending today with Tom Brady.
“The business side of it — the agents, the contracts. I’m not some big star but the guys with endorsements; all the stuff that has nothing to do with football,” Lawler said. “It can overwhelm you if you let it. I’m just all about getting out on the field and playing football.”