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2017 NFL Draft: How football changed Devaroe Lawrence's life

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Devaroe Lawrence logged 44 tackles (five for loss) in his last two years at Auburn. (Brynn Anderson/AP)


The way Devaroe Lawrence remembers it, he was alone in his cell, getting ready for bed. It was his third stint in jail, and he knew he'd be getting out soon, so he prayed for a chance to do something that would prevent another trip behind bars. Something he could do well.

Something, rather than his previous plans to do nothing.

"I didn't say exactly what it was I was talking about, but after I said, 'In Jesus Christ's name, we pray,' my cell door popped [open]," Lawrence recalled recently in a conversation with NFL Media. "One of the guards told me I was getting out that night, and my life forever changed."

Lives will forever change this week when the 2017 NFL Draft begins in Philadelphia on Thursday and continues through Saturday. It won't be until the final day when Lawrence, a 6-foot-2, 294-pound defensive tackle from Auburn, learns where his pro career will begin. He's slated as a possible late-round pick, though he might wind up being an undrafted free agent -- which, for many players, can be a blessing in disguise, because it gives them some control over their destination.

Lawrence claims he's not stressing over whether he'll get drafted, and there's reason to believe him. He's been through much more trying situations in his life.

The young man, who went by his middle name, Jamal, as a child and teenager, grew up in a broken home in Greenville, South Carolina, where his mother passed him off to another family, where he bounced between houses for nearly his entire childhood and adolescence, where he tried and sold drugs as early as eighth grade, where he often stayed out all night, where he preferred the loneliness of the streets over the houses that never felt like home. And where he finally became part of a family when one of his high school coaches took him in and gave him the stability he'd lacked.

But Jamal's story isn't complete, and how happy the ending will be is up to Devaroe.

By many accounts, Lawrence is as naturally gifted as most of the players who will hear their names called well ahead of his. He believes he is a "first-round talent," and there's some evidence to support that claim. According to numbers compiled by Auburn's strength and conditioning program, Lawrence recorded a 4.60-second 40-yard dash during a workout in April 2016, as well as a 7.49-second three-cone drill and a broad jump of 9 feet, 8.5 inches. Lawrence's weight that day was 300 pounds.

That 40 time can't possibly be accurate, and NFL scouts have no recent comparison of their own, because Lawrence is coming off a torn ACL suffered last December. He only did the bench press (piling up an impressive 31 reps) at his pro day last month. But a 40-time that fast would be in the neighborhood of what players who weigh 40-50 pounds less than Lawrence ran at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Rodney Garner, Auburn's associate head coach and defensive line coach, didn't witness last year's workout and declined to vouch for the listed time, but said Lawrence is "explosive, he is powerful and he can flat-out run. He's the closest thing to Geno that I've coached."

Geno is five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins of the Cincinnati Bengals. He is one of the NFL stars Garner coached during his 15 seasons at Georgia. Garner has coached five first-round picks (Richard Seymour, Marcus Stroud, Charles Grant, Johnathan Sullivan and David Pollack) and several more linemen who blossomed in the NFL (Atkins, Charles Johnson, Robert Geathers, Demetric Evans and more).

"Given the right situation, the right place, he can play at [Atkins'] level. There are no limitations other than what he puts on himself," Garner said by phone last week. "He was in my office yesterday and I told him I have several teams inquiring about him because he is a very gifted player."

Lawrence's gifts are the reason he's even on the verge of a professional football career, the reason he found stability in his life.

When he was a young child, he'd roam the streets at night. He even devised a scheme to hide one of the basketballs from the recreational park during the day so he could use it to shoot hoops all night long rather than return home.

In high school, he was fined for possession of marijuana and then served two weeks in jail when that fine went unpaid. After graduation, he served his second and third jail sentences, both of which were related to a single trespassing violation.

"I didn't have anybody to jump down my throat. That's what my daddy did," Lawrence said. "He didn't mind riding me."

The man Lawrence calls "daddy" is not his biological father. It is Sam Kelly, a volunteer coach at Carolina Academy who worked closely with (and took a liking to) the extremely talented and fearless Jamal. Kelly gave Lawrence rides home from practice, and it was during one of those rides that Kelly had a tough talk with the young man, asking him what he planned to do after high school.

"Nothing," Lawrence replied.

Kelly didn't approve of that answer.

"I've never heard the word 'nothing' ring through my ears like it did that day," Kelly recalled in a phone conversation recently. "No, we're not going to allow 'nothing' to happen."

From that moment, their relationship blossomed. Kelly gave Lawrence a job working in the warehouse at his software company, though he had to fire him a few times when the work (or Lawrence's behavior) was substandard.

"He's a good kid. He's missed a lot," Kelly said. "He's missed 20 years of a man teaching him what's right and wrong, and he tried to figure it out for himself."

The Kelly family also welcomed Lawrence into their house to stay for nights, weeks and eventually months at a time. He was a member of the family, to the point that he would be quick to vigorously defend the honor of Kelly's wife and two daughters. ("He's a protector," Kelly said.)

In exchange for shelter and the best sleep he'd ever had, Lawrence worked on his new goal to do something with his life. He graduated from high school, though Kelly was disappointed when he heard Lawrence's name called at the commencement but didn't see him pop up on stage. Lawrence didn't have the money for a cap and gown, so he didn't attend. (The first commencement Lawrence ever attended came last year when he earned his bachelor's degree in public administration from Auburn.)

Shortly after completing his third jail stint -- and true to his word in that jail-cell prayer that he'd pursue the thing he loved if given a second chance -- Lawrence traveled with a friend to Georgia Military College for a tryout with the football team. He was offered a spot on the team and, after sitting out in 2012 due to academic ineligibility, he recorded 4.5 sacks in one season to earn a scholarship to Auburn.

Thanks in large part to the Kelly family, Lawrence was suddenly accomplishing things even he never dreamed.

"They loved me through ups and downs," said Lawrence, who has maintained a relationship in recent years with his mother despite his living with the Kellys. "And the thing is, they don't care if I ever play another snap of football. Just let me do my thing."

One day, Kelly got a call from a friend who told him to look up Lawrence's bio on the Auburn athletics website. It read: "Son of Angie and Sam Kelly." Lawrence was never officially adopted by the Kellys or any family.

"He did that on his own," Kelly said.

Lawrence showed how disruptive he could be in spurts during his three seasons with the Tigers. The highlight of his college career, according to Garner, was a sack against Arkansas when he blew through guard Jake Raulerson all the way to sacking quarterback Ty Storey. A package of highlights compiled by Priority Sports, the agency that reps Lawrence, shows a few other plays when he's able to make stops while also shedding blockers, as well as one play when he shows his speed to chase down a screen pass from behind.

The question NFL evaluators have, though, is why Lawrence's production never matched his potential. Why did this supremely talented player have only 44 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 24 games over the past two seasons?

This is where it gets a bit murky, and where Garner admits he's been tough on Lawrence. For as much as he says Lawrence is "like a son to me," Garner says he coached him as hard as any other player. Lawrence has been prone to cramping -- it happened so much that Garner wondered if it was legit. One game last year, Garner benched Lawrence because he was cramping in practice all week.

"I felt that cramping was his defense mechanism. Whenever he got tired, he'd just cramp," said Garner, who did note that Lawrence sweats more than most players. "I'm really trying to help him. In life, you're going to be thrown some curveballs. It's about more than football. He's a father to a beautiful little girl and I've told him fatherhood is about going that extra mile and pushing when you think you can't. You're going to have to find a way to dig down and push through.

"It's not being cruel or insensitive. I used to tell him, 'Sometimes, I believe more in you than you do.' "

Lawrence said he and Garner "didn't always see eye-to-eye on some things," but even he admits he's had to work on battling fatigue during games and practices. He chalks it up to an active mind that "never shuts off" and has allowed negative thoughts to creep in sometimes.

Asked why that happens, Lawrence replied, "Just how I grew up, where I come from, I reflect a lot. You sit back and look at where I come from and where I'm at today, there's only one answer. It's God."

Kelly believes Lawrence's rough early years led to some malnutrition that has affected his body, though they've seen progress, and the hope is NFL strength and conditioning programs will help him improve in those areas.

Kelly also sees increased determination in Lawrence, and they've had in-depth discussions about subjects relating to a reading assignment Kelly gave Lawrence: "Kingdom Man," a book by Christian author Tony Evans that explores what it takes to be a leader and have an impact on one's community.

"It used to be, if I was on the field working as hard as I could, and somebody told me it wasn't good enough, I'd think, This is my best, but it's not good enough? Forget this," Lawrence said. "But this past year or so, I've learned to tap into that will power, and I'm tapping into it more now because of the ACL. I don't think like a human, I don't think like the average man and I'm not healing like a human.

"No more mental barriers. I want to be extraordinary."

The bottom line is, one team will take a chance on Lawrence as a late-round pick or undrafted free agent. (The Chiefs, Colts, Dolphins, Seahawks, Packers and Saints are among those who have shown interest.) If all goes well, that club could reap tremendous value from a young man who has worked to improve himself on and off the field. It is a young man who has already shared the lessons he's learned with plenty of youngsters -- and hopes to teach many more in the years to come.

"I'm his biggest fan. Boy, it could be a great, great story," Garner said. "A great testimony."

Follow Mike Garafolo on Twitter @MikeGarafolo.

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