ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
To this day he’s the single greatest player-possibly the greatest athlete-ever to wear a Tabor College uniform, and one of the best ever to play in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference.
His name: Rolland “Bay” Lawrence.
Lawrence will make the trek back from his hometown of Franklin, Pa., to be at Reimer Field once more on Saturday afternoon.
There, he’ll become the first person to have his football jersey retired at Tabor. The ceremony will be held at halftime of Tabor’s homecoming game against Friends University. The game will begins at 2 p.m.
Lawrence, who played at Tabor from 1970 through 1973, will stand on the field that helped mold him for an all-pro career with the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League.
“I was taken aback,” Lawrence said of his reaction to his jersey being retired and his impending induction into the NAIA Hall of Fame in January.
“That was a part of my life that I did 30 years ago and it’s in my past-but it’s something no one will ever be able to take away from me,” said Lawrence. “It makes me think how blessed I was, how gifted I was, and how things just fell into place.”
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Lawrence’s journey from Pennsylvania to Kansas was improbable, at best.
Raised by his grandparents, Evelyn and Vivian Lawrence, Bay was one of five children born to Barbara Lawrence.
“When I say Mommy and Daddy, I mean my grandparents,” Lawrence said.
Brothers Curt and Seth and sisters Austie and Evelyn comprised the Lawrence family.
So how did a star athlete from Pennsylvania end up on the plains of Kansas?
“Coach Stu Brynn was traveling through Franklin and stopped in a restaurant for breakfast,” Lawrence said. “The people told him how the Lawrence brothers were pretty good, so he came out and talked to us.
“I think the coup de grace was that Coach Brynn offered my brother and me a package deal,” he added. “I had several schools that wanted me but not my brother. Momma wanted us to go to school together.”
Lawrence said it made a huge impact on his parents that Brynn actually visited their home.
“That really impressed them,” he said. “They thought it would be nice for us to get away, too.”
Kansas, Hillsboro and Tabor College proved to be a cultural shock for the Lawrence brothers.
“It was an eye-opener,” he said with a chuckle. “No disrespect intended, but there’s nothing like Hillsboro, Kan.
“It was an amazing experience,” he said. “It was a farmers’ town and very conservative. I saw my first stampede when I was there!”
Lawrence, who majored in physical education, health and history, said he had no preconceived notion about Kansas.
“I was coming out to get an education and play sports,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect. My teammates told me about eight-man football. I never knew that existed.
“My time at Tabor College was a unique experience,” Lawrence added. “It was definitely a slow-paced lifestyle.”
Life there wasn’t all peaches and cream for Lawrence.
“I remember after the first semester I almost transferred,” he said. “In fact, I got to the airport and called Momma about it, but she said I shouldn’t leave my brother there.
“Mothers always seem to be right,” he added. “I left that behind me and I totally enjoyed my four years at Tabor.”
Lawrence said his near exodus from Hillsboro was the result of a desire to be tested athletically.
“I wanted a challenge,” he said. “My freshman year was Tabor’s first in the KCAC. I had some good teammates, but not enough of them.
“We won two games each year,” he continued. “We were kind of the licking stick of the conference. But we still ran the ball well and did some extraordinary things and put on a great show.”
Lawrence recalled teammates like Milford Klaassen, Danny Pratt, Kelly Wahl and Bryan Kroeker.
“We went through this together,” he said. “Even when we lost, people still knew we were in the game.”
Lawrence said he spent many of his weekends were Wichita and Newton.
“You have to understand, the majority of the population was Mennonite and very conservative, and we liked to go out and dance and see movies,” he said. “Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the speed limit was 75 and gas was 15 cents a gallon.
“I remember you could have $10, fill your gas tank, and still take your girl out to a good time.”
Lawrence said he probably taught his classmates as much as they taught him.
“There weren’t a lot of blacks at Tabor,” he said. “Most of the ones there were African foreign-exchange students.
“I think we gave each other an education, just by our culture,” he said. “The music we listened to and the fun we had (in Pennsylvania) were different than anyone around here had heard or seen before.”
Lawrence played under three coaches during his four years at Tabor: Brynn, Bill Krehbiel, and Ken Graber, whom he and his teammates called “Goober Graber.”
“Graber really showcased my talents as a running back,” Lawrence said.
While football was what made Lawrence famous, he also participated in basketball and track.
“The camaraderie we had in basketball was some of my best times,” he said. “Al Regier, Denny and Ken Fast-we had a great time. Coach (Norm) Holmskog was our coach.”
Lawrence said he fully understood Christian faith was a priority for many Tabor students, and the pacifist stance of the Mennonite Brethren was part of that.
“We had Bible classes and people weren’t used to fighting,” he said. “I can remember some of the things that happened to my teammates and, if they would have happened to me, I would have fought.
“But I learned how to control some of my emotions, because I was a hot head,” he added. “Don’t get me wrong, I still like to rock. But it helped me subdue my aggression.”
Lawrence said what he learned at Tabor in that regard remains with him today.
“I’m an athlete and probably will be until the day I die,” he said. “But controlling my aggression is something that made me understand life a lot better.”
Lawrence also excelled in track at Tabor, setting the school record and qualifying for nationals with the javelin.
“I qualified for nationals in Montana,” he said. “Coach Graber and I were going to drive out there, but I found out if I went there, I couldn’t get home when school was out.
“I didn’t go because being home meant more to me,” he said. “Mom and Daddy were always first in my heart.”
Lawrence spent his summers at home in Pennsylvania rather than Kansas.
“I wasn’t that crazy,” he said, with a chuckle. “Although I will say it got tougher and tougher to come home each year.”
He spent the summers working in the steel mills.
“My first semester at Tabor was the toughest because we didn’t come home at Thanksgiving- and by playing basketball, I wasn’t able to spend Christmas at home either,” he said. “It wasn’t until Easter that I got to come back here.
“I never envisioned playing three sports,” he said. “But it kept me busy and it kept me in shape. The good Lord always has a plan because everything I did prepared me for professional football.”
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Lawrence’s path to the NFL was unconventional, too.
“Jerry Joy was the coach at Friends University and they had a good running back,” he said. “Atlanta was interested in signing him as a free agent, but Coach Joy told them there’s someone else in the conference you need to look at.
“With that, they gave me a call,” Lawrence said. “That’s when they had 15 rounds of the draft and they told me they’d draft me in the later rounds.”
The draft ended without Lawrence’s name being called.
“They told me they had computer problems-and me being naive, I believed anything,” he said. “It wasn’t until after I signed as a free agent and made the team that I was told what had happened.
“I remember I wrote Mr. Joy and thanked him for what he had done,” Lawrence added. “It just goes to show no matter where you go, you’ll be found. You just work hard, play hard, get your shot, and fate takes care of itself.”
Lawrence said the adjustment of going from Tabor College to the Atlanta Falcons wasn’t all that great.
“Once you put on pads, there’s still 11 bodies out there-they’re just at a different level,” he said. “The key is whether you can produce. When they’re looking at you, you have to be productive, and I just happened to do the right thing at the right time.”
Initially, Lawrence recalled, he was content simply to make the roster.
“I played special teams my rookie season, but the more I played, the more I felt I was better than the starters,” he said. “Then they made a trade and told me the job was mine. All I had to do was perform like they said, and the rest took care of itself.”
Lawrence spent all nine of his NFL years with the Falcons. He was named the team’s most valuable player in 1977, earned all-pro status three times, led the team in interceptions five straight years, and was selected All-NFC four straight seasons.
“It was a beautiful nine years,” Lawrence said. “I got to live a dream. Personally, it put an exclamation point on my career because I knew I was good, but I wanted to know how good I really was.”
Lawrence has fond memories of his professional football days.
“I got to play against many hall of fame players in the NFL,” he said. On his list: Walter Payton, Joe Namath, Fran Tarkenton, James Lofton, and Pittsburgh’s famed “Steel Curtain.”
The end of professional career was foretold in his ninth preseason.
“I tore my hamstring up real bad,” he said. “I was out for the whole season, and that was the first time I ever had to sit out.”
Coming back the following season, Lawrence remembers watching film of an Atlanta practice in which he was covering another player on a fly route.
“I could see that I was dragging my leg and there was no question I had lost a step,” he said. “Add that to the fact that Momma and Daddy had passed away after about my seventh year, and it just wasn’t the same.
“Having sat out a whole year, my motivation just wasn’t there,” he added. “I remember walking to practice that morning. I had thought about it all night and I went into the coaches’ office and told them I was done.”
Lawrence said with his passion for the game waning, he knew it was time to move on.
“You have to have the desire in the NFL or you’ll get hurt,” he said. “I had earned the respect of my peers and had accomplished a lot. Not too many people get to play professional football for nine years, especially at my size.”
* * *
As important as football was to him, Lawrence said he was missing a big piece of his life during his pro career.
“I remember we made the playoffs,” he recalled. “I woke up on Christmas Day all alone. Here I was, a professional athlete that had no wants, living a dream, but I was alone.
“I realized all the awards and accolades are nice, but if you don’t have someone to share it with, it’s not the same.”
All that changed.
This past Saturday, celebrated his 17th wedding anniversary with Sandra.
“That’s the only thing I would change-I would have gotten married sooner,” he said. “I was selfish and thought I wanted to be alone. But these last 17 years have been beautiful.
“The Lord did not bless us with children, but we have many beautiful nephews and nieces,” he said. “I also have the best in-laws in Ron and Norma Copeland. It’s been a very good relationship and a very beautiful marriage.”
These days, Lawrence lives in his hometown with about 15,000 other residents. For the past 17 years he has been working with troubled youth through a program called Vision Quest.
“I began as a physical education and social studies teacher, and the last eight years I’ve been the principal, athletic director and basketball coach.”
He said the secondary school deals primarily with inner-city youth from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
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Lawrence said he’s looking forward to his return to Kansas and Tabor College.
“Tabor College taught me faith, belief in God, hard work, and that small is good,” he said. “The professors at Tabor took the time to help and didn’t let you slide by. That has been something I’ve treasured all these years.
“It was a cultural shock, but it was an amazing and beautiful experience.”
Lawrence said he’s taken a liking to Tabor’s current coach, Tim McCarty.
“Coach McCarty seems to be a creative and courageous coach,” he said. “His young people have stuck with him four years.
“Tim is the reason I’ve kept aware of Tabor, because he’s a very involved coach,” he said. “He promised his players he’d have me come out to watch them play if they showed him some talent.
“They have the skills and talent now, and when he told me that and with this ceremony, I said, ‘No problem, I’ll be there.'”
Lawrence said he still sees himself occasionally on ESPN Classics and has a hard time believing he actually did what he did. But he knows Tabor College was an integral part of his success.
“The education, the knowledge, the friendships and the respect and love was unique at Tabor,” he said. “It was a great relationship.
“I showed them some good times, and they showed me some good times,” he said. “But the gifts they gave me have stayed with me all of my life.”