CINCINNATI — Carl Lawson Sr. can remember the moment he knew his son might have a future in football.
The younger Lawson was about 8 years old when a family friend took him to a youth football game. Carl Lawson Jr. was supposed to sit in the stands but curiosity got the best of him; he climbed down, entered the game and made a tackle without a helmet or shoulder pads.
Carl’s father had been reluctant to push football on him even though athletics ran in the family. Carl Jr.’s great uncle ran in the 100-meter dash in the 1972 Munich Olympics, and Lawson Sr. had been a football player himself, playing fullback for the 1990 Georgia Tech team that won the national championship. But after that day, he couldn’t deny his son was probably destined to play the sport.
Neither one has had one doubt about the decision.
“I wholeheartedly believed he had the ability and we saw the ability early. I told him it was in his blood,” Lawson Sr. said.
The Cincinnati Bengals‘ rookie defensive end has proved his father right at every level. His father could once take him one-on-one when they wrestled around the house or practiced blocking drills. But Carl Jr. soon got too big and strong. When he was 13, he bull-rushed his dad and drove him to the ground, injuring his father’s knee and signaling the end of their battles.
“It didn’t turn out so well,” the younger Lawson joked. “He never tried to block me again.”
Now, with five games left to play, the rookie has his sights on Carlos Dunlap‘s Bengals record for most sacks in a season. Dunlap had 9.5 sacks in 2010, and Lawson sits at 7.5.
Lawson would probably be the one to say he doesn’t care about the record. He would happily accept it, but he has his sights on bigger things.
“I feel like Carlos felt the same way when he broke the record,” Lawson said. “He wants to compete with the guys who have the most sacks in the league. I don’t really see it as that big of a thing. As far as myself, I want to compete with the guys who are the best in the league as far as pass-rushers. I’m not really worried about that sack record.”
Lawson has a relentless drive for football that started when he was young and has never waned. Once he put on his pads, he realized how much he loved to hit people.
“If he came to practice and there wasn’t any contact, he was pissed off,” Lawson Sr. said. “He was relentless in getting in the backfield. He’s always been obsessed with beating whoever is in front of him, whether it’s college, high school or the NFL.”
Gary Sylvestri, the athletic director at Milton High School in Alpharetta, Georgia, and one of Lawson’s high school coaches, remembers his attitude well.
“Carl never missed a workout. Ever,” Sylvestri said. “Carl never missed a practice ever. Never ever. You could tell the kid was special physically, but the kid never missed anything. And that’s what I try to tell kids today. They say ‘I want to be like Carl Lawson.’ And I say, ‘Well, you missed two workouts already. He hasn’t missed one his whole career.'”
Lawson’s love for football consumed him. When he’d get in the car with his dad after practice or a game, he would want to talk football until the older Lawson was worn out.
“We used to have a timeout in the car sometimes. I’d say, ‘Son, no football talk while we drive home. Let’s just be father and son and stop asking me about how you practiced or what I thought. Can we just be father and son?’ Lawson Sr. said.
Lawson Sr. said Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner once called his pupil overanalytical because of his constant questions.
“[Garner] was like, ‘Enough already, Carl. Dang!'” the elder Lawson said.
It can almost be exhausting to be around Lawson at times because of his enthusiasm. He admits that he probably drives his quiet teammate Jordan Willis crazy with questions.
“He probably gets annoyed, but I ask him questions all the time.” Lawson said. “I ask, ‘Why you do this? Can you show me why you did this?’ And stuff like that.”
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said his initial impression of Lawson was that he was somewhat introverted. He realized quickly that wasn’t the case.
“Once he gets going, you have to tone him down,” Lewis said, laughing.
Lawson’s questions come from a yearning to soak up all the football knowledge he can. On the day he was taken by the Bengals in the fourth round of the 2017 draft, he and his girlfriend, who was a track star at Auburn, were at his former high school working out. Minutes after the Bengals called, he was upstairs in his room pulling up Cincinnati’s film.
He carries around his tablet at all times, whether he’s at the Bengals’ facility or a restaurant, and watches film from around the league in addition to his own. When he sees a player pull out a new move, sometimes he’ll shoot them a text asking about it. He has watched clips of every great pass-rusher, and he can rattle off his favorites.
That’s what peaked the interest of Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther during the NFL combine. Guenther didn’t expect much when he asked Lawson about his favorite pass-rushers, but Lawson, 21 at the time, rattled off names such as Hall of Famer Reggie White. Guenther was sold.
“He was one of my favorite guys there,” Guenther said. “Typically when you ask a young pass-rusher, ‘Tell me the five best pass-rushers of all time in the NFL,’ when he rings off Reggie White, boom, boom, boom, all the way down there and guys who played 30 years ago, you know the guy knows his craft. That was something that struck me right away. I asked him what’s his best pass-rush move, he ran through the whole litany of them. Some guys will tell you I don’t know, but he was all over that kind of stuff. Typically when a kid is like that it means a lot to him.”
Lawson’s goal is simple: To be the best. He laments plays he doesn’t make and constantly searches for new ways to improve himself. He was bantering with reporters the other week about a play early in the season against the Cleveland Browns that resulted in Lawson’s teeth being knocked out. He waved off the issue of the teeth, which were fixed the next day, but seemed stuck on the fact that he didn’t get credited for a strip-sack he thought he earned against DeShone Kizer. Kizer appeared to fumble on fourth down, although his arm might have been moving forward. Officials ruled it an incomplete pass and the Bengals moved on, not needing to challenge the issue.
Lawson still wishes he had that sack. But if the people closest to him made a prediction, it would be that there are probably many more sacks to come.
“The tip or peak is still coming for him. He’s going to be a really good player,” Guenther said.
Added Lawson Sr: “I think this is the tip of the iceberg.”
Lawson’s game Monday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers could be the chance to shine in front of a bigger audience. But Lawson’s intense focus hasn’t even given the possibility any thought.
“I’m not really worried about what the world thinks,” he said. “I’ve seen stuff where I’ve [had] great games and no media coverage. Stuff like that. I’m really worried about what my peers say about me, the guys I play against. The best feeling I get is when guys come over to me after the game and say, ‘You’re good’ and stuff like that. So as long as everybody in the league knows I’m a good player, I don’t really care what anybody else thinks.”