The following is a first-person narrative from former Clemson defensive end and current 2016 NFL Draft projected first round draft prospect Shaq Lawson on overcoming personal adversity on and off the field and how he plans to succeed in the NFL, as told to Bleacher Report's Ty Schalter.
My junior year of high school, all my dreams were coming true. I was choosing between a lot of Division I scholarship offers in football, while getting ready to help defend our state title in basketball.
Then I got the phone call that changed my life forever: My parents' car had been hit by a drunk driver.
Before I got that call, my mother and father had always been there for me. They'd been helping me achieve my dreams since the day I was born. I was a very long baby—that's why they named me Shaq.
My father played college basketball in my hometown of Central, South Carolina, at what's now called Southern Wesleyan University. My mom always told me I was going to be athletic. They put a ball in my hands when I was little, and I've been playing ever since.
I started rec league football when I was eight years old, playing mostly at running back. I was better than everybody else and bigger than everybody else. It got to the point where before every game, they had to weigh me to see if I would be allowed to carry the ball. Sometimes I made it under the weight limit. Sometimes I had to take my pads off.
I loved playing football, but I was a basketball person first. I even thought about skipping football my freshman year to get ready for basketball season. Instead, I went out and made varsity at running back.
During my sophomore season, coach Randy Robinson decided to try me out at defensive end, just for one game. I had like three or four sacks, and after that, it totally was my new position. My coaches said I had a chance to be very special at defensive end.
That winter, I started at center for the basketball team; our senior point guard, DeAndre Hopkins, and I led the Daniel Lions to our first Class AAA state basketball championship. In the state final, I had a game-high 25 points—and I kept putting up numbers when I got back on the football field that fall. Offers started coming in: Maryland, Tennessee, East Carolina, Clemson.
Then one Friday night, I was supposed to go somewhere with my parents. But I felt something telling me to stay home, stay home. So I decided not to go. I stayed home.
I got the call.
It was such a shock; I felt like I was dreaming. Me and my sister were called to the scene of the accident. When we got there, I saw my father. He talked to me, told me to take care of my brothers and sisters, told me I'd be all right. My mom was in a lot of pain and would be in the hospital for weeks afterward. My father died.
I felt like God told me to stay home that night so I wouldn't be in that situation. He kept me here for a reason. Seeing my mom in so much pain, seeing my siblings deal with the situation, it motivated me to become a father figure for them, make sure they were taken care of.
My father always taught me to always get better every day, be better than you were the day before. I knew he wanted me to work hard and be successful. That's what I decided to do: work hard, stay humble and make him proud.
I'd been thinking about going to Tennessee, but I decided to commit to Clemson. I knew they produced defensive linemen, prepared them for the next level. My friends and family could come see my games—and of course, I'd be able to go home all the time, be there for my brothers and sisters.
My senior year was tough. I was so busy all the time: going to school, trying to get qualified for college, plus practicing and trying to improve my game. Then I'd come home and try to make sure my brothers and sisters were right—checking up on them, answering their questions, making sure they had everything they needed. It was hard, but I made it work.
That year I had 99 tackles, 23 tackles for loss, nine sacks and five caused fumbles. I was the defensive MVP of the North-South All-Star Game and the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl. But then I found out I didn't have the grades to qualify for D-I football.
I'd started slow my freshman year; all the work I did to pull up my grades as a junior and senior wasn't enough. Clemson wanted to send me to Hargrave Military Academy.
I was in tears. I didn't want to go to Hargrave. I mean, a military school? I was picturing having to go through boot camp. I thought about sitting out a year, maybe going to East Carolina. But I didn't want to settle. I knew I wanted to go to Clemson, and I knew I had to do what I had to do.
It was tough for me, for the first couple of weeks up there. I had to get used to a different type of lifestyle. I had to get used to military life: getting up early in the morning, 5:30 a.m. marching, having Saturday school. That's what made me tough—I did it.
I made a lot of friends I still talk to: Leonard Floyd from Georgia, Mike Tyson from Cincinnati, Dion Dawkins from Temple, just about everyone. Head coach Troy Davis made a big impact on us, helping us all get qualified.
On the field, we were playing JV teams, D-II schools, teams like that. With the athletes we had, it was like a college program. I knew everybody had the same type of talent I did, so I really had to focus on technique and consistently getting the little things right. A couple of days before the end of the semester, I found out I'd made the right grades.
When I got to Clemson in January, we had morning workouts—but it was nothing to me, because I was used to getting up a lot earlier! Spring ball was great, just going out there and working hard, getting used to the speed of the game and getting better every day. I learned the playbook early so I could be successful right away.
Schoolwork at Clemson was easier, because I had a great support staff helping me. Associate Director of Educational Services Brad Henderson helped me stay on top of things, helped me focus. That fall semester, I made the honor roll.
I grew up watching the Clemson Tigers and even worked concession stands when I was 12. Being on the field with them almost didn't feel real. But when I got out there, I made the most of it. I ran with the ones all the way through camp. But just before the opener against Georgia, coach Dabo Swinney made a game-time decision: He went with Vic Beasley, the veteran, instead of me.
I was disappointed at first, but I quickly realized I just needed to make the most of my time. That's what I did as a freshman: Just go out there, give my all and play like I knew how. Being able to compete against Vic motivated me, but that's not why I was coming to work every day. I had my own plans: I was going to be a freshman All-American.
It was easy. I was focused. I wouldn't let anything get in front of me, wouldn't let anybody distract me. People understand, if you come from Hargrave, it's just so tough that when you get your opportunity, you're going to make the most of it.
I finished that season with 35 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and four sacks—one was against Ohio State's Braxton Miller. That tied the school sack record for a freshman. I was named second-team freshman All-American by CollegeFootballNews.com and Phil Steele and third-team freshman All-American by Athlon.
I knew I had Vic in front of me. He was an All-American and would be a top-10 pick. He pushed me every day—and like my father taught me, I tried to get better every day, to make a play every time I got a play.
Before my junior season, I set two goals: be an AP All-American and lead my team to a national championship. We were losing a lot of guys, and a lot of people doubted me, but I knew it was my time. I knew what I wanted to do, and I was going to get it done.
In our fourth game, when we played Notre Dame, I felt like I reached another level. Going against Ronnie Stanley, I found out how really good I can be. He was the best player I'd seen, and just competing one-on-one with him made me a better player.
We finished our regular season undefeated and beat Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. But I sprained my MCL, and there was a lot of doubt whether I would be able to play against Alabama in the national championship game. I was only about 50 percent, but I went out there and gave it my all. I had three solo tackles, two tackles for loss and two sacks—but we finished six points short of the national championship.
Personally, I finished the year with 59 total tackles, led the nation with 24.5 tackles for loss and had 12.5 sacks. I was a consensus All-American, including the AP squad. I'd achieved all my individual goals, but I had to get my body right for the next level.
I went right back into the grind at the Exos training facility, working with my speed coach. I knew I could perform well at the combine because of the times I was putting up in training—but the combine is a grind. It's designed to wear you out and then see how you perform under pressure.
It went great.
I was meeting with NFL head coaches, enjoying every minute of it. I was just going around with a smile on my face, happy and blessed to have the opportunity to be there. I had 22 different meetings, and I felt a lot of teams liked me as a player, liked the kind of person that I was.
I believe God put me on the right path to be successful. If I hadn't gone to Hargrave, I'd have had a much harder time adjusting to life at Clemson in my freshman year. Going to Hargrave changed the way I carry myself. It's made me more accountable, more responsible, more of a man.
Right now, it still doesn't quite feel real. I can't wait until I hear my name on draft day and find out where my new home is going to be. Wherever I end up, I already know what my goals for this year will be: be the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year and win the Super Bowl.
I'll just do what I always do: work hard, get better every day and watch it happen.
My father always told me, "Somebody always has their eyes on you." On the field, somebody is always watching you perform. In the community, someone is always watching how you act.
I know there are a lot of eyes on me right now, and I'm going to show them a great example of what an NFL player should be.