Henry Lawrence’s life depicts the plight of the Lincoln High football program and how the players used camaraderie to overcome adversity.
A NFL first-round draft pick and three-time Super Bowl winner with the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, Lawrence is the most successful professional football player Manatee County ever produced.
First, he had to conquer the effects of racism that almost derailed his career in high school and cost him significant money as a professional.
The offensive lineman played on the last Lincoln High football team in 1968. That year as a junior, he earned first-team All-American honors as a two-way lineman who played defensive end, tackle and tight end.
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Integration came the following year and nearly the entire Lincoln team came to Manatee High to play the 1969 season. Most wound up on the bench and many quit. The coaching staff at Manatee was not prepared for the new era and treated the Lincoln players as second-class citizens not good enough to warrant playing time.
Lawrence was a standout defensive end who could terrorize quarterbacks and a person who believed in standing up for his rights regardless of the personal consequences.
After three games, he went to head coach Jack Mackie and explained his concerns about how the black players were being treated. The response: He was benched for the rest of the season. At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Lawrence was replaced by an 155-pound white player at defensive end.
“We all knew the situation. I was playing receiver and was wide open down the field numerous times and they never threw me the ball,” Lawrence said. “A lot of the black players quit, but I wasn’t going to do that. I am the type of person who speaks my mind, and growing up as a child of migrant farm workers dealing with that kind of stuff was familiar to me.”
In most circles, benching Henry Lawrence is still considered the biggest blunder in the history of Manatee County sports. It cost Lawrence a scholarship to one of the major colleges up north. He went to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, and it cost him in the pocketbook because the Raiders owner (the late Al Davis) told Lawrence players from the small black colleges don’t get paid a lot of money. Despite being a first-round pick, Lawrence was paid less than tight end Dave Casper (Notre Dame) and running back Mark van Eeghen (Colgate) though they were drafted after Lawrence.
“What happened at Manatee hurt me in a lot of ways, but I didn’t leave there angry. The things I experienced up to then prepared me for all kinds of adversity,” Lawrence said. “There were people who could’ve done better and been a positive force in that environment, and there were a lot who were afraid to come forward and speak up. I did and it cost me, but I didn’t stop (speaking up about injustices).
Lawrence played 13 years in the NFL (1974-86), all with the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, and won three Super Bowls. He is a two-time Pro Bowler and has been nominated to the NFL Hall of Fame three times.
Heading into his 14th season, Lawrence was about to earn his biggest paycheck, $350,000, but the players went on strike. He refused to cross the picket line and never played again. His best salary was the $325,000 he earned the previous year. Again, he had no regrets because he believed in what he was doing.
Davis used the argument Lawrence needed more coaching because of the college he came from, but Lawrence proved the theory false like many of the assumptions being made about black football players, particularly quarterbacks, during the 1970s.
“The attitude then was if you came from a small black college, you weren’t ready for the NFL and needed more coaching and that affected your contract,” Lawrence said. “Al Davis was a tough negotiator with everyone, but I got to know him well and liked him. He was a good man, who was misunderstood by a lot of people in the league at that time.”
Lawrence went to Davis’ funeral and sang the national anthem at the Raiders game with Cleveland after Davis died.
“We had our times, but I was pretty close to the Davis family. Al was made out to be a villain by a lot of people, but he did a lot of good things,” Lawrence said. “Though sometimes he would punish you if he felt you did something wrong, he was always there for you. The Raiders will never be the same because Al was different. It was his M.O. to go against the grain. But I am a Raider for life.
“Playing offensive line for the Raiders during that era was the most difficult job in the NFL,” Lawrence said. “The standard for the NFL line was to block and hold off defenders for about 1 1/2 seconds, but they expected us to block for about five, six or seven seconds.
John Madden was Lawrence’s coach throughout most of his NFL career and insists he is a Hall of Famer. Madden first saw Lawrence at a 1974 Senior Bowl workout. Madden had gone to scout Ed “Too Tall” Jones, who went on to become a Cowboys’ great, and was impressed with how Lawrence dominated him.
“Henry should be in the Hall of Fame. He was one of the best I’ve ever coached and one of my favorites, probably because he was like a son to me,” Madden said. “I felt like I discovered him, which I didn’t because he was a talent. But we stayed close. Some people are just special to you, and that’s the way I feel about him. He was a big, strong, tough guy who played with a lot of pride.”
Lawrence’s chances for the Hall of Fame were hurt because he played with four offensive linemen on the Raiders who have been inducted: Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Jim Otto and Bob Brown.
“I don’t think about it. There are so many factors that go into it and I played right tackle when left tackle gets more notoriety because you are protecting the blind side of the quarterback, but I blocked for Kenny Stabler and he was a lefty,” Lawrence said.
After his retirement, Lawrence went back to his love, music. He has performed in multiple countries and sings for a gospel choir at every Super Bowl. He also has been involved in philanthropy work helping children.
At 64 years old — with 13 NFL seasons and four years of college football — Lawrence admits the effects of his career have taken a toll.
“Every guy who has played as long as me has some issues with their body that come and go,” Lawrence said. “I have headaches quite often. I take some medication for help, but haven’t had them checked out extensively. Back in my day, the coaches and trainers were negligent about concussions.
“The bottom line is you get knocked out they give you some smelling salts, hold up two fingers and, if you say three or whatever, that would get you back on the field. My concern today is the young kids, about 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 years old. A lot of young kids are having more problems than we realize. To have kids 5 to 8 years old banging every week has to have an effect.”
Lawrence attributes a lot of his success to hardships he endured and his coaches and teammates at Lincoln.
“I was playing with winners. The coaches knew how to win and how to coach. They were very good,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence was inducted in the Florida Sports Hall of Fame in 2012. In 2010, he won the Jesse Owens Achievement Award for athletic excellence by FAMU. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2014.
About this series
This fall marks the 50th anniversary of Ray Bellamy’s recruitment by and signing with the University of Miami, breaking the color barrier for African-American athletes in the Southeast.
To commemorate the anniversary, the Bradenton Herald is publishing “Lincoln’s Legends & Legacy,” a recurring series of articles throughout July on some of the top athletes from Lincoln High School, the pre-integration era high school for African-American students in Manatee County. Upcoming subjects include:
Willie Lee Jones
Up next: Ed Dick