TEMPE, Ariz. – Lawrence Guy(notes) is smart. You know this because in the spring semester of last year he got a GPA of nearly 3.5 in his classes at Arizona State, which allowed Guy, then a defensive tackle on the football team, to wear a patch on his jersey distinguishing him as one of the school's "Scholar Ballers." You know this too because when he grows comfortable with someone and his shyness falls away, the words spill out in torrents and his eyes shine bright.
And then you see why his former football position coach, a grizzled-sounding man now working in the NFL, calls him "a great kid."
And why the academic counselor and learning coach for the ASU football, a warm, motherly kind of woman, smiles at him and always says: "They broke the mold when they made you."
Which is why it is easy to forget that for much of his life, people told Lawrence Guy he wasn't smart, that the man who would grow up to become a seventh-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in this year's NFL draft, was actually so incapable, so learning-disabled that he was banished to special education classes where he would have languished without the persistence of his father, who eventually got him out. It is easy to forget too the list of challenges he fights every day until he rattles through them, his words sometimes muddled by a slight lisp, the result of having fluid in his ears for his first few years of childhood.
The tests have told him he is ADHD, which is why he could never sit still in school. He also has dyslexia that makes him sometimes read letters backward and dyscalculia, causing him to occasionally confuse numbers. And everything always came slower. It was almost impossible for him to take tests in the time everyone else did. In fact, as he goes through his history and the difficulty he always had with things that seemed so simple to others, it's hard to imagine he even made it to college, let alone the NFL.
That is until you sit with him long enough and a grin spreads across his face and he says:
"I don't believe in the word 'no.' I don't believe in the word 'can't.' "
"Lawrence was basically the fat kid who everyone used to pick on to say the least," Lawrence's father, Michael, says. "With a learning disability, he had to take the little yellow bus that the kids with learning disabilities rode.
"If you could have seen him then you would have never imagined he'd grow into this."
It hasn't been easy for Michael, the single father of a learning-disabled child, with three sons living with him and the two older boys sharp and witty and athletic.
From the beginning, Lawrence was always different. He acted strange. His voice was odd. He moved with a weird gait. Everything seemed awkward. Still, it wasn't until Lawrence was three and Michael's mother, who had been an educator, told her son Lawrence had a speech problem that Michael started looking for doctors.
So began more than a decade of tests, special education classes and a lot of worrying about the boy who seemed to be so far behind the other kids.
They lived in Las Vegas, in one of the roughest parts of the city's school district where things like resource classes were considered a luxury. Bringing along a child with a learning disability was not a priority. It seemed to the family that Lawrence had been thrown into classes with kids the school didn't know what to do with – kids who didn't care, who didn't want to be in class and in several cases, gang members.
"Through half my life I got told 'no,' " Lawrence says. "OK you got put into disability classes and what they are really doing is forgetting about you."
And there was trouble. Everywhere Lawrence went, kids tormented him, calling him "stupid" and "retarded," mocking him for being fat. This agonized his father, a robust man who fights fires, and his older, athletic brothers for whom everything seemed to be easy. What to do with Lawrence? How to look out for him?
One day, when Lawrence was in sixth grade, his older brother Dell – an eighth grader – pummeled a bully who had attacked Lawrence for the crime of not buying the bully a Gatorade with his own lunch money. Dell broke the boy's nose, and because the school had a zero-tolerance policy for fighting, Dell was charged with battery and assault with a deadly weapon (for kicking the bully) and given a citation. He had to appear in court and was sent to anger management classes.
"There was a lot of anger in me," Dell says. "People were messing with him and messing with him. I was tired of it."
Then two things happened: Lawrence grew big and strong and Michael finally got him out of the special ed classes.
In a matter of months before high school began, Lawrence got taller. His body filled out. He was no longer fat. He worked out diligently. Meanwhile at school, Michael was in the office every day demanding to know why his son was still in classes that didn't challenge him or help him or prepare him for much of anything. It was clear Lawrence had a learning disability. Why weren't they attacking that?
At one point he finally said to a counselor: "What if Lawrence was blind? What would you do?"
"We would give him an audio book," the counselor said.
"Well find him something like that," Michael replied.
Years later he sighs over the phone.
"I felt sorry for the counselors. I beat them over the head sometimes," Michael says. "One of the best things that happened to us was the early diagnosis and then not challenging it. No one wants to say, 'My kid has this.'
"I just hope someone reads this and then if they have a kid who can't sit still or has to go to the office because he didn't feel like being in class and they see this, they might say, 'Hey, that sounds like my kid,' and get him tested and fight for him."
By then Lawrence was on the football team and showed instant promise as evidenced by a call Michael got after a few days of practice. The football coach was on the line. Michael braced himself for the inevitable suggestion that Lawrence try something else when the man instead asked if he wouldn't mind moving his son from the freshman team to varsity.
Two years later the same coach pulled Lawrence aside one day and told him he was rated the top college football prospect in Nevada. Lawrence was stunned. Soon letters from colleges poured in, and scholarship offers, and the kid who three years before seemed locked forever in special ed classes was suddenly going to college.
Finding the right help
Ironically it was in college, a place where it would seem someone like Lawrence would struggle the most, that he eventually thrived. Perhaps some of this was because he was an athlete and thus had access to academic support other students might not have had. He also met Corinne Corte, a learning specialist for the football team who often works with players who have learning challenges.
But even with Corte's pushing, Lawrence nearly blew everything. On the field he had become a starter by his fifth game, a freshman All American. But he didn't know how to learn. His disabilities overwhelmed him. He came precariously close to flunking out of school.
Corte and others kept urging him to go to ASU's Disability Resource Center, a place that specialized in learning disorders and offered help for students who had them. But Lawrence was a big football star now, a giant who would be easily recognized. There was a stigma in the DRC. Going there almost seemed like returning to those special ed classes, to the taunts of the other children. Lawrence wasn't sure he wanted to do that again.
Still, he was on the verge of losing everything. A meeting was called with Lawrence, his father and an academic counselor in the athletic department. After the direness of his situation was expressed, they practically ordered him to the DRC. Grudgingly, Lawrence went only to find the help he never knew he’d been seeking.
At the DRC he was able to get personal tutors for each class. He was able to take tests in the time he needed. They taught him about learning as someone with dyslexia and dyscalculia, and showed him new ways to study. His oldest brother, Christopher, moved in with him and they set goals: He wanted to open up socially, he wanted to be a Scholar Baller, he wanted to be a leader.
And slowly these things started to happen. He visited Corte's office every day, taking a seat next to her desk, commandeering a file cover on which to post sticky notes with reminders for papers and tests. He took education classes because he wanted to understand all ways of learning. He used seven tutors from the DRC mostly so he could see how each one taught.
He discovered that if someone threw a concept at him, he could memorize and repeat it, but that he wouldn't understand its meaning. He had to discover new ways to comprehend things, taking time to parse things that other people might grasp instantly.
"I was always in study hall,” he says.
His life became one of work: lifting weights so long in the football complex his position coach Grady Stetz would later say, "He did everything we ever asked of him," before plunging himself into the tedious challenge of slowly fighting through his classwork. His grades soared until he finally got the Scholar Baller distinction.
Yet in many ways his struggles probably would have remained a secret to his teammates and the other students had he not revealed them to Doug Haller, a reporter with the Arizona Republic. The story hit one game day in the middle of last season and suddenly everyone knew.
But by then he wanted everyone to understand, to know what it is like to have disabilities and how he fought through them. Then he started getting calls. The DRC wanted to know he if would talk to students who needed the resources but, like he had once been, were afraid to get help. Lawrence smiled. Of course he would help.
"Don't be shy, don't be scared of what people at school think of you because you are going to a disability center," he told them. "You are getting help. This is your resource in school. Why decline that opportunity?"
Then calls came from local schools around Tempe. Could he come and talk to their learning-disabled students? He went home to Las Vegas a few times and stopped in at the resource classes there, a giant looming above the children, telling them all how he was the chubby little kid who everyone picked on, who had no future, and here he was now a college football player headed to the NFL with a nearly 3.5 GPA. If he could do it, why couldn't they?
"I try to be a positive person, I don't believe in negative things," Lawrence says. "I try to be that person who people want to turn to and look up to. I try to kill the stereotype of students with disabilities. I don't like the stereotype people have of athletes. If you didn't already know I played football you wouldn't. That's not my personality."
"That's not how I want people to know me," he adds.
The next day he sits in Corte's office, in his customary seat beside her desk, jotting notes to himself on the sticky pad. She smiles.
"Lawrence is a unique individual," she says. "He is very intellectual. He loves to learn. He comes in here so much for so many different things. He's just a very determined young man. He would come in and write all sorts of things down on the sticky notes and then he would put a draft of a paper together. A lot of times it took four revisions of projects before they were done. But he did them."
She pauses and glances at Lawrence who is busy jotting yet another note to himself on the sticky pad.
"Honestly, did a lot of people think you were going to be a Scholar Baller?"
"That's hard work," she continues. "Hard work and dedication."
Lawrence surprised everyone &ndsh; his father, his brothers, his coaches – by giving up his last year of college and announcing in January that he was entering the NFL draft.
"I had accomplished everything I wanted to in college," he says.
One day he looked at the list of goals he wrote with his brother and realized he had in one way or another seen them all through.
"I want a new challenge," he says. "The NFL is the biggest challenge there is. I have a really good work ethic, I can do it."
His decision perplexed those closest to him. Stretz, who left after the season for a job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, advised him to stay in school as did the ASU staff. When asked where Lawrence needs to improve, Stretz says: "His reaction skills, his using his hands, his experience level and seeing the game. I could go on – it's just the developmental process."
Apparently much of the NFL agreed with ASU's coaches. Lawrence, it seemed, was not ready. There were published reports that said he did not interview well with teams at February's NFL scouting combine, which would make sense. Quick combine interviews in a frenzied setting would probably be difficult for him, even as his coaches in college and a few who worked with him on draft preparation said he had an excellent grasp of the Arizona State plays and formations, having carefully studied them using symbols as a guide.
As last Saturday rolled on, the fifth round turning to the sixth and then the seventh, Lawrence paced around a relative’s house where he and his father and brothers had gathered to watch. At one point the Washington Redskins called to say they were interested in selecting him, but then didn't. The Seattle Seahawks also called expressing interest and yet nothing happened.
Finally, with the day growing late and the draft nearly over, the phone rang. Lawrence, who had programmed the number of every NFL team into his phone, saw the words "Green Bay Packers." This time it was real. He was going to the NFL.
Later, after having spoken by speakerphone to nearly every coach in the Packers war room, he sighed. Just eight years ago who could have imagined this? It all seemed so amazing.
"I don't think I'd be in the position I am in today if not for the things I've had to fight through," he says. "It's made me a stronger person."
Another step in a most remarkable life.
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