People wonder why LSU is now "THE PROGRAM" ... this kid is a winner and I'm gonna be pulling for him to see playing time in 2004 http://www.2theadvocate.com/stories/081904/spo_lsufoot001.shtml LSU's 'Old Man' Lawrence overcomes more than age By RANDY ROSETTA [email protected] Advocate sportswriter Advocate staff photo by Arthur D. Lauck Safety Joe Lawrence, 27, is believed to be the oldest player ever at LSU. By almost any measure, a 27-year-old man shouldn't be considered old. But there are a handful of exceptions and LSU defensive back Joe Lawrence operates in one of those rare circles. Turns out applying the term exceptional works in more than one way with Lawrence. Lawrence is a 27-year-old true freshman for the Tigers and is believed to be the oldest player who has ever played football in the LSU program. As unique as that makes him, Lawrence also happens to be a 27-year-old college football player who required only 3 1/2 months to rehabilitate from a major knee injury and ensuing reconstructive surgery. Oh, by the way, Lawrence made the choice to complete that grueling rehab process despite the fact he had already spent seven seasons playing professional baseball -- long enough for a lifetime of memories and to have a comfortable nest egg in the bank. "I've had a little more life experience than the rest of my teammates, that's for sure," Lawrence said with a grin. "I've been around for a while." And Lawrence will likely be around the LSU football program for the next four years if he continues to beat the odds as quickly and completely as he did this summer. Lawrence, a Lake Charles native, joined the Tigers football program last spring about 18 months after he officially retired from the Milwaukee Brewers organization. During the spring game in April, Lawrence felt something pop in his left knee. He hobbled to the sideline, barely able to straighten his leg. After several minutes of stretching and jogging, Lawrence asked to go back in and hung around for several more plays before he realized there was clearly more damage than he thought. Lawrence had torn his left anterior cruciate ligament and needed corrective surgery. Facing a rehab that can often take as long as 6-to-12 months even for younger players, Lawrence could've easily walked away and left football in the rearview mirror. Instead, he surged full-speed in the other direction. After the surgery in May, Lawrence charged into an accelerated rehab program head-first. When the LSU players reported for fall practice on Aug. 8, Lawrence was medically cleared to play. Now, with some expected soreness that is gradually subsiding, Lawrence is right where he has wanted to be for a long time. In fact, besides working with the defensive backs, he is even getting some time with the wide receivers. So much for riding off into the sunset. "I wanted to play football so bad that it never crossed my mind even once to give it up," Lawrence said. "Most people who know me knew I wasn't ready to quit. The people who called me asked me when I was going to be back and not if I was coming back. My main concern was the timing because I am a few years older and I can't keep chasing this forever." Older, wiser and apparently with a better sense of humor. If Lawrence stays on course, he would be 30 as a senior in 2007. That's some pretty basic math that hasn't gone unnoticed by his 20-something and teenage teammates. Predictably, Lawrence's younger teammates -- most of whom were in grade school or junior high when he launched his minor-league baseball career -- have come up with some imaginative nicknames. Social Security. Free Movie Night. Free Luby's. Old Bones. Old Man. Godfather. Coach Joe. And he hears references to different eras from long ago -- What was life like back in the 1970s, or what was it like playing in a leather helmet? "He's got a pretty good sense of humor because he lets us have a good time with him," said LSU linebacker Phillip Maxwell, one of Lawrence's closest friends. "But we don't tease him when it comes to football because on the field, he's all business. "This is no gimmick or anything. He's out there to play and when he's on the field, you can't tell he's 27. He plays just as hard as anybody else and he's very talented." Lawrence has hidden his age best in the weight room and during conditioning drills, where he has kept pace despite the injury. Several teammates said Lawrence's work ethic provided the backdrop for his quick convalescence. "That tells us that he really wants to be out on the field," LSU strong safety Jessie Daniels said. "We already knew that he loved the game because he was out here as a walk-on and after he already played baseball. But to see the way he worked so hard to come back was really an inspiration." Lawrence said his desire had plenty of assistance. LSU trainers were not available to talk about Lawrence's rehab, but he said that his ability to recuperate as quickly he has is directly related to the attention he received from them. "I had to work pretty hard to come back the way I have, but the reason I was able to so quickly is a tribute to the training staff here," Lawrence said. "I've been around a lot of injuries in pro baseball, and you don't get the kind of attention up there that the guys here do. "It makes a big difference when you know the people helping you really care about you and want you to get back on the field as quickly as possible. That was a huge part of my healing process." So was the motivation that pushed Lawrence back to the football field in the first place. Lawrence spent seven seasons in professional baseball with Toronto and Milwaukee, the last 4 1/2 at either the Triple-A level or in the major leagues. He spent a 55-game stint at the top level with the Blue Jays in 2002, playing second and third base and batting .180 in 150 at-bats with a pair of home runs. As much as he loved baseball, though, something kept gnawing at Lawrence as he continued his long climb up the baseball ladder. "It's kind of cliché, but I'm like most other kids who grew up in Louisiana," Lawrence said. "I grew up dreaming about playing football for the LSU Tigers." That chance was there in 1996 when Lawrence graduated from Barbe High School. Lawrence was a three-time Class 5A all-state pick for the Bucs as a receiver/defensive back and was named the state's Coca-Cola Player of the year in 1995. As good as Lawrence was on the football field, though, he might've been even better on the baseball diamond. He earned all-state four times as a shortstop and was the 1996 Mr. Baseball and Gatorade Player of the Year for Louisiana. When the Blue Jays made Lawrence the No. 16 overall pick in the 1996 major-league draft, he saw a financial opportunity that he couldn't pass up despite having signed a letter-of-intent to play baseball at LSU. "The timing was just too right; it was a dream I felt like I had to pursue when it came along," Lawrence said. "I always kept it in the back of my mind that I wanted to come back and play football here if I didn't run out of time." Lawrence's self-imposed deadline coincided with his retirement from baseball. Just before spring training in 2003, Atlanta and St. Louis both called to see if Lawrence was interested in coming to camp and battling for a job at the Triple-A level. He let those offers go by and instead shifted his focus to LSU. Hard as it might be to believe, Lawrence said he doesn't miss baseball that much. At least not the rigors of minor-league life. "I miss being with the guys in the clubhouse and the camaraderie but not the daily grind," he said. "Once in a while I'll see 'Field of Dreams' on TV and that will make me want to play catch with my dad. Those are the kind of things I want to do now." Along with chasing a football dream he put on hold nine years ago.