College football rivalries are great to be a part of, but there are two Elis right now demonstrating there is life beyond the Yale Bowl.
Eric Johnson ’01 and Nate Lawrie ’04 have both made it to the National Football League after successful careers as members of the Yale football team. After bouncing around for a couple of weeks, Lawrie is now playing as a tight end with the team that drafted him last spring, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Johnson is the San Francisco 49ers’ starting tight end, a position he had to learn after playing wide receiver for the Bulldogs.
While Lawrie has yet to play in any games, Johnson is the go-to receiver for the 49ers and is currently ranked third in the NFL for receptions. He has racked up 51 catches for 547 yards and two touchdowns. This fall marks Johnson’s fourth season in the pros, but only his third on the field since a collarbone fracture kept him sidelined last year. That has not stopped him from coming back to be a strong receiving tight end.
“I feel great being one of the top receivers in the league,” Johnson said. “A personal goal of mine before the season was to lead tight ends in receiving and right now I’m close. But I try not to pay to much attention to the stats. I just prepare for each game every week and go out there and try to help my team win.”
The 6-foot-3-inch, 256-pound end said the hardest part of the college-to-pro transition was the increased physicality of the game. Johnson had to gain approximately 25 pounds to go from a lanky Eli receiver to a member of the offensive line.
“You have to change your mentality so that you allow yourself to bang heads with 290-pound defensive ends,” Johnson said. “But I got some great coaching my rookie year, and I was able to gain a lot of game-time experience that year, which was invaluable. I spent a lot of time on blocking techniques, and it paid off. These days I feel very comfortable playing the tight end position.”
Johnson was an acclaimed receiver while in New Haven. His 182 receptions for 2,144 yards made him the most prolific Eli receiver until wide receiver Ralph Plumb ’05 broke Johnson’s record last weekend. Johnson is best known at Yale for his game-winning grab, known as “The Catch,” in the 1999 Harvard-Yale game when he managed to come up with the ball in the end zone to clinch the Ivy title for the Bulldogs.
Johnson said what he learned at Yale has translated well to the big leagues.
“The work ethic that [Yale head coach] Jack Siedlecki and his staff instilled helped me develop tremendously,” he said. “Receiver coach Paul Petosa would not let up on the receivers until we got something right. That staff’s attention to detail and work ethic played a big part in helping me get to and succeed in the pros.”
Siedlecki said Johnson is great for the program because of the national exposure he provides.
“Whenever they say [Johnson's] name, they always say he’s from Yale,” Siedlecki said. “Guys [on the team] realize there are so many pro scouts. They know they are going to be noticed. It’s an added motivator.”
Siedlecki said it is also helpful to the Elis to see another great Yale player like Lawrie, who many of them knew well, making it to the next level. The Bucs, who initially drafted Lawrie, cut him from their roster in the beginning of the season. Shortly after, he was picked up by the Philadelphia Eagles as a member of the practice squad, but they let him go as well. There were some doubts regarding his NFL future, but Lawrie found himself back in Tampa Bay after tight end Rickey Dudley was injured early in the season.
“It’s been a crazy ride,” Lawrie said. “I knew they liked me, but I knew it might not work out. Ending up back [in Tampa Bay] makes me confident that I performed up to the standard.”
Lawrie said he feels comfortable back in Tampa because of the friendships he made there during the preseason and the fact that he has already been exposed to the coaching style of Jon Gruden, whon Lawrie called a football genius.
“It’s been tough with the new offense,” Lawrie said. “The shift package gets your head spinning. One big adjustment is also getting used to the business aspect [of professional football].”
Lawrie said he feels like a freshman who does not have four years to adjust to his surroundings if he wants to be successful.
“I play well when I become confident,” he said. “Then I start to play my best, but you don’t have as much time.”
However, Lawrie said he loves all aspects of football and is going to do all he can to ensure himself a spot on a roster. Siedlecki said he thinks Lawrie will end up in NFL Europe for a while.
“It’s a big jump; it’s the supreme level of football,” Lawrie said. “I think I have the ability. It’s all about working hard.”