Nate Lawrie ’04 knows the average football fan has never heard of him. But that fan had also never heard of Northern Iowa’s Kurt Warner before he took the pro ranks by storm. Nor did he know anything about Delaware’s Rich Gannon. Missouri Southern’s Rod Smith flew under the NFL radar while in college, so did Marshall’s Troy Brown. Jon Kitna tossed footballs at Central Washington, while Donald Driver caught them at Alcorn State. Jay Fiedler went to Dartmouth. Joe Horn attended Itawamba Community College.

All these NFL stars played college football below the Division I-A level, and all were drafted in the fourth round or later. Many, most famously Warner, went undrafted. First-round selections may get all the attention, but it is often the sleeper picks and roster-spot-hungry free agents who make the most noise in the professional ranks.

Lawrie, a tight end who hopes to be selected in this weekend’s NFL draft, knows this. And that is one of the many reasons why the average football fan should get to know him.

Measuring an All-American

Lawrie is an All-American, a Division I-AA Associated Press and American Football Coaches Association First Team All-American. He was also named first-team All-Ivy and was chosen as the best tight end in New England. He had more catches per contest — 7.2 — than any tight end at any level of college football last season and the second most total catches. He caught 16 passes in one game against Colgate. He won Yale’s offensive-line game MVP award in five out of 10 contests last season and won the Jim Keppel Award as Yale’s most outstanding offensive back.

NFL scouts do not care about that stuff. They do not differentiate between the Heisman Trophy and a hole in the wall. The only thing they care about is numbers: time in the 40-yard dash, vertical leap, reps in the 225-lb bench press, performance in college All-Star games.

The funny thing is, Lawrie does not care about the accolades, either.

“I like the awards, but it’s not something that I’m used to, being so heavily touted,” he said. “It’s definitely a nice thing, but I don’t want that to define who I am. Doing all these interviews is pretty weird for me,” Lawrie said. “It’s cool definitely, but it’s a different experience. But if this is something I end up doing, it’s something I’m going to have to get used to.”

If Yale’s All-American tight end makes it in the NFL, he will have to get used to being interviewed. Just like he has gotten used to being poked, prodded and timed by the scouts. And he has gotten good at that. At Pro Day in Indianapolis, near the NFL Combine, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.87 seconds — his best time to date. His 6.71 in the three-cone agility drill would have been the best at the Combine among the tight ends, according to his agent, Buddy Baker, and he lowered his time in the 60-yard shuttle from 11.90 to 11.55 seconds. It may sound like gibberish to the average fan, but to an NFL scout it sounds like a player worth watching.

“[Lawrie’s Pro Day] couldn’t have worked out any better for him from an exposure standpoint,” an NFL scout said.

Another scout said that all the teams in the NFL have a certain amount of interest in Lawrie.

“I’m sure he’ll be in somebody’s camp,” a third scout said. “It’s not a long shot. It really just depends on the need at that position come draft day.”

Baker agreed.

“He showcased himself as a guy that’s as athletic as any tight end in this nation,” he said. “He really showcased that he’s a lot more agile and explosive than teams would have thought just by looking at him.”

A man among boys

Just by looking at Lawrie, one thing is immediately apparent. Even for a football player, he is tall. The problem is, no one can decide how tall he is. Yale football head coach Jack Siedlecki maintains Lawrie is 6’7″. Marc Davis, Yale’s sprint coach, believes he is 6’5″. An NFL scout puts him at 6’8″. Lawrie will tell you he is 6’6″.

However tall he is, Lawrie’s stature is immediately apparent on the football field. Along the offensive line, his long arms make beating him on the corner nearly impossible. In the secondary, he towers over defensive backs, who are rendered nearly helpless in a jump-ball situation. But Lawrie is no basketball player in pads. He distributes plenty of muscle throughout his lean but sturdy frame. Size, then, is his greatest strength.

“You can’t coach height, and he’s 6’7″,” Siedlecki says. “When [the NFL scouts] came in here last spring, Nate basically passed what they call ‘the eyeball test’ — One of the first things they do is come in and look at the guys, to make sure that they really are what people are saying they are, physically and all that. And he makes a huge impression on you.”

Yale tight-ends coach Matt Dence agreed.

“His size is impressive,” he said. “And what he’s done with that size.”

What he has done is add muscle to his frame throughout his Yale career. Growing up in Indianapolis, Indiana, Lawrie maintains he was always the tallest in his class but lacked some bulk thanks to his role as a three-sport athlete at Roncalli High School.

“When we looked at him as a high-school kid it was strictly [on the basis of] potential,” Siedlecki said. ” He wasn’t the ready-made Division I-A pro-prospect tight end. He was 6’7,” and probably when we recruited him he might have been 220, 225. He was playing high school basketball so his weight was down — If he had been 6’7″ 250 as a high school senior he probably wouldn’t be here, he’d be at Notre Dame or something like that.”

After four years of hard work in the weight room, Lawrie now fills his 6’6″ frame with 260 pounds of sinew. And there is room for more.

“Every (scout) that has come in has just been amazed that a kid who is 260 pounds looks like he does,” Siedlecki says. “He looks like he weighs 240. He just doesn’t look that big. He’s got a tremendous frame on him — And he’s lean at 265 pounds. He could be a 300-pounder in three months.”

Lawrie is more than just a NFL-worthy behemoth of a man. He also has the training to put those physical gifts to use.

Lawrie’s father, Chris Lawrie, played center for the semi-pro Indianapolis Capitals in the 1970s. Afterward, he became the offensive-line coach at Decatur Central High School in Indianapolis. When Lawrie was born, it seemed blocking was in his blood.

“When he was still just being carried around, he would go out to football practice with his dad,” Lawrie’s mother Libby Lawrie said. “He had this little carrier that he would take him around in — [As he got older] he would be on the sideline as the game was going on, helping out.”

Nate Lawrie also helped out off the field.

“After games my job was to break down blocking and things like that,” Chris Lawrie said. “We’d head down into the basement and put the films on. And we’d run it back three or four times. I’d tell him what I was looking for. He would have responsibility for watching a couple of offensive linemen — He would let me know if somebody did something spectacular or what he thought was pretty good, and I would watch the other side. And if he said something happened I’d run it back and look. And pretty much he was right.”

It was only natural, then, that Lawrie wanted to play on the offensive line as soon as he started playing football in the second grade. But he did not want to be an interior lineman. He liked being a part of the pass game, so he made himself a tight end. His soft hands and intense concentration on the ball have prevented every coach he has ever had from moving him away from the position.

“He has tremendous hands,” Siedlecki explains. “He is a really good receiver. Not just the tight end that can turn around and [have balls] thrown at the big target. He caught the ball down the field for us — There aren’t many tight ends that catch the ball like that. Almost all tight ends want to catch the ball inside their body, want to catch the ball against their pads, catch the ball facing the quarterback. [Deep] balls are thrown away from your body. You have to go out and catch them. They make you look like a receiver, and he has that ability.”

Tracking progress

Catching may be Lawrie’s forte on the football field, but off of it he prefers to throw. Whether it be discus, hammer or shot put, Lawrie excels at hurling. As a high-school senior, Lawrie won the Indiana Mental Attitude Award — a state-wide sportsmanship award — for track. The accolade was appropriate considering his appreciation of the mental aspects of the sport.

“I’ve always liked throwing,” he said. “I like the competitive nature of just competing on your own. How you do is solely based on yourself so that’s a different aspect than in football. I always liked that in track, just going out there, mentally preparing yourself to do well — I wanted to continue to do that here. I didn’t think that would be too tough to do.”

The football coaching staff at Yale asked Lawrie not to compete in track during the spring of his freshman season because they wanted him to get a better grip on the offense. But Lawrie’s desire to compete on the track remained, and he joined the squad his sophomore year. Football remained his primary athletic pursuit, but Lawrie stayed true to track, and track stayed true to him. Last spring, when Lawrie began working on his 40-yard dash, he approached Yale sprint coach Marc Davis and asked him for help. Davis agreed to help him over the summer. The two men would meet every morning at seven and work on Lawrie’s technique.

“It was just a lot of wasted motion that he had,” Davis said. “He’s 6’5″ 260 pounds, so it’s not like he’s the most fluid guy in the world when it came down to running — Me being there one-on-one with him to see that stuff kind of helped him out when it came down to the whole technical aspect of running.”

Though Davis had not coached Lawrie during the track season, he saw progress in his new pupil’s work ethic.

“For him to want to [train] on his own, that showed a lot of heart and dedication to the sport [of football], showed that he really wants to be doing what he’s doing,” Davis said. “The fact that he’s getting up early, the fact that he’s coming out there and doing all that stuff says a lot about what his character is in terms of wanting to play and go to that next level. You don’t find that a lot in a lot of people. Some people will have the talent, won’t have the desire, or vice versa. I think he’s got both and he’s proving that now — There’s no magic formula for this — All the drilling, all the running, it’s hard work. But he put in the work, and he’s doing well.”

As the summer progressed, Lawrie’s 40-yard dash times dropped into the upper four-second range, and he formed a new bond with Davis, to whom he feels indebted for his progress. As a result, even now, as he prepares for the NFL draft, Lawrie continues to compete with the track team.

“I like being out there, and I feel kind of committed to the track team,” Lawrie said. “Especially Coach Davis who helped me out for the last two years and really did a lot for me. That’s a commitment I’ve made and a commitment I want to keep.”

Davis is quick to praise Lawrie for that continuing commitment.

“I just give him a lot of credit,” Davis said. “He could have very well walked away from the team and just concentrated on football — The fact that he enjoys the team and is willing to come out there and help us out, we appreciate that. We realize he doesn’t have to, but he’s doing what he said he was going to do. He’s fulfilling a commitment that he had to us.”

Dedication to success

Lawrie and his coaches have not always had such a good rapport. Early in his Yale football career, Lawrie felt he deserved to start. The coaches disagreed.

“If you had told me four years ago that Nate was going to be an NFL guy, [I would have told you] he just didn’t have the toughness,” said Duane Brooks, Yale’s defensive-line coach and the team’s NFL liaison.

Dence, who arrive at Yale in the spring of 2002, said Lawrie had a lot of talent but did not pay enough attention to detail.

“Freshman year I was practicing with the starting offense,” Lawrie said. “But I knew I wasn’t going to get a lot of playing time. I wasn’t getting a ton of reps in practice, just kind of watching and getting my reps here and there. I guess I didn’t mentally commit myself to learning everything until my sophomore year.

“I really started to focus in and knew that I had to make this commitment and really put the time forth to learn the offense, what I was supposed to do on each play, and knew that’s what I needed to do to become a significant part of the offense. It was just part of growing up, being responsible and knowing what I had to do — in order to reach my goals.”

Fellow tight end and friend Chad Almy ’04 agreed.

“He’s really started to become a student of himself and watch a lot more film,” he said. “Just to sort of critique his technique and fundamentals. When he first came in our freshman year, he — just didn’t take criticism very well, [he] would be very combative with our coaches — Nate took it very personally and got very defensive. The last couple of years it’s been great to see, he’s not only learned to take criticism well but has sought it out, because he understands that the coaches aren’t trying to do anything but make him a better player.”

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