Part I: Country Boy Makes Good

The rural fields of Wayne County in the North Carolina hinterland are a long way from the NFL. Over these sprawling domains of corn, tobacco and cucumber acreage, a young boy with big dreams can almost see forever. But as Manny Lawson began to develop the embryonic skills that eventually would carry him to the land of big-time college football, all he could see were the obstacles directly in front of him.

You see, when you grow up in Goldsboro, N.C., more than 50 miles from any significant city, a town where the next closest stoplight is eight miles away, there is not a lot of competition against which to hone your skills.

But Lawson made the best of the situation.

"I found myself doing a lot of football moves on trees, because there was nobody else to play with out there with me in the country," Lawson said.

The little kid with the big dreams grew up and grew out of the back-country atmosphere, and Manny Lawson no longer is putting moves on the tall woody plants near his hometown.

He did it last year as an impact force on one of the nation's best defensive units, playing against the biggest and baddest competition major college football had to offer.

The country boy made good.

While earning a reputation as one of the finest athletes ever to play at North Carolina State University, Lawson grew from a lanky,210-pound linebacker as a freshman into a 240-pound dynamo with long arms and a nonstop motor who confounded opponents with a rare combination of power, speed, hops and natural pass-rushing ability.

The 49ers got a good look at all that in late January when Lawson took part in Senior Bowl week in Alabama, where Mike Nolan and his staff of San Francisco assistants were coaching the South squad.

Recognizing that Lawson's skills would fit nicely into the team's 3-4 defensive scheme, and desperately needing the boost to their pass rush that Lawson can provide, the Niners realized that they simply had to have him. So they packaged their high second and third-round selections in the draft and sent them to the Denver Broncos for the No. 22 overall pick in the first round to make sure they got him.

Lawson appears to be a winner in every sense of the word.

"From the character standpoint, he checks out phenomenal," 49ers vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan said. "He had a 43 (out of 50) test score on the Wonderlic. He comes from a disciplined household. He's a very fast kid, and football is very important to him. He's always played with a chip on his shoulder."

Lawson developed that chip while emerging from an area not known for producing NFL prospects, or even Division I college prospects. Lawson has an opportunity to be the best ever to come out of Goldsboro – if he isn't already.

His upbringing has a lot to do with that.

With his father retired from the Air Force and his mother a residential nurse, Lawson was taught values and discipline at an early age.

"When you grow up in the military, you are typically raised with strict discipline," Lawson said. "I was raised with academics first. Athletics was just for fun. If we brought home any grade that my father wasn't pleased with – which was anything below a B-plus – we were lectured, lectured very sternly."

The athleticism came naturally. By the time Lawson was a senior at Eastern Wayne High School, he was a star in football and track and field who was rated as one of the state's top 25 college prospects. "I grew up a big 49ers fan," he said. "Honestly, I don't know how. Using the little reception with the antennas that we had, I was able to catch some of the games. Now I get to put on the garnet and gold. I don't know what to say."

The idea of reaching the pro ranks began to sink in during Lawson's first season as a true freshman at North Carolina State, where his athletic ability began to shine immediately at outside linebacker and on special teams. Lawson – who owns a vertical leap of 40 inches – led the nation with three blocked punts, and earned the Wolfpack's Most Valuable Specialist Award.

It was the start of something big.

Part II: Lawson begins to add bulk to his 6-foot-5 frame as a sophomore, and that's the start of something really big as he finds a home in the starting lineup and develops into one of the nation's most prolific pass rushers. He becomes a workout warrior who wows NFL scouts with his speed and physical capabilities, but somebody else emerges on the N.C. State defensive line to take away some of the spotlight. But a little friendly competition with roommate Mario Williams - who would become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft - certainly didn't hurt Lawson.

More to come...


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