Becoming Famous

The Inside Carolina Magazine spotlights recruiting history each month. In the November 2011 Issue, the focus is on the recruitment of Amos Lawrence.

This article is from the November 2011 Issue of the Inside Carolina Magazine. To learn more about the publication and how to subscribe, CLICK HERE.


Becoming Famous

Inside Carolina Magazine
November 2011
WORDS: Sherrell McMillan
PHOTOS: Yackety Yack Archives

T
he Tidewater.

A large, fertile area tucked away on the eastern coast of the Commonwealth of Virginia. It received its name because of its soil's innate ability to easily produce crops like tobacco, corn and wheat when settlers arrived from Europe.

Perhaps its best export, however, has been the steady stream of talented high school football players it has produced over the years.

Hall-of-Famers like Lawrence Taylor, Chris Hanburger and Bruce Smith grew up in the region. Icons like Allen Iverson—who once was a dynamic quarterback—and Michael Vick played on its fields. All-pros like Plaxico Burress, DeAngelo Hall and Steve DeLong developed their skills there. High-school and college All-Americans like Tyrod Taylor, E.J. Manuel and Percy Harvin saw coaches from all across the country fly, drive and even boat to the Tidewater to recruit them.

Then, in addition to Taylor and Hanburger, there are names like William Fuller, Ronald Curry, Dre Bly and Amos Lawrence. What do those guys all have in common? They attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In recent years UNC, while competitive in the Tidewater, (like the signing of linebacker Travis Hughes in 2011) hasn't controlled the area in the ways it did throughout the 1970s, 1980s and parts of the 1990s.

Bob Molinaro, a long-time sports columnist for The Virginian-Pilot, said UNC was so dominant in the area because of the state schools' struggles.

"Nobody went to Virginia and maybe a few went to Virginia Tech," he said. "Virginia was a wasteland before George Welsh got there. Virginia Tech was a little better, but they were off the map because they didn't belong to a conference. They were an independent school at the time and didn't really attract the kids from our area that well."

Combine the lack of success for Virginia's state schools with the football powerhouse head coach Bill Dooley was building in Chapel Hill, and the Tar Heels had nearly free reign to pick and choose from the Tidewater's pool of talented players.

"In the 1970s UNC was, if possible, more popular up here than they are now," said Molinaro. "There was kind of a saying that Norfolk was the biggest city in North Carolina. A lot of UNC graduates found their way up to this area for employment. Chapel Hill wasn't a long drive from our area and that was important to the parents of a lot of players."

Among the first few players signed by Dooley in the mid-1970s were Ricky Barden, who became an All-ACC cornerback, and offensive lineman Donald Lucas.

"For a long time we just produced defensive backs and linebackers," Molinaro said.

In 1974, however, the diversity in positions emanating from the Tidewater improved, because of two words that still inspire awe among UNC fans and football historians.

Famous Amos.

***

Bert Harrell was the head coach at Lake Taylor High School in Norfolk, Virginia in 1974. Harrell ran a version of the twin veer offense popularized by Bill Yeomen during his time as head coach at the University of Houston.

Lawrence, who was a sophomore, didn't make the starting lineup despite the need for three running backs to run Harrell's system.

That all changed just a few plays into Lake Taylor's season opener.

"I looked up and the guy Amos was backing up got hurt," Harrell recalled. "Amos comes into the game and then rushes for around 175 yards and a couple of touchdowns. He never sat the bench again."

Over the next few games, Lawrence routinely ripped off 100- and 200-yard and multiple-touchdown games.

"He had so much natural ability," said Harrell. "He was able to see things happening before they happened. His vision was incredible and a lot of stuff we did in drills—like change the football from one hand to the other—he did naturally, without thinking. He always was able to cut back, get underneath blocks and gain extra yards."

It didn't take long for fans, reporters and, most importantly, college recruiters to take notice.

"Coach Harrell was a great ambassador for all of his kids—he was an astute and very attentive high school coach that worked for his players," said Charlie Carr, a 1968 UNC graduate and the Tar Heels' lead recruiter of Lawrence. "You knew that when he told you something, it was pretty factual. When I heard him saying Amos was one of the best talents at running back he'd ever seen, that's all we needed to hear.

"Once we saw him on film—well, once was all you needed."


A Tidewater-native, Carr laid the ground work for Lawrence's eventual signing with UNC.

"When Coach Carr and Mike Mansfield came down to recruit me I was excited because both of those guys were hometown guys," Lawrence said. "I really liked Coach Carr and his spirit because he was so down to earth."

Still, at the time of Carr and Mansfield's initial visit, Lawrence was a solid, regional recruit. Not one that brought in football powerhouses like Georgia, Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma, UCLA, Michigan and Ohio State.

That would soon change.

***

Lawrence fondly remembers his dynamic performance against Bayside High School in 1975. The video-game numbers he put up roll off his tongue like a birthdate or social security number.

416 yards. Five touchdowns. Three quarters.

"I feel like I could've rushed for 500 or 600 yards, because we still had a lot of time in that game and Coach Harrell pulled me early," said Lawrence. "I remember it just seemed like everything was clicking on all cylinders—the OL was doing a heck of a job blocking. It seemed like every time I touched the ball a hole opened up."

Not long after his performance, Amos was spotlighted in Sports Illustrated, a rare feat for high school athletes at the time.

"Before his senior year started, he was already a hot property," said Molinaro. "He had some ridiculous games. I remember I covered high schools sometimes and we had to name a football player of the week each week. It was sort of a joke because he was the best every week. We just had to pretend that somebody else was more deserving of the award."

After his junior season in 1975, Amos was named national high school back of the year by Parade magazine. College coaches from almost every program in the country began calling and visiting following his junior season.

Lawrence's situation was a little different from most recruits, however.

With his mother battling physical disability and his father out of the picture, Lawrence didn't have the same advantages as his peers. His neighborhood was often too rough for coaches to come for in-home visits and there were times he even struggled to find food to eat.

Lawrence viewed the recruiting process not just as a chance to eventually make his riches on the field, but as an opportunity to earn something many people from the Norfolk projects can't get—a college diploma. "Growing up poor, I knew that my family wouldn't be able to send me to college," he said. "Each year I tried to keep getting better at football. Probably after my junior year, I realized my education was going to be taken care of. That was a good thing."

***

When his patent-leather shoes cracked due to the cold during a game at Ohio Stadium, Lawrence knew he probably wouldn't be attending Ohio State.

"It was freezing," he said. "The temperature was a big turn-off for me. While I was there I met a lot of the players like Ron Springs, who eventually played for the (Dallas) Cowboys. I took the trip with my teammate Donald Lucas who played on the offensive line. We got hooked up with some of the other Ohio State guys and had a good time."

The visit concluded with a face-to-face, one-on-one meeting with legendary Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes.

"He told me that he didn't need any running backs, but he needed some more wing backs for his offense," said Lawrence. "I thanked him for having me in for a visit and decided that I didn't want to go there."

Lawrence wasn't too fond of his next trip, a stop in Athens, Georgia.

"I didn't like the atmosphere too much," he said succinctly.

Before his visit to UNC, another school tried to get Lawrence to officially visit.

"UCLA recruited me harder than any other college in the country," he said. "Terry Donahue came to my house and tried to convince my mom to get me to go to UCLA. His recruiting pitch was strong and Los Angeles is a nice city, but I didn't want to go 3,000 miles away from my family and friends."

Finally, it came time for his visit to UNC. While the visit was low-key, it served as reinforcement for a decision Lawrence had long ago made.

"I kind of new all the time that I was going to Carolina even before I took my other two visits and before I went to Ohio State and Georgia," he said. "I had three more trips that I could've taken but I chose not to because I had my mind set on Carolina."


In February 1977, Lawrence signed a National Letter of Intent to play for the Tar Heels.

"While he was courted by a number of schools, we always felt that North Carolina was right there in the mix," Carr said. "We had some really good running backs and there was a tradition and legacy there, I think that meant a lot to Amos. It was a great day for Chapel Hill and North Carolina."

While Carr was certainly instrumental in recruiting Lawrence to UNC, his former Lake Taylor teammate Barden had a huge impact as well.

"To be honest with you, Ricky (Barden) had a huge impact on my decision. He went to UNC a year ahead of me, was a Lake Taylor guy and was kind of like my spy," Lawrence said of his classmate. "He kept me updated on everything that was going on at UNC. He would call me and tell me about the guys UNC was recruiting and had on the team."

Dooley was UNC's head coach when Lawrence arrived in Chapel Hill.

"Amos was a highly-rated running back we wanted badly," Dooley said. "I brought Ricky in my office and said ‘How about helping me recruit Amos—he'd be a great addition to our running backs group.' He looked at me and said, ‘We'll get him.'"

True to his word, Barden kept Lawrence up-to-date on Carolina's recruiting and helped convince him to attend.

"He told me that Mike Voight was a senior and they believed I could come down there and really step right in. That's what my heart's desire was—I didn't want to go to a major university and sit on the bench. I've never been a bench rider and I wasn't going to start being one. I wanted to go somewhere I could be productive right away—and that was North Carolina."

***

"Right away" didn't take long. Amos broke into UNC's lineup early during his freshman year and made his first start in the Tar Heels' third game of the season, a trip to Chicago, against Northwestern on Sept. 24, 1977.

"I didn't want to start him right off, in the first ball game," said Dooley. "I felt like he needed to know the system before he got here and got some playing time."

Added Lawrence: "When I first went there… a lot of times guys leave high school and they have certain goals as to what they want to do in college. There was only one goal I had set for myself and that was to make the varsity traveling squad. That was my No. 1 goal—I had no idea I was going to do the things I did."

Almost two months after his first career start, Nov. 19, 1977, Lawrence became famous.

In the stadium of his home state's flagship university, Lawrence ran around—and through—Cavalier defenders en route to an ACC record 286 yards rushing. Prior to the game, Lawrence was badgered by disgruntled fans and media, upset that the state's biggest star rejected UVa.

"That's probably his most poignant moment," Carr said. "He literally won that game by himself. But it wasn't surprising, that's how gifted a running back he was. You knew that if he touched the ball enough, some good things were going to happen. That performance sticks out in my mind, because it was a turning point for that season and our program."

Lawrence went on to rush for more than 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons at UNC—a feat accomplished by only three other major college players: Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett, New Mexico State's Denvis Manns and Wisconsin's Ron Dayne.

He still holds UNC's record for career rushing yards and in 2002 was named one of the ACC's top 50 players of all-time.

Lawrence was drafted in the 4th round of the 1981 NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers. He played two seasons in the NFL, both with the San Francisco 49ers.

"You can talk about a lot of people, a lot of great running backs throughout the years," Carr said. "Amos was right there with all of them."


Inside Carolina Top Stories