He didn’t know it at the time, but the game that cost JaJuan Lawson a big chunk of his senior season with the University of Rhode Island football team also opened a door to his future.
It was Sept. 28 when Lawson scored a pair of touchdowns to stake the Rams to a lead at Harvard. They would go on to win, but they had to do it without their budding quarterback star. Lawson injured his knee in the second quarter and watched the rest of the game from the sidelines. He ended up missing the next four games.
Before the injury, though, Lawson had caught somebody’s eye. A scout from the NFL Players Association Collegiate Bowl – a showcase for draft hopefuls – was in attendance at Harvard Stadium. He had seen enough to issue an invite. Lawson received the invitation and made plans, not learning how it all came about until he arrived in Pasadena for workouts leading up to the game.
“The funny part is no one could figure it out,” Lawson said. “I didn’t know. Coach Fleming didn’t know. When I was at the game, someone finally told me what had happened. The head scout for the bowl game was actually at our Harvard game. He saw me play one half of football and invited me just on that one half.”
Lawson ran with the opportunity, showcasing his abilities in pregame practices and throwing a touchdown pass in the Jan. 19 game at the Rose Bowl to lead his team to a 10-7 victory.
“You come together with guys that enjoy playing the game, and you’re all there with the same goal in mind,” Lawson said. “It was a great experience. I learned a lot. And it was fun to put yourself up with some of the best in the country.”
The opportunity alone means Lawson is on the radar for the draft and the free-agent roster building and practice squad shuffle that follows. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, particularly for an undersized quarterback from an FCS school, but Lawson is used to that.
Before transferring to URI from New Mexico, the California native had thrown five passes in his collegiate career. He competed for the starting job with the Rams in 2017 but didn’t win it out of camp. He saw limited action until a strong performance off the bench against Maine vaulted him into the starting lineup. The next game, he starred as the Rams nearly upset nationally ranked Elon. Lawson went on to lead the Rams to two wins in their last four games.
His presence gave the Rams more stability at the quarterback spot than they’d had in a long time entering this past season. His performance turned stability into stardom. Lawson threw for 991 yards and 10 touchdowns in URI’s first four games, and the Rams won three of them as the spark in a resurgent season.
With Lawson sidelined after the injury against Harvard, URI went 2-2, then lost two more when Lawson returned. In his final game, he led the Rams to a win over New Hampshire that clinched the program’s first winning season since 2001.
Lawson was happy to be part of the turnaround and grateful for the opportunities that have followed. When he left New Mexico, it wasn’t clear what the future held. Now he has a shot to keep playing.
“Just training every day is my main focus,” Lawson said. “Pro days at the end of March. That’s when I’ll really figure out where I stand with everything. I know there are a couple of teams interested. I hear the rumblings. I have an agent who’s kind of letting me know, quarterback coaches kind of letting me know. But for me, it’s so far away, you can’t worry about it right now. I’m just trying to focus on the task at hand.”
Having already graduated, Lawson has returned to California to train, knowing he can finish up the master’s degree work he started at URI any time. Lawson is working out at Power Endurance, a training center operated by a group that includes former NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
The Collegiate Bowl provided a milepost in the training process. In its eighth year, the game provides an opportunity for players who are outside the top tier of draft prospects. Nineteen players from last year’s game were drafted. The alumni list includes Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen, who gained big exposure in the game after playing at North Carolina A&T.
Lawson was one of only two players from the Colonial Athletic Association to receive an invite, along with Maine’s Sterling Sheffield.
Scouts filled the sidelines for practices leading up to the game. The coaching staff included former NFL head coaches Chuck Pagano and Mike Tice, plus former all-pros Ed Reed and Andre Johnson.
Lawson played for Pagano on the American team, joined in the quarterback corps by Baylor’s Jalan McClendon and Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmur. Lawson was the last of the three to take the field, but had the best showing, completing eight of 13 passes for 83 yards and a score.
“One thing I knew for sure is I was going to have fun with it,” Lawson said. “I tried to do the same thing all season at Rhode Island and that’s what I did in the game. Our coach broke the playing time down with rock-paper-scissors. Sure enough, I lost, so I went in the third quarter. But I wasn’t stressing about playing time or anything. I just wanted to get in there, find my rhythm and have fun - same thing I’ve been doing my whole life.”
Lawson hopes a similar perspective will carry him through the next few months, before the draft in April. He’s expecting to work out for teams at two pro days, one at URI and another in California.
Then he’ll see what happens.
“One thing you learn is to take it one day at a time,” Lawson said. “Of course your eye is on it. You have the attention of the NFL. Your attention is on the NFL. You start to get a little antsy. But for me, it’s just staying in the present – enjoy where I’m at, enjoy what I’m doing, and enjoy the process, because it’s only going to happen once. Regardless of what happens, not many get to do it.”