Special to the Sun
Tuesday, July 28, 2009 | 11 p.m.
Gerard Lawson likes to say he fought his way into the NFL.
Lawson, a former Palo Verde High star, went undrafted in 2008 before signing a free agent deal with the Cleveland Browns. The defensive back and special teams specialist made the team following a strong showing in the Browns’ training camp last summer.
“Being an undrafted free agent and actually playing, then the team looks at you like ‘this guy knows how to play the game,’” Lawson said. “They know you battled to get here.”
And Lawson will battle to stay there when the Browns open this year’s training camp Friday in Berea, Ohio. Lawson, who played collegiately at Oregon State, appeared primarily on special teams last season and recorded three kick returns for a total of 72 yards.
This year, he has higher aspirations.
“I just want to play more,” Lawson said. “Get on the field more, try to have more of an impact than I did last year.”
To accomplish that, Lawson will have to impress a new batch of coaches. Cleveland hired Eric Mangini in the offseason to replace coach Romeo Crennel. Mangini promptly hired an entire new coaching staff, replacing everyone Lawson developed a rapport with last season.
Lawson seems unbothered by the changes. He said he was impressed with the new staff so far.
“All the coaches right now seem pretty laid back, but that’s before the season,” Lawson said. “During the season, that’s when everyone gets in the grind mode. Ask me next week and I’ll have a whole different story.”
But Lawson has never found it too hard to connect with coaches. Just ask Palo Verde coach Darwin Rost.
Although Lawson graduated six years ago, he and Rost continue to be close. Despite Lawson receiving little recruiting attention in high school, Rost always knew he could be special.
“You could tell he had a real passion for football,” Rost said. “He was a three-sport kid, a real focused kid. He got real serious in the weight room his senior year before he headed to Oregon State.”
It’s the same weight room where Lawson’s Cleveland jersey is now framed and hanging on the wall. Rost always hangs pictures of his players who played college football in the weight room.
When Lawson made the Browns’ roster, Rost wanted to do something grander. He asked Lawson for a jersey. Rost described the jersey as “a big pride thing” for Palo Verde and its current players.
“Whatever happens, I always tell him, ‘you’re the first player from Palo Verde to play in the NFL,’” Rost said. “No one can ever take that away from you.’”
Lawson, who lives in Las Vegas during the offseason, is still involved at Palo Verde. Rost said Lawson regularly talked to the team and often came to the school to work out.
“All those guys I played with, I still hang out with,” Lawson said. “I remember those Friday nights with the crowd all cheering for you.”
Lawson might be playing in front of bigger crowds now, but he re-iterated how much he still enjoys the game. He understands it better, too.
Lawson said the most surprising thing about his first season in the NFL was how much scouting of opponents was involved.
“I didn’t really think it was that much work,” Lawson said. “It’s major film study, meeting with coaches to break people down, all this stuff. It’s trying to get every inch of someone and what they did on the field. It was real intense.”
It’s all still surreal to Rost that after 13 years at Palo Verde, he can add coaching an NFL player to his list of achievements.
“I was sitting there during the Super Bowl and thinking, ‘Lawson played against Pittsburgh twice this year’,” Rost said.
Rost said he was looking forward to watching Browns’ games this year and seeing Lawson fly down the field on special teams and maybe even make plays on defense. Lawson is determined to make sure Rost and everyone else have a chance to watch him for years to come.
If he has to fight for it, so be it. Lawson is used to it.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Lawson said. “Just making it to my second year is big for me because this is the NFL.”
Lawson is not the lone player with local ties who will be heading to training camp this week.
Former UNLV players in the NFL:
Johan Asiata, Chicago Bears, guard
A native of New Zealand, he played guard and tackle for the Rebels. He wasn’t drafted this year but is trying to make the Bears as a free agent.
Beau Bell, Cleveland Browns, linebacker
Bell played in four games last season for the Browns before injuring his knee in his Week 12.
Greg Estandia, Jacksonville Jaguars, tight end
Through three seasons, Estandia has 10 receptions for 113 yards.
Adam Seward, Indianapolis Colts, linebacker, Bonanza
The former UNLV star will be playing in his fifth NFL season and first away from the Carolina Panthers’ organization.
Frank Summers, Pittsburgh Steelers, running back
Drafted in the fifth round this year, Summers will try to make the Steelers squad as a rookie.
Eric Wright, Cleveland Browns, defensive back
Wright appears to have a long-term future in Cleveland’s secondary as he started all 16 games last season and recorded 70 tackles with an interception.
Other Las Vegas natives playing professional football:
Vernon Fox, Denver Broncos defensive back, Cimarron-Memorial
Fox enters his eighth NFL season and second with the Broncos, who he recorded 18 tackles for last season.
Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams running back, Eldorado
Jackson is one of the NFL’s marquee running backs and has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of the past four seasons.
Others with professional ties:
DeAndra’ Cobb, Hamilton Tiger-Cats running back, Clark
Despite being drafted by the Falcons in the sixth round of the 2005 NFL Draft, Cobb never appeared in an NFL game. He is currently playing professionally in the Canadian Football League.
Grey Ruegamer, free agent center, Bishop Gorman
Ruegamer has won two Super Bowl rings — with the Patriots in 2002 and with the Giants in 2008 — and is currently an unsigned free agent.
Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or at [email protected]