Henry Lawrence’s life depicts the plight of the Lincoln High football program and how the players used camaraderie to overcome adversity.
A NFL first-round draft pick and three-time Super Bowl winner with the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, Lawrence is the most successful professional football player Manatee County ever produced.
First, he had to conquer the effects of racism that almost derailed his career in high school and cost him significant money as a professional.
The offensive lineman played on the last Lincoln High football team in 1968. That year as a junior, he earned first-team All-American honors as a two-way lineman who played defensive end, tackle and tight end.
Integration came the following year and nearly the entire Lincoln team came to Manatee High to play the 1969 season. Most wound up on the bench and many quit. The coaching staff at Manatee was not prepared for the new era and treated the Lincoln players as second-class citizens not good enough to warrant playing time.
Lawrence was a standout defensive end who could terrorize quarterbacks and a person who believed in standing up for his rights regardless of the personal consequences.
After three games, he went to head coach Jack Mackie and explained his concerns about how the black players were being treated. The response: He was benched for the rest of the season. At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Lawrence was replaced by an 155-pound white player at defensive end.
“We all knew the situation. I was playing receiver and was wide open down the field numerous times and they never threw me the ball,” Lawrence said. “A lot of the black players quit, but I wasn’t going to do that. I am the type of person who speaks my mind, and growing up as a child of migrant farm workers dealing with that kind of stuff was familiar to me.”
In most circles, benching Henry Lawrence is still considered the biggest blunder in the history of Manatee County sports. It cost Lawrence a scholarship to one of the major colleges up north. He went to Florida Agricultural and Mechnical University, and it cost him in the pocketbook because the Raiders owner (the late Al Davis) told Lawrence players from the small black colleges don’t get paid a lot of money. Despite being a first-round pick, Lawrence was paid less than tight end Dave Casper (Notre Dame) and running back Mark van Eeghen (Colgate) though they were drafted after Lawrence.
“What happened at Manatee hurt me in a lot of ways, but I didn’t leave there angry. The things I experienced up to then prepared me for all kinds of adversity,” Lawrence said. Lawrence played 13 years in the NFL (1974-86), all with the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, and won three Super Bowls. He is a two-time Pro Bowler and has been nominated to the NFL Hall of Fame three times.
Heading into his 14th season, Lawrence was about to earn his biggest paycheck, $350,000, but the players went on strike. He refused to cross the picket line and never played again. His best salary was the $325,000 he earned the previous year. Again, he had no regrets because he believed in what he was doing.