Most things about Shaq Lawson are childlike. With a perpetual pocket full of bubble gum, visions of reality television stardom and a laugh that sounds like it comes from the back of a middle school classroom, Lawson's youthful exuberance is no coincidence.
The 15-year-old named for his father's favorite basketball player received a phone call that would change his life. Lawrence Lawson was killed by a drunk driver, an accident that also left his mother hospitalized for five months.
"I used to wake up every day thinking, 'how am I going to lead my brothers and sisters in the right direction?'" he explained on the latest episode of Drive Time with Travis Wingfield.
Lawson found courage through his father's final message, to take care of his brothers and sisters.
"I didn't want them to see bad signs or the wrong way to do it," he said. "I just decided that, at 15-years-old, it was time to step up."
So Lawson led the only way he knew how, with a laugh and a smile; an approach that has followed him through his fifth year in the NFL and first season with the Miami Dolphins. But while Lawson presented a strong facade for those counting on him, he was still battling his own challenges and anxiety.
A prep football and basketball superstar at D.W. Daniel High School in Central, South Carolina, Lawson knew sports were his path to a better life for himself and his family. While his athletic prowess was garnering the right kind of attention, his grades were not.
After accepting a scholarship and enrolling at the University of Clemson, Lawson was on the verge of losing his ticket out. He didn't qualify academically to play his first year for Head Coach Dabo Swinney and the Tigers' storied football program.
Instead, Lawson would spend a year at Hargrave Military Academy, an all-male boarding school in Chatham, Virginia. He credits that experience for another seismic shift in his young life.
"I was enrolled at Clemson but they told me I had to leave," he said. "I was in tears. I thought it was over for me. I knew I wanted to do something bigger than just being back home and knew I had the opportunity to not just play in the NFL, but be the first one in my family to graduate college."
"Between that and the time my mom was in the hospital for five months recovering, that made me realize you can't take life for granted," he explained. "Before that, I was getting bad grades, I was getting into trouble, but that turned my life around. I looked at life different after that."
Just like the NFL, college football is a full-time job. It was a commitment that Lawson was previously ill-equipped to handle with all the rigors of a student athlete's demanding schedule.
"Going to Hargrave helped me learn to get organized, prepared me to get up for workouts, things like that," he said." I would never take that experience for granted. That Hargrave experience made me the man I am today."
He dedicated himself to his schoolwork, his routine, and ultimately his path back to Clemson.
Once there, Lawson flourished under familiar tutelage. Even though he claims Dolphins Defensive Line Coach Marion Hobby was a terrifying presence in his college days, he credits Hobby as one of his primary reasons for signing with the Dolphins in March.
"You should've seen Hobby in college," Lawson said through his cackling laugh. "He's actually cooled down a lot. That played a role for why I came here."
Now, Lawson is part of a Dolphins team on a five-game winning streak; a defense that ranks first in points allowed per game (17.2) and Total QBR allowed (36.0) over that span. Despite missing the first of the five with an injury, a 43-17 victory over the 49ers, he's produced 14 of the team's 86 quarterback pressures dating back to the October 11.
Hobby was part of the equation that attracted Lawson to South Florida, but not the entirety of it. He saw the vision and the team Head Coach Brian Flores was instilling from afar. Once a division rival up in Buffalo, playing the Dolphins twice in 2019 gave Lawson a peek behind the curtain to help reveal the expectations Flores has for his players and his team.
"I played these guys two times a year and I knew they worked hard," he said. "Flo had them going in the right direction. It's strictly business with Coach Flo."
Sometimes, mixing business with pleasure is ok, especially when the team is winning. Flores is both privy to the youthful nature of the team he and General Manager Chris Grier have assembled, but also the importance of finding balance.
"They're young guys," Flores said. "They want to have fun, they want to laugh and they joke around with each other and they joke around with the coaches and we joke back. And Lawson is full of life. Lawson's got a great laugh apparently and he's a lot of fun to be around, and you don't want to temper that as a coach. You want to let him be himself and bring his energy to the rest of the group and they feed off of it and I think it makes us a better team."
That approach is a much easier path to take when the players understand the time and place for laughter, and when it's time to flip the switch.
"There's a time and a place," Lawson said. "You have to know how to switch it. It's important to get these wins every Sunday so I can have a reason to laugh. There's a time and place to be serious. When I'm between the lines, it's all business; but at the same time you've gotta have fun doing it."
Lawson is certainly having fun doing it. Last year, he started practicing weekly meditation. It helped him cope with the aforementioned anxieties and reinforces the lessons he learned at Hargrave for organization, preparation and even a hint of visualization.
"You have to take care of that body and mind," Lawson said. "I just plan out my day. I get in the dark by myself, listen to some music - I'm planning out my week. Planning out the things I have to do to get better. I meditate about the game and visualize plays I can make. I take that time by myself to get calm and relax."
And maybe that time is used for a little something extra. It's the perfect time to conjure up ideas for his passion project that is strictly intellectual property at this point. A fan of reality dating shows like Flavor of Love, Lawson believes his winning personality and communications degree are the requisite traits he needs to find television stardom.
"I've got a great personality. I've got a great heart," Lawson said. "I'm a communications major so I feel like I'm ready to be on TV. I want my own show just like Travis Kelce. A little dating show. Eventually I want to get married, grow old, things like that. I feel like I would be a good host. I'm a character. I'm very funny. I think that would be great."
The reviews from Lawson's peers are in, and they agree.
"Shaq's a character," Dolphins defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah said. "That same laugh y'all see on social media, he does that all the time. We hear that 24/7. So it's a good thing it's actually a mix, because it's not all business all the time. You've got to have some fun with it, too. It's a game we all grew up playing and he just brings that energy every time he's out there with us."
"Shaq is a huge energy producer for us, whether it's pregame, in the locker room, at halftime on the field like you said with these pictures of him laughing and stuff," Dolphins tight end Durham Smythe said. "I think this staff has done a great job of bringing in the right people that mesh well together, personalities that mesh well and kind of feed off of each other."
Even his teammates in Buffalo can confirm the personality void left by Lawson taking his talents to South Beach.
"We don't hear as much trash talk on the field," Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White said in September. "We're gonna miss him."
Tre White quote LINK - https://13wham.com/buffalo-plus/bills-latest-news/tre-white-on-the-biggest-difference-in-the-locker-room-without-shaq-lawson
There's an upshot to Lawson's departure for the Bills - less scarcity of bubblegum.
"I know one thing, we got a lot of gum left," White joked. "Shaq Lawson used to chew all the bubble gum so we got a lot of gum in the locker room now that he's gone."
When asked about his gum bandit days in Buffalo, Lawson confirmed through the trademarked giggle.
"They used to bring out those big boxes in Buffalo," Lawson said through a laugh and a smile. "I used to have about 20 pieces of gum in my pocket going out to practice every day."
Nothing made him feel more like a kid in a candy story - or maybe a child in a gumball factory - then meeting his namesake. You see, Lawson nearly quit football in high school to pursuit his first love on the hardwood. After all, he was trying to follow in the footsteps of the four-time NBA champion, star of the silver screen and fellow child-like personality in a grown man's body, Shaquille O'Neal.
"I modeled my game after him because my Dad was a big Shaquille O'Neal fan," Lawson said. "That's how I got my name. I had a chance to talk to Shaq, told him about that, and we ended up connecting with each other and having a great talk, but I was nervous as hell to meet him."
Fortunately, for Dolphins fans, Lawson chose the gridiron and followed the path that led him here. The path that produced the jovial, easy-going, says-hi-to-everybody-he-sees, fun-loving sack artist who is already beloved by the fan base. The fan favorite who just can't stop laughing in life, on the football field, and when he reflects upon his journey.
"This league can stress you out because you have too much on your plate," Lawson said. "All the adversity I've faced, having an opportunity to wake up every morning to do what I love, I've got to smile and always laugh. I've gotta be the guy to bring joy."