From jail time to ACL surgeries, no 'quit' in Browns' Devaroe Lawrence

Defensive tackle Devaroe Lawrence has had a rough road in life, but he hasn't let all the trials and tribulations stop him from playing in the NFL. Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire

Of course, there had to be at least one more twist along Devaroe Lawrence's path before he finally earned his place on a NFL roster this week, just one month shy of his 26th birthday.

The Cleveland Browns' new defensive tackle is the longest of long shots. He grew up in a broken home in Greenville, South Carolina, was essentially abandoned by his mother as a young teen, and spent time in jail twice around the time he was finishing high school before he was taken in by an assistant coach and his family.

Still, Lawrence fought to keep his football dream alive by driving with a friend to a tryout at Georgia Military College, where he earned a spot as a walk-on. And he eventually earned a scholarship at Auburn -- only to tear his ACL as a senior. Then, when he signed with the New Orleans Saints as an undrafted rookie last year, Lawrence barely even got to step foot on a practice field because they found that a second surgery was needed.

And now, Lawrence's tumultuous life has led to a whirlwind week where he was traded to the Browns for a seventh-round draft pick on cut-down day.

The trade was a little bittersweet for Lawrence and his loved ones, because they were hoping his standout preseason was enough to land him a permanent gig with the Saints. But they said they're not going to start questioning God's plan now.

"The things He has done in my life, I mean, He ain't been nothing but good to me -- when I ain't been good to myself at times. So it's like, how could you not trust Him?" Lawrence said on the day before the final roster cuts.

"No, I didn't always have a positive outlook on things. But as I got older, it helps you more to see the positive than the negative, because the negative don't do nothing but drag you down. But everybody deserves a second chance. And sometimes God gives you more than a second chance. That's why it's called mercy and grace."

When asked how many chances he thinks he's had, Lawrence shook his head.

"Shoot, too many. Too many," Lawrence said. "More than I could ask for."

Lawrence never knew his biological father. He was close to his grandmother, who died when he was young. But he has always had a fractured relationship with his mother.

When Lawrence was about 12 or 13, his mom passed him off to another couple through an unofficial adoption, but that situation wasn't much better.

Lawrence, who went by his middle name of Jamal until college, would often just roam the streets late at night or early in the morning as an adolescent to stay away from wherever he was supposed to be living at the time. Sometimes he would stay at the home of a friend for days or weeks at a time. But he found plenty of trouble, too.

Got involved with drugs at a young age. Got in trouble with the law multiple times.

Lawrence's first stint in jail stemmed from an unpaid fine on a marijuana possession charge. Later, he went back to jail after his mother turned him in for trespassing, the circumstances of which aren't exactly clear.

"The biggest test for any human is life," said Lawrence, who also had a daughter when he was a young teen and remains involved with her, though she lives with her mother. "You can cheat on any math test, you can cheat on any English test. But you can't cheat what life throws at you. So it's all on how you deal with it.

"Have I always handled the bad situations good? No. But it's your life, and you gotta learn from your mistakes. I can say I've learned from a lot of my mistakes, and I do a lot of things different. I think different. I see things different."

'Have you met him?'

Lawrence was "all teeth and a smile" when Sam and Angie Kelly first met him in 10th grade. And Lawrence proudly boasted that his "Mama Kelly" has told him "she fell in love with me the first time I smiled."

Sam, who Lawrence now considers his father, was friends with Lawrence's high school football coach at Carolina Academy, Mark Hodge, who first introduced them. Later Sam -- a defensive lineman himself at Georgia Tech -- worked with the team as a volunteer assistant.

Sam gave Lawrence rides and life advice and plenty of tough love as he gradually became a part of the family. Lawrence still talks about one of the first conversations they ever had, when Sam asked him what he would do if football didn't work out and Lawrence replied, "Nothing."

"The look on his face was like, 'The hell?!' And he said, 'I will not let nothing happen.' Those were his words," Lawrence recalled. "So he's been in my life ever since -- through the ups and downs."

Sam was the one who bailed Lawrence out when Lawrence finally broke down and called him after he had been locked up for about two weeks during one of his jail stints. They hadn't been in close contact at the time, but when Lawrence called, Sam went and got him that night, scrambling together some cash from an acquaintance of a friend because the ATM wouldn't allow him to withdraw enough.

Sam also got Lawrence a job working in the warehouse at his software company, but he didn't offer a free ride. In fact, he fired Lawrence twice for not doing his job well enough.

And when Lawrence got the walk-on offer at Georgia Military College, Sam and Angie helped pay his tuition.

Soon after that, the Kellys insisted he make a more permanent home with them and their daughters.

When Angie was asked what drew them so strongly to Lawrence, she said, "Have you met him?"

Indeed, it's hard not to notice in interviews with the 6-foot-2, 294-pounder that his personality can be as dynamic as his presence on the field. Lawrence talks excitedly about how far he has come -- first graduating from Auburn and now making a NFL roster.

"He captivated us. I think it was just a God thing. There was just something about Jamal that we were drawn to," Angie said. "He has every reason to hate the world. But he has a heart that's just incredibly loving and kind -- and he's got a desire in him. And he does love football. I mean, he had every reason to quit. But he has a drive about him now that he wants to be better than where he came from and play football and lead a good life.

"And he wants to make us proud. He's told me that multiple times. And I've told him, 'If you never play another down of football in your life, you've done that.' So this was just icing on the cake."

Yes, they're well aware how similar their story is to "The Blind Side" -- the story of former NFL offensive tackle Michael Oher, who was homeless in high school before being taken in by the family of a fellow student. Lawrence actually met the actor who played Oher in the movie when he was in high school through an acquaintance of Sam's.

But Sam said the "the movie story is good compared to Jamal's life."

"It's just unbelievable the stuff that's happened in this kid's life," Sam said. "And why he's still smiling, we second-guess that all the time.

"He's just special."

'It was him against the world'

Lawrence has a lot of people in his corner, but none of them try to paint the picture of a perfect angel.

Hodge said he had to "fire" Lawrence from his practice field a couple of times, too, in high school. But he said he was always passionate and had a big heart.

"When you're a young man and you're pretty much living on the streets at age 13, 14 and you've dealt with the internal conflicts that occurred in your household, you feel like everything's a fight," Hodge said. "And to me that's probably the thing that speaks the most volumes is him eventually learning who to trust and allowing those people to help him. Because when you first met him, it was him against the world.

"The biggest test for any human is life. You can cheat on any math test, you can cheat on any English test. But you can't cheat what life throws at you. So it's all on how you deal with it." Devaroe Lawrence, Browns defensive tackle

"So often you see people that won't take the help that's provided. Jamal was smart enough to take that help from people that God put in his life. We use that as coaches all the time with our high school kids. We say, 'The only reason 'The Blind Side' is a story is because the kid took the help.'"

Georgia Military College coach Bert Williams had stories about getting into it with Lawrence, at times, too -- laughing now at the memory of the last time he really had to get on his case. Williams called Lawrence a "big kid every way you could look at it, from the big smile to the joyous outbursts to the occasional pout."

"It was just that he had never had that structure and that focus," Williams said of Lawrence, who didn't become academically eligible until his second year at GMC, when he drew Auburn's attention with 4.5 sacks. "I wouldn't say he took to it like duck to water, necessarily. But he got there pretty well."

Likewise, Georgia defensive line coach Rodney Garner -- who told NFL.com before the 2017 draft that Lawrence is the closest thing he's ever coached to NFL star Geno Atkins based on his natural ability -- said he had to stay on Lawrence to keep focused and to keep pushing himself. Garner told NFL.com that he once benched Lawrence because he was cramping in practice all week, which he felt was "a defense mechanism." But in the same article, Garner said he remains Lawrence's "biggest fan."

Lawrence's career at Auburn was somewhat of a disappointment, with flashes of great ability mixed with inconsistent results. He had just 1.5 sacks, 44 tackles and five tackles for loss in 24 games played over his final two years. Then came the torn ACL, which derailed any chances of Lawrence being drafted.

Still, the Saints made Lawrence an offer right after the draft -- only to discover that another surgery would be needed before training camp. Yet he came back and had a stellar preseason performance this year, with 2.5 sacks, four QB hits and three tackles for loss.

Saints coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen both complimented Lawrence's physical traits and how hard he worked in his rehab. They ultimately opted to keep another undrafted rookie defensive tackle, Taylor Stallworth. But Lawrence did enough to make the Browns take notice.

"I really thought that last [surgery] was gonna be the one that probably broke the camel's back. But after a day or so, he was good with it. Cried about it, got pissed off about it, then moved on," said Sam, who was asked what it is about Lawrence that has allowed him to make it.

"There's been so much hurt and anger and disappointment in his life, that he has this ability to shed it," Sam said. "He will shut down on you sometimes, that's his protective mechanism. But he has this ability, like, 'I've been here before. I can go through this. This is nothing.'"

Lawrence described himself in much the same way.

"I could've quit [after the second surgery]. I could've said, 'Forget it.' I could've just tapped," Lawrence said. "I'm fittin' to be a 25-year-old rookie. Put that in perspective. That's a long road. But I ain't quit trusting God. He got me here for a reason, and I really believe that.

"Stuff may get hard, I may get mad, I may get a little frustrated. But I don't have quit in me. All I know is fight."