There are a few human beings — but, very few, mind you — of whom I have never heard a harsh word spoken. Kent Lawrence was one of those individuals.
My introduction to this great man came in 1966. I wasn’t alone. He played half-back — not tailback — for my beloved Georgia Bulldogs. Vince Dooley had taken hold of the football helm at UGA a couple of years earlier and brought Georgia out of the lean years and beyond the cusp of respectability.
I was 14, the perfect time for fandom and hero worship to merge, and Kent Lawrence, Number 24, was one of my many heroes on that SEC Championship team.
He wasn’t big, at 5-10, 165 pounds. Perhaps he could be called one of the last of the great “scatbacks.” To be sure, he was one of the fastest running backs ever to have worn the silver britches of Old Georgia. He had a good, but not great, sophomore season, rushing for 304 yards and scoring 3 TDs.
But Georgia was rewarded for its 9-1 SEC Championship season with a trip to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas. The opponent would be Southern Methodist University. To date, it is still the only gridiron matchup between Georgia and SMU.
The game was played on New Year’s Eve because the Dallas Cowboys had dibs on the Cotton Bowl stadium for an NFL playoff game on Jan. 1.
On the third play from scrimmage, Georgia’s Lawrence ran 74 yards for a touchdown, giving the Dogs an early lead. He would go on to gain 149 yards that day and be named MVP of the Cotton Bowl Classic. From that day forward, he was a Georgia legend, pure and simple.
But Kent Lawrence’s legacy went far beyond football. Upon graduation he played in the NFL for a minute, with the Eagles and the Falcons, and then pursued a career in law enforcement, working for the University Police Force and, later, becoming the first police chief of the Clarke County Police Department.
While working as a police officer, he also pursued a law degree and graduated from Woodrow Wilson Law School in 1985. He became a state judge and served on the bench in Clarke County for 26 years.
Judge Lawrence wasn’t just interested in trying cases and dispensing verdicts. His goal was to help people. It sounds a bit hokey in the cynical days of the 21st century, but it is the absolute truth. You can ask anyone who went before him, even those tried in the special DUI court he helped create — the first in the state. Judge Lawrence always wanted to help the people who came before him if he could.
He was always that way, and I have a story that proves it — at least to me. It was the Friday night in 1971 before Georgia was to play Auburn in football. Both teams were undefeated. Auburn had that Sullivan-to-Beasley thing going on. The game was a big deal, understand, and on Thursday night at an impromptu pep rally in the McWhorter Hall parking lot, Erk Russell had jumped up in the bed of a pickup truck and made a speech that set the entire Georgia student body, and all of Athens, on fire.
Don’t tell me about the buildup to last year’s Notre Dame game. Nothing compared to the craziness of the 44 hours preceding the Georgia-Auburn game in 1971.
It was Friday night on Baxter Street, around 11 p.m. In front of the high-rise dorms. Students were everywhere, spilling out into the street. One lane of traffic could barely weave through the people. All local cops were out in force. Alcohol was being imbibed.
A group of my friends were milling around, trying to talk one of them — we’ll call him Larry, which wasn’t his name — to steal a hat off the head of a UGA policeman and disappear into the crowd. They were playing him like a Stradivarius, convincing him through the fog of beer, that no one could possibly catch him.
Finally, “Larry” made his move and snatched the hat off the closest cop, then turned and ran away as fast as he could. He had stolen the hat of one of the fastest people ever to play football at UGA. Yes, it was Kent Lawrence’s hat.
Lawrence caught and tackled our friend before he had taken three steps. Then he cuffed him and took him downtown.
At 2 p.m., after he’d been bailed out of jail, Larry was sitting in his Russell Hall dorm room, convinced that his life was over. He was certain that he would be expelled from school and that his parents would kill him and that, if he survived his parents, he would be doing menial labor for the rest of his life.
Shortly after 2 there was a knock at the door. Officer Kent Lawrence had sought out Larry’s on-campus address and came by to console him and make sure he knew that everything was going to be fine.
Everything was. Larry is now a respected financial officer in his home state of South Carolina. Kent Lawrence passed away last week after an extended illness. His legacy will always be that he was one of the best Bulldogs and, more importantly, one of the best people, ever to pass our way.
May he rest in peace.