Like his teammates, Markus Lawrence celebrated after Winston-Salem State’s win against West Texas A&M in last week’s NCAA Division II national semifinals.
However, Lawrence kept his celebrating to a minimum, because the Rams have one more college football game to play – and can make history.
Winston-Salem State (14-0) will take on two-time champion Valdosta State (11-2) on Saturday for the Division II national title at Braly Memorial Stadium in Florence, Ala.
“We fell a little short last year,” said Lawrence, a two-time all-conference player at Harding High before signing with Winston-Salem State. “This season, we tried to stay more focused and respect all of our opponents. We treated every week as if it was the biggest game of the season.”
One of the major reasons Winston-Salem State is in this position is the offensive line, which cleared the way for the Rams to become a top-10 team in scoring (fifth at 42.57 points per game) and total yards (eighth at 481.71 yards per game).
A big portion of the credit is directed toward 6-foot-2, 290-pound Lawrence, who became Winston-Salem State’s starting center after Connell Maynor became head coach three years ago.
“He’s a great player and a great teammate,” said Rams assistant head coach and offensive line coach John Eder. “Everybody depends on him – myself, the head coach, the quarterback, everybody. Markus is a leader on and off the field, but he’s a real leader on the field – he really runs the show.
“He’s one of those kind of guys that you only have to tell him or show him something once, and he’ll know it the rest of his career. He’s going to be the hardest senior to replace.”
Lawrence’s play has already drawn national attention – he was recently named a finalist for the Gene Upshaw Award, given to the Division II lineman of the year.
That wasn’t a surprise to Valdosta State coach David Dean, who saw what Lawrence and Winston Salem State’s offensive line did during the Rams’ 41-18 win against West Texas A&M in the Division II semifinals.
“They dominated West Texas A&M,” Dean said. “We didn’t think anybody could do that. (The Rams’ offensive line) move well and redirect very well. Very rarely do you ever see guys that big who can do that … but these guys can, especially their center. That’s impressive, because you rarely see guys that big do that.”
Then there’s the historical angle – a win by the Rams would make them the fifth Division II team to finish a season undefeated and the first from a historically black college or university (HBCU) to win an NCAA football championship.
That would also give Winston-Salem State its second national title overall – the Rams’ men’s basketball team, led by Hall of Fame coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines, won the Division II championship in 1967, also a first for a HBCU.
“We’re happy to be in this position,” Lawrence said. “But this is also a business trip – we want to come home with the trophy.”