Padecky: Casa Grande grad JaJuan Lawson will audition for a shot at the NFL

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The words come out of JaJuan Lawson’s mouth without hesitation, as if it’s the only proper, logical response. “Who would have ever thought?” the former Casa Grande quarterback said. Yes, indeed, who would have ever thought the next paragraph would have ever been written?

In his first two years of college football, Lawson threw a total of five passes. On Jan. 19, Lawson will play in the eighth annual NFLPA Collegiate Bowl at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl.

As trajectories go, this one has the profile of a shuttle launch. Two years ago, he was a backup quarterback at the University of New Mexico. That didn’t put Lawson on some distant planet in the football universe, although he could see the vastness of obscurity from there.

Two years later, Lawson will practice with and compete against some of the best college players in the nation. NFL Hall of Famers like Jackie Slater and Darrell Green along with former All-Pros like Bryan Cox, Andre Johnson and Ed Reed will be there to school the kids on what it’s like to play on Sunday, everything from nutrition to late-night ventures into nightclubs.

In other words, this ain’t no pick-up game. NFL coaches and scouts will be there. This is an invitation-only event. This is for draft-eligible players. This isn’t for someone who threw five passes in two years. This is for someone who had a scouting service gush all over him.

“Smart versatile quarterback,” began the scouting report for NFL Draft Diamonds, “that could go from virtually unknown to get drafted in Day 3. Reminds me a bit of Dak Prescott (Dallas quarterback). Similar traits. I see heart and toughness and a quick release. A late-round steal. He has the IT factor.”

The scout also could have said, “I saw him for the first three games of the 2018 season and that was enough for me.” That had to be what the NFLPA saw to offer him the invitation. In his first three games of the 2018 season for the University of Rhode Island, Lawson passed for 839 yards and nine touchdowns. Lawson was hurt in the next game against Harvard and missed four games with a torn meniscus in his right leg.

The invitation letter from the NFLPA came after the third game of the season, the Sept. 15 one against Connecticut when he threw for 351 yards and ran for two touchdowns while throwing four touchdowns. Until the injury, Lawson was a lock for Colonial Athletic Association Conference Player of the Year.

Not that Lawson is unfamiliar with setbacks. “It’s been a long, windy road,” said Lawson. That journey also could be known as Mister Toad’s Wild Ride.

When Lawson left Casa Grande, San Jose State and Fresno State offered scholarships. He went to New Mexico, found himself in an option offense — run first, pass second — and determined he was a square peg in a round hole. In the summer of 2016, Lawson was back in Petaluma and doing some odd jobs with pal and former Casa teammate Miles Gardea. Gardea, a linebacker, was going to URI on scholarship and said Lawson should check with Rhode Island, once he heard the quarterback was seeking to transfer.

Kids who transfer cross their fingers. Lawson has a friend, Matt Quarells, a teammate at New Mexico. Quarells transferred to Iowa and transferred again to Southern Illinois, where his career ended quietly.

“You roll the dice and see what happens,” Lawson said. “It doesn’t work out for everyone.”

It wasn’t as if Lawson was headed to URI knowing he was fast-tracking a NFL career. Rhode Island had never had a player invited to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. Lawson was looking for an opportunity to play quarterback. He was driven, not by his ego, but by a memory he had when he was 11 years old.

Lawson was a quarterback on his Pop Warner team. After one game, in which he underperformed, Lawson walked off the field only to meet a glare from his grandmother, Nadine Birden Lawson. She didn’t say a word; the expression on her face revealed all that was necessary to communicate her dissatisfaction. Lawson remembers that look to this day and carries it with him into every game.

“Ever since then, I have never wanted to disappoint my family,” the 22-year-old said. “I never wanted to do that again to my family. I’ve always had a fear of failing them.”

It is that expression of commitment that pushed Lawson to where he is today, starting a master’s program for a degree in adult education. After earning his bachelor’s last spring in communication, Lawson wants to coach one day.

Jim Fleming, URI’s head coach, knows Lawson has the mental equipment to coach. It was revealed when I asked him: “Would you like to have JaJuan for a couple more years?”

“I’d like to have JaJuan for 10 more years,” Fleming said. “It says something about his personality when he was voted team captain. Football players can be volatile and JaJuan has a calming presence. And he’s a quick study on the field.”

And then I dropped the qualifier, the one that reads, “He’s only 6 feet and some people think he might be suited to play defensive back at the next level.”

“Coaches always are enamored by size,” Fleming said. “You know, the prototypical quarterback. But JaJuan is a talented quarterback. That’s his position.”

One need only look at two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL to know a prototype is a stereotype — Seattle’s Russell Wilson and New Orleans’ Drew Brees, two 6-footers.

“Ever since I was a sophomore in high school I’ve been compared to Russell Wilson,” said Lawson, at 6 feet with 203 pounds filling out a muscled frame. “I don’t think it’s size as much as leadership a quarterback gives.”

If there was ever a moment Lawson felt like a leader, when all the chess pieces on the field were properly arranged, when the game was his to orchestrate, it was that third game of the season, when he threw for 351 yards and four touchdowns against Connecticut.

“Anyone who was watching me play that day,” he said, “they would have seen the joy on my face. I was grinning ear to ear.”

It was the middle of the second quarter, to be exact, in which Lawson felt he elevated himself and his team to that higher plane all athletes search for, when everything slows down and nothing is an obstacle.

That’s what the NFLPA saw. That’s why the invitation. That’s why the term “long shot” doesn’t phase JaJuan Lawson. Why should it? Obstacles merely delay the inevitable. In the meantime, Lawson can answer his critics by paraphrasing a classic line from the movie “Casablanca.”

“We’ll always have Connecticut.”

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