DECATUR — It didn't take AJ Lawson long to know exactly where he wanted to spend his four collegiate years.
On the second day of an official visit to the University of Iowa, on June 22, Lawson, a MacArthur senior, gave Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz a verbal commitment to play at Iowa. It just made too much sense for Lawson, who plays defensive back and receiver for MacArthur.
“I liked the atmosphere, the family atmosphere," Lawson said. "Everything felt like love. I felt like it was home for me."
Lawson is a three-star recruit and the first MacArthur player to commit to play at a Big Ten program since Marques Wilkins committed to the University of Illinois in 2005. Lawson is rated the No. 29 player in the state, according to 247Sports, and will have the opportunity to play either receiver or defensive back for the Hawkeyes.
That flexibility mattered to Lawson.
“I was like, ‘Man, you’re giving me the leeway to do what I’m doing in high school and continue it at the college level,'" Lawson said.
Lawson met Ferentz for the first time in person during his official visit, and gave his commitment in the Iowa head coach's office. Of course, Lawson was nervous to give his commitment. On the way to Iowa City, he liked the Hawkeyes, but his recruitment was wide open. He had offers from Minnesota, Illinois State, Ball State, Eastern Kentucky, Kent State, Toledo and Western Michigan.
Inside Ferentz's office sat Ferentz, Lawson and Lawson's father, Al Lawson Sr. It was a small bunch, but nearly smaller. Lawson Sr. had actually left to send money to his special needs daughter for a weekly skating trip, but was able to return to the coach's office for a face-to-face meeting. Lawson Sr. had his own recruiting process as a player that included national powerhouses before committing to Millikin. He said everything about it was "classy and patient."
"It's amazing and I'm so grateful to the Lord up above," Lawson Sr. said, "and I'm glad he has the wonderful coaches around him to enable him to do the things he's doing."
At one point, the Lawsons looked at each other. They knew what was next, and the non-verbal communication between the two made it clear. In fact, Lawson Sr. wasn't even sure Lawson Jr. had an offer on the way to the trip before Ferentz reiterated that the offer was, in fact, on the table.
Lawson Jr. committed.
"The love that they had there ... Iowa doesn't have a professional team so they put everything in (the University of Iowa) with 69,000 people and sold out every game," Lawson Sr. said. "You wouldn't have been able to tell it the way they treated us. They treated us with love, kindness, caring, support and constantly talked to us."
The car ride home was electric. Lawson Sr. was on the phone, calling everyone he could think of to share the news. Lawson Jr. posted his commitment on Twitter, which has racked up 116 retweets and more than 1,000 likes.
He'll be playing at Kinnick Stadium, which holds more than 70,000 fans — or as the coaching staff pointed out, nearly the entirety of Decatur. Lawson Jr. will play his senior year as a Big Ten football commit, something younger fans can look up to.
“It really hasn’t sunk in yet," Lawson Jr. said. "On the way home from Iowa, my dad was calling everybody and telling them that AJ just committed to Iowa to be a Hakweye. I was thinking in my head like, ‘Man, I’m really blessed.’ Not a lot of people get the opportunity."
Lawson Jr. is relieved to be able to go back to football with the pressure of recruiting off of his shoulders. He'll be a well-known piece of the puzzle for MacArthur head coach Derek Spates as the Generals look to put together another winning season that leads to the postseason.
He was a first-team all-Macon County selection last year on defense and led MacArthur in both receiving and interceptions, returning two of his five picks for touchdowns.
"It's huge because it’s about AJ and his family first," Spates said. "I’m in the business of building better men and for him to be able to go to the University of Iowa and get a degree and play some great football is just part of it. But in the long run it makes AJ a better person and helps his family out.
"As far as the program is concerned it gives the guys a chance to see what hard work does and if I have the talent, the size and the speed I can go play football at a place like Iowa, too. It opens a pipeline between MacArthur to Iowa. "
Reporter Matthew Flaten contributed to this story.