DECATUR — AJ Lawson put his head down and looked at the green grass of an empty MacArthur football field.
He was searching for the exact words he wanted, an answer for why being a role model for Decatur youth means more to him than his football recruiting, which is approaching a high speed.
Lawson, a defensive back and receiver who is preparing for his senior year on the Generals' football team, has a brother who is a seventh grader at Stephen Decatur and is surrounded by friends who look up to AJ. Most days, Lawson grabs a basketball and goes to a local park to help his little brother and his friends with their development. Giving back matters to him because he knows how fast football can slip away.
“Being a Division I football player is big, but helping the kids in my community is also big," Lawson said. "Where we come from, people are limited to different things. I want all the kids coming up to feel like they’ve got an opportunity. It’s more than just the streets out here. It’s more than just that. They can go to college and go to school."
On Jan. 4, Lawson put out a tweet that thanked the coaching staff at Kent State for offering him his first Division I football scholarship. Since then, they've rolled in, and MacArthur coach Derek Spates and Lawson know the process is still in its infant stages. He's a 3-star recruit by 247Sports and holds offers from Ball State, Eastern Kentucky, Illinois State, Kent State, Toledo, Western Michigan and Bowling Green.
“I was very excited when I got my first offer," Lawson said. "I couldn’t believe it. It was unbelievable. I was like, I really got a Division I offer."
Lawson identified early that he wanted to be the next in what has been a long line of Division I football players to have come through MacArthur during Spates' tenure. His dad, Al Lawson Sr., was also a standout football player who was heavily recruited out of high school, turning down major college programs to play at Millikin. Lawson was teammates with the Brummett twins, Amir and Armon, who went through their own recruiting process. He watched, learned and talked to coaches waiting for his turn to be moved into the spotlight.
"I started putting in extra work because I was like: I want to be the next big thing coming out of MacArthur High School," he said of his earlier high school years.
Most schools see him as a defensive back and are drawn to his speed, athleticism, quick hips and 6-foot-2, rangy frame. 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.
“The one thing about AJ is he has the height and the length that these colleges covet," Spates said. "Then you have the athleticism and speed to go along with it, you jump off the charts and everybody starts to identify and recognize that guy.
“With him, he has ‘it.’ He has the size that everybody is looking for in today’s spread football world to cover big receivers."
Lawson is soaking up the process. He talks to a new coach seemingly by the day, but is staying grounded. He knows the offers can be yanked away as fast as they've flown to him. Lawson sees the bigger picture, the way that kids recognize him and the importance of carrying himself in the classroom and in the community like he does each Friday night on a football field.
“While you play here at MacArthur, you’re playing for the past and the guys who were here before you; for the present, of course, and the guys who are here with you; but you’re playing in the future because you never know what kid is on the track playing catch down here and saying, ‘I want to be like 1 (Lawson’s number) or 21 (teammate Jeffery Wells’ number)," Spates said.
“You want to be successful athletically, but you also want to have great character and not be out in the streets doing stuff or in school doing negative stuff. Those kids know what’s expected of you when you get here and know what you have to do when you get the opportunities these guys are given."