CHAPEL HILL — Jake Lawler wasn’t planning this.
He hadn’t given it much thought and didn’t even know he could graduate until August, then spent the past two months on the fence about his future.
“Toward mid-October, I felt I had really given the game all I had,” he said. “And as much as I love football … I just felt like I need to do what’s best for me to kind of get a head start on the life that I want to live, for the rest of my life.”
Lawler’s got just a little more to give the game on Saturday as North Carolina meets N.C. State, and with a win, the Tar Heels would move on to a bowl game for the first time since 2016, serving as the final chapter in his football career, allowing him to graduate and pursue his dreams in Hollywood.
Lawler wasn’t planning that, either.
None of it; not the graduation, the film career, or the bowl game.
At this time last year, there was no hope of ever finding the life that he wanted to live.
“By then, I had just resigned all hope and really up until that point, I thought about killing myself every day,” Lawler said.
As the Carolina football program and fanbase was energized by the return of Mack Brown, Lawler reached rock bottom.
“I was really in a place then that I shouldn’t have been,” he said. “Being in that pit of despair really closes your eyes off to everything looking forward and looking behind. I really wasn’t thinking about anything; I was just thinking about making it to the next day, possibly.”
One More Day
Lawler, a 6-4, 245-pound linebacker, kept pushing through “One more day,” for months, fueled by purpose in writing a short story that would later become adapted into his first screenplay.
But he knew himself well enough that he knew that ultimately losing that purpose — no matter how proud he was of the story — would be crushing.
“I was terrified that if I finished, I would be back in that pit, alone and desperate,” he wrote.
That’s how he found himself on top of a parking deck last January, the closest he’d ever been to following through with the unwelcome thoughts that barged into his mind and refused to leave.
“I tried to jump off Craige Deck, but I didn’t,” he said.
His roommate, Michael Carter, was one of the first to find out about the secret that Lawler had hidden for eight years when he went for a walk one afternoon and didn’t come back until near midnight.
The long walks alone had become frequent, with Lawler disappearing for hours at a time without notice.
“I was like, ‘Dang bro, Chapel Hill isn’t that big,’” Carter said. “I was like, ‘You OK, bro?’ That’s when he first told me.”
Carter threatened to tell Lawler’s parents before thinking better of it, realizing that was his own story to tell.
Lawler eventually spoke up and told his family he’d been struggling and shared his story with friends, too.
Little did Brown, and his wife, Sally know, but they too had become key figures in Lawler’s decision to seek help and pursue his dreams of becoming a screenwriter.
“Even with him not knowing, that him and his wife, Miss Sally, played an integral role in helping me develop and helping me get over that hump,” Lawler said. “Them, with a few close friends really helped me realize that is not the path I should be on. I should be getting help.”
Change is Good
Lawler is thankful that Larry Fedora offered him a scholarship and appreciates their relationship, but something was different with Brown in charge of the program.
“I think I just needed something new, I think I needed something different,” he said. “Change, whether we like it or not, will always end up being for the better if we make it for the better. I decided to embrace it and this staff has been great.”
In his first meeting with Brown, he spoke with the coach for a while about a number of topics — none of them being football.
During one official visit that Lawler was a part of, he sat with strength coach Brian Hess and the Browns, talking for 40 minutes.
“Every time we’ve gotten a chance to talk, whether it be at lunch or a few minutes here or there before meetings, I think after the spring, that’s when I kind of realized that was someone that really wanted to help me and help me grow outside of the sport,” Lawler said.
During the spring, Lawler poured himself whole-heartedly into his writing dreams, having since completed three screenplays that are being reviewed by contacts in Los Angeles.
“When I kind of realized I had something to live for, I kind of started to put that on the page,” he said.
At this point Lawler’s most famous writing is the piece he published on his blog on June 6, 2018, detailing the depression he’d been battling since childhood, spurred by the ridicule he’d received from being mixed.
The story is raw.
It details his first attempt at suicide in Nov. 2015, when he sat in a shed with a belt, prepared to take his own life. It discusses the return of depression when he first arrived at Carolina in Oct. 2017 – a time when no one noticed a thing.
“We would go to parties and you couldn’t tell,” Carter said. “Jake was in the middle of the dance floor hittin’ them folks. You could never tell because he was usually the life of the party.”
Lawler’s story goes on to describe how writing has helped save his life, and how in the days after the Craige Deck incident, he began to find light at the end of the tunnel.
Before he published it to the world, though, he stood in front of his Tar Heel teammates and told his own story.
“The best thing to me that's happened this year is Jake Lawler coming out, making sure he's okay, him growing and helping others,” Brown said. “Of all the things that's happened, that's why Sally and I came back is to be around these young guys and help in a minute way, help somebody improve their life, and Jake's done that.”
Courage in Vulnerability
No one could have imagined what happened next, as Lawler’s story went viral. The tweets and messages came from near and far, while others reached out to him via email to share their own struggles.
One day leaving class, a professor pulled Lawler aside to tell him that he’d experienced similar feelings and he appreciated his courage in coming out of the shadows.
Inside the locker room?
“When Jake came out and told the team, the team took him in with open arms and it’s been really touching to see the team respond because men have a weird masculine complex sometimes,” Carter said. “I think we have a team that’s really good at talking about what’s on their minds.”
Athletes from other teams at Carolina have been particularly willing to reach out, and it’s a role Lawler doesn’t mind taking on.
“It’s been phenomenal,” he said. “I think there’s this perception that, not just in athletics, but sort of in life in general that strength is withholding your vulnerability and I don’t think that’s true. I think strength is having the courage to be vulnerable, and since then, I think the outreach has been great.”
A Bright Light
Once nearly swallowed by darkness, Lawler has become one of the brightest points of light on the Carolina team.
“Every Sunday, Jake will come by and he'll fist bump me and say, ‘You okay? You all right?’ And I think, ‘Here's Jake picking me up and it has,’” Brown said.
Senior Aaron Crawford smiled as he looked back on getting to know Lawler.
“He’s an intellectual person; he’s always throwing out big words that people have to look up and things like that,” he said. “He does a lot outside of football … (he’s) put himself in position to do whatever he wants when he’s done with the sport.”
With that day quickly approaching, Lawler has gone to work on setting up the next chapter. He’s been on the phone several times daily over the past few weeks in search of career opportunities, and he’ll head west as soon as he’s wrapped up his business in Chapel Hill.
One year after Brown’s arrival, Lawler has big plans, due in part to the man that walked into his life by chance.
“Mack Brown has probably been the most important figure in my life up to this point outside of my parents,” Lawler said. “I think that Coach Brown has been integral to my development as a man … him showing his support when I released my piece was phenomenal. It really opened my eyes to the prospect of a future.”
There’s not a doubt in Brown’s mind that it’ll be a bright one.
“I don't like Jake Lawler; I love him,” Brown said. “He's one of the neatest young men I've ever seen. He's going to be a big-time producer and movie producer in my estimation.”