It's the day before the Bills home game against the Titans. Shaq Lawson is on a plane ready to head back to Buffalo from South Carolina. He got permission from head coach Sean McDermott to attend memorial services for his good friend and former Clemson teammate C.J. Fuller, who died unexpectedly the previous Wednesday. Lawson's heart is heavy, but he's thinking about what he missed at the Saturday morning practice session. Before takeoff he texts Jerry Hughes for updates.
"He flew out Friday and came back Saturday and caught the night meetings and was still plugged into the game plan," said Hughes. "He's flying back and texting us and asking questions about what he missed. It's great to know that he's locked in."
Forced to watch last year's AFC Wild Card game from his couch due to a season-ending injury, Lawson resolved to be a more dedicated and committed player. One whose daily work ethic would have him making a difference in games rather than being a spectator.
In the 2018 offseason the defensive lineman got in the best shape of his life. He got his body fat percentage to an all-time low and dropped 15 pounds before reporting to training camp. A strong preseason followed.
His renewed commitment to the sport he loves and the teammates and coaches he respects reached critical mass last week.
In an effort to honor a friend while not interrupting his preparation for the Titans, Lawson's professionalism reached a new level.
"I just knew I had to be there for both sides. I know I couldn't let my team down Sunday," said Lawson. "If I had an option to do both I was going to make it work. So I went down there Saturday to see the family and I had a chance to play the game too, and both sides would understand where I was coming from. I sat down and talked to my coaches to make sure I could do both."
Lawson's coaches also sat him down three weeks ago and asked him to move inside and play more defensive tackle in the penetrating three-technique position. The defensive end didn't blink.
"It just gave me more that I can learn from and put me in better positions to make plays," Lawson said. "Me lining up as a three technique I have a big advantage because I'm a lot faster than (the offensive linemen). They're just trying to put me in position to make plays. It's a lot more thinking, but I've adjusted to it quick. At the end of the day stay in your gap and create a new line of scrimmage."
His first game in that role came against the Packers. Lawson registered three tackles including one for loss. Against Tennessee, he had an even greater impact on the game with a key forced fumble in the third quarter that led to a Bills field goal in their one-point win.
"He's done everything and anything that we've asked at this point," said McDermott. "I'm real proud of Shaq as a young man. He went through a tough week last week with a loss of a good friend of his, and I thought the way he handled that, and the way his teammates embraced him and loved and cared for him during those moments were important. I thought he did a nice job of staying focused on the task at hand and had a good performance overall. So you see him play on the outside, he's played on the inside, and that's really a credit to Shaq and his development."
McDermott was so appreciative of Lawson's efforts and dedication that the defensive lineman earned a game ball.
"It felt great, but it's still a long season," said Lawson with an eye toward the 11 games of the regular season that remain. "I just want to continue to do those things and keep doing whatever the coaches ask me to do. I want to keep getting better. I don't want to stay the same, just elevate every week."
Lawson's adoption of McDermott's daily growth mindset has finally taken hold of the former first-round pick.
The first year under McDermott was a transition year for Lawson. Going from the laid back and relaxed atmosphere under former head coach Rex Ryan, to the disciplined, nose-to-the-grindstone approach of McDermott was an adjustment. Not to mention the uneasiness any holdover player has about not being one of the players brought to the roster by the new regime.
But Lawson came around to appreciate the benefits of McDermott's philosophy of achieving sustained success and feels he's proven himself to the coaching staff that inherited him.
"I actually met with (GM Brandon) Beane and McDermott when they were in Carolina when I was coming out," Lawson said. "It's a lot different. You don't know if you're one of their own in the beginning. I just took it a day at a time and got better day after day and controlling what I can control."
Lawson's daily commitment has been noticed by some of his harder working teammates.
"Shaq has come a long way, leaps and bounds," said Hughes. "Just the way he approaches the game day in and day out. I can see it on a daily basis even back in the spring. He's one of the first couple of guys in the building and it's not because he's in the training room because he's hurt, but to prevent injury. That was something we hadn't seen from Shaq before.
"To see him grow up in his third year, take those steps to use those preventative measures we have here. Then you see him on the football field. His motor, his relentless effort in getting to the ball. He's an athlete and I tell him this all the time. There isn't much he can't do on the football field and he's starting to believe it."
Lawson still thinks about his former college teammate and friend. He reminds himself that Fuller is in a better place now, but the shock of his passing is still sticks with him.
"I'm just taking it a day at a time. It's still shocking," he said. "I still can't believe it. It's getting a little easier compared to this time last week. He's up there with the most high. That helps me to know that. I'm really happy about that and getting the chance to talk to his family."
Lawson flew back down to South Carolina this past Sunday night after the game. He had his mother represent him as Fuller's funeral earlier in the day. But there were some of C.J.'s belongings that the Fuller family knew C.J. would want Lawson to have. He spent some more time with the Fuller family on Monday.
He reviewed corrections from the game film on the plane ride back to Buffalo Tuesday having missed Monday's meetings. By Wednesday he was back up to speed with his coaches and teammates.
"It's about being more of a pro," he said. "Just continue to get better and finish the season. Each week I've got to get better at something. Try something new to get better and get my whole game developed and each week make a big play, a splash play. This is the part of the season when your body starts getting tired, so I want to stay on top of that too."
Lawson's dedication to daily improvement has earned him more respect from his teammates and coaches than his status as a former first-round pick ever could. In a locker room full of grinders, Lawson has become one of them and his playing career is trending up because of it.
"It's fun having Shaq around just because you know what kind of energy he has," said Hughes. "He enjoys the game and he makes our room a lot of fun just because of his personality. Whenever he gets the opportunity to break down our huddle he talks about family. He had to handle the death of a close friend and for him to miss just a handful of hours was impressive. It's just great to see him here with us having fun. We were praying for him and we know he's going to be a difference maker for us."