MILTON, Ga. – Just over 32 miles northeast of the pop and hum of Atlanta’s vibrant nightlife, to the side of Birmingham Highway, sits Milton High School.
At 6 a.m., the pale moonlight hovers over the vacant parking.
The fog is thick. Really thick; making the maze of expensive houses and winding, hilly roads that is Milton, Ga., a headache of a commute.
Even on campus, you’d have to know where the weight room is in order to find it.
Carl Lawson knows.
LIVE: Signing Day Ticker
He appears suddenly through the thick fog; a 6-foot-3, 247-pound ball of muscle wearing all black, like something straight out of a Stephen King novel.
His emergence is eerily ironic since it’s National Signing Day, where mystery and suspense typically reign supreme; especially for a player such as Lawson, a defensive end who is ranked as the No. 2 player overall in the ESPN 150.
But on this chilly February morning it’s clear that Lawson is a rock of certainty, which allows him to be completely relaxed.
“Get a load of this kid’s coat,” Milton defensive coordinator Pete Deweese jokes. “I mean is that a Members Only jacket or what?”
Lawson laughs and makes his way into the weight room with the rest of his teammates to undergo a grueling, hourlong workout before school.
Between sets, Lawson plays around and jokes; even breaks out in an impromptu farting contest or two.
Pressure? No chance.
“I got rid of all that pressure Sunday night,” Lawson says. “I wasn’t playing around.”
Lawson originally committed to Auburn last March, but the coaching change from Gene Chizik to Gus Malzahn left enough doubt in Lawson's mind that he decided to visit Tennessee and Clemson.
But after another visit to Auburn last weekend, Lawson said it reaffirmed to him why he chose the Tigers in the first place.
MORE: Signing Day Homepage
“I love that school,” Lawson says. “I knew that was where I’m supposed to be. So I posted on Twitter Sunday when I got back that I was done. It was Auburn.”
Still, in the high-stakes game of college football recruiting where signatures from elite players can ultimately mean championships and contract extensions, coaches pull out all the stops and go hard until the ink is dry on a National Letter of Intent.
It’s obvious that this was the case with some of the other schools courting Lawson since North Carolina and Clemson, despite Lawson’s second proclamation for the Tigers on Sunday, sent NLI’s over to Milton coach Howie DeCristofaro.
“North Carolina texted me and said ‘So we can expect Carl’s signature on our NLI this week, right,” DeCristofaro says. “The coaches are relentless.”
“I don’t know what they think,” Lawson says. “Like, what, I’m gonna make a mistake and sign the wrong scholarship? I don’t get it.”
Just then, Lawson gets word that it’s time for him to duck out early and hit the showers.
DeCristofaro told Auburn he’d fax the signed NLI around 7:30 a.m.
Lawson smiles; jumps up and grabs his Members Only jacket then starts to walk out.
“They’re about to know,” he says.
FINALLY, A SIGNATURE
Lawson is extremely uncomfortable for a few different reasons, none of which has anything to do with where he’ll sign.
For one, Lawson hates attention.
It physically makes his stomach turn in knots.
“I’m just not built for the whole ‘lights and camera’ type of stuff,” Lawson says. “Some guys like that stuff. That’s crazy to me. I handle it, but I don’t like it.”
He points at his red- and blue-striped tie, stares blankly, as if to say “C’mon man,” and adds, “See this … Isn’t me.”
Just then Deweese hands Lawson an orange Auburn cap. He throws on a pair of non-prescription, black, nerdy glasses to go with his black slacks and white shirt.
“My boy Peyton (Barber) told me he was wearing a pair of these glasses,” Lawson says. “I couldn’t let him outdo me up here.”
Barber, a running back, is also signing with the Tigers today. Their other teammate, linebacker Grant Smith, will walk on.
In all, 11 Milton football players will sign with Division-I colleges.
They all crowd together at the table on the stage for pictures.
Lawson sits in the center and pops out his phone. It’s just past 8 a.m., and he has yet to sign his NLI. Lawson knows the Auburn staff is on edge and decides to call Malzahn and Auburn assistant Rodney Garner to reassure them that the paperwork is on the way.
“They were a little scared, I think,” Lawson says with a laugh. “You know how it is; they can’t wait to lock you up.”
When the players clear out, Lawson’s father, Carl Sr., makes his way onto the stage and signs along with Lawson.
The two smile and pose for an onslaught of pictures from the Milton staff and parents, while a school administrator darts off to fax the signed NLI to the Auburn staff.
“Yeah get them their fax,” Lawson says with a laugh. “They’re going crazy.”
Lawson goes to loosen up his tie, but then it dawns on him that he’s got to do this all over again live on ESPNU in just 40 minutes.
“Well, what am I gonna sign?” Lawson asks.
“Most kids just sign a blank sheet of paper,” DeCristofaro says.
In no time the auditorium is filled with students; some in the loop, some hanging on to Lawson’s every word as he runs down his spiel of the recruiting process for the national audience.
“How sweet would it be if Carl goes to Auburn?” one girl asks her friend.
“Oh my God!” the friend replies. “That would be so sick!”
When Lawson “announces” that he is indeed joining the Tigers, the two girls leap from the wooden theatre-style chairs and scream.
“Oh my God!” one girl says. “We’re so getting tickets!”
A LOAD OFF
The bright flashes from the cameras are starting to make Lawson see that blinding white light that’s not really there.
He widens his eyes after posing for another picture, shakes his head and laughs.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve never taken this many pictures before in my life,” Lawson tells his teammate with a laugh as a line of more than 20 parents, students, teachers and administrators form to take a picture with Lawson.
It’s not just because he’s, for all intents and purposes, a celebrity.
They really like Lawson. Genuinely.
Lawson isn’t “Hollywood.”
He doesn’t carry himself as one would think a player in his position – constantly swarmed by media and fans – typically would. Never exalting himself higher than his peers.
“Oh no,” says Lawson, an Under Armour All-American who racked up 27 sacks and 78 tackles, 44 for loss, this season. “When you do that, no one else is up there with you. I like to be with people.”
Truth is, Lawson is actually kind of goofy; in a good way.
That’s why it makes sense that he stays in the auditorium for nearly two hours after signing his NLI to take pictures and give “those boring interviews.”
“They are just so redundant,” Lawson says. “I mean all reporters ask the same questions. I got tired of it so I just stopped answering my phone.”
Even DeCristofaro couldn’t get through when he called before the 6 a.m. workout.
“He called me right back and said ‘Sorry coach I didn’t see the number,” DeCristofaro says. “He said that he wanted to make sure it wasn’t someone with a bunch of questions. But hey, I understand. That’s why I’m happy it’s over. He can get back to just enjoying being a kid.”
Lawson’s mother, Mignon Clark, shared those sentiments.
She said that the recruiting process was more than stressful, “It was overwhelming.”
“By that last visit I was just done with it,” Clark says. “We just want what’s best for him and I know this process took its toll on him. That’s why we were excited Sunday when he ended it for good.”
“Once I saw that he’d made up his mind,” says Carl Sr., who played fullback on Georgia Tech’s 1990 national championship team. “I knew it was done. That’s how he is. If he’s really done, that’s it. He’s gonna be a much happier young man now.”
The change is evident, as soon as the last reporter bugs Lawson with a reworded version of the same cliché question.
“Thank God that part’s over,” he says.
Lawson has a childlike giddiness that’s refreshing.
He walks out of the auditorium into the hallway with Clark, who has checked him out of school for the day. He grabs her hand and swings it back and forth as the pair heads out of the building.
The family is off to lunch to celebrate Lawson’s signing, then to Lucky Strikes to bowl.
“Whew!” Lawson says. “All of this is finally over.”
Minutes pass and it’s clear a shade of unrest has clouded Lawson’s otherwise jovial mood.
He pauses suddenly. There’s something he wants to say. Something he wants people to know.
Then right in the midst of his obvious internal debate, Lawson lets it out.
“Ya know, it is over, but really it’s just a new type of stress,” Lawson says. “I’m competing against the best of the best now for college and the only way to succeed is to outwork the next man.”
Shouldn’t be a problem for a guy who hasn’t missed a workout in two years, according to DeCristofaro.
“I’m on a mission,” Lawson says. “This is the time to get on your grind. I know it’ll be a long road, but my goal is to be the best.”
And so the quest begins.
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter @JayJayUSATODAY.