Sherwood (Ore.) High senior running back Keegan Lawrence arrived at school puffy-eyed and quiet on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, less than 24 hours after his team lost a 21-20 overtime heartbreaker in the Oregon 5A state title game.
PHOTOS: Keegan's award presentation
Lawrence, though, refused to let the stunning loss distract him from the commitment he made to lead the remodel of Sherwood’s special needs classroom.
He had recruited teammates to help remove tables, chairs and couches from the room before they cleaned and painted it. For nine hours, they worked.
Lawrence’s selflessness is being recognized by USA TODAY High School Sports and the Army National Guard with the Inspiration Award, presented to 15 student-athletes across the nation who go above and beyond.
Last fall, Lawrence could often be found during his free periods spending time with special needs students.
Cathryn Smith, an instructional assistant at Sherwood, quietly observed, pleasantly taken aback by Lawrence’s playful routine during his free period. Lawrence was an anomaly in her eyes. But he welcomed the opportunity to engage.
“He was really drawn to my students,” Smith said. “He enjoyed being with them as much as they liked seeing him.”
Lawrence, who grew up around a cousin who has autism, has always felt a connection with special needs individuals.
So when Smith approached Lawrence about helping to remodel the special needs classroom at Sherwood, he immediately accepted the challenge. And he recruited his coaches, teammates and their families.
Smith proposed the service project amid the playoffs last season. Lawrence and his father, Greg, who is Sherwood’s football coach, solicited the team and parents for monetary donations for new furniture, books, games and art supplies.
The hard work paid off when Lawrence watched the reveal of the new classroom as he accompanied one special needs student in a wheelchair. Lawrence said little, but grinned widely as the students reacted excitedly and with gratitude.
“It made me happy that what we did as a team made them feel joy,” Lawrence said.
Sherwood running backs coach Mark Gribble said young athletes idolize Lawrence, which is why he often turns tohim to give motivational talks at elementary and middle schools.
Having been raised around the Sherwood High football team — he was a water boy for many years before serving as a ball boy — Lawrence understands the influence he’s capable of instilling in young players. Just as high school players had an impact on him growing up, he hopes to do the same.
“Keegan is the epitome of selflessness,” Gribble said. “I wish I had a player like him every year. He’s one of a kind.”
Gribble calls on Lawrence to address youth players about peer pressure and bullying. It hits close to Lawrence. He hasn’t forgotten the time he came home from school in first grade crying to his mother, Kathi, because he was upset that his friend picked on a special needs student. The next day, he defended the student.
Lawrence doesn’t think twice about putting his life on hold so that he can help coach middle school players.After practices, he volunteers with youth, which often keeps him up until midnight to do his homework. And he still manages to maintain a 3.8 grade-point average.
“I take time for myself when I’m sleeping,” he said. “I’ve been given a lot from the community so giving back is really important.”