Burton Lawless probably fits under that give him lemons and he’ll make lemonade category because life sure tossed a whole bushel of lemons his way back on May 7, 1982. An All-American at Florida in 1974 and a starter at guard for three Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl teams, Lawless was in the prime of his NFL career when a farming accident left him paralyzed from the neck down for 17 days.
In a Waco, Texas Hospital with his head in tongs and a bruised spinal cord, Lawless remembers thinking that his mind was telling his body to move but his body wasn’t responding. At that moment, life as he knew it ceased to exist but rather than dwell on the negatives he began thinking about all the things he really did have.
“It’s a pretty hairy experience you go through when your mind is still very active but your body doesn’t respond but then you start thinking about the things you really do have,” Lawless said from his home in Waco Saturday afternoon. “I mean, I lost football, but what I knew all along that wouldn’t last forever.”
So there he was, sitting in a hospital, unable to move his arms or even wiggle his toes, already plotting out what came next. Maybe football came to an end sooner than he expected, but he had always prepared for this moment.
He says that’s why you have faith.
“First off, I believe with all my heart that Jesus Christ died for me and he’s my Lord and Savior,” Lawless said. “If you trust and if you have faith, then you have to know that there is a plan for your life and that keeps everything in perspective. And really, football, when you get right down to it, is irrelevant as far as real life is concerned.”
After 17 days, he began to have movement again and by the time he left the Waco hospital to do rehab in Dallas, he could sit up for perhaps 30 seconds at a time. When he left the rehab center in Dallas, he could walk again.
Football was over but life wasn’t.
“I was very blessed to have played football on three Super Bowl teams with some of the greatest players in pro football history like Roger Staubach and Lee Roy Jordan and Randy White and one of the greatest coaches ever in Tom Landry,” Lawless said. “You can wonder what if but you’ll never really know what would have happened. I was blessed and I had a choice that I made and that is to try to be a blessing for others. You want my life story, I guess that’s it. I’m not perfect but I sure do try, and every day I try my best to do something that blesses others.”
Little did he know when he sustained the injury that it would open the door for the new chapter in his life.
He came back to Waco, got married and built a life for himself. Her roots were in Texas – she’s a Baylor grad – so that’s where they became pillars in the community. As part of his decision to be a blessing to others, Lawless became heavily involved in faith-based groups such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Legacy Outfitters and charitable organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and Ronald McDonald House.
Legacy Outfitters is particularly dear to his heart. It’s a non-denominational organization designed to help men become the true leaders of their family.
“We hunt and fish and spend time in the outdoors,” Lawless said. “It’s about building relationships and helping men leave a good legacy of being a good father and a better husband. What’s amazing is how it’s blessed me. I think I’ve gotten far more out of it than I’ve ever given.”
* * *
From Punta Gorda, Lawless was part of Doug Dickey’s 1971 recruiting class that included future Gator greats Ralph Ortega, Glen Cameron, Randy Talbott, Lee McGriff, Sammy Green and Jimmy Dubose. They never won the Southeastern Conference championship although they did make it to the Sugar Bowl in 1974, where they lost to Nebraska, 13-10.
“Coming to school at Florida is one of the best decisions I ever made,” Lawless remembers. “I had fun, learned a lot about life, made great friends and I went to a great school. I played football with a great bunch of guys that I’ve been able to stay in contact with over the years. I look back on that time and realize just how fortunate I was to be able to play college football at a school like Florida and come away with friends for life. Plus, I got to play pro football. I think back and realize I came a long way from a small town kid from Punta Gorda to play college football at Florida and then play on three Super Bowl teams and win a Super Bowl ring with the Dallas Cowboys.”
Lawless made All-SEC in 1973 and 1974, All-American in 1974 when he played at a whopping 253 pounds.
“That’s as big as I ever was,” Lawless said. “I played at 250 when I was starting at guard with the Cowboys. I played with Randy White, one of the greatest defensive linemen in the history of pro football. I’m pretty sure he never weighed more than 260 at any time in his career.”
The game has changed since his career ended. Rare is the under 300-pound offensive lineman that is successful whether in college or the pros. Players are bigger, stronger and faster than they’ve ever been but no matter how the athletes change physically, Lawless knows that one thing remains the same and that is a message he tries to convey when speaking to kids who are trying to earn a college football scholarship.
“I went to the University of Florida and it was not a stepping stone to the NFL,” Lawless said. “I was a small town kid from South Florida, scared to death, dreaming about maybe being good enough to play for the Gators and certainly not thinking about pro ball. I was fortunate. I knew there was something more than football and that’s what I try to tell kids. Do the best that you can in whatever you do. If it’s intended for you to go on to the pros, then you will, but be prepared. Life is going to go on long after football comes to an end."
EDITOR’S NOTE: Thanks to a partnership between Gator Bait and the Florida Player’s Network, this will be an ongoing series of stories about former Gators and where they are now.