Lawrence Pete never played the game of football for the accolades, awards or applause. In fact, he played it just so he could lift weights.
“I was a weightlifter who happened to play football. Football was a byproduct of me lifting weights,” Pete said. “In high school, we had a rule that whatever sport was in season you had access to the weight room. So I participated in all those sports just so I could lift weights.”
Pete enjoyed the challenge weightlifting presented. “I like the conflict of man vs. weights. You always have an opportunity to better your previous best. You create the challenge even if it’s just five pounds more. You get to see your body develop.”
But Pete’s dedication to the weight room translated to the football field, and college recruiters began to notice his physical prowess. He became a highly recruited prospect, even though he didn’t make any all-city or all-state lists. Teams such as Nebraska, Arkansas and Tennessee came calling on the weightlifter who just happened to play football.
Pete played multiple positions for his team at Wichita (Kan.) South High, including fullback, tight end, offensive guard, linebacker and nose guard…wherever they needed him. That was the main reason voters for the all-city and all-state teams overlooked him; they found it hard to vote him at one position.
“My favorite position was nose guard,” Pete said. “I have always been a big guy and anchor in the middle. I was a nose guard that liked to get to the ball. I didn’t like just sitting there and take double-teams allowing the linebackers to make the tackles.”
At that time, Nebraska was one of the top football programs in the country. According to Pete, Nebraska was close enough, but far enough away. They graduated 92 percent of their athletes and their football team was always at the top. “It was the best of both worlds,” Pete said.
But Tennessee and Reggie White posed a threat to the Huskers. White, who went on to became an All-American and perennial All-Pro in the NFL, hosted Pete on his recruiting visit. White was someone Pete looked up to, but it wasn’t enough to pull him away from the Midwest.
Nebraska at that time also was known for its strength and conditioning program with Boyd Epley, another key selling point for Pete.
“To be able to come in and work with Boyd, who started the strength and conditioning program, was something special. You get the best of everything at Nebraska, when it comes to athletics, academics, strength and conditioning, training table,” Pete said. “You talk about a 360 culture in the development of all facets of your life. Then you have a mentor in Coach (Tom) Osborne who not just talks the talk but walks the walk. He teaches you things that are beyond the fourth quarter. It is a carryover to the game of life.”
So Pete found everything he needed to succeed at Nebraska in 1984. All he needed now was to get to work and make a name for himself.
“I already was pretty strong coming in as a freshman. I benched 450 pounds and did 900 on the hip sled. So I worked on the cardiovascular side of it while keeping my strength. I wanted to lose weight, eat properly.”
Pete weighed 300 pounds when he arrived at NU so he needed to trim some fat. He was a powerlifter and cardiovascular work wasn’t a part of his routine, so he had to learn that part of it.
“At Nebraska, you have to strike a balance, you had to be agile, fast, strong and look the part. You just couldn’t be big and strong and plug the middle,” Pete said.
Pete’s college roommate was fellow freshman Neil Smith. Smith, who later became an All-American and the No. 2 overall pick in the 1988 NFL draft, was a little-known raw recruit who was 6-5, but weighed only 208 pounds.
“Neil would order pizza at night, and eat peanut butter sandwiches after dinner from the training table. But he was a fast-food guy and ran the streets in New Orleans. He never worked out before, but he had the genetics. His dad was 6-5, 280, and his mom was 6-0 and 200 pounds,” Pete said.
“He got here and got some structure and when he started to work out, he just took off. He followed my lead on the weights. We went above and beyond and did extra stuff like push-ups in our room and riding bikes to give us a slight edge. We did things that no one else would see.”
Smith was from New Orleans, so he knew some Cajun and French words. Pete also was familiar with them. The name “Pete” is French and was originally pronounced “Pa-Te”. Pete’s grandmother was Jamaican French, while his grandfather was Canadian French.
“Neil and I would always say the word “lagniappe,” which means “a little bit extra” in French Cajun,” Pete said. “We were the only ones that knew what that meant, so we would keep saying it to each other to push and press us.”
Another important factor in getting Pete acclimated at NU was his position mentor. Ken Graeber was a senior and starting middle guard for the Huskers, and he immediately gravitated toward Pete.
“Ken wrapped his arm around me and said, “You know the difference between me and you? I know the plays, you don’t. Because if you knew them, I wouldn’t be playing. You are bigger, stronger and faster, but you don’t know the plays.’ He said, ‘I’ll help you because it will help the team, and it won’t hurt me because I will be gone next year.’”
Pete played on the freshman team, sharing the tackle lead with Smith, but suited up for the varsity and saw action in one game. Then he redshirted as a sophomore in 1985.
In 1986 he won the Nebraska Lifter of the Year Award. His 500-pound bench press was a tremendous feat, but he still was vying for playing time behind All-American Danny Noonan.
Pete started to come on as a junior in 1987, but he really took off during his senior year, earning first-team All-Big Eight honors as a middle guard. The 6-1, 270-pounder started 10 games that year, recording 55 tackles, including seven for loss, for a Blackshirt unit that led the league in total, rushing and passing defense.
His best performances came in the last two games of the season. Against Colorado, he led the team in tackles with 10, including one sack, and then against Oklahoma he was named the player of the game, finishing with nine tackles (including a sack), helping NU win the Big Eight title.
But his final season almost didn’t happen. If you look in the 1988 Nebraska Football Media Guide, Pete is nowhere to be found.
That was because he left the football team in the spring. His two best friends, Neil Smith and Lee Jones, were gone, and he had a new son. Coach Charlie McBride knew what was going on, so he told Pete to take some time off, and that the Huskers would welcome him back when he was ready.
“I thought it was time for me to be a dad,” Pete explained. “But I didn’t leave Lincoln. I just loaded up on my credit hours and tried to finish school and graduate.”
Fortunately for Pete and Nebraska, he was able to get some things worked out and was able to take care of his son, so he made the decision to come back for football.
After his senior season, Pete was a projected to be a mid-to-late NFL draft prospect in 1989. The way he performed at the end of the year, along with his strength, helped him land in the fifth round as the 115th pick, to the Detroit Lions.
“When I got drafted, I talked to Detroit’s defensive line coach Lamar Leachman on the phone. Lamar told me that I needed to put on some weight and get up to 300 pounds. I wondered how I was going to get up to 300. I reported to camp and I was 275. It took me two years to get up to that weight. I ate a lot to get up to 300, and even got as high as 325. But towards the end of my career I started dieting and got down to 250, and was still the strongest guy on the team.”
Pete played five years for the Lions, almost making it to the Super Bowl. In 1991 they were in the NFC Championship game. His mother called him and asked how he felt being 60 minutes from the Super Bowl. He told her he got more enjoyment playing intramural basketball in the park than he did thinking about playing in the Super Bowl.
“If they could measure how much heart and love you have for the game, I wouldn’t be playing. Football chose me, I wasn’t a football player. You come to my home, I have nothing football-related up; it is all boxed up,” Pete said.
After five seasons (1989-1993) with the Lions, Pete, who came from a single-parent home with 18 brothers and sisters, felt he had accomplished his goals and was ready to hang up his cleats for good.
“I walked away. I just wanted to help my family and myself financially, get my pension and then get out,” Pete said. “Professional football gave me a great financial foundation and raised my mother up and out of poverty. One of the first things I did was give my mother keys to her house debt-free. Then I was able to help out my brother and sisters financially, then myself.”
But Detroit wasn’t too happy about it. Pete called the general manager, and told him that he was leaving. “I said I helped my brothers and sisters out, bought and paid my mom’s and my house in full. I also told him that I was a part of the Reggie White free agency settlement ‘Plan B,’ so he had to pay me till October of 1999. That was another reason that helped me retire fast.”
Pete has a successful life outside the game of football. He used football to get him where he wanted to go in life, and he also was able to help his family. That was all he wanted to accomplish by playing the sport.
“That’s why you see athletes who have their head on straight have success in corporate America, because they understand teamwork and commitment and working with a diverse group of people with one common goal, and to be productive and win,” Pete said. “My attitude in football, and now in corporate America, is I cannot do what everyone else is doing. Then everyone is getting better at the same pace. I like to do something that will give me an edge.”
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Shane Gilster is the Editor of Big Red Report Magazine. His stories focus mainly on catching up with former Huskers and examining Nebraska athletic history.