DeMarcus Lawrence was just ‘five or six’ when he earned the nickname that is becoming the defining moniker of his NFL career. Ironically, the title was forged on a basketball court where, shunning the venue’s desired discipline, a young Lawrence decided to wrestle his older brother’s friends. So impressed were the bigger boys that they coined the handle, ‘Tank’.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Wherever Lawrence went thereafter, from dominating at linebacker in Little League to dominating at defensive end under the bright lights of Jerry World, the name went with him. “It was a childhood nickname that I got while outside wrestling,” he reveals, “It grew on me over the years while playing middle linebacker and fullback in Little League football. I was running people over and people were saying ‘Dang, man, Tank can really play’. It caught on from there and I’m stuck with it.”
The tag also adorns Lawrence’s own branded hoodie, with the slogan ‘Tank is coming for you’. It’s a line that likely sends shivers down the spines of opposing quarterbacks, who are quickly coming to the realisation that the Dallas Cowboys suddenly boast another superstar pass-rusher befitting a lineage that features Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones, to Charles Haley, to DeMarcus Ware.
For, in DeMarcus ‘Tank’ Lawrence, the Cowboys have a superstar armed with the confidence required to thrive as a key performer on ‘America’s Team.’ “I feel like I’m a star so I need to have a star on my helmet,” Lawrence adds.
Few would argue with that assessment. Lawrence is a growing defensive force who enjoyed a breakout season in 2017, ranking second in the league with 14.5 sacks while also registering four forced fumbles. He earned second-team All Pro honours and Pro Football Focus named him as their Breakout Player of the Year.
As he prepares for his fifth NFL season at the age of 26, Lawrence is in a position to dominate the league for years to come. That should especially be the case for a hardworking player growing in confidence with each passing season and who is willing to learn even more and who is determined to keep improving. “I had a good season in 2017 but I wanted to be great and that serves as motivation to me,” Lawrence admits. “Looking back at what I accomplished, I now need to overcome that success, move on and grow from it. It’s all about growing. The main thing is that you never want to be comfortable – if you get too comfortable, you get passed up by the next man. I’m trying not to let that happen.”
Lawrence spends every gameday ensuring players are never ‘comfortable’, especially quarterbacks. Perhaps he gleans such enjoyment from that because his own journey to the top was so far from easy. A second-round pick out of Boise State in 2014, he broke his foot in training camp and failed to record a single sack as a rookie. He settled into a productive role with eight sacks in 2015, but offseason back surgery took its toll and Lawrence registered just one in 2016.
Then everything clicked in 2017 as Lawrence proved himself a complete NFL defender. As a pass-rusher, he can beat offensive tackles to the outside with his speed or bull them into the quarterback with brute strength – but there’s much more to the game of someone who boasts excellent in-play awareness.
At various stages last season, Lawrence displayed all of those skills. He put his speed to good use in tracking down Seattle’s Russell Wilson as he was preparing for another of his typical Houdini acts. Lawrence bull-rushed many defenders into the backfield en route to a sack and, on one occasion, he had his back turned to Washington’s Kirk Cousins before quickly flipping his hips and heading in the right direction upfield to record the sack.
Lawrence is also a very good defender against the run, either standing firm at the point of attack or knifing into the backfield to drop the runner for a loss. “When you become one-dimensional, you’re easier to beat. I don’t want to wait until third down and then go out there and try to get a sack. You won’t make it to third down unless you can stop those first- and second-down plays. My main focus is on becoming a complete player who can stop the run and play the pass.
“But football is now all about offenses scoring touchdowns and the quickest way to score is to throw the ball up in the air. So that puts a lot of emphasis on me and it keeps me excited and it keeps me energized the whole game. I love being in that situation and I’m constantly working on my moves to get after the quarterback.”
In order to further hone his craft, Lawrence spent much of this offseason working with Ware before the future Hall of Famer took a pass-rushing consultancy job with the Broncos. The young Jedi learned a great deal from the master who recorded 138.5 sacks during a glittering career.
“I’ve learned a lot from his motor and his moves,” Lawrence admits. “We also sit down all the time and talk about life. We talk about how I can get better. He shows me some of his moves and how I can work them into my game with my body type. One move that was successful to him isn’t always going to work for me.
“We work on football mechanics and it’s great to have D-Ware out there showing me some of the ropes. If he reads this, I would like to congratulate him on his new job with the Broncos.”
Ware is not the only former Cowboy who has taken an interest. Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones, who won a Super Bowl as well as Pro Bowl and All-Pro honours in Dallas from 1974 to 1989, has publicly praised Lawrence and has forged a close personal relationship with the young defender.
“We visit a lot behind closed doors,” Lawrence reveals. “He is a great guy and his legacy lives on when we look at what he accomplished here in Dallas. The main thing he always tells me is, ‘Nobody remembers losers’. That sticks with me because it’s just so true – if Michael Jordan hadn’t won all those championships, would anyone remember Michael Jordan? I’m thankful to have met Ed and to have him in my life.”
The aim for Lawrence is to cement his place alongside those greats on the tapestry of the Cowboys. That quest will see him fill the leadership void created in Dallas by the departures of established veterans in quarterback Tony Romo, wide receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten over the past two offseasons.
“I feel like I’m adapting to the leadership role more and more each day,” Lawrence insists. “You don’t just become a leader overnight – it’s about listening to your leaders before you and having that mindset of knowing you have to lead your boys to the promised land. That’s how I feel. I concentrate on making sure I’m focused in everything I do and I make sure I listen to the guys.
“The main thing I stress to the boys every day is that we define ourselves each and every day by what we do. We write our own stories. We can’t let somebody write the stories for us – we need to write our own stories.”
Lawrence is passionate about the game and his infectious love for the sport rubs off on his teammates. The Pro Bowl defensive end is at his happiest going into battle with his teammates every Sunday: “It’s just great being around a great group of guys, in a tremendous facility and with a great organisation.
“Our team is like a family and you need to have that family backbone in order to achieve. If you don’t have that and you’re in it just for the money or the excitement, you’re lying to yourself. You need to have more pride. If you say, ‘They’re trying to take down my brother out there and I’ve got to sacrifice my life for my brother’ you would do it. We’re family.”
The entire Dallas Cowboys family must bounce back in 2018. In front of the unforgiving All or Nothing cameras last season, the Cowboys had to deal with the on-off dramas surrounding running back Ezekiel Elliott, while the nationwide debate over the national anthem debate also rumbled on.
Amidst all of that drama and distraction, the Cowboys could only muster a 9-7 record, and that was not enough to make the playoffs in the super-competitive NFC. Insult was then added to injury as Dallas watched from home while their division rival Philadelphia Eagles overcame a slew of their own issues to win the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
The spectre of those Eagles hangs over the Cowboys entering this campaign, not least because of how loaded they are. But Dallas, too, are talented on both sides of the ball – quarterback Dak Prescott and Elliott will look to recapture the magic of their 2016 campaign behind one of the league’s best offensive lines, while the unstoppable Lawrence forms the mainstay of a promising defense. “Oh man, we have unbelievable talent here,” adds Lawrence. “We’re going to keep working until we’re the defense that we want to be and I’m going to be honest, that’s relentless motherfu**ers who want to go out and attack each and every play. That’s our mindset.
“We’re going to run to the ball and we preach that every day. You know Sean Lee is going to be out there running to the ball, it’s the same with Jeff Heath and then we have Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie in the backfield. We also have Tryone Crawford and some other young guys stepping up on this defense and trying to be leaders.”
So could all of that add up to an unlikely Super Bowl crown for the Cowboys? If the Eagles can go from seven wins in 2016 to Super Bowl champions in 2017, is it that far-fetched to think Dallas could go all the way 12 months after a nine-win campaign?
“We know the ultimate goal is to win a championship and we’re not trying to hide from that,” Lawrence concludes. “We’re not letting people tell us what we can and can’t do. Our main goal is to win that championship and we’re going to stay focused on that.”
This article originally appeared in Issue XXXIX of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE