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NFL

Ex-Largo star may still pay for a lesson learned

CB Omar Laurence seems to have NFL talent, but off-field issues might keep him off draft boards.

By GREG AUMAN
Published April 20, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - Omar Laurence is a man weighed down by question marks.

He is a cornerback who did not give up a touchdown reception in two years as a college starter, a talented player whom scouts like and his coaches love. He is realistic about his draft prospects, however, and understands why NFL teams are looking into much more than his 40-yard times.

The former Largo and Central Florida star enters this weekend's NFL draft burdened with the dual baggage of leaving school early and doing so with a long history of criminal problems. What he will find out soon is just how much his past will limit his future.

"I'm prepared for just being a free agent, if that's what happens," said Laurence, a 5-foot-10, 189-pound cornerback who played two seasons at UCF before he was dismissed from the team in November. It wasn't the first time a crime kept him from playing football.

Between his 15th and 17th birthdays, he was arrested five times on burglary and vehicle theft charges, which sent him to juvenile boot camp for nine months. It kept him from playing football his junior year, but it taught him to stop running with the wrong crowd. Released before his senior year, he shined at Largo, going to night school to get a diploma, earning a scholarship to Central Florida and becoming the first in his family - he is the second-youngest of 10 children - to graduate from high school.

After redshirting his first year, he rose from fourth on the depth chart to starting as a freshman, building a reputation as a shutdown cornerback. Off-field problems caught up with him again in November, however, when he was arrested after a fight outside a dormitory hall with a man he says threatened him with a gun.

Laurence, questioned by police, denied having the gun on him, but after 17 minutes of questioning, officers found it in his pants pocket, according to arrest reports. When police searched his car, they found an unloaded rifle in the trunk with its serial numbers scratched off, the reports say.

He said he "had no idea" about the rifle, saying he let many friends borrow his car at home and at college. As to why he didn't tell police about the unloaded handgun he took during the fight, he said the shock and danger of having racial obscenities and a gun flashed athim left him dazed.

"When you have your life on the line, you're not thinking," he said. "I'm just trying to take my girl to Wendy's and then all this goes on. When you have that feeling that your life could be taken away, you just black out."

Laurence, now 21, was dismissed from the football team and kicked out of school, turning a semester of Bs and Cs into failing grades that he said made it impossible for him to transfer.

He reluctantly applied for early entry to the draft and last month accepted a plea agreement to lesser charges of possession of a concealed weapon and resisting arrest without violence. He was sentenced to one year's probation.

NFL teams looking for character references will find coaches who praise Laurence as an energetic leader. The Packers and Raiders called his coach at Largo, Rick Rodriguez, and he said he never had problems with Laurence.

"I told them he was a straight arrow who had some issues, but that everybody deserves a shot somewhere down the line," Rodriguez said. "His work ethic, his energy, this kid is one of the best I've had in 27 years of coaching."

John Fontes, defensive backs coach at UCF the past two years, said he has talked to 16 NFL teams, including the Bucs, about Laurence, encouraging them to talk to him in person.

"He was a model guy, always where he was supposed to be, always had a great attitude," Fontes said. "I was shocked when I heard he'd been arrested."

Ruston Webster, Bucs director of college scouting, said it's common for a player with off-field problems to get a solid recommendation from college coaches.

"Sometimes a coach will really go to bat for a kid, say they're a good person who made mistakes but they've turned the corner. We get that a lot," Webster said. "We know about Omar, but with any player, you research the off-field. ... "

Fontes conceded the draft is "a long, long shot" for Laurence, believing his best hope is to latch on as a free agent with a team willing to groom him slowly.

He is three semesters from a college degree in liberal studies and said completing that is a priority. When his football career ends, he wants to be a guidance counselor, helping kids avoid the problems he had as a teenager.

"If the league doesn't work out, I want to make sure to finish my degree," he said. "For the kids, I know I can relate to them, and I hope I can help."

[Last modified April 20, 2004, 01:20:37]


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