When Jake Lawler completed his first short story back in January, he didn't expect his teammates to read it.
His piece is a dark and at times disturbing tale — his reasons for writing it have been well chronicled, both by himself and by news outlets drawn to his unique position. A Division I football player at a major university going public about using writing as a coping mechanism for his years-long battle with depression makes for a compelling story.
Lawler is a redshirt sophomore and linebacker for the North Carolina football team. He was the No. 23 defensive end in the country coming out of Charlotte's South Mecklenberg High School, and the No. 3 player in the state.
He is also a writer.
Lawler's ongoing battle with dark thoughts shows up in his writing — his narrative is centered around exploring the thoughts and feelings of the unnamed character in the song "Wicked Games" by The Weeknd.
"A Wicked Game," Lawler's aptly-titled story, mirrors that of the song — a man leaves his wife and gets lost in a world of drugs and a woman he pays for sex — only Lawler diverts from the ballad with a dark and brutal twist.
It's not the type of reading material often found in a football locker room.
"It's funny," Lawler said. "A lot of them came up to me (to say) that they had actually read it. It's not like I wrote it for them, but that was pretty cool."
In his experience, most of the other athletes he's encountered in high school and college aren't big readers.
'AC Vol. 1 #775'
Lawler grew up a voracious reader, something he picked up from his parents alongside his younger brother Conor. He loved fantasy novels, loved their sweeping narratives and how characters always represented more than themselves.
"He was always somebody who was interested in stories," father Andrew Lawler said.
Jake Lawler read so much, in elementary school he devised a scheme to help kids with their Accelerated Reader tests, a system where students could earn points for themselves in class by reading and taking book-based quizzes.
For a small fee, he would slip them plot details of the latest book in the Harry Potter series, "The Deathly Hallows." He got caught, of course. Lawler smiles about it now — after-all he "made bank" on his plan, even though his mother was furious at the time.
Lawler's greatest love as a child was superhero comics. Ask him now, and he'll gladly tell you his opinions on Zack Snyder, the DC Animated Universe films, and how the character Nightwing is "badass."
His favorite was always Superman, fitting for the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Lawler. Like Clark Kent, he's soft-spoken and thoughtful when he talks. Superman was never just a person hiding his real identity— he was an ideal, a physical embodiment of hope made real through words and pictures.
"In a world full of hopelessness, you need someone like (Superman), or something, an idea," Lawler said. "And that's really what he was. He wasn't just a person to me, he was an ideology."
That's why Lawler got the name of one of his favorite comic books tattooed onto his left forearm – "AC Vol. 1 #775."
Published in March 2001, Action Comics Vol. 1 #775 is a story about a new super-powered group, The Elite, who handle crime with violence to the widespread approval of the public. Superman is forced to defeat The Elite to prove that his ideals of "dignity, honor and justice" are still worth fighting for.
The tattoo is a way to connect Lawler — ink to ink — to the comics he read as a kid, and a reminder to himself that no matter how dark his world got, hope was always worth fighting for.
'He was testing me'
On the first assignment in his AP English Language and Composition class, Lawler got a C-. It would be his lowest grade the entire year.
"I could see that his writing was good," Andrae Bergeron, Lawler's teacher, said. "But everything he was saying was — I'm not going to say it was bulls--- — but it wasn't well thought out at all."
It was a test of sorts for his new teacher, to see whether Bergeron would accept well-written but poorly considered prose – or push Lawler like his football coaches did on the field. Bergeron let him know right away anything less than his best wasn't going to fly.
"The great thing about Mr. Bergeron was he told you why (something wasn't good)," Lawler said. "Or he told you why it was good and what you needed to work on."
Bergeron was the first person to read a draft of "A Wicked Game." The football player impressed his former teacher with his command of tone and voice. He wasn't the only one impressed by just how advanced Lawler's writing was.
"I'm always surprised, and I don't know why I'm surprised, but I'm always surprised by how good he writes," Andrew Lawler said. "The quality is just so excellent. He has such a strong sense of the narrative arc."
Since Lawler was a kid, he and his father would talk for hours after finishing a new book or movie, discussing character motivations and intricate plot mechanics.
The conversations were a family pastime that became the foundation of Lawler's training as a writer, giving him a grasp of literary analysis years before he began creating his own characters.
'I wanna be like Jay-Z'
Lawler's already started working on a student film adaptation of "A Wicked Game," as well as two other screenplays based on horror stories he's a fan of — a quick "no budget" version of "Knock" by Fredric Brown and a film-length version of The Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet."
"It's good to make as many films, write as many stories as you can in order to develop your craft," UNC professor Marc Cohen said. "I think (Lawler) agrees with me on that. I think that's why he's working on so many things right now. He's developing himself as an artist."
And that's not even the half of it. He is, as his father says, a man with fingers in many pies.
For a little over a year, Lawler has hosted a podcast with teammate Zach Goins, "Inside the Film Room," where the two review and discuss movies.
The project was born out of an idea from the UNC football creative team, when someone wanted to see if they'd film a video reviewing "Avengers: Infinity War" together. Lawler joked about starting a podcast, Goins ran with the idea, and the project now has several hundred followers
Finally, there's UNCUT, a video series started by UNC student Luke Buxton to showcase the stories and personalities of athletes off the field. Lawler was brought on in January as the project's athlete relations & content director. He will be in charge of getting athletes to come on the show, as well as writing scripts and providing voiceover.
The project will be fully unveiled this coming fall — they've already recorded videos with basketball player Garrison Brooks, soccer player Brianna Pinto, and Lawler's roommate and teammate Michael Carter.
Lawler jokes he wants to be like JAY-Z – a modern mogul running the show in as many areas of media as he can handle.
Everything he does is an extension of his passion for storytelling, especially for other athletes. He wants to help his teammates – like Tomon Fox, a defensive end and "brilliant" painter, or Carter, the team's star running back and resident photographer – and bring them on UNCUT so they can tell their own stories.
"Everyone's kind of a collective and a diversified whole." Lawler said.
Lawler plans to move out to Los Angeles after graduation — if he isn't drafted into the NFL — and "start knocking on doors" until he gets hired. He's developing stories about a superhero tackling Black identity and a superhero struggling with depression. One will be a movie and one a book – He isn't quite sure which one is which yet.
Before he goes, though he'll keep playing football and talking honestly and openly about his battle with depression. He'll definitely keep listening to The Weeknd. He might even write something his teammates take the time to read again.