Kemar Lawrence (left) and Shaun Francis celebrate Jamaica’s upset of Mexico. (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
SAN JOSE, Calif. — He can be one of the Boyz, but he definitely is his own man.
Kemar Lawrence can joke around with his younger Jamaican teammates prior to the team charter flight before finding his privacy in the back of the plane to rest up and take a quick, well-earned afternoon nap.
The Red Bulls left back has become an influential young man — on and off the pitch — in this CONCACAF Gold Cup, as team leader and helping to anchor a defense that was surrendered but two goals in five matches entering Wednesday night’s final against the United States.
Red Bulls fans might be more familiar with the 5-10, 160-lb. Lawrence as an energic, overlapping left back who causes havoc on that side of the field and a fleet-footed player who can quickly venture back and cut down the angle of an advancing opponent and even pick his pocket as well.
Translated: it has been an outstanding year for Lawrence for club and country. He doesn’t turn 25 until Sept. 17 and he is in the prime of his career. Lawrence’s profile soared to new heights Sunday night, when he scored one of the most historic goals in Jamaican soccer history, an 88th-minute free kick that propelled his team to a stunning 1-0 semifinal triumph over seven-time and defending champion Gold Cup champion Mexico and into the final.
In a Monday interview, Lawrence spoke about his faith and why the Reggae Boyz could be parading around Levi’s Stadium with the Gold Cup trophy.
Lawrence never puts himself first and usually is fifth, behind God, his late grandmother and his two teams.
“Kemar has been growing,” Jamaica head coach Theodore Whitmore said about his defender’s performance in this competition. “We have seen improvement game by game. Kemar is one of the more senior players on this squad. Very influential in a very good way in terms of driving other players and his maturity is awesome.”
Though he has only four years of international experience under his belt, Lawrence has become a team leader on a side that has several inexperienced international players.
He felt it was time to step up.
“I just had to, just had to,” Lawrence said. “I looked around the team, looked around at what needed to be done. I just kind of reflected on when I came into the sport, it was a Wes Morgan, it was Je-Vaughn Taylor … It was all of those guys and I just kind of reflect on what they used to say, what they used to do. and I use the same teaching that they taught me. I approach the guys with it in a humble way. All the guys accept me as that leader.”
Goalkeeper Andre Blake is the team captain.
“Blake is a tremendous captain,” Lawrence said. “I don’t know what to say about this guy. So humble, easy going.”
Lawrence has embraced his new role.
“For everyone on the team to be able to talk to you, it’s just always wonderful to say,” he said. “That is one awesome thing. Anyone can come to me at any moment. We can sit down and we can talk about anything. On the pitch, it’s the same thing. Nothing that they say comes across disrespectful or bad. It’s always received in a positive way and I really appreciate that.”
In March, his grandmother, Norma Seymour, whom he called his best friend, passed away at the age of 60. It affected Lawrence deeply and emotionally. Since then, Lawrence has played out of his skin for club and country. Prior to joining Jamaica for the Gold Cup, Lawrence was considered the most consistent performer for his Major League Soccer club.
Lawrence said he dedicated his Mexican goal to his grandmother and many of his accomplishments on the field as well.
“Definitely. After the goal that was all I could have thought about, my grandmother,” he said. “Just wish she was there to see that moment. After the goal, honestly, there were only two things on my mind: God and my grandma. Everything I am doing right now, in MLS, right here, I’m dedicating it to her, God first, always, but definitely to her.”
With a positive attitude leading the way, Lawrence smiles a lot and it should not come as a surprise that he was optimistic the Caribbean side will win its first Gold Cup.
“We can beat any team we played against in this tournament because no one expects us to, no one believe we can,” he said. “When we started the tournament, I heard that a prediction we were going to go out after the group stage.
“This team has something different. Every single player here, we firmly believe that it’s not all about us. It’s about God first and then the team. You would have to be in camp to see how we operate each day, how we operate before games. It’s all about putting God first and letting him lead our team to where we want to go. It’s just an amazing sight to see where God takes you when you let him lead.”
After that historic free kick, Lawrence has been in demand. From late Sunday on, his cell phone was filled with congratulation texts, messages and emails from friends, family and teammates.
“Kind of tuned that out,” he said.
Today, he is focused on only one thing — winning the elusive Gold Cup. Lawrence and Jamaica came close in 2015, becoming the first Caribbean team to reach the final, losing to Mexico, 3-1.
“I don’t think I was flying high last night,” Lawrence said Monday. “I said in the interview, ‘All glory be to God because he deserves all of this.’ When I placed that ball down, all I wasn’t thinking about the goal. I was thinking about is God and I simply asked him to carry this ball to where we wanted it to go and he did that. The guys had some laughter last night. That’s all over now. We know the goal at hand and we know what we want to do and we want to make history and there is only one way to do that and that’s beating the USA coming Wednesday.”
Lawrence said that he usually is the first one into the locker room at halftime or after a game, so he can address the team.
“I always want to be the first one to remind the guys that we have the next one coming up and its even bigger and its even going to be better. So I’m always trying to get into the locker room first, tell the guys [to be] humble.”
No one understands that better than Kemar Lawrence.