Dec. 15, 2004
When the 2004 National Football League season began last summer, there was just one Yale graduate listed on one of the 52-man rosters. Now there are three, and that does not include Detroit Lions' defensive coordinator Dick Jauron '73.
San Francisco 49er tight end Eric Johnson '01 was the lone Bulldog playing this fall until Chris Hetherington '96 was signed by the Oakland Raiders last week and Nate Lawrie '03 was activated by the Tampa Bay Bucs today.
Johnson, a collegiate wide receiver, owned all the major Yale receiving records until Ralph Plumb '05, sporting Johnson's No. 21 jersey, pulled out his eraser and attacked the school annals. Known around campus as "EJ," the former Eli star hauled in 86 passes his senior season and finished with 181 for his career, including a Yale record 21 against Harvard in 1999. Johnson, a seventh-round pick by Bill Walsh and the Niners who was featured in many major newspapers and TV stations across the country earlier this season, led the NFL in catches this fall through the first six weeks while playing with a broken finger and a broken rib. Understandably, his numbers have dropped off in recent weeks and the 49ers' No. 82 is currently 16th in the league with 69 catches for 707 yards and two scores.
Hetherington, a ninth-year pro who has been with five different NFL teams since 1996, was Yale's starting QB in 1994 and 1995 before becoming a running back as a pro. It looked like his career might be over back in September when the Raiders dropped him from the squad, but he was re-signed in early December and played last Sunday against Atlanta. He had one carry and a pair of receptions wearing his old No. 44 and has compiled one of the longest NFL tenures of any Yale graduate. Gary Fencik '76 had 11 seasons with Chicago, while Calvin Hill '69 and Ken Hill '79 both played for 10 seasons with a few teams.
Lawrie, who owns all the Yale tight end receiving records (116 career, 72 season, 16 game), was drafted in the sixth round by Tampa Bay last spring and then bounced between the Bucs and the Eagles before landing on the Sunshine State team's practice squad for most of the fall. Now he has a chance to show what he has learned with this week's activation.
"Nate is extremely excited and honored for this opportunity, he can't wait to play in his first NFL game," said Yale assistant Matt Dence, who coached Lawrie in New Haven. He is very excited to get into preparing for a game plan and see it through to Sunday, which he did not get to do from the practice squad. He expects to play in two-tight end sets and maybe some other situations in this week's game with New Orleans."
Lawrie, who will wear No. 46, and the other current NFLers from Yale hope to pave the way for current seniors like Plumb, OT Rory Hennessey, QB Alvin Cowan, RB Robert Carr and DB Barton Simmons, all of whom have expressed interest in playing professionally.
report filed by Steve Conn, Yale Sports Publicity Director