‘I played football the right way’: Ticats’ legend Simoni Lawrence proud of ‘villain’ legacy

Photo: Bob Butrym/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

While former Tiger-Cats linebacker Simoni Lawrence’s retirement was met with festivities in Hamilton, fans and players in other CFL cities were rejoicing for a very different reason this month.

“There’s no other team in the league that looks at Simoni Lawrence as not a villain,” the 35-year-old admitted on CHCH‘s Sportsline podcast last week. “I’m the guy where you go on the field and the coaches are like, ‘Make sure 21 doesn’t make plays. We hate 21.'”

Lawrence steps away from the game with a well-earned reputation as one of the most controversial players in modern CFL history. Outspoken to a fault, his motor mouth on and off the field made him an icon in The Hammer, while his penchant for borderline hits transformed him into a present-day Angelo Mosca for several opposing fan bases.

Still, after 14 years in pro football and 10 seasons in Steeltown, the native of Upper Darby, Pa. is entirely comfortable with the legacy he leaves behind.

“Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion. I know that I played football the right way because look at my life. You don’t play a sport like football for over 12 years if you’re playing it the wrong way,” Lawrence insisted.

“A lot of people try to put a cap on greatness, so it’s like, ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ It’s not that you can’t do that, it’s just everybody can’t do that. It’s hard to come out there with that kind of energy and tenacity, talking down on players that everybody thinks are superstars.”

The University of Minnesota product has been challenging CFL norms since he first arrived in the league. He vividly recalls his first encounter with Hall of Fame receiver Geroy Simon as a rookie, which took his opponents aback.

“I’m young, like 2012 Edmonton Simoni Lawrence, low pro. I go up to Geroy, ‘You ain’t nothing. You’re slow. I can stick you one-on-one.’ You just start talking,” he laughed. “One of the fullbacks came up to me and said, ‘Hey yo, you don’t talk to legends like that.’ I looked at him and I’m like, ‘That means you’re never gonna be a legend.'”

When it came to trash talk, Lawrence certainly achieved legendary status. He describes his strategy as “psychological warfare” and freely admits to taking it outside the white lines, especially when it came to members of the hated Toronto Argonauts.

“I go everywhere during the season. I might show up where the other teams are sometimes and have a good time,” he smiled.

Of course, Lawrence took the most pride in being an equal opportunity agitator. Regardless of the importance of the matchup or the talent level of his opponents, they would always get his best verbal sparring. He scoffs at the idea that any contemporary player could be considered an equivalent irritant.

“These guys pick and choose, man,” he insisted. “The reason I say that is because I don’t hold anybody to a standard where they can’t get it. Some people are like, ‘Oh, no, don’t talk about him.’ Everybody gets it the same. There’s no pick and choose.”

“Football is such a dog-eat sport. I’m just like, how can you put people in front of you? It’s a play-for-keeps type of sport, that’s the only way to the top. As soon as I came into the league, I was going for the top guys all the time.”

Despite his relentless jawing, Lawrence’s reputation went far beyond words. His aggressive style helped him become the Ticats’ all-time leading tackler but also landed him in hot water on several occasions, with offensive players accusing him of crossing the line into dirty play.

That came to a head in the 2019 season opener against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, when a late hit to the head of a sliding Zach Collaros altered the course of CFL history. The collision between the two former teammates resulted in a concussion for the quarterback and a two-game suspension for Lawrence, as well as an unshakeable hatred from the CFL’s most active fan base.

Five years later, the linebacker still defends his actions in that moment.

“The way I play football is I’m a lunge tackler. I’m shooting and when I’m shooting, he was still up,” Lawrence explained. “If I were to hit him (square), I would have killed him and so I’m literally trying to turn my body so I don’t hit him as hard. It was unfortunate but it’s just part of the game.”

That hit ended Collaros’ tenure in Saskatchewan and kickstarted the career of journeyman backup Cody Fajardo. Essentially deemed a lost cause after multiple injuries, Collaros landed in Winnipeg at the end of the year as an emergency option and has since led the team to four straight Grey Cup appearances, winning a pair of Most Outstanding Player Awards in the process. In a fitting twist of fate, both of the Bombers’ subsequent championship victories came against Lawrence and the Ticats.

While it worked out for the quarterback in the end, Collaros was livid about the dangerous nature of the hit at the time. The two were seen cursing at each other in the aftermath, but Lawrence claims they patched things up quickly and remained in regular contact throughout that year. He insists the Canadian public simply doesn’t understand the nature of competition between Americans.

“In Canada, it gets misconstrued because Canada is nice. I went to the University of Minnesota and there’s that Minnesota nice. I get it, I understand what it is,” Lawrence remarked. “When you see that combative going back and forth, it’s always like, ‘Oh, it’s violence. They hate each other.’ No, Zach’s an Ohio boy, I’m a PA boy. PA versus Ohio, we go back and forth all the time.”

In the end, incidents like the one with Collaros have only added to Lawrence’s Hall of Fame lore. With five total all-star selections and three East Division nominations for Most Outstanding Defensive Player, his career accomplishments have firmly placed him in the conversation among the best ever. He simply argues that his production means a little more because of all the hate.

“A lot of people play football. I get everybody’s absolute best every single week. Nobody takes it easy on me,” he grinned. “Some other people might brother-in-law, like ‘Oh, good play.’ I don’t get none of those. It’s balls to the walls because if I’m beating you, I’m letting you know I’m beating you and nobody wants to get beat.”