By Joe Johnson
Kent Lawrence, a former University of Georgia football standout, National Football League player and chief of the former Clarke County Police Department who served as State Court judge in Athens for 26 years, died Friday morning after a long illness. He was 72.
A native of Central, S.C., Lawrence earned a master's in education at UGA, where he was a star player for the Bulldogs.
He was the team’s number one tailback in 1966 and recorded an 87-yard kickoff return vs. VMI, a 70-yard punt return vs. Georgia Tech, and a 74-yard TD run vs. SMU in the Cotton Bowl game where he was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player.
In that game, Lawrence rushed for 149 yards, setting a bowl rushing record that stood for 25 years.
He would be inducted into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame in 2003.
After college, Lawrence played for the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL.
After graduating from UGA Lawrence earned a law degree from the Woodrow Wilson College of Law in Atlanta and subsequently went on to have an incredibly diverse career.
After his brief stint in the NFL, Lawrence became a UGA police officer, served as chief of the Clarke County Police Department, became a prosecutor, then a judge.
Then-Gov. Joe Frank Harris appointed Lawrence State Court judge in November 1985 to fill the vacancy created when Judge Grady C. Pittard died.
After he completed Pittard's term, Lawrence was elected judge in his own right — in a contested election — and was re-elected six more times with no candidates opposing him.
After announcing his retirement in 2011, Lawrence told this reporter how difficult it was to make the decision to hang up his black robe.
"It was hard in the sense that my life has been very structured, doing the same thing for 26 years, but enjoying every day of it," Lawrence said. "But I cheated my family to some extent over the years, like missing some of my children's sporting events, and I hope I can make up for some of the time I deprived them of my presence," he said.
Long into the future, Lawrence's most lasting legacy will be the creation of a DUI/Drug Court in 2001 — the first impaired driver program ever in a Georgia court.
The program's mission isn't meant to rehabilitate hardened felons, but to offer counseling and close supervision to average people who just happen to have alcohol or drug addictions.
Under Lawrence's leadership, the program boasted a recidivism rate of just 9 percent locally.
"Our reward is to see people with addictions bind to the concept of sobriety," Lawrence told this reporter. "We've seen an incredible change in people's appearances and attitude, even those who have been addicted for 20-plus years. I've seen more lives changed than I ever would have dreamt possible."
There are now more than 20 DUI/Drug courts throughout the state, and a national group in 2011 designated the Athens-Clarke program an Academy Court, or a model from which officials in other communities can learn.
After Lawrence retired, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration chose him to be a "judicial outreach liaison consultant" to help implement impaired driver programs for courts in Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama and Tennessee.
In a cooperative agreement with the American Bar Association, Lawrence also consulted with the NHTSA on traffic and public safety issues,
Lawrence had many admirers among colleagues and in the community.
Western Judicial Circuit Judge Lawton Stephens remembered going to Stanford Stadium with his father as a child to root for Lawrence and the Bulldogs.
"He was a hero to me then, and he remains a hero to me today," Stephens said. “As a judge he has been an innovator, never afraid to try new techniques to improve our system of justice. He has made the DUI/Drug Court in Athens-Clarke County a national and international model of excellence.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by U.S. District Judge Steve Jones, who worked in the same courthouse as Lawrence while serving as Superior Court judge in the Western Judicial Circuit.
“Kent Lawrence has been an outstanding judge who made a big difference in the judiciary and the legal community," Jones told this reporter.
"The one thing I think about the most is the contribution he made by establishing the DUI/Drug court," Jones said. "Kent Lawrence, in my opinion, is the father of DUI/Drug courts in the state of Georgia, and he's saved taxpayers a lot of money by getting communities and courts to understand the importance of these courts and how they can help."
Jones used Kent's model when he established a felony drug court in Superior Court.
Though gone in body, Lawrence remains a presence in the State Court courtroom at the Athens-Clarke County Courthouse. In 2017, the jurist's service on the bench was honored by the hanging of his portrait on a courtroom wall.
Funeral arrangements were not announced as of late Friday afternoon.