The Tyler Fire Department captain and his wife, who were killed in a car crash Saturday, were dedicated parents, devout Christians and the founders of the EXEL Athletic Association, an East Texas sports team for home-schooled children and troubled youth in state custody.
Matthew Thigpen, co-head coach and athletic director at EXEL Athletic Association, remembered Marty and Jean Lawrence as amazing friends and a truly Christian couple.
“They were more in love with each other than you could imagine,” Thigpen said. “They unselfishly devoted their time, money, energy and love to anything and everything anyone needed.”
The Lawrence family spearheaded the EXEL Athletic Association in 2015. The couple served in every aspect of the organization. Not only was Marty Lawrence a football coach, the couple found uniforms, organized practices, reserved fields and gyms and hired referees.
Lawrence, 53, was known as Coach Marty to the kids wearing a Lions uniform.
Thigpen remembers Lawrence as a motivator when the team was winning or losing.
“He was intense and wanted kids to learn the game, be safe (playing it) ... and make sure that the field presence of the team and coaches represented the faith-based program,” he said. “He instilled the love of Christ into the team. He taught the boys how to handle adversity and success and how to keep going when things got tough and to keep going when they were winning.”
Lawrence was also instrumental in getting children who are in state custody onto the team. The team partnered this year with Willow Bend, a residential home for at-risk boys.
Thigpen said it took Lawrence about 10 seconds to decide to partner with the organization for boys who were having disciplinary problems.
“He never cared what a piece of paper said about a kid,” he said. “He knew if he could just give them a jersey and job to do on the football field, they could channel their energy and anger into something productive.”
Mrs. Lawrence served as the football mom to the entire team, washing jerseys and football pants after each game.
“She was our biggest fan and the loudest person in the stands even after their son, James, graduated,” Thigpen said.
The Lions were set to play King’s Academy Friday.
“We’re going to cancel the game on Friday,” Thigpen said. “We’re in the beginning stages of (planning) a team and family dinner instead.”
The Lawrence’s son, James, played with the Lions for the first second season. He is a freshman at Henderson State University in Arkansas, where he plays kicker for the football team and majors in aviation.
This is the first year the Lawrences didn’t have a child on the team, but that didn’t stop the Lawrence family from coaching and organizing the EXEL homeschool football, volleyball and baseball seasons.
The EXEL Lions had a team meeting on Monday instead of practice to talk about the Lawrence family.
Thigpen said he would continue what the Lawrence family started with EXEL, but knows they will never be replaced.
The team has received an outpouring of support from other football teams and coaches in the area. The Lions are working on a way to show their respects throughout the season for Marty and Jean Lawrence.
Apart from his work with the EXEL Athletic Association, Lawrence was a Tyler firefighter.
Hired by the Tyler Fire Department in 1993, he was promoted to driver engineer in 2004 and to captain in 2008. The past eight years, he worked in an administration role and even served as the Interim Assistant Fire Chief from August 2016 to April 2017.
Tyler Fire Department Public Information Officer Paul Findley said the department is in a state of disbelief, but they have a job to do and their primary job right now is to take care of the Lawrence family.
“Jean and Marty were a match made in heaven,” Findley said. “They were a great example. It didn’t matter what curve ball life threw at them. They found a way to make the bad into the good and impact other people’s lives.”
Findley remembered Lawrence as a dynamic story teller and jokester who could liven up the room, but could also get a little irritated at times.
As the public safety community steps forward with their traditional outpouring of support, the fire department and the police department are working together with logistics to support the large turnout of family, friends, co-workers and community leaders expected for the funeral service, procession and final interment.
The beloved family man and his wife died shortly after midnight on Saturday when the vehicle they were driving was struck by a semi truck on Interstate 30 in southwest Arkansas near Arkadelphia, according to Little Rock television station KATV.
The Lawrences have four children, James, Alex and Laura, as well as Andy, who passed away in a 2008 car crash.
11 a.m. Thursday, Green Acres Baptist Church Worship Center
Final Interment: Flint Cemetery
No visitation is scheduled.
This story has been corrected to reflect the proper wording of a quote from Paul Findley.