Virginia State simply needed good players.
The Trojans had fallen on hard times by 1993, and they needed talent.
In college football, obtaining good players – particularly in Division II – means thorough recruiting, and Virginia State assistant Waverly Tillar saw an area in which the team could improve. There were football players on the roster from Philadelphia and New Jersey, but none from New York, which also is within a day’s drive of Virginia State.
Lawrence Kershaw was a kid from Brooklyn who was looking for a new home.
He committed to Stony Brook University out of high school, but he wasn’t happy there. Kershaw sent film to a handful of schools and hoped to transfer to a better fit.
One of those tapes found its way to Tillar, who not only saw a potential starter on the Trojans’ offensive line but perhaps the beginning of a pipeline to the most populous city in the United States.
“We were hoping to establish a pipeline going to Virginia State to hopefully be able to get those kids (from New York),” Tillar said. “Of course, part of recruiting is you got to have a diverse mesh of players from different areas to put together a consistently winning program.”
Tillar and another assistant made the trip to the big city, and their pitch was good enough to land Kershaw, who eventually became the Trojans’ starting center.
The two were a good match 20 years ago.
They should be a good match again Saturday, but in a completely different manner.
Tillar, the coach of Elizabeth City State, and Kershaw, in his first season as the coach of Fayetteville State, will meet at the 16th Annual Down East Vikings Classic as both teams look to open their CIAA schedules with a win.
Kershaw is hoping to start the same rebuilding now that he saw first-hand at Virginia State.
“It was kind of the same as it is (at Fayetteville State) right now, they won three games the year before and they were trying to get the program turned around with some transfers and junior college kids trying to get things jump-started,” Kershaw said. “He didn’t promise me I’d start or anything, just promised I would have a chance to play early on.”
Tillar has been the Vikings’ coach for 11 years, during which time Kershaw worked his way up the coaching ranks.
A 1995 graduate of Virginia State, Kershaw immediately became a graduate assistant for the Trojans, who did indeed rebuild with back-to-back CIAA championships in 1995 and 1996.
Kershaw bounced from Fordham to Truman State to Hampton to Florida A&M, where his successful schemes in five years as offensive coordinator helped the Rattlers have four winning seasons.
His success attracted the attention of Fayetteville State, but the whole process was put in motion with Tillar’s immediate needs at Virginia State.
“We were looking for some linemen, and Kershaw was on our radar,” Tillar said. “It was an intriguing experience for us going to New York and bring back one of New York’s finest.”
Kershaw was an all-CIAA center and made the majority of the calls on the offensive line with the Trojans, and Tillar credits his former player with a good chunk of Virginia State’s resurgence.
Though his first conference game as a head coach comes against one of his former coaches, Kershaw said there isn’t any extra incentive to winning Saturday.
“We just want to win a football game,” he said. “The personal stuff, that’s not really important. We’re just trying to win.”
While the connection doesn’t matter much to Kershaw, Tillar said he knows he taught his former player well.
He just hopes on Saturday, all those lessons don’t come back to bite him.
“We were just going to recruit a couple kids from that area,” Tillar said of the initial recruiting trip.“I’m looking forward to seeing what he (has) learned since he left me.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz @rmtelegram.com