Originally making his mark as a standout offensive lineman at Alcorn State, Lawrence Pillers was switched to the defensive line, and became the only player in the school's history to be named to the All-SWAC team on both sides of the ball.
He was also the only player from Alcorn State to be chosen in the 1976 NFL Draft, when the Jets picked him in the 11th round.
"I was excited because I was looking forward to getting drafted," Pillers said. "It didn't matter what team, but when I got drafted by the Jets, it was a new experience. Everybody with the organization was fantastic."
And though Pillers wrapped up his college career playing on the defensive line, New York had him penciled in to play outside linebacker. Pencils, however, have erasers.
"When I made it there, they said I'd gained a few pounds and made me become a defensive end," Pillers said. "They said, 'You're that size (6-4, 265), you've got quick speed. You're 5.7, 5.8 in the 40, so we're going to put you down as a defensive end.'"
Pillers impressed head coach Lou Holtz, defensive coordinator Walt Michaels, and his new veteran teammates, while quickly working his way up the depth chart, and was starting at left defensive end when the season opened in Cleveland.
"Richard Neal and Jerome Barkum, Rich Caster, Roscoe Word, all those guys showed me the ropes, showed me where I needed to find a place to stay once I made the team and everything," Pillers said.
"And I had a little chip on my shoulder because I thought I should have went in an earlier round. And since I didn't, I wanted to prove to the team, to the coaches, to the management and everything else, that they should have gotten me in an earlier round."
Holtz would actually leave the Jets earlier than expected when he resigned before the season finale against Cincinnati with a 3-10 record. Mike Holovak was named as the interim head coach for the last game, and then Michaels took over the reins the following year. Which made the transition easier for Pillers and his defensive teammates.
"Yes, it was very easy since Walt was the defensive coordinator," Pillers said. "He sort of knew what my potential was, what I could do, and everything just fell in place."
Pillers anchored his place at left defensive end the next three seasons before second-year veteran Mark Gastineau danced his way into the starting lineup. In 1980, Pillers and the Jets hosted San Francisco on September 21. A week later, Pillers was playing for the 49ers against Atlanta.
"I guess they wanted Gastineau to play," Pillers said. "We played the 49ers, and (San Francisco's) Dwaine Board got his knee messed up. The 49ers were then looking for a defensive end. So that's the way that played out. They traded me to the 49ers.
"It did surprise me. It sort of hurt. But, you know, ain't nothing guaranteed in life but death. So I started for my four years with the Jets, and I think I did pretty good. But with talent coming up behind, that's part of the game."
With the 49ers through the 1984 season, Pillers played a part in their Super Bowl XVI and XIX championships.
"I told a lot of people that I sort of died and went to heaven because I got me a couple rings out of the deal," laughed Pillers, who concluded his 10-year NFL career with Atlanta in 1985.
Following his playing days, Pillers owned a trucking company, a Subway sandwich shop, and worked in the Mississippi State Hospital's psychology department. And now…
"I am totally retired. My wife and I, we have an RV, so we do a lot of moving around, going to RV spots. I'm just enjoying life as best as I can, because come (November 4), I'll be 69 years old," Pillers said.
"Back in March, I had COVID. And so after I overcame COVID, what I do now is, I try to get up every morning and do two or three miles walking at a fast pace, something like 15 minutes a mile, just to keep my heart rate up and everything."
The father of 10, grandfather of 16, and great-grandfather of four; Pillers and his wife, Chante, make their home in Jackson, Mississippi.
Raised in the nearby city of Hazlehurst, Pillers says there were few people around who could influence him and the other kids in a positive way. One who did, however, was Hazlehurst's own and former Baltimore Colts defensive end and Super Bowl V Champion, Roy Hilton.
"Since Roy did that, Roy was my hero," Pillers said, "and so I wanted to get out there and reach all the youth that I can."
Ten years ago, Pillers founded "Pillers of Strength."
"What we do every year, we have a football/cheerleader camp," Pillers said. "We give the girls and the guys the opportunity to come out. We start from age five up to 18, so we have different things going on. It's been fantastic."
And how does it feel to influence today's Hazlehurst youth in a positive way?
"It's a blessing. It's something that I can't really put into words. It's a heartwarming thing, knowing that you're doing something and you're touching the kids," Pillers said. "You're touching them in a way that those that might have the opportunity and the talent to play, that they get out there and try to show what they have, try to influence each other. And I love to talk to kids in general."