He was behind the high school playing hacky sack when he realized they were coming.
“I heard these voices, chanting and cheering and getting louder and louder,” Reggie Lawrence recalls.
They were after him.
“There had to be at least 200 of them, and it really was at least 200 people,” the Conception Bay South resident says. “A lot of people weren’t even from the school.”
The throng backed the handful of people playing hacky sack against the school wall.
For Lawrence, now 30, this was the most intense attack of the extreme bullying he endured during junior high and high school.
“They had someone planned to fight me, so when he came in, I tried to kill time,” he continues. “It was really scary. I knew that they were going to jump on me soon.”
And jump on him they did.
Lawrence says he defended himself for a long time, until school administrators came out.
He managed to emerge from the bullying scrum relatively unscathed using techniques learned through martial arts.
“When you’re grappling, if someone is under you, you can actually hug them and allow them to be your armour. … So I just hugged him when I was down on the ground, and when they were kicking me, they were actually kicking him. I can hear his breath going out, so I just stayed there as long as I could. … It was unfortunate for him, but that’s what I had to do in that moment to survive, I guess. It was very overwhelming. They were all very angry, definitely mob mentality.”
Longtime friend Adam Tuck wasn’t at school that day, but he says everyone was saying he should have been there.
“I’m like, ‘Man, I’m some glad I wasn’t,’” Tuck quips.
He can say that now with a smile, but the incident — and the amount of bullying his friend faced — was no joke at the time, 15 or so years ago.
“It was just organized, well-organized, and for that age to be that organized, it’s a little scary,” Tuck says.
Especially for the victim.
Being intensely targeted and victimized deeply affected Lawrence.
He was apprehensive to go places and avoided drawing attention to himself.
“If I was at a party, for example, and one of this group showed up — and they were a large group — I would just leave,” he says. “It was really the constant fear, I guess, of being out of my own environment, because every time I encountered them, I ended up having to run from them.”
The attacks shook Lawrence’s confidence and weakened him mentally.
“All I wanted to do every day when I went to school was not be seen,” he says.
Things finally started changing as Grade 12 came to a close. Lawrence met friends from another high school and started feeling comfortable just being himself.
“That made my confidence grow because I realized not everyone was like this,” he says. “Up until that point, I thought this is the way it is. It’s just hard. Life is hard.”
He also started studying tae-kwondo, the sport that would change his life and take him places.
“I found my career in the martial art world just shot up very quickly,” he says.
The rise was indeed rapid. Lawrence — a guy once hesitant to leave the house — was soon fighting opponents around the world, in Mexico, Paris and Thailand, where he competed for Canada at the World University Games.
Being a victim of bullying powered his desire to succeed.
“All of a sudden, I was in this area where people were cheering for me, but really, I was cheering for me because we were doing so well,” he says. “And I’m doing something that I was so afraid of, which was confrontation. So in that sense, it fuelled me, yes, but not from anger, from inspiration, I guess.”
Lawrence started chasing an Olympic dream, the 2012 games in London.
Training was going well until a few months before the trials to decide which fighter would wear the Maple Leaf.
During a tournament in New Brunswick, where he was training, a ligament in his knee completely detached.
“I threw a kick and the way it came down after the strike, it just severed,” he says. “It’s almost like my legs were literally taken out from under me.”
Through physio and training, and desire, Lawrence recovered enough to avoid surgery and step on the mat for the Olympic trials.
He lost his fifth fight, finishing in third.
“I was close. It was great, no matter what,” he says.
Instead of committing four more years to another kick at the Olympics, Lawrence returned home and resumed a career in financial planning with Paradise-based Capital Management.
Back in Newfoundland, he’s also bent on sharing the experience of his teen years to help young people deal with bullying.
He wants to give them hope, to let them know all is not lost and things can get better.
Tuck applauds what his friend is trying to do.
“I think people need hope and they need a mentor,” he says. “There’s a lot of people out there who can help, but guiding them to that help is kinda part of the problem, I think.”
On Friday, Lawrence addressed high school students from across the Avalon during an anti-bullying workshop organized by the St. John’s Crime Prevention Committee.
Mark Fudge helped organize the event. He says Lawrence’s story connected and resonated.
“It’s a message of resilience and being able to make a better tomorrow,” he says.
“(Bullying) didn’t define who he became or who he was, and through that, I think he’s able to share a message of what other youth can do.”
For more on Reggie Lawrence's quest, watch Telegram TV, 8 p.m., April 24, on Rogers TV, channel 9.