Editor’s comments : This story was first published for the CCA-championship match against Notre Dame. It’s been updated.

People keep wondering how Clemson’s quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, changed in 2020. You ask because it’s hard to see it on the surface, but logic suggests there must be a reason why the future NFL design number one still plays college football, and it’s supposed to refine a few minor flaws in his otherwise exceptional game and polish an already sparkling diamond to perfection. That’s why people keep asking: What’s changed?

You ask Tiger Coach Dabo Swinney and he tells you about Lawrence’s leadership and his ability to get into every corner of Clemson’s locker room. But Lawrence also won a national championship as a real freshman, only 11 years in his academic career, so that answer sounds less like real growth than just experience. So they keep asking.

Ask Lawrence’s teammates. This season the receiving corps has been meagre compared to the overcrowded wealth of Lawrence’s locker he enjoyed in Clemson in his first two seasons, yet the statistics still seem boring. Ask Amari Rodgers, the team’s most reliable player in the air, and he’ll tell you how much Lawrence has improved in this group, as each receiver gets a little better when the best QB in the country throws the ball at him. And this season, Lawrence is going into even narrower windows than before. Still, it’s hard to imagine that Lawrence did all that – the decision to play, the rush to expand players’ options, the disappointing recovery of COWID-19 – all to go an inch less through the window than last season. And that’s what they keep asking.

You ask Lawrence himself, and he’s got a lot of standard answers. He has a plan of action. He reads faster. It is more accurate and consistent. But it’s hollow to say that in every area where he’s better than almost everyone else on the planet, he’s a little better.

Fault! The file name is not specified. I have learned a lot about myself and what I want to be and I have become a better person throughout the process, says Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. I want things to go well in football and I want us to play for a championship. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

In a year’s time, there will be fewer of these questions. Lawrence, a junior, was ready for the NFL from day one in the eyes of many Scouts, but the rules required him to stay in Clemson for three seasons. But it’s 2020, and the rules don’t really apply. Many boys who have only one ounce of his talent, players who don’t fit Lawrence’s etiquette since high school, have decided to quit and bypass the strict protocols of COVID-19. But not Lawrence. He wanted to play. And now he’s leading No. 2 Clemson in the semifinals of the Ohio State Sugar Bowl university playgrounds against No. 3 Ohio State (20:00 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN App) with two victories from a second national championship.

Lawrence didn’t just want to play, he demanded it. He helped get the movement going by working with teammates and friends of school football, encouraging officials to consider the players’ wishes and giving them a chance to work during a season when a global pandemic is on the horizon. Lawrence wasn’t the architect of the movement, but his signature on the We Want to Play application stood out and drew others’ attention.

So, if the most famous, the most cultivated and the most changeable college football player wanted to play, as a man who had almost nothing to win and so much to lose insisted on a 2020 season, there must be a reason.

Short answer: Lawrence is a proven competitor. The need to compete is in my mind, and not to compete in the season would be hell. He missed two games during his recovery from COVID-19, including one against Notre Dame earlier this year, which may have cost him a chance to win the Heisman Trophy.

He likes to play, Mr. Rodgers said. It tore him apart to miss those games, especially Notre Dame.

But now he’s back with a chance to get the trophy he really desires.

2 Connected

In high school, Lawrence once told his coach that his ultimate goal was to become the best quarterback of all time, but his thinking has changed. He still wants to be better than Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, but it won’t be enough to do what they did, only better. He wants to take a different path and define greatness in his own way.

If you look at a lot of guys in the NFL, it seems like it’s their whole lives, where every minute of the day is dedicated to football, Lawrence said months before his second year began. And I don’t want it to be me.

And maybe Lawrence is still here, but at least that seems like a decent explanation.

I don’t think you can exaggerate what he had in mind for college football this year, Swinney said. He used his platform to change the whole story.

Less than a week after VIDOC-19 paralyzed the sports world in March, Lawrence and his girlfriend Marissa Mauri launched GoFundMe to help those most affected by the virus. Almost immediately, Clemson’s compliance department derailed the plan, citing a possible violation of the NCAA’s ban on the use of athletes’ names, images and likenesses for crowd funding. And that could have been the end, except that he was one of the most famous players in university football and the media had already picked up on this charity gesture. Suddenly there was pressure on the sport to change the rule – or at least to interpret it more freely.

Within days Clemson returned the clock and Lawrence and Maury launched a new and improved website for donations.

When protests broke out across the country in June following the death of George Floyd in police custody, athletes began to speak out about racism, police brutality and social justice. Players have certainly done this before, but it is very rare that the message has penetrated into the nooks and crannies of a certain fan base without being drowned out (or silenced) by the status quo.

Lawrence discussed all this with his friend Darien Rencher, a black replacement who has become one of the QB’s most trusted confidants. Sitting in an apartment in Atlanta, watching the smoke of the demonstrations, Rencher explained why he is suffering, why so many people love him and why the demonstrators are now insisting that the rest of the world also feel their pain. Lawrence wanted to help again.

He started with a visit on Twitter: I support my brothers in this business and I always do things I’ll never know. Injustice is obvious, as is hate. We can’t explain it anymore. If you keep explaining it, examine your heart and ask why.

I support my brothers in this business and I always do things I’ll never know. The injustice is obvious… And hate, too. We can’t explain it anymore. If you keep explaining yourself, examine your heart and ask why.

– Trevor Lawrence (@Trevorlawrencee) 29 May 2020

He then met his teammates Rencher, Cornell Powell and Mike Jones Jr. to plan a protest march to Clemson. It was Jones’ idea, and Rencher and Powell also did a great job organizing it, but what Lawrence suggested was a magnet that caught the attention of all sides of the media.

Lawrence didn’t want to be the guy talking about things he never really experienced. But his attention was such that it was impossible to avoid the obvious headlines that tended to make Trevor Lawrence and his teammates lead the protests. So Lawrence tried to explain his role in all this, not by giving a lecture, but by apologizing. He said there were times when he saw or heard things he knew were wrong, but he said nothing. He didn’t want to fight. Now he realized that this was exactly what he needed.

I know a lot of eyes are on me, Lawrence said in September. The critics, but also many young people look down on me, I am aware of that. I want to use my platform in the right way and try to influence people. I am not an activist, but I believe I have a responsibility to promote equality and help the people I love.

What may have been a clumsy story actually helped to underline a more important point, Rencher said. The fact that the attention of the event organized by the black athletes seemed to be focused on the famous white quarterback created his own set of necessary conversations. Lawrence’s willingness to talk about his own role in authorizing racial injustice was emblematic of greater cultural change among many white allies in the black community.

The good thing about everything that happened, Rencher said, is that everyone had to do a very thorough self-assessment of their part of the decision. Part of the problem is, of course, due to people who think shamelessly as they do, but also to people who were just in standby mode and did not really contribute to the solution.

I think there were so many white people all over the country. They’re not openly racist, but they’re not against people who have problems. And that’s the beauty of what he did as a young white man. He represented so many whites in his position and admitted that he was ignorant and perhaps uneducated, but [he said] I will try to be part of the solution. A lot of people saw themselves in what he said.

Trevor Lawrence wants to be more than just another star QB — but first, he wants to win

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Two months later, as the sport is about to disappear in the fall, Lawrence and Rencher are back in the limelight. A few days before the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced the cancellation of their season, Lawrence and Rencher organized a video call with a dozen other varsity athletes to launch the We Want to Play movement and urge school presidents and commissioners to find a way to run the 2020 campaign. But there was an underlying message in all this: Players need performance. They want to be involved in decisions about the future of the sport.

Lawrence is reluctant to speak out in favour of unification, but his presence in the large choir gives legitimacy to the conversation. While varsity sport had a summer where the balance seemed to tilt toward strengthening players, there was Lawrence, who was kind of the face of the movement, even though he wasn’t one of those who took a hard line.

It would be easy to assume Lawrence is playing it safe. He wasn’t pointing a finger when the virus began to lead a normal life. He didn’t organize a sit-in in front of the police station during the demonstrations. He asked no financial compensation for the players at this very difficult time of the year. He left it all to others.

Fault! The file name is not specified. Lawrence is a superstar who doesn’t want to be a story… Or any story, for that matter. He has ideas, opinions and beliefs that are important to him, and when he speaks, that’s what he offers the world. Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But Lawrence couldn’t get his own celebrity message across. He runs subtly on tiptoes when he feels he has to, but he does so with such cautious intent that it is difficult to criticize his motives.

There are many things that are important to me, but some things, no matter what I say, won’t change, Lawrence said. Sometimes it is difficult in the media, you are asked a difficult question and you want honest answers, know how you feel, but also think about how it is experienced in general. I don’t always do a good job, but I try not to look back and say otherwise.

Don’t get confused. Lawrence is not an open book. On ESPN’s College GameDay, he said that to everyone’s surprise, this season will actually be Clemson’s last. Then, a few weeks later, we asked him again, and he lost a little faith. Lawrence said the world is full of chaos and everything is possible. He didn’t paint himself in a corner.

Ironically, it is this fence measure that has perhaps caused most controversy.

Lawrence is expected to be the number one choice in the next NFL draft, which means he will almost certainly end up with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Most players used to winning would probably like to join him. It was therefore assumed that if Lawrence was no longer safe to enter the project, there should be an explanation.

Lawrence said he just wanted to keep his options open, but he was exhausted by the reaction to what he thought was a win-win situation.

People want to tell me I’m leaving school for good, and I’m not going to say that, Lawrence said last month. I’ll never be in such a hurry, but that’s what people want to hear. I want to leave it to myself to take matters into my own hands and make a decision, and of course I won’t say for sure that I’m leaving, and it turns out that it makes more noise than if I hadn’t said anything.

Fault! The file name is not specified. Game

1:00

Clemson’s quarterback Trevor Lawrence retains the ability to return for his last season.

Lawrence doesn’t want to be part of history. He is a man, with ideas, opinions and beliefs that are important to him, and when he speaks, that is what he offers the world. This isn’t a story, a spit or a program.

He knows what impact he can have when he talks about things he really believes in, Rencher said. It is very humble and authentic. When Trevor talks, people know it’s from a real, thoughtful place where, hopefully, someone will follow him. He wants to go to the top and come up with something very meaningful.

Lawrence saw enough in his time to know that once words come over his lips, they belong to the masses. What’s impressive about his coaches and teammates is that it doesn’t intimidate him.

He came in with astronomical expectations and insane glory and the way he acted is a great example to many elite players, said offensive lineman Matt Bockhorst. I know it’s hard being Trevor Lawrence. He’s had this crazy performance throughout his career, and he’s handled it well. He used his platform for good and defended many people who don’t have the same voice as him.

That’s an interesting parallel with Lawrence’s head coach. Mr. Swinney talked about many of the same topics as Lawrence this year, with very different results. He was criticized for his apathetic approach to COWID-19 when he hinted in the spring with the acronym TIGERS that he would soon put an end to it. While Lawrence’s We Want to Play movement included several actors who advocated the association of athletes, Swinney was openly vocal in his disgust for a professional model in varsity sports.

Fault! The file name is not specified. There are a lot of special players, but nothing like this guy, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of Lawrence. He’s the whole package. Ken Ruinard/U.S. Monday sports

Lawrence was one of Swinney’s most direct defenders in all of this. He points out that without the empowerment culture that Swinney created in Clemson, there would be no platform for players like him to express themselves the way he did. But he also illustrated the almost impossible balancing act Lawrence has to do if he wants Trevor Lawrence to be the man before he can be Trevor Lawrence the soccer player.

He’s tough, and if you want to be a football coach or quarterback, you’d better be tough, Swinney said. We live in a world with a lot of [social media critics], and you can deal with that or not. … It’s authentic and real, even if it can drive some [critics] crazy. So he has great confidence and great humility.

After the We Want to Play movement and the movement for social justice, Lawrence clearly defined his priorities: I never want to be used as a political pawn. In mid-August, he was asked to call the White House. President Donald Trump wanted to talk about the withdrawal of players for the season.

Lawrence said I really didn’t have a problem. Whoever the president is, I respect them and when I get a chance to talk to them, I’ll talk to them. That’s my opinion, and of course other people will take it differently. Honestly, I haven’t given it much thought.

Earlier this month Lawrence was contacted again about player compensation. Over the past six months he has shown how much power he has in the world of university football, and if only he had advocated a new model capable of generating real movement on his own. But it’s torn.

On the one hand, he said he likes school football the way it is. He said she’s special and that changes can affect her.

Trevor Lawrence wants to be more than just another star QB — but first, he wants to win

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On the other hand, Lawrence has seen players this season sacrifice themselves for schools to reap the financial benefits of a game played by amateurs. I see what the other guys are saying, he confessed.

I think things will change, he said. But it’s above my pay grade.

He is not ready to be the face of this debate, but as this season has shown, he hopes to remain true to himself, no matter what others say.

That’s what he is, and that’s why he’s special, Mr. Swinney. That’s why he’ll be the first. There’s a lot of special players, but nothing like this guy. He’s the whole package.

When Lawrence tested positive for COWID-19 and had to abstain from two games, he still attended all team meetings on Zoom and went to Notre Dame to go knockout.

Lawrence could have withdrawn after his diagnosis, but there was no doubt Lawrence would return, Rencher said.

Ask Lawrence what he wants most today, and the answer is simple: to beat Ohio State. But that’s not all. What he has done in 2020 is to sketch a broader vision of his life on a vast palette – a team that needs him now for a final journey, and in the not so distant future, where he will be called upon for much more.

I have learned a lot about myself and who I want to be and I have improved throughout the process, Lawrence says. But I want it to end well and play for a championship. That was the goal from the beginning.

Mr. Swinney said what many scouts have predicted, that Lawrence will blossom to the next level. The plots, the cover-ups, the hits…. He’s got it all figured out, Mr. Swinney. The only difference is Lawrence needs to be a little more specific. The windows close quickly. He’ll have to keep re-profiling the needle.

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