It turns out, not even the leader of the “We Want To Play” movement could be protected from a highly contagious coronavirus, no matter how many protocols, no matter how many tests, no matter how many careful hours, weeks and months of planning went into trying to play a college football season.
Lawrence is the leading figure in the sport and a projected No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, so you could argue he had more to lose than anyone else when he decided to not only return to Clemson this season, but also push as strongly as he did for all players to take the field. His comments in August, when he said players are safer with their teams on campus than back at home, have already drawn scrutiny and second-guessing for obvious reasons.
When you are the best quarterback in the country, the Heisman Trophy front-runner playing for the nation’s best team — and the favorite to go back to the national championship game — every decision, every announcement, every word falls so directly under a microscope that there is no escape from someone else’s opinion.
Just like his comments from earlier in the week, when Lawrence discussed his NFL future and said, “My mindset has been that I’m going to move on. But who knows? There’s a lot of things that could happen.”
That sliver of an opening set off a raft of speculation that ran the gamut from “Who would want to play for the New York Jets?” to “Who would want to turn down millions of dollars to risk coming back to school?” How the next 10 days progress will bring more of the same speculation as the Tigers move closer to the biggest game on their schedule so far, a Nov. 7 clash against No. 4 Notre Dame.
The questions will squarely focus on Lawrence’s health (what are his actual symptoms?), medical protocols (when will his 10-day isolation end?) and practice time (can he even play the game without taking a snap during the week?).
If following Lawrence for the past three years has shown us anything, it is that the scrutiny is always there — and he finds a way just to push it all aside, stare straight ahead and hold true to his convictions. After he won the national championship as a true freshman in 2018 with a knockout performance against Alabama, people wondered whether NFL draft rules should be changed so Lawrence could be drafted into the league immediately. “He’s losing millions!” one headline after another screamed.
Lawrence shrugged his shoulders. Coach Dabo Swinney called all that speculation a waste of time. When Lawrence played the worst game of his career in the national championship game against LSU in January, he took the blame and vowed to come back better than ever. The questions about his future did not just pop up this week, either, as the subject of “Tanking for Trevor” has been hotly debated since the NFL season began.
Yet just two weeks ago, offensive coordinator Tony Elliott gushed about the way Lawrence handled the “external noise about the future,” saying, “He’s really, really being present in the moment. He’s fully comfortable where he is. He’s embracing every opportunity that he gets to run out there, he’s not thinking about the future, he’s just trying to hone in on being the best version of him for his teammates.”
That is who Lawrence is at his core. Whether or not he made the right decision to come back this season, and the criticism to follow, is irrelevant because he believes he made the right decision. And since he became the most highly sought-after recruit in the country, Lawrence has continued to carry his teammates, the weight of expectations, the responsibility to lead.
Lawrence did not have to be here. Other high-profile players with their sights set on their NFL futures decided to opt out and not risk the inherent dangers in playing a season during a pandemic. Not Lawrence. Though he said in August he briefly thought about opting out, he never seriously considered it. Instead, when it appeared the season was on the verge of postponement, he helped create and lead the “We Want to Play” movement, imploring college football leaders and administrators not to take the season away from the players. He helped draw athletes from across the country to speak out, using the power of social media to call attention to their collective message.
At the time, Lawrence tweeted about the reasons why players were safer on campus than back at home, writing, in part, “We are more likely to get the virus in everyday life than playing football.” During an interview with local reporters a few days later, he added, “We just feel like if the NCAA can talk and put a plan together on what we need to do to be safe, I feel like we can do it. Here, we’re safe, so we can do it.”
Lawrence earned praise across the board for his leadership. What he did is true to who he is, in its most basic form: He wanted to play, so he led the way he always does, taking on the risks and responsibilities that come with it.
Rather than lead again Saturday, all he can do is sit and watch from home in isolation, away from the sport that has defined him and turned him into a superstar. He will come back eventually, and when he does, more scrutiny will follow, but it will be about something else. Lawrence will answer those questions the way he usually does, perhaps with an even greater appreciation for playing the game.
Because if there is anything we have learned during this pandemic, it is that the coronavirus does not care who you are or where you are. It can find anyone.
Even the face of college football.