How Clemson star Trevor Lawrence has learned to embrace fame — 'You're not hiding from it'

Pete Thamel

There are tricks to being the biggest star in a small town. And Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence began learning them quickly, beginning when daytime trips to the grocery store didn’t involve purchasing many actual groceries. “Tried to go a couple times in the middle of the day,” Lawrence said with a chuckle. “Didn't get any shopping done.”

Part of Lawrence’s routine now involves going to the Publix at Gateway Village a few minutes before the 10 p.m. closing. He then executes the grocery version of the two-minute drill. “Get in,” he said with a chuckle. “Get out.”

In the wake of a generationally jaw-dropping freshman season when he led Clemson to a national title, everything changed for Lawrence. On the field and off it, it’s been a season of adjustment and intermittent growth for Lawrence, who became the first true freshman quarterback to lead a team to the national title since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985.

By the final game of Lawrence’s freshman season, a 44-16 thrashing of Alabama in the national title game, he’d emerged as the favorite to become the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL draft. His performance dictated the endless glare of modern stardom off the field and unprecedented expectations on it.

With a golden arm, unmistakable hair and the aura of stardom around him, Lawrence confronted a new normal. “I would probably much rather not have the fame,” Lawrence said. He added: “I learned a lot by just embracing it. You're not hiding from it.”

Less than two months removed from the title game, Lawrence received a vivid portrait of how different his life would be. Video of him shoving a student in an intramural basketball game at Clemson went viral. The undersized kid set a pick in the backcourt, and Lawrence threw him to the ground.

Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) warms up before the 2019 College Football Playoff Championship game against the Alabama Crimson Tide. (Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY)
Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence warms up before the 2019 College Football Playoff Championship game against the Alabama Crimson Tide. (Matthew Emmons/USA Today)

Typical freshman nonsense, except this went viral. For Lawrence, it became a reminder of how little margin for error remains. Questions immediately emerged: Why did he push over the kid? Why was he even playing intramural basketball in the first place?

This is the type of dust-up that if it happened in the 1990s wouldn’t have been much more than dining commons buzz. In 2019, it proved the daily reality of college stardom.

“It's tough, because any time he's out doing something, people got cameras all over his face,” Clemson safety Tanner Muse said. “I don't know if you saw the clip of him playing basketball, knocking that guy down. Little things like that get blown out of proportion. So, it's tough for him.”

Lawrence is quick to point out that his issues with stardom are first-world problems. He said he’s quietly studied how Clemson coach Dabo Swinney handles himself around Clemson, as he welcomes the interactions with locals and understands that he’s always on stage.

Lawrence is 6-foot-5 and has trademark shoulder-length blond hair that begs for a shampoo endorsement. He’s quickly learned that in a town of nearly 16,000, he’s going to stand out as if he bathed in highlighter. Lawrence has no animosity, but admits an adjustment.

“It's something I've gotten used to now,” he said. “It's better this way than the other way. I'm glad people know me, but it definitely can be trying sometimes. But for me, I just want to use it the right way and use my spotlight the right way.”

Early this season, Lawrence looked like he’d struggled to adjust to the on-field spotlight. At the end of the first quarter of Clemson’s game at Louisville, Lawrence had thrown eight interceptions and just 11 touchdowns. The rumblings about a sophomore slump grew louder, as opposing coordinators saw him pressing.

The Clemson coaching staff said that a two-minute drive to end the first half of that Louisville game helped center Lawrence. He completed a 25-yard touchdown to Justyn Ross with five seconds remaining, but the important lesson came in a check-down pass for 16 yards to Travis Etienne earlier in the drive.

Quarterback coach Brandon Streeter told Yahoo Sports that the Louisville game marked a turning point for Lawrence, who’d been forcing balls downfield and trusting his rocket right arm too much. Streeter said: “He learned that he can push through that adversity and come away with learning how to check it down to the back and not try to force things.’”

Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott recalled a similar lull for former Clemson star Deshaun Watson at the start of the 2016 season. Watson had three interceptions in narrow wins over Auburn and Troy to open the year, and he ended up finishing with 17 on the season. Elliott said the similarities between the two seasons come with both quarterbacks trying to “rush the process.”

In both cases, check-downs proved the best antidote to mistakes of aggression. And both learned an age-old lesson for quarterbacks leading a team: “Let's be a team that can hit the home run, but let's be a team that can base hit and manufacture runs.”

Everything has come together for Lawrence at a stunning rate since that choppy first quarter in Louisville. He’s thrown 25 touchdown passes and no interceptions since. Against Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinal, he showcased his legs with 107 rushing yards on 16 carries and a surprising burst on a 67-yard touchdown scamper that proved one of the game’s biggest plays.

Amid newfound fame and a duel with on-field adversity, Lawrence has ended up exactly where everyone expected. He’s got Clemson in the national title game, riding a 29-game win streak and he’s still the runaway favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL draft. He’s 25-0 as a starting college quarterback and enters his showdown with Joe Burrow having thrown 36 touchdowns and completing 67.6 percent of his passes.

And while the trappings of fame can be a pest as he’s racing through Publix at 9:45 p.m., he’s learning to use them the right way. “Just to encourage and be a good example for people, whether that’s kids, adults, whatever it is,” he said. “Just show people that you can do things the right way and still be successful and have fun doing it.”

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