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

Editor's Note: This story was first published before the ACC championship game against Notre Dame. It has been updated.

People keep asking how Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence has changed in 2020. They ask because, on the surface, it's tough to see, but logic suggests there must be a reason the likely future No. 1 NFL draft choice is still playing college football, and the assumption is, he's refining some small flaw in his otherwise exceptional game, polishing the already shimmering diamond to perfection. So people ask, again and again, what's changed?

They ask Tigers coach Dabo Swinney, and he goes on about leadership and Lawrence's ability to ensconce himself into every nook and cranny of the Clemson locker room. But, of course, Lawrence also won a national championship as a true freshman, just 11 starts into his college career, so this answer feels less about genuine growth than simple experience. So they keep asking.

They ask Lawrence's teammates. This season's receiving corps has been a sparsely stocked cupboard compared with the overflowing riches Lawrence enjoyed his first two seasons at Clemson, and yet the stat line still looks gaudy. Ask Amari Rodgers, the team's most reliable threat through the air, and he'll rave about how far Lawrence has taken this group, because every receiver gets a little better when the best QB in the country is throwing him the ball. And this season, Lawrence is fitting passes into even tighter windows than before. Still, it's hard to imagine Lawrence did all this -- the decision to play, the fight for player empowerment, the frustrating recovery from COVID-19 -- all to fit a pass into a window an inch smaller than last season. And so they keep asking.

They ask Lawrence himself, and he's got plenty of stock replies. He's got the playbook down pat. He's making faster reads. He's more accurate and consistent. But it feels hollow to simply say he's a little better at all those things he was already better at than nearly anyone else on the planet.

In another year, there'd be less need for these questions. Lawrence, a junior, was, in the mind of so many scouts, ready for the NFL from day one as a freshman, but the rules meant he'd be at Clemson for three seasons. But this is 2020, and the rules don't exactly apply. Plenty of guys with just a shred of his talent, players who don't approach the "sure thing" label Lawrence has had since high school, chose to opt out and avoid the stringent COVID-19 protocols. Not Lawrence, though. He wanted to play. And now, he leads No. 2 Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl against No. 3 Ohio State (8 pm ET on ESPN and ESPN App) two wins away from a second national championship.

Lawrence didn't just want to play, he demanded to play. He helped start a movement, working with teammates and friends from across college football, begging the powers that be to consider what the players wanted, to give them a chance to make a season work amid a global pandemic. Lawrence wasn't the architect of the movement, but his signature on the "We Want to Play" request stood out and forced others to take notice.

So if the most famous, most refined, most pro-ready player in college football wanted to play, if the guy with virtually nothing to gain and so much to lose insisted on a 2020 season, surely there was a reason.

The short answer is that Lawrence is a devout competitor. The need to compete burns deep in his soul, and to sit out a season would be hell. Missing two games while recovering from COVID-19, including one against Notre Dame earlier this year, possibly cost him a shot at the Heisman Trophy.

"He loves playing," Rodgers said. "It tore him up [that] he missed those games, especially Notre Dame."

But now he's back with a chance at the trophy he truly covets.

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

"You look at a lot of the guys in the NFL, it seems like it is their whole life, where every minute of the day is dedicated to football," Lawrence once said, months before his sophomore season began. "And I don't want that to be me."

And maybe that's not exactly why Lawrence is still here, but it at least feels like a worthy explanation.

"I don't think you can overstate what he's meant to college football this year," Swinney said. "He's used his platform to change the whole narrative."

Less than a week after COVID-19 shut down the sports world in March, Lawrence and his girlfriend, Marissa Mowry, launched a GoFundMe to help people most impacted by the virus. Almost immediately, Clemson's compliance department nixed the plan, suggesting it was a potential violation of the NCAA's ban on athletes using their name, image and likeness for crowdfunding. And that might've been the end of it, except this was one of the most famous players in college football, and the media had already taken notice of the charitable gesture. Suddenly the pressure was on the sport to change the rule -- or at least interpret it a bit more loosely.

Within days, Clemson backed down, and Lawrence and Mowry relaunched a new-and-improved donation site.

Then in June, as protests erupted across the country in the wake of George Floyd's death while in police custody, athletes began to speak out about racism, police brutality and social justice. Players had done this before, of course, but rarely did the message resonate to the furthest reaches of any given fan base without getting lost in (or quieted by) the status quo.

Lawrence had been talking about all of this with his pal Darien Rencher, a Black backup running back who had become one of the QB's most trusted confidants. The two sat in an apartment in Atlanta, watching smoke billow from a protest, and Rencher explained why he hurt, why so many people who look like him hurt, and why protesters were now insisting the rest of the world feel their pain, too. Lawrence wanted to help once again.

He began by taking to Twitter: "I'm siding with my brothers that deal, and continuously deal, with things I will never experience. The injustice is clear, and so is the hate. It can no longer be explained away. If you're still 'explaining' it - check your heart and ask why."

Then he met with teammates -- Rencher, Cornell Powell and Mike Jones Jr. -- to plan a protest march at Clemson. It was Jones' idea, and Rencher and Powell did much of the legwork in organizing, too, but what Lawrence offered was a magnet that drew attention from every corner of the media.

Lawrence didn't want to be the guy speaking on topics he'd never actually experienced. But the spotlight on him was so big, it was impossible to avoid the obvious headlines that tended to go something like, "Trevor Lawrence and teammates lead protest." So Lawrence tried to explain his role in all of this not by lecturing, but by apologizing. He said there were times he'd seen or heard things he knew were wrong, but had said nothing. He hadn't wanted to rock the boat. Now he understood that's exactly what was needed.

"I know there's a lot of eyes on me," Lawrence said in September. "Critics, but also a lot of younger people looking up to me, so I'm conscious of that. I want to use my platform the right way and try to impact people. I'm not an activist of any sorts, but I do think I have a responsibility to promote equality and help the people I love."

What might have been an uncomfortable narrative actually helped underscore a larger point, Rencher said. The fact that the attention for a protest organized by Black athletes seemed to focus on the famous white quarterback created its own set of needed conversations. That Lawrence was willing to talk about his own role in allowing racial injustice to fester was emblematic of a larger cultural shift among many white allies of the Black community.

"The silver lining of everything that happened," Rencher said, "was everybody had to take a really deep self-evaluation of what part of the solution you're on. Part of the problem is obviously the people who just blatantly think the way they do, but also the people who were just on standby and don't really contribute to the solution.

"I think the country as a whole, that's how a lot of white people were. They're not blatantly racist, but they're not going to stand up with people who are hurting. And that was the beauty of what he did as a young, white man. He represented so many white people in his stance, recognizing he's been ignorant and maybe uneducated but [saying], 'I'm going to try to be part of the solution.' A lot of people saw themselves in what he was saying."

Two months later, when the sport was on the verge of shuttering for the fall, Lawrence and Rencher again took center stage. Just days before the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced the cancellation of their seasons, Lawrence and Rencher set up a video call with a dozen other college athletes to create the "We Want to Play" movement, imploring school presidents and conference commissioners to find a way to make the 2020 campaign work. Wrapped up in all of it, however, was an underlying message: The players want power. They want to be a part of deciding the sport's future.

Lawrence was reluctant to voice support for unionization, but his presence within the larger chorus lent legitimacy to the conversation. As college sports navigated a summer that felt like a tipping of the scales toward player empowerment, there was Lawrence, somehow the face of the movement even if he wasn't the one pushing the hard-line agenda.

It would be easy to suggest Lawrence has played it safe. He didn't point fingers when the virus first upended normal life. He didn't stage a sit-in out front of a police station during the protests. He didn't demand financial compensation for players during this most arduous of seasons. He left all that to others.

But Lawrence has managed to not overwhelm the message with his own celebrity. He's tiptoed a fine line between speaking up when he feels he must, but doing it with such careful intention that it's difficult to critique his motivations.

"There's a lot of things going on that are important to me, but some stuff, regardless of what I say, it's not something I'm going to change," Lawrence said. "Sometimes it's tough in the media, you get asked a hard question and you want to answer it truthfully with how you feel, but also to think big picture how it's going to be taken. I don't always do a great job, but I try not to look back and wish I'd said it different."

Don't be confused. Lawrence is hardly an open book. He mentioned during an airing of ESPN's College GameDay that, in a surprise to absolutely no one, this season would indeed be his last at Clemson. Then, a few weeks later, he was asked again, and he backtracked a bit from such certainty. Lawrence's point was that the world is full of chaos and anything is possible. He wasn't painting himself into a corner.

Ironically, it was this measure of fence-sitting that generated perhaps the most controversy.

Lawrence should be the No. 1 pick in the next NFL draft, which means he'll almost assuredly end up with the Jacksonville Jaguars, hardly a situation most players accustomed to winning would be eager to join. So it was presumed that, if Lawrence was no longer certain he was entering the draft, this must be the explanation.

Lawrence said he just wanted to keep his options open, but he was exhausted by the response to what he viewed as a no-win situation.

"People want me to say no matter what, for sure I'm leaving school, and that's just not something I'm going to say," Lawrence explained last month. "I'm never going to corner myself like that, but that's what people want to hear. I want to leave myself opportunities to take everything in and make a decision and obviously I'm not going to say that for sure I'm staying or for sure I'm leaving, and it turns out that caused more of a commotion than if I hadn't said anything."

Lawrence doesn't want to be "the story." He's a person, with ideas and opinions and beliefs that matter to him, and when he speaks, that's what he's offering to the world. It's not a story or hot take or an agenda.

"He knows the impact he can have when he does speak up for things he truly believes in," Rencher said. "It's very humble and authentic. When Trevor speaks, people know it's from a genuine place and a reflectful place, where hopefully somebody will follow him. He wants to stand his ground and also put out something that's actually meaningful."

Lawrence has seen enough in his time to understand that, once the words escape his mouth, they belong to the masses. What's impressed his coaches and teammates is that he hasn't let that intimidate him.

"He's come with astronomical expectations and a crazy amount of fame, and how he's handled himself is a great example for a lot of elite players," offensive lineman Matt Bockhorst said. "I know that being Trevor Lawrence is difficult. He's had this crazy spectacle on him his entire career, and he's handled it all extremely well. He's used his platform for good, and to be about the right things, to vouch for a lot of guys who don't have the voice he has."

It's an interesting parallel to Lawrence's head coach. Swinney has spoken on many of the same topics as Lawrence this year, with definitively different results. He was criticized for an apathetic approach to COVID-19 when he coined the acronym "TIGERS" in the spring to suggest, "This is gonna end real soon." While Lawrence's "We Want to Play" movement included several players arguing for athlete unionization, Swinney has been outspoken in his reluctance to embrace a professional model in college sports.

Lawrence has been among Swinney's most outspoken defenders through all of it. He points out that, if not for the culture of empowerment Swinney created at Clemson, there would be no platform for players like him to speak out as he has. But it also illustrated the near-impossible balancing act Lawrence must continue if he wants to be Trevor Lawrence, the person, before being Trevor Lawrence, the football player.

"He's got thick skin, and if you're going to be a football coach or a quarterback, you better have thick skin," Swinney said. "We live in a world with a bunch of [social media critics] and you can either handle it or you can't. ... He's genuine and authentic, even if it might make some of the [critics] mad. He's got great confidence and humility that way."

In the wake of the "We Want to Play" and social justice movements, Lawrence made clear his priorities, saying, "I don't want to ever be used as a political pawn." In mid-August, he was asked to phone the White House. President Donald Trump wanted to talk about the players' push for a season.

"I really didn't have any concerns," Lawrence said. "Regardless of who the president is in office, I have respect for them, and if I have a chance to talk to them, I'm going to talk to them. That's my mindset, and obviously people will take it differently. I didn't think about it too much honestly."

Lawrence was asked again earlier this month about player compensation. The past six months showcased how much power he wields in the college football universe, and if he'd simply endorse a new model, that alone could generate real movement. But he's torn.

On the one hand, he said, he loves college football the way it is. "It's special," he said, "and change can affect that."

On the other hand, Lawrence has seen the sacrifices players have made this season to ensure schools reap the financial rewards of a game played by amateurs. "I see what other guys are saying," he admitted.

"The way things are trending, I think things will change," he said. "But that's above my pay grade."

He's not ready to be the face of this debate, but as this season has shown, he hopes to grow to be true to himself, no matter what anyone else wants.

"That's who he is, and that's why he's special," Swinney said. "That's why he'll be the first pick. There's a lot of special players out there, but not like this guy. He's the complete package."

When Lawrence tested positive for COVID-19 and was forced out of two games, he still took part in each team meeting via Zoom and still made the trip to Notre Dame to be on the sideline.

Lawrence could have opted out after the diagnosis, but there was never a doubt Lawrence would be back, Rencher said.

Ask Lawrence what he wants more than anything today, and it's a simple answer: to beat Ohio State. But that's not the whole picture. What he's done in 2020 is sketch out a broader vision for his life on a sprawling palette -- a team that needs him now for one last ride, and a future, not far off, where he'll be asked for so much more.

"I learned a lot about myself, and who I want to be, and became a better person through this whole process," Lawrence said. "But I want that to end in a good way football-wise and be able to play for a championship. That's been the goal all along."

Swinney has said what so many scouts have already projected, that Lawrence will thrive at the next level. The schemes, the coverages, the throws -- he's got all that figured out, Swinney said. The only difference is that Lawrence will have to be a bit more precise. The windows close quickly. He'll have to thread the needle again and again.