"WHAT DO YOU make of this?" Trevor Lawrence asked.
Darien Rencher sat with Lawrence on a kitchen counter in an apartment just north of downtown Atlanta, the sweep of Piedmont Park in the distance, the city roiling below. The two -- one white, one Black, teammates at Clemson, friends -- heard the whip of helicopter blades overhead. They saw the fug of smoke cloaking the streets. They watched as police and protesters shut down the highways, the arteries to the city lacerated.
George Floyd had been killed four days earlier.
Lawrence and Rencher had come to Atlanta to visit friends; they arrived to a city on fire, and Lawrence wanted to know what Rencher thought of that fire, of those helicopters and that smoke, of the unrest boiling up all around them. Rencher sat across from Lawrence, one of his best friends these past two years, and considered the question. Had Lawrence ever been pulled over by the police, then felt the hot lava rush of a lifetime's worth of admonitions? Take caution, tread lightly, try to survive.
Let me put my hands here.
Let me be slow to speak.
Am I putting my hands in a spot that will save my life?
Am I speaking slow enough to live?
"He's a young white man," Rencher says. "He never had to navigate through some things I've had to navigate through. Or even be aware of things I have to be aware of."
Rencher knew George Floyd's death had knocked him sideways in a way it hadn't Lawrence. When he steeled himself to watch the video of Floyd splayed on the pavement in Minneapolis, Rencher saw himself splayed on that pavement. When he saw Floyd coughing out his last despairing pleas -- Mama ... I can't breathe -- he saw people he knew coughing out despairing pleas. When he saw Floyd killed, with that knee to his neck, he saw himself and people he knew succumbing to that same cruel fate, an inhuman one. Knee to their necks; death penalty on the side of the street.
"What do you make of this?" Lawrence had asked.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the country's preeminent voices on race, wrote recently that though he had not yet watched in full the video chronicling Floyd's death, he had "seen enough of the genre to know the belief in black people as disaster, as calamity, as a Great Fire upon the city, has not yet waned."
Rencher knew this tortured dance. People who looked like him would speak up, and a lot of people who looked like Lawrence wouldn't listen. Then people who looked like him would speak more, and some people who looked like Lawrence would listen but not care. Then people who looked like him would speak louder, but too many people who looked like Lawrence would care but not always believe. The belief has not yet waned.
"What do you make of this?" Lawrence had asked.
"I understand it," Rencher told Lawrence. "I'm not saying I agree with it, but I understand why they feel this way and why they're acting like this. Why they feel like they haven't been heard before."
On a night in late May, Rencher and Lawrence watched as smoke from great fires billowed skyward. One explained why; one listened.
WE WANT TO hear what Trevor Lawrence has to say.
His teammates at Clemson; his coaches at Clemson; the opponents he's rolled through in two seasons at Clemson; the mayor of Cartersville, the little suburb in the hills of northwest Georgia where he grew up; the president of the United States. He owns our collective attention.
Star athletes -- star quarterbacks especially, and charismatic star quarterbacks most of all -- dazzle us. Baker Mayfield planted a flag and we loved to hate him. Johnny Manziel barnstormed Tuscaloosa and we hated to love him. Deshaun Watson vanquished the evil empire with a smile on his face and we couldn't help but smile too.
But Lawrence has captured us in a way that feels new and a little radical and more than a little paradigm-changing. He is the face of college football in this turbulent 2020 season; he is the face of all that is tectonically shifting in the sport this fall.
We first met Lawrence two seasons ago, when he carved up Nick Saban's defense as a true freshman in the national championship game. He was a surgeon -- 97.8 QBR in a 44-16 romp -- and the ease with which he dissected Alabama was shocking, unnerving even, like when you learn that actual surgeons sing and chitchat while conducting real dissections. He's been the anointed top pick in the 2021 NFL draft ever since. He trends on Twitter when tanking truthers suspect Bill Belichick is plotting for next year's No. 1 pick after a slew of Patriots opt out of the 2020 season; he trends on Twitter when tanking realists mourn Jacksonville waiving Leonard Fournette as the latest casualty in the Jaguars' slow death march to 2021's top draft spot. Now we know him simply as the best player on the best team in the country -- and that throne has bestowed to him a bullhorn.
"Trevor Lawrence basically has the ear of the president of the United States, for god's sake," says Lane Demas, a professor at Central Michigan University who specializes in the history of race and popular culture in America.
Demas is speaking literally, of course, after a White House staffer reached out to Lawrence's mother, Amanda, to facilitate a call between her son and President Donald Trump. ("It was definitely exciting and surreal," Lawrence said of his phone conversation with the president in August, when they expressed their shared desire for college football to return.) That, in turn, was after the president quote-tweeted Lawrence. "Sometimes when you think about it, it's crazy," Amanda says of the sheer outlandishness of Lawrence's reach. "Almost everyone in the United States knows who Trevor is. That's so weird." The height (6-foot-6; "hella tall," says Rencher) and the hair (cascading; sun-kissed blond) serve only to exacerbate Lawrence's life in a fishbowl.
It's impossible, certainly, to separate the sheer outlandishness of Trevor's reach from the basic fact of what affords him that reach in the first place. To use Rencher's words: Lawrence is a young white man. And a white quarterback. On the No. 1 team in the country. That does more than amplify his platform.
"It is the platform," says psychologist Reuben Faloughi, a former football player at Georgia and current clinician for the University of South Florida. "He's a white male in society. If you have enough privileged identities, you're treated like it. If you have enough marginalized identities -- or you're just Black, in many instances -- you suffer."
The sum of those parts means Lawrence never quite recedes into the shadows, even if he wants to, even when he wants to, which by all accounts he does now. Lawrence, who declined to be interviewed for this story, seems hyperaware that if he shows up, or speaks, or really so much as breathes around the issues bubbling up in college football these days, he doesn't just create headlines. He becomes the headline.
In the past six months, he has, in short order: bent the NCAA's antediluvian rules to his will, ushering through a GoFundMe campaign that was shuttered at the Clemson compliance office's request, then un-shuttered after the NCAA greenlighted an exception for the act of goodwill (and similar acts by all student-athletes), providing financial relief for victims of the coronavirus pandemic; co-led a march for social justice on Clemson's campus, then united with players nationwide on a five-point plan to dismantle the country's systemic racism pandemic; joined a parade of Power 5 power players to enumerate a list of athlete demands, among them calling for a players' association to tackle college football's exploitation pandemic.
"I've learned that every truly good thing in life comes from being brave and stepping into the uncomfortable," Lawrence told the crowd of thousands who came to rally for Black Lives Matter on Clemson's campus in the middle of June. Thousands whom he may have forced into discomfort too, or at the very least, forced their neighbors into; Pickens and Anderson counties, where Clemson resides, are home to a fire-engine-red political base, the demographic group for which the Black Lives Matter movement remains controversial -- at best.
"It's uncomfortable to set aside everything I know about America and listen to someone else's perspective," he went on. "However, it's necessary. Recently I've realized that the America I experience is different from the America that my brothers and sisters experience."
He stood beneath a black banner that avowed "Black Lives Matter," wearing a black polo shirt with the Clemson paw stamped on his chest. We wanted to hear what Trevor Lawrence had to say; he wanted to tell us what he was hearing.
A FEW NIGHTS after Lawrence and Rencher returned to Clemson's campus from Atlanta, just over a week before they'd lead the march on campus, the two went to Dabo Swinney's house. Clemson's $93 million head coach considers himself a man of the people, a man of the players, and because his two oldest sons are on the team, Clemson players will oftentimes congregate at his home. But Swinney, with Rencher's help, had called only the seniors over that night. (Lawrence is on track to graduate in December and is considered an honorary senior.) Swinney grilled hamburgers and hot dogs; his wife, "Ms. Kathleen," added her own specialty dish, a doughnut concoction the players love. They played basketball and reveled in one another's company, a small luxury in 2020. The coronavirus had scattered them back to their hometowns, and this was their reunion. It was also their reckoning.
After an hour, they gathered in the Swinneys' living room, more than a dozen Clemson football players taking up residence on the sofas. The coach joined them, but he handed stewardship of the night over to his players. Swinney is not especially reticent, but where that has served him handsomely as a coach, it has earned him reproach in off-the-field matters. Four years ago, in the swirl of Colin Kaepernick's protest, Swinney offered that "some of these people need to move to another country," and though he'd later deem those words harsh, he'd draw ire again this June for both his handling of an assistant coach's use of a racial epithet and for wearing a "Football Matters" shirt just as Black Lives Matter protests were cresting across the country. His players -- Lawrence and Rencher among them -- are lightning quick to defend him, and they explain it's for reasons like this night.
"Rench, you take the lead," Swinney told Rencher, and so he did.
"You can bring up whatever you want to bring up," the running back told his teammates. "You can address whatever you want to address."
Cornell Powell, Clemson's fifth-year senior at wide receiver, told his teammates that not long after George Floyd was killed, an officer pulled him over back home in Greenville, North Carolina. The tint on his windows was too dark, the cop said. By the time Powell looked up, two more police officers had joined the first.
All this? You need three cops for this? Powell thought to himself.
Another senior said he too had been pulled over at home, and he felt sure the police officer had been prodding him, urging him to reach for something, make a move. If he did reach, if he moved, if he breathed the wrong way, then ...
He began to cry. Rencher cried. Rencher looked up to find Ms. Kathleen crying too.
They shared and shared and shared, things they had been too nervous to say out loud before, things they found out for the first time they had in common, each story a confirmation, an affirmation of this lived experience. A diminishment too. There is community when you recognize your hardship in others' hardships; there is trauma in that collective dawning too.
Eventually, Lawrence spoke.
He would never know what his Black teammates go through, he told them. He could never truly understand what it means to be them. But he wanted everyone to know this:
"If there's anything I can do to help, or to bring light to the situation," he said, "then I will."
ON A SUNDAY night in August, two months after Rencher and Lawrence took to a protest stage on campus, they sat in the apartment of Lawrence's fiancée, Marissa Mowry, waiting to hear if college football's leading conferences would do the previously unthinkable and call off their fall seasons.
There were whispers the Big Ten was set to postpone its fall play. The Pac-12 too. And once one domino fell, couldn't they all, wouldn't they all? Which was why Rencher reached out on GroupMe to Stanford defensive end Dylan Boles at 8:30 that night. The two had never met, but Rencher knew Boles had helped spearhead the Pac-12's #WeAreUnited charge the week before, and Rencher had an idea percolating. Wouldn't it be powerful, he thought, wouldn't it be undeniable, if Boles' #WeAreUnited movement fused with the rash of players putting out their own #WeWantToPlay dispatches? They shared the same goals, after all, if not the same language. They wanted to play; they wanted to play safely.
Rencher and Boles swapped messages ("Cooking up some things on our end," Rencher wrote), then escalated their communication to FaceTime. A few minutes into the call, Rencher flipped the camera to point outward. Trevor Lawrence was looking back at Boles.
Their three-way 20-minute FaceTime call gave way to a larger 30-minute Zoom call -- Lawrence knew Justin Fields at Ohio State and looped him in; Boles knew Hunter Reynolds at Michigan; they had lines in to Chuba Hubbard at Oklahoma State and Najee Harris at Alabama to boot. On Zoom, Boles opened up the conversation; Reynolds suggested everyone introduce themselves, then read a prepared statement he was working on. Lawrence, once again, listened.
"We had a lot of weight with just the players that we had," Boles says. "But to essentially get the guy in college football to step forward is astounding."
As Sunday night turned to Monday morning, Lawrence tweeted out the missive: He was linking virtual arms with a who's who from the Power 5. They wanted to play football this fall; they wanted to do so responsibly, with universal and mandated COVID-19 safety protocols; they wanted, critically, a players' association.
A batch of identical communiqués from Rencher and Boles and Fields and Hubbard and Harris accompanied Lawrence's, the tweet that launched 15,000 retweets -- plus one from the White House. He owns our collective attention.
Their entreaties were met with mixed success -- the Big Ten and Pac-12 would go on to cancel fall games, while the ACC, Big 12 and SEC opted to forge ahead -- but the show of unity and force of their joined voices felt intoxicating. The unification effort wasn't Lawrence's brainchild alone, nor even his brainchild to start. But in retrospect, the moment that unification effort was destined to go global was the moment Boles turned around to find Trevor Lawrence adding his face to the fight.
"He is aware of the influence he holds," Rencher says. "He knows the responsibility that comes with the territory."
TREVOR LAWRENCE HAS leapt into the sport's thorniest issues -- amateurism or lack thereof; racial justice or lack thereof -- but has managed, in the weeks and months since he first jumped in headfirst, to push while being palatable. To cause discomfort, to use his words, but not disgust. To offer scathing critiques while emerging unscathed himself.
He heard the concern at the outset, the well-meaning calls for restraint, for taking the safer, quieter road. Those calls at times came from his own mother and father. How could he speak up? Even if the reward was noble and good and just, what of the risk?
"I'm a lot more nervous for him than he is for himself," Amanda says. "But Trevor's his own person. If he's really compelled to do something, he's going to do it."
Some of that compulsion Amanda attributes to Lawrence's faith, his devotion to which is both public ("Pursuing Him at all costs," he broadcasts on his Twitter bio) and fiercely private. Many of his closest friends on the team join him for weekly Bible study, including Rencher and Powell, or attend services at NewSpring Church in nearby Anderson.
Some of that compulsion is driven by the drip-drip-drip of the individual hardships and the deluge of shared trauma his Black teammates chose to confide to him, and he chose to believe.
No person in college football has less to lose by not playing the 2020 season than Lawrence. No person in college football has less to gain by rattling the status quo either. But Scripture says "To whom much is given, much will be required," Amanda points out. Lawrence might not need to play, but his teammates do, and he can help. The current system might work just fine for him, but it doesn't for everyone, and he can help there too.
So he has walked a tightrope for months without stumbling, and he has done it publicly, unflinchingly, his sure footing born of the fact that he is not so much speaking out as giving voice to amplify what others, especially his Black teammates, have long been shouting.
"People make me the face of everything," he told a group of reporters this week. "But honestly, I'm not doing as much work as [others] are."
To belabor the self-evident, Lawrence's perceived sure-footedness, and the open reception he has received while tiptoeing along that tightrope, are made possible just by virtue of his being a white man delivering the message. Would his Black teammates, speaking and acting alone, be granted such space for steadiness, such reception?
Faloughi practically scoffs at the notion. "Did you see how they treated Colin Kaepernick?"
He adds, "For an athletic department to make a Black quarterback who is speaking out about social issues the front of their program, that would be radical. Ra-di-cal."
It's not a coincidence as much as a design of the system, then, that white allies are key, as Demas explains. Tipping points, even. "We see throughout history when Black athletes have a movement, often very key to that movement is getting white teammates to support them."
So how could he speak up? To Lawrence, that wasn't the right question.
How could he not?
HOW COULD THEY NOT?
Six years ago, Maryland football players asked themselves the question too. They decided they wanted to wear shirts that proclaimed "I can't breathe" to spotlight the killing of Eric Garner, another unarmed Black man, and the last words he spoke. And presciently, terribly, now George Floyd's last words too. The university's powers that be overruled them.
Compare that to now, today, when a Black high school recruit reports that Swinney himself has sent a video that shows him addressing these very issues. Even if these athletes have only the illusion of power, even if true, tangible, actionable power comes via representation and the kind of sea change the #WeAreUnited and #WeWantToPlay movements are itching for, it is a remarkable exchange of soft power that the best coaches in the land feel obligated to prove their social justice bona fides.
We find ourselves in a perfect storm of upheaval. Black athletes make up the largest demographic bloc in the Division I football workforce. They are screaming out about systems of racial inequality. They have returned to campuses across the country to play a game in the middle of a pandemic that is ravaging this country's Black communities in a unique and insidious way. They are screaming and returning, all without the semblance of someone or a group of someones representing their, or any athletes', interests.
"There's almost no time when it's been clearer that the stakes are so high," says Ellen Staurowsky, a Drexel University professor and expert on social justice issues in sports. "We have a system that is simply not up to protecting athletes. At some subterranean level, people have understood. But they haven't really understood."
That Trevor Lawrence is the right person at the right time in the right place to force that subterranean level of understanding into sunlight is undeniably true. Perhaps the next face of college football won't also opt to become the face of change for college football. Perhaps the next agent for change won't be the sport's paramount star. But for a spell, we have Lawrence, as both, doing both -- unwilling or unable to let this moment pass by.
On a Saturday morning at the end of August, Lawrence and Rencher found themselves back at Mowry's apartment, asking each other -- again -- what they made of the latest turmoil. Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who, in his sister's words, is a father, a cousin, a son, an uncle but above all a human, was shot in the back at point-blank range seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Have we helped make any changes? Have we made a difference?
Rencher landed here: "The lie that gets put out there is, what you did didn't matter. But it did, though. And it has. And it will."
So on that Saturday morning at the end of August, they entered another Zoom call. On the other end were familiar faces, many of the same who banded together for #WeAreUnited and #WeWantToPlay, because they have come to realize what has long been true. Economic rights are racial equality rights are human rights. So they reconvened to plot a new course. They had protested; now they were asking themselves what comes after. A week later, what came was this: a point-by-point plan, tweeted in unison (again) by the likes of Lawrence, Rencher, Boles and Reynolds (again), on how they planned to play football this fall while promoting change for social and racial justice. Voter registration. Communication with local police departments and community leaders. Tributes to victims of racial injustice.
The season begins in earnest on Saturday. The microphone will be theirs, if they choose to use it.
"I'm on the journey now of discovering how I can use my voice, platform and influence to lift others up," Lawrence had told a captive Clemson audience back at the rally in June, three months ago, a lifetime ago. "And stand for those who shouldn't have to stand alone."