CARTERSVILLE, Ga. — Dennis Priest is a football lover like most residents in his town, so the 70-year-old knows well that the high school team’s starting quarterback is always a local celebrity. The most recent one to pass through Cartersville High School, Clemson starter Trevor Lawrence, is a superstar. “If you knew football,” Priest says, “you knew him.” Plenty of people here know football, and the few who are unfamiliar with the sport still recognize Lawrence, because how could they not? He stands 6'6" and has blond hair well past his shoulders. “Can’t really miss him,” says Joey King, Lawrence’s high school coach.
Lawrence is tailed around this town like a movie star in Los Angeles. Karie Young, a Cartersville native, once saw Lawrence at his go-to dining spot, El Charro Mexican Grill. He temporarily abandoned his burritos to pose for photos and sign autographs. As recently as October, Lawrence returned home during Clemson’s bye week, an appearance that had this place buzzing, says Pat Taff, a longtime resident: “They spotted him at the Waffle House.” Priest’s most memorable run-in with Lawrence came right where he sits now: belly up to the bar on a red swivel stool at 4 Way Lunch, the oldest operating restaurant in all of Bartow County, nestled in downtown Cartersville. “He got a hot dog one day and went and sat out in his truck and ate it,” Priest says. “I watched him from here eat his hot dog alone in his truck.”
Lawrence’s fame as Clemson’s sensational freshman quarterback is slowly sweeping the country, his unmistakable hair, lanky build and square jaw now the face of a national title hopeful. But his stardom began years ago, in a town situated at the northwest edge of Metro Atlanta metro area. This place made Lawrence, molded and crafted him into an extraordinarily polished eighth-grade passer, then the most prolific high school quarterback in Georgia state history and then a player the Tigers couldn’t afford not to play.
The subdued quarterback you see on your television is far different from the one who grew up here. Trevor was such a “wild man,” according to his mother, that he would often dash away from his parents into oncoming traffic. He was nearly struck by a car when he was three, “a very close call” in a restaurant parking lot that still gives his dad flashbacks. As he grew older, Trevor got more physical. When he was seven, he ripped his nostril from his face while diving to make a tackle in the family’s front yard. His height comes from his father Jeremy, who is 6'7". His hair is somewhat of a mystery, even to his family: He sported a buzz cut in eighth grade before growing it out. “It kind of just blew up,” Amanda says. “He never intended it to be his trademark.”
The path Trevor took to becoming the No. 1-ranked quarterback in this year’s freshman class runs through, of all places, Chick-fil-A, where he would watch game film over breakfast in a corner booth, trying his best to dodge locals. Trevor Mania got so intense here that, after one practice, Lawrence arrived to his vehicle to find two men waiting for a photo and autograph. They had driven down from Ohio.
Cartersville roots for its favorite son, even if he’s not playing for their Bulldogs. “It’s funny,” says Missy Rogers, the manager of 4 Way Lunch and, according to her red UGA Yeti mug, a Georgia supporter. “A lot of people come in here and they’d never liked Clemson. Now, they’re for Clemson.”
What Lawrence is doing three hours east in South Carolina is nearly unprecedented. Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway is still the only true freshman starting quarterback to lead his team to a national championship, and like Holieway did in 1985, Lawrence took over as Clemson’s starter in the fifth game of the season—but Holieway only played after a season-ending injury to starter Troy Aikman, while Lawrence beat out senior Kelly Bryant on sheer talent after a back-and-forth battle over the first month of the season. “For me, that was déjà vu,” says Miller Forristall, the Cartersville High quarterback who became the first victim of Lawrence’s talents in 2014. As a freshman, Lawrence won the job over the junior Forristall following a brief two-quarterback rotation approach. “Earlier this year, I was thinking, ‘Good luck Kelly Bryant. I’ve seen that one before. Been there, done that,’” Forristall says.
After losing the starting QB job, Forristall moved to tight end, became Lawrence’s most reliable target, drew more than 20 scholarship offers and is now playing the position at Alabama, a team with another prolific young passer in Tua Tagovailoa. “Trevor’s got that thing,” Forristall says. “Tua has that thing. It’s the winner quality.” Lawrence’s career record as a starting quarterback is mind-boggling: 61–2. The ACC championship he won in early December fits nicely on a résumé with the two state titles he won at Cartersville. He has eclipsed Deshaun Watson’s passing records at Clemson (total offense as a true freshman) and on the Georgia high school level (career passing yards and touchdowns). But for all his prep accomplishments, Lawrence often had to share the spotlight in his own corner of the state.
The No. 2-ranked quarterback in the 2018 recruiting class played just 18 miles away in Kennesaw: Justin Fields, who signed with Georgia but is exploring a transfer after an up-and-down freshman year. Gary Varner and his Allatoona High School football team had the privilege of playing both quarterbacks in consecutive seasons. “It didn’t go very well for us,” Varner deadpans. “I wonder if any other team has ever played the No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks in the nation in the same year—twice.” This area is known for its talent production. Cartersville, for instance, had the distinct honor last year of having, arguably, the nation’s best high school prospect at each of the three major sports: Lawrence in football, Ashton Hagans in basketball (he’s now a freshman at Kentucky) and Anthony Seigler in baseball (the Yankees selected him in the first round of the 2018 MLB draft). Sports here is a religion, and football is king. “Cartersville is a sleepy little town until Friday nights,” says Robbie Williams, a 20-year resident. “Then everybody loses their mind.”
On a chilly Thursday afternoon, Yvonne Holmes is seated in a small booth outside of Weinman Stadium, home of the Cartersville High School Hurricanes. She’s selling tickets, at $15 a pop, for the next night’s playoff game. Sales this season have been fine, but they always could be better. “It’s usually packed out, but not as much this year,” she says. “Trevor isn’t here.” Even in his absence, Lawrence is everywhere in this city and on this campus. Inside Cartersville’s football offices, King, in his fifth year as head coach here, reaches into a box hidden under his desk and retrieves a purple No. 16 Cartersville jersey worn by Lawrence. Can you guess what children here want more than anything this Christmas? “A Trevor Lawrence jersey, my kids included,” King laughs. They’re not getting this one. It will likely soon be retired, placed behind glass and hung inside a new $5.8 million football complex being built behind the north end zone of Weinman Stadium. On this Thursday, dozens of construction workers are erecting steel beams on the site of the new facility—call it The House That Trevor Built.
It was on a practice field next door to the construction site where King first saw Lawrence, then an eighth grader whose reputation preceded him. Forristall was there, too. “I remember for a workout, some skinny eighth grade kid showing up, really funny looking, short hair, came in and could throw the crap out of the ball,” Forristall recalls. “I was like, ‘O.K., who is this?’ They were like, ‘This is the Trevor Lawrence kid.’” Lawrence’s throws in practice were so accurate that Cartersville coaches had to play therapist to their starting defensive backs. “We had to tell them, ‘Look, no one else can make that throw,’” says Tim Graves, a longtime Cartersville assistant coach.
His physical attributes aside, Lawrence’s mental grasp of the game separated him from other players. He’s the rare prep quarterback who could not only complete his first and second reads, King says, but progress to his third and even his fourth. As a 14-year old, Lawrence was talented enough that Mansell, the recruiting reporter, broke his golden rule by writing about Lawrence. “I was like, I’m not going to write about eighth graders,” Mansell remembers, “and then he shows up to my camp that year.”
Around that time, Jeremy and Amanda Lawrence began sending their son to weekly hour-long training sessions in Atlanta with private coach Ron Veal, a former Arizona quarterback who also tutored Fields. Veal focused his instruction on Lawrence’s lower half—his base and foot movement—because, well, his arm was perfect. “Whoever takes credit for the arm, it’s a flat-out lie,” Veal says. “He’s a natural thrower.” Chandler Whitmer, a former Veal protégé who’s now on the staff at Yale, worked in conjunction with Veal in training Lawrence. He was often responsible for analyzing the quarterback’s game film and dispersing the information during those breakfast meetings at the Cartersville Chick-fil-A: Lawrence and Whitmer in a booth with a laptop open, Chick-n-Minis and chicken biscuits on the table.
Whitmer began working with Lawrence during the summer before his junior season, when his recruitment was the hottest. “I spoke with him a lot and his family off the record during all this,” Mansell says. “I knew what was going on. He was very, very close to committing to Georgia that summer before his junior year. At the end of July, he took a visit to Clemson and Georgia. Those visits kind of changed things. Clemson just kept chipping away. Eventually, they were the school by the end of November.”
The Lawrence family handled recruiting in a low-key manner. Trevor announced his commitment with a tweet, requested no interviews and then called Mansell to alert him. The Lawrences are a somewhat private family, a “small protected circle,” as Mansell describes it. Jeremy is the manager of a steel company, and Amanda is a nurse practitioner. Trevor’s 24-year-old brother Chase is an artist—“He didn’t get that from either of us,” a chuckling Jeremy says. Olivia, 7, is the baby of the family whom Mansell refers to as “the boss” of the house. “At each Tiger Walk, you can see Trevor stop and make sure he gives The Boss a hug,” Mansell says.
The Lawrences moved to Georgia for Jeremy’s job. Many of Amanda’s family members are Tennessee fans, and Trevor wears No. 16 in honor of Peyton Manning, which gave hope to championship-starved Volunteers fans during the recruiting process. When that hope was dashed, handwritten letters directed at Trevor arrived to King’s office at Cartersville High. “I didn’t even show him most of them. One Tennessee fan wrote in wishing,” King pauses, “bad things on him.”
Folks in Cartersville were upset, but they’ve long since moved past that. Back at 4 Way Lunch, Williams remembers. “Some of us got a little mad at him,” he says, looking up from a bowl of beef stew, a black cowboy hat tugged low and a Georgia Bulldogs shirt underneath jean overalls. “Everybody loved the kid when he was playing here. That’s what we’re most proud of: his character.”
Just down the street, at the Bartow County History Museum, Taff, manager of the gift shop, has two brothers, both Georgia fans who now watch Clemson on a regular basis. “Trevor,” she says in a one-word explanation. Taff leads a guest on a tour through a winding labyrinth of local history. There are decades-old newspaper clippings marking significant events, a video on loop detailing the town’s segregationist past and portraits of famous political and sports figures from the area. Trevor Lawrence isn’t one of them—at least not yet. “Well,” Taff smiles, “we might just be working on that now.”