CLEMSON, S.C. — Trevor Lawrence is on a bus. It is hot. Everyone is sweating. He’s mashed next to fellow teenagers who he’s just met. The ride is more than seven hours, a route taking them through Georgia on I-20 and down Florida’s east coast on I-95. When he arrives at Daytona Beach, his reward is a small hotel room to share with four other guys. “I think he was sleeping on the floor,” chuckles Dan Lian, one of the men who oversees these annual religious retreats, “but he experienced something there. It left him changed.”
Hold on. Let’s rewind. How and why did Lawrence get on that bus last July? For starters, he was lost. Not physically lost, but he was spiritually lost, emotionally lost, and this was not a great time to be lost. He was a few days away from the first preseason camp of his career at Clemson, and little did he know, a few weeks away from usurping Kelly Bryant as the starting quarterback, eventually becoming the first true freshman to lead a team to a national championship in more than 30 years. The latter two things, Lawrence now says, were not possible without finding himself, which wasn’t possible without boarding that sweaty bus for Florida, which was impossible without being introduced to Lian. “I think I was truly saved last summer. It’s been a cool journey,” Lawrence says in an interview this summer with Sports Illustrated. “I didn’t really know who I was outside of being this football player that was supposed to be good and play his freshman year. But who am I outside of that? I didn’t really know.”
You probably know a lot about Trevor Lawrence. You know that he’s 6-foot-6 with a slim build and blonde hair past his shoulders. You know he’s got a strong, accurate arm, because you saw him sling passes around a year ago en route to Clemson’s undefeated season. You might know he wears jersey No. 16 for his idol, Peyton Manning, and that he’s got a record of 64–2 as a career starting quarterback dating to his high school days in Georgia. But you probably didn’t know that during the first spring of his college career last year, Lawrence made some poor choices and was deeply troubled. He was lost.
Dan Lian pokes fun at his own appearance and accent. He is of Malaysian and Chinese decent, born in Australia. “People get totally confused when they see a Chinese guy sound like the crocodile hunter,” Lian laughs. It is this self-deprecating warmth that draws teenagers to him. Two years ago, Dan, his wife Krista and their two children moved from the metropolitan of Melbourne, Australia, to the sleepy town of Anderson, South Carolina, about 30 minutes south of Clemson. He became the pastor of NewSpring Church, a non-denominational outfit with satellite congregations in 14 cities in South Carolina and a Sunday attendance figure of more than 30,000. As of 2015, it was the third-fastest growing congregation in America.
NewSpring has been a significant part of Trevor Lawrence’s life during the last calendar year. Lian has been even bigger. “He’s a huge person in my life,” Lawrence says. Other Clemson players who attend NewSpring connected the two. One day, Lawrence found himself hitting golf balls with Lian on the driving range of The Walker Course in Clemson. Lian remembers their first meeting. “I didn’t know who he was. I don’t follow football,” he says. “When I first talked to him, I said, ‘Are you a kicker or a punter?’ I think that caught him off guard.” Lawrence began driving a half-hour south to Anderson each Sunday for church services. Their relationship blossomed into something of a therapeutic friendship. Lian and Lawrence took drives together on campus or in Anderson, just circling around while talking. The discussions grew deep. “It was often about ‘You’re great at football but you’re not a football player,’” Lian says. “You’re something more.” They began spending enough time together that Lian finally realized that his new protégé was, in fact, a teenage celebrity. Fans would approach the two of them and hand their phone to Lian. “Can you snap a photo?” they’d ask before nestling beside the tall, handsome quarterback.
Coming from Australia, Lian was somewhat mystified. Why on Earth do these people care about taking a photo with an 18-year old who hasn’t played a down? College sports in Australia are non-existent. In fact, that’s the case in most other countries. America is different. Here, we glorify and degrade teenagers for their actions and decisions in a fast-moving, physical contest that few of us ourselves could navigate at such an age. Some would say it is unhealthy. “These kids are demigods,” Lian says. The pressures of being the hottest rookie in college football rested on Lawrence during his first semester. He enrolled early in January and participated in spring practice. Off the field, he wasn’t living in an “honorable way,” Lian says. “Being in college,” Lawrence says, “I made some decisions… first year being on my own, got this freedom now… I made some decisions, not good decisions.” He does not expound.
Lian says Lawrence was “overwhelmed and carrying a lot of weight.” After all, he signed with the Tigers as the top-ranked prep quarterback in the nation who many expected to beat out a player who led Clemson to the 2017 College Football Playoff. He did beat out that player, Kelly Bryant, and he was crushed by it emotionally. Lian remembers receiving a phone call the night Bryant transferred. On the other line: Lawrence. “He was torn up about Kelly. It was wild,” Lian says. “He was broken for Kelly. ‘I feel so bad for him,’ he said. ‘Pray for him.’”
But rewind a few months back to that spring of his rookie year. Lawrence was having trouble. He communicated often with his high school coach, Joey King, now an assistant at Coastal Carolina. “As you grow in your faith, there is a defining moment where you’re mature in it. That’s what happened to Trevor,” King says. “When you go to college, people are pulling you in different directions. Sometimes it’s isolation and solitude, not doing what everyone else is doing, that helps.” His faith was an outlet to escape from the chaos. “I get away from things, too,” King says. “I go sit in a deer stand.”
Lawrence is not shy about discussing his faith. In fact, he wears it. On his wrists are a half-dozen personalized rubber bracelets, each a different color with its own message. There is one representing a church band, two more portraying Bible verses and another recognizing Clemson’s 2018 national championship. This is where faith and football merge. “Faith for him brings peace and context into his life. It bleeds into every part of his life,” Lian says. Faith is No. 1 in Lawrence’s life, but family isn’t far behind. He’s got an 8-year-old sister, Olivia, who he helped raised while his mother attended Master’s classes for nursing, and he’s got a 23-year-old brother, a self-made artist, who is getting married next year. The best man? Trevor Lawrence. He’s as excited about that as anything on the field. Lawrence is a big fan of his brother Chase’s art. On his phone, Lawrence has photos of paintings and sculptures made by his older brother, and he’s not shy about sharing them with others. He opens his iPhone and begins swiping through Instagram photos of Chase’s work. “Some of it is weird, but it’s really cool,” he says, before a swipe reveals a sculpture of a hooded, sinister figure. “Some of them are kind of creepy.” Chase now lives in Anderson with his fiancée. It makes those half-hour drives to NewSpring each Sunday more worth it.
The two brothers sometimes attend NewSpring gatherings together. Football rarely gets in the way. Lawrence is usually back from Clemson road trips, at latest, in the wee hours of Sunday morning. This past week, it was easy. The Tigers, ranked No. 1 in the preseason for the first time in school history, beat Georgia Tech 52–14 in a rare Thursday night game. Lawrence looked a bit rusty through the air. He threw two interceptions and missed on 10 of his 23 throws, but he made one hell of a tackle, saving his own pick six by chasing down the interceptor and knocking him out of bounds two yards shy of the goal line. It was a seven-point play, as Clemson’s defense held on a four-play goal line stand. “He was on a mission to not let that guy score,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “I talk about the eye of the Tiger and heart of a champion. It’s a hard thing to describe, but you know it when you see it. That was it. That’s what it looks like.” The bigger test is this week, a home game against coach Jimbo Fisher and his No. 12 Texas A&M Aggies. A&M is the highest ranked team from the preseason top 25 on Clemson’s regular season schedule. Along with the Texas-LSU bout in Austin, A&M-Clemson is the only other matchup pitting top-25 teams. In other words, it’s a big game. “A huge challenge,” Swinney said.
The game against the Aggies could make or break Clemson’s season, and a win would extend the Tigers’s streak of 18 regular season victories in a row. In a postgame scrum with reporters Thursday night, Lawrence shrugs. He’s not one for nerves or pressure or anxiety—not after finding himself last July on NewSpring’s retreat in Florida.
The Gauntlet, while sounding like a rigorous summer workout program, is a week-long event in Daytona Beach where 3,000 youths and another 1,000 staff members gather in two beachfront hotels for a spiritual escape. There is fun—beach volleyball tournaments, bike races, mountain climbing competitions—and there is faith: prayer sessions, counseling groups and bible studies. The goal is simple, says Lian: “We try to make it as clear as possible that this Jesus cat might be a real thing.” Everything at The Gauntlet builds up to the final night, when pastors lead an emotional worship celebration. Lian remembers watching Lawrence among the crowd last year, hands raised and tears rolling. “I already believed there was a God, that was real,” Lawrence explains. “I never had experienced it myself. Having them kind of as a guide and seeing things and getting advice… it was me seeing that this stuff was real. I could tell.”
Other athletes attend The Gauntlet as well, including Clemson receiver Amari Rodgers and South Carolina quarterback Jay Urich, a Greenville, South Carolina, native. Lawrence, at 6'6", and Urich, at 6'5", are two of a three-member volleyball team that dominates each year. The other member of the team: Lian. “I like to win. I hand picked my team,” he laughs.
Only a select few of the middle and high school retreaters last year recognized Lawrence. This year, it was different. “The intensity has gone through the roof,” Lian says. Lawrence served as a staff member on his second go-around, responsible for four high school boys on a beach full of girls in bikinis. “Got to keep them locked in,” Lawrence smiles. The final day of the trip is spent on that bus, riding through Florida, Georgia and then arriving home in South Carolina. It’s hot, it’s sweaty, but it doesn’t matter, because Trevor Lawrence is found. “I don’t think anyone has abilities for no reason,” Lawrence says. “I don’t think anything is coincidence. God gave me these things for a reason, not just talent on the field, but other opportunities to be a light to people.”