graphic-tl-orange.jpg
CBS Sports graphic

There was a moment when Trevor Lawrence crossed the line from lending his name to the social justice cause to actually leading the cause, at least in the college space. Clemson's quarterback knows that now. Lawrence can't tell you exactly when it happened, but it's now true. He is the face of peaceful protests among college football players and maybe college athletes in general.

In this week of the No. 1 Tigers' opener against Wake Forest, sports has irretrievably been mixed with protest, politics and pride. Thanks, in part, to the 20-year-old junior superstar. 

During a summer filled with concerns over a pandemic and national unrest, a self-described "white guy from a small town in Georgia" has made us witness the Transformation of Trevor.  

"I'm still trying to figure out that line," Lawrence said this week. "I have this voice that people are always going to expect me to say something about everything that happens. In the end, you just can't address everything."

To this point, he has addressed it all. His was the most recognizable name that was attached to the #WeAreUnited movement.

What was started by a group of Pac-12 players demanding rights for college athletes quickly grew with the likes of Lawrence on board.

When conferences were making up their minds on when to play a season, Lawrence was there with Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields demanding #WeWantToPlay.

Lawrence and teammate Darien Rencher were among four Clemson players who organized a campus protest against police brutality in June.

There has been talk ranging from creating a players association to ensuring name, image and likeness rights. As if to kick off this first week of Power Five play, Lawrence on Sunday tweeted a "Statement From CFB Players".

With the hashtag #OURVOICEMATTERS, it listed bullet points regarding social justice, voter registration, community outreach and an intent on game days to raise awareness.

"There will be some things done this week you guys will notice," Lawrence promised.

Already, athletes and coaches at Stephen F. Austin and Eastern Kentucky have provided a glimpse. SFA players took a knee and raised fists before a mid-game kickoff. Eastern Kentucky coaches wore "Black Lives Matter" shirts during their game with Marshall.

That won't be the end of it.

"What the future looks like, I think you're looking at it," Texas coach Tom Herman said. "I'm happy for our players to finally feel the freedom to speak their mind and speak what's on their heart, to address some of these topics for years, decades, centuries … have been problematic for these young athletes."

That's where another line is drawn for Lawrence. He doesn't want to be a lightning rod for this movement. Just a light.

He's aware of Twitter trolls, aware that social media can ground up any message. Give the subject matter, some of what Lawrence is advocating can be particularly touchy.

"That can be a slippery slope when you go down some trails," Lawrence said. "I don't want to be a political pawn. … You have so many different [voices] whether it's media or the far right, the far left … so it's hard to find common ground."

But not impossible. College players continue to realize they are the unpaid labor force. The games don't go on without them.

They have leverage even if the message is clunky at times. Those Pac-12 players demanded 50% of the conference's revenues. That isn't happening, but nobody said reform goes smoothly.

COVID-19 and social justice have combined to make this perhaps the most impactful summer in college football history. Until now, the likelihood of a college football commissioner was near-impossible. Too many competing interests.

Lawrence, after graduation and a 15-year NFL career, could be that guy.

"I would definitely say Trevor is a national leader on the things that's been happening," Clemson linebacker Mike Jones Jr. said. "I feel like it's harder not to see it coming."

Lawrence keeps stressing he one of 20-30 players who have contributed to the current messaging. Among them are Stanford defensive end Dylan Boles, Michigan defensive back Hunter Reynolds and a pair of Oregon stars -- defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux and offensive tackle Penei Sewell.

#WeAreUnited doesn't need strategic communications advice. The public, media and Heisman Trophy voters gravitate to quarterbacks. Whatever message they have tends to get attention. The one being voiced by Lawrence is good and just.

"For the most part, everyone wants peace. Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone wants to be unified," Lawrence said.

"We can all agree that the country is not really in a great place right now," he added. "There's a lot of room for growth no matter what side you're on."

Lawrence doesn't want to be an activist, "but I do think I have a responsibility to promote equality and help people I love."

A large part of this season revolves around Clemson and Lawrence. The Tigers are gunning for their third national championship in five years. There is a Heisman in play, if indeed the Heisman Trust awards the trophy this season.

Despite his greatness -- Lawrence is the first freshman quarterback to lead an FBS team to a national championship since Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway in 1985 -- he has never been a Heisman finalist.  If the season goes sideways due to the coronavirus, that may never come to pass.

Sewell opted out this week with Oregon attempting to play in spring 2021. Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, another projected top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, might soon be next.

"I didn't feel, personally, like I was more at risk playing football here than I would be living in general," Lawrence said. "This could be my last year here. I wanted to be here with my teammates."

As long as the season lasts, it will be double crusade for Lawrence -- to win another championship and win the hearts of a divided nation. Lawrence and teammates have already talked to coach Dabo Swinney about having time to vote on Nov. 3.

Football and social justice collide that day. That's Tuesday of Notre Dame Week.

"I don't think that's the smartest thing not to practice on that day," Lawrence said. "Coach Swinney said he would give us ample time to vote."

"These guys have literally fought for their season. They fought to play," Swinney said. "There's nobody that has to be here. … Just because you're a quarterback don't make you a leader. I think it's been a natural thing for him."

There is no doubt Lawrence already has the spiritual side nailed down. He travels 30 miles to NewSpring Church in Anderson, South Carolina, each week for services. NewSpring is a non-denominational church with sites all over South Carolina. The Anderson congregation averages 32,000 in  weekly attendance.

NewSpring's most notable member doesn't necessarily need a pulpit to relate to everyone.

"I know there are a lot of eyes on me," Lawrence said. "Critics but also younger generations looking to me. … I am conscious of that. I want to use my platform the right way to impact people.

"I'm not an activist … but I do think I have a responsibility to promote equality and help people I love."