Because of his play and his voice, Trevor Lawrence is the face of college football. Heck, he’s the face of the entire NCAA operation this season. There is no bigger or more important star, no young sports leader handling every facet of this traumatic year better than the Clemson quarterback.
Yet he is no match for the novel coronavirus. He’s just the latest high-profile victim of it. Lawrence and Clemson announced Thursday night that he had tested positive for the virus. In the middle of a Heisman Trophy campaign and national championship hunt, Lawrence will be in isolation for at least 10 days. He will miss No. 1 Clemson’s game against Boston College on Saturday and attempt to recover without complication in time for a showdown at Notre Dame on Nov. 7.
Even with flawless recuperation, Lawrence faces dubious prospects of satisfying all the protocols to be ready for Notre Dame, and that’s before considering whether he’ll be able to practice beforehand. Lawrence was the surest thing in college football – an entity burdened currently by hypocrisy, bad optics and a lack of uniformity – but now he symbolizes the doubt that engulfs the sport.
The odds are that he returns to health in a timely manner, and the talented Tigers manage just fine and carry on with their dominance once Lawrence comes back. He said his symptoms are mild. You expect he will listen to the doctors and take care of himself with typical diligence. Still, it’s a scare. And with scientists still studying the potential long-term effects of the virus, the unknown is nerve-wracking.
So much for Lawrence coming back to Clemson for his senior season. Earlier in the week, that was the debate he inspired after the junior declined to rule out another year of college football.
“My mindset has been that I’m going to move on,” Lawrence told reporters Tuesday. “But who knows? There’s a lot of things that could happen.”
Well, unfortunately, he was right about there being a lot of things that could happen. Bad things, things worse than knowing the New York Jets are winless and in line to draft you.
The coronavirus got to Lawrence. It serves as a reminder of the fragility of life, even one full of glorious possibilities. He is the overwhelming favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. He is 6-foot-6, weighs 220 pounds and plays a dual-threat style that could fit any offensive scheme. He’s a triple threat, actually: great arm, wheels and hair. He’s a generational talent, the most polished and accomplished quarterback since Andrew Luck was the first pick in 2012. And despite all his success at Stanford, Luck might not want to put his résumé next to the one Lawrence – who has lost one game in two-plus seasons – is building at Clemson.
Off the field, Lawrence has been just as impressive. This year has stretched superstar athletes, and Lawrence has had no problem meeting the challenge. After George Floyd’s death in May, he was among the first sports figures to speak out about racial injustice. In September, he posted a five-point plan for “real change.” When college football was struggling to come up with a pandemic plan, Lawrence led the players’ #WeWantToPlay movement. He has shown compassion during this difficult time. He has recognized the power he wields. And he has been fearless in staying true to his moral compass.
So Lawrence catching the virus hits the emotions a little harder, even though his symptoms are mild. Many aren’t built for this year. He is. There’s a selfishness to wanting Lawrence to get well soon. We need him. He’s an indispensable presence in the currently inadequate sports world.
I’ve had a difficult time with this incongruous college football season. Out of necessity, every conference is trying to keep its schedule simple and contained. But out of lunacy, every conference is doing its own thing and still hoping it all comes together in time for a legitimate College Football Playoff. It’s bizarre. The conferences couldn’t even agree on a synchronized start to the season; now it’s all over the place, with so much starting and stopping, so much misalignment. As expected, the pandemic has exposed again the need for centralized leadership in the sport. It’s a mess, much like the entire country.
Without a true national pandemic plan, America’s coronavirus response seems like a 50-state traffic jam. In handling the crisis, every state has a different destination in mind, but they’re all stuck. And it ruined any hope of a sensible national college football season.
So the sport is left to stumble on, with every league following its own clock, with schools scrambling to control the virus’s spread and making every excuse to avoid greater transparency about their woes, with cancellations and postponements and petty arguments abound. The coronavirus forced Wisconsin to opt out of its game with Nebraska this week, causing Nebraska to try to go rogue and schedule a random matchup against Chattanooga. The Big Ten said no. The Cornhuskers huffed and rolled their eyes.
That turned out to be strangest story of the week, but the Lawrence news ranks as the most important. If he’s out for multiple games, can he win the Heisman? Can Clemson beat Notre Dame without him? If the Tigers lose badly without Lawrence but look normal when he returns, how will that affect the playoff deliberations?
Does it even matter? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about whether this sport, looking shaky as can be, makes it to January with a product that we can still bear to watch?
Seven months into the pandemic, we’ve advanced well beyond the shock of individual cases, but when a player such as Lawrence tests positive, the blow is felt throughout the sports world. One prominent case can’t shut down a sport anymore; concern has shifted to tracking the spread. But as teams continue to try to play through the chaos, the fear of ill-timed rashes of positive cases becomes a factor. What if the integrity of several meaningful games is ruined because key players or coaches can’t play?
It almost happened when Alabama Coach Nick Saban was thought to have the virus while preparing to play Georgia, but after further testing, he was deemed to have received a false positive. Now Lawrence is fighting to make it back for Notre Dame.
At some point, this virus will decide not to care about some showdown. It’s inevitable it will destroy a marquee matchup and influence the outcome. Cover your eyes. That day is inching closer.
If the coronavirus can take down peak Trevor Lawrence, there’s no limit to its viciousness.
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