There has never been any doubt about the football abilities of Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields of Ohio State. Their youth quarterback coach could see the power arms, nimble feet and accurate decision-making when they were budding Georgia prep stars.
Ron Veal also saw the character and resolve in Lawrence and Fields.
“Both were mostly quiet, taking everything in” as rising Georgia prep quarterbacks, Veal said in a phone interview. “Until it was time to speak up.”
The quarterbacks felt it was time during the offseason, and now they'll square off in the College Football Playoff semifinals when Clemson takes on Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl on Friday night.
It was their off-field actions that helped set up the the showdown.
Lawrence and Fields spoke out on social justice issues and were outspoken to ensure players’ views were heard in discussions about having a season amid the coronavirus pandemic. College athletes were angered by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. They also were disheartened and confused by questions if they would or should play as the virus raged throughout the country.
Both steadied their teammates and gave fans something to rally around through their words and actions, Veal said.
“They were leaders when their teams needed them," he said.
The actions Lawrence and Fields took often landed them in the spotlight:
— In June, Lawrence was among Clemson players who organized a march for social justice near campus.
— Fields and teammates put out a powerful video for social change with social media hastags, “#BlackLivesMatter,” and “#FightForChange.” Fields was part of a campus demonstration where Ohio State players, students and staff knelt for nine minutes in the wake of Floyd's death.
— In August, Lawrence and Fields were among those who started the "#WeWantToPlay" movement that even caught the ear of First Fan, President Donald Trump, who spoke with Lawrence by phone.
— When the Big Ten Conference initially called off its fall season, Fields created an online petition to play that gained 300,000 signers in less than a week. “We wanted to come together and have a voice so people who are making decisions can hear," Fields said.
The kind of player activism Lawrence and Fields demonstrated is one of the most positive things to come out of the pandemic, said researcher Richard Lapchick, who heads the The Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports at UCF.
Lapchick said player voices can cause change and determine who schools hire to lead football and basketball teams.
“It has an affect on society in general and it's also going to have an effect on the college level,” Lapchick said.
The quarterbacks' efforts had an impact: The Atlantic Coast Conference opened play in September while the Big Ten reversed course and started in mid-October. Now, the two signal callers are a victory away from the national title game.
Lawrence won his third ACC championship as a starter, throwing for two touchdowns and running for a third as the second-ranked Tigers (10-1; No. 2 CFP) routed Notre Dame 34-10 two weeks ago.
Lawrence is pleased with his play but isn't satisfied.
“I have goals for myself and for my team,” he said. “I want to put us in the best position to win.”
Ohio State (6-0; No. 3 CFP) topped Northwestern for its fourth consecutive Big Ten crown.
Lawrence played at Cartersville High in Georgia while Fields was about 20 miles South at Harrison High in Kennesaw, becoming the nation's top college quarterback prospects.
Lawrence signed with Clemson, where he's won a national title, three ACC crowns and gone 34-1 as a starter.
Fields, after a bumpy first year at Georgia, transferred to Ohio State where the Buckeyes have gone 19-1 with him as the starter. The lone loss: A drama-filled 29-23 Clemson win at the Fiesta Bowl in CFP semifinals.
Lawrence entered his junior year as the likely overall No. 1 NFL draft pick while Fields is projected to go a few spots later, possibly as high as No. 2. Both could've easily opted out without impacting their NFL futures even though the Tigers and Buckeyes were both expected to challenge again for the national title.
“That’s not what they’re about,” Veal said.
It hasn't been easy.
Lawrence missed two games after testing positive for COVID-19 in October, including Clemson's lone loss at Notre Dame, 47-40 in double overtime. He's passed for 2,753 yards and 22 touchdowns, was named the ACC player of the year and Heisman Trophy finalist.
Fields has struggled at times to find his 2019 form when he threw for 41 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He's passed for 1,521 yards with 15 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also injured his thumb in the Big Ten title game, although Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said Fields will be fine to face Clemson.
“I just have to be better, and that's that,” Fields said after the Northwestern win. “I'm not trying to make excuses.”
Lawrence has no regrets about his choices in this strangest of seasons. He's grateful he stayed the course and found strength to rally others to play.
“I became a better person,” Lawrence said. “I’ve learned a lot about myself about, who I want to be, just all those things. Obviously, I want that to end in a good way football-wise.”
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