SANTA CLARA, Calif -- They tried to tell us about Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The people of East Tennessee and Northwest Georgia and upstate South Carolina, they tried to tell us during this incredible college football Year of the Quarterback, when Oklahoma's Kyler Murray won the Heisman Trophy and Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins was breaking Big Ten passing records and Washington State's Gardner Minshew was doing the same in the Pac-12 and, oh, Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa was being showered with talk of "Is he the greatest college QB ever?"
They tried to tell us that while we were watching those other guys, they had been watching this long-haired, even-keeled kid at Clemson. And they tried to tell us that he might damn well be better than all those others.
On Monday night, on the biggest football stage not called the Super Bowl, Lawrence made that statement for them. It came with 28 seconds remaining in the third quarter. Actually, the statement was made all night. The period -- no, the exclamation point emoji -- placed at the end of the statement came with 28 seconds remaining in the third quarter of the College Football Playoff National Championship against top-ranked Alabama.
That's when Lawrence planted his back foot at the Alabama 15-yard line, eased into a standing-in-the-saddle stance that looked more than a little like Peyton Manning, the man Lawrence pays tribute to by wearing No. 16, and cocked his right arm. With Crimson Tide linebacker Anfernee Jennings bearing down to knock him down, the 19-year-old true freshman fired off a throw that had a hook-shot motion but was delivered with so much velocity that the ball rose along a frozen rope, skimming the tops of the helmets of the linemen scrumming in front of him, sailed over the goal line and through two sets of defenders' raised gloves, and snapped its way into the waiting fingers of receiver Tee Higgins.
"That play was run as it was drawn up, but if we've got anyone else back there, it's probably breaking down. Not with Trevor. He dug in and threw a dart," Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said while holding his young daughter as the confetti drifted down into his hair. "People have asked us nonstop about, 'When is Trevor going to have his freshman moment?' Well, I know that's not what those people meant, but that was a pretty good freshman moment, wasn't it?"
The score was 44-16. There was more than a quarter left to play. But the game was over.
The legend of Trevor Lawrence has only just begun.
"I guess I should be used to this by now, right? Everything I did, he goes and does it, too," Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson said while standing amid the celebration. He led Clemson to a win over Alabama in 2016 for the school's first national title in three and a half decades. Before that, he was a record-setting high school quarterback in Georgia. Lawrence, who broke all of Watson's high school passing marks, now also has a Clemson national championship.
"My man is a true freshman," Watson said. "He's got at least two more years to do work. He's gonna be a legend. He already is. People know that now."
That brings us back to the people who always knew. The people of Clemson, South Carolina; Cartersville, Georgia; and East Tennessee. Those are the places where Lawrence plays now, where he played in high school and where he was born and played youth football as a scrawny, hyper preteen. In Tennessee, where he was raised through the seventh grade, they tell tales of the arm that broke the hearts of Volunteers fans when the family moved away (an occasional orange "you're a traitor" letter still finds its way into the Lawrence mailbox). In Cartersville, they tell tales of the kid who loves Jesus and grew his hair out to the point that he kind of looks like Jesus, and after two state championships and nearly 14,000 yards passing, many in Hurricanes country believe he could also probably walk on water.
On Monday night, the rest of the nation was baptized in the football gospel that the folks in those three areas had been trying to deliver to us all along.
"There aren't a lot of guys who, just by walking in the building, are an automatic tipping point guy, the guy who put you over the top," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said of Lawrence. Not so long ago -- Week 5 to be exact -- Lawrence was named the starter, supplanting veteran Kelly Bryant, a senior who'd lost only twice as the starter and led the team to the College Football Playoff one year ago (a semifinal loss to Alabama). At the time, it was described nationally as a risky roll of the season dice.
"That was never the conversation in the building," Swinney recalled Monday night. "From the time he walked into that building in January, just a couple of weeks removed from eating in the high school cafeteria, we knew he was the real deal. He was a leader, day one. And, oh, by the way, he can sling that dang football around, too, can't he?"
Yes, he can. Lawrence threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns against an Alabama defense that has achieved its own legendary status over the past decade and a half. One week ago, in the CFP semifinal against Notre Dame, Lawrence threw for 327 and another three TDs. He is the leader of the first college football team since 1897 to win 15 games. He is the first true freshman starter to win a national title since 1985. That year, Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway was pressed into service after starter Troy Aikman was injured in the Sooners' fourth game. This team has been Lawrence's since late September.
"Look at him right now. This is his team. That's the leader of this team," Clemson senior receiver Hunter Renfrow said as he left the Levi's Stadium field and entered the tunnel toward the locker room. Himself a living Tiger legend, Renfrow shook his head and smiled as he motioned toward the freshman signal-caller, who was positioned where every single teammate would have to walk by and grabbed each and every one of them into an embrace or a handshake. "And look at his face. You couldn't tell if he's just won the national championship or if he's just headed down to Chick-Fil-A to eat. He's ice, man."
He does love Chick-Fil-A. Back in Cartersville, that's where Lawrence would hide out, ducking the crush of being a local celebrity to watch film of upcoming opponents in a corner booth on his laptop. In Clemson, they say he does the same, poring over Notre Dame and Alabama defensive cut-ups while snacking on Chick-n-Minis. After his last teammate handshake of the night, he finally turned and started walking toward the waiting explosion inside the Clemson locker room. But he paused when he caught a glimpse of the postgame meal boxes stacked up on a table in the concourse.
"Now we're getting Chick-Fil-A, too?" college football's best quarterback exclaimed as he brushed his long, golden locks from his face. "We can't lose tonight."