Championship connections

Marvin Westwestwords

We are not left out in the cold.

No doubt you find it very comforting to have prominent connections to the national championship football game, coming soon to a large-screen TV in your den or next door.

Nothing like this has happened lately. This is spotlight stuff. Clemson is doing it for us.

The Tigers’ quarterback grew up a Peyton Manning fan. Freshman Trevor Lawrence’s long blond hair is a minor distraction, but he wears Peyton’s old number 16 with pride and dignity.

Sophomore Tee Higgins of Oak Ridge is Clemson’s leading receiver. Sophomore Amari Rodgers of Catholic High is third in pass-catching statistics.

Indeed, the undefeated Tigers are doing for us something we can’t do for ourselves. They will be sort of waving our flag in the main event. It’s just the wrong shade of orange.

Trevor Lawrence was born in Knoxville. His parents attended East Tennessee State. They lived in Washington County. His mom, Amanda, went to Daniel Boone High.

Trevor remembers time spent in Fall Branch. His grandmother and uncles lived there. He recalls their horse farm. He knows for a fact that his relatives are lifelong Tennessee fans.

The Lawrence family moved to Cartersville, Ga., several years ago. Trevor became a national prep star, No. 1. Clemson beat Georgia to sign him.

“Growing up, my favorite quarterback was Peyton Manning,” said Trevor. “I liked the way he played and how smart he was. He knew what was going on all around him and had total control.

“I used to be a Tennessee fan, and I grew up watching him (in the NFL) after my family got me going on Tennessee. One thing that I’ve tried to do like him is just wanting to be the guy that knows everything and takes control of the offense like he did.”

Lawrence rooted for the Vols and said he considered Tennessee early in the recruiting process. He concluded that the decision of where to play went far beyond being a fan.

When Lawrence signed, three Clemson quarterbacks transferred. When Lawrence became the starter in week 5, established senior/graduate Kelly Bryant announced he was moving on.  He took advantage of the new redshirt rule and chose Missouri for a do-over.

Bryant had gone 16-2 for Clemson, including leading the Tigers to the 2017 playoffs.

The new guy, Lawrence, completed 65 percent and threw for 2,933 yards and 27 touchdowns against four interceptions. Higgins caught 56 passes for 855 yards and 11 scores. Rodgers caught 53 for 545 and four TDs.

Under normal circumstances, even the colorful Dabo Swinney, Clemson coach, should not be able to invade Oak Ridge and whisk away Higgins. There has been no formal explanation of how it happened, but one tale lives on.

When Butch Jones chose a basketball game for a recruiting appearance, he brought along two police officers for comfort and security. They sat in a roped-off isolation booth.

When Dabo visited, he made a point of wedging in beside Higgins’ mother, signed autographs, posed for photos and generally projected a warm, charming personality. That is part put-on. He is Alabama tough.

This is an unfair comparison. Higgins was a junior when Jones came calling. NCAA rules prohibited contact with the player or relatives. Higgins was a senior when Dabo seized the spotlight and won the superstar.

There was a time when Higgins was committed to Tennessee. He changed his mind.

It seemed Rodgers never seriously considered the Volunteers. This son of former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin wanted to be his own man. He did commit to Southern Cal where his dad was on the coaching staff, but he decommitted two days after Clemson offered a scholarship.

Tennessee also offered but never gained traction.

We are left to ponder what might have been. Tennessee, with Butch at the controls, lacked the appeal to compete with Clemson, lately a regular in the national playoffs. Butch, at his best, might not beat Dabo one on one.

Lawrence, admittedly a Vol fan, wanted to contend for championships. Clemson had the great supporting cast. Higgins and Rodgers wanted to be somewhere other than Neyland Stadium.

Strange that this unusual trio has emerged as our link to the biggest show of the season. Does it affect your view of Clemson versus Alabama? They both can’t lose.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected]

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