Their proximity to the University of Georgia — about 100 miles away — would naturally lend itself to Georgia football fandom. But for the members of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Cartersville, Ga., a transformation of sorts has taken place over the past couple of years.
“It’s funny, we live in the heart of Bulldog country, but all of a sudden we’ve had a big conversion of Bulldog fans to Clemson Tiger fans,” said Richard Brown, the church’s education and church growth pastor.
The reason for the change? Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who has led the Tigers to two straight College Football Playoff National Championship games, is a member at Tabernacle. Clemson will face LSU on Jan. 13 for the national title.
“I’m finding myself cheering for Clemson all the time. And it’s because of Trevor,” Brown said. “He’s one of ours and one that we’re proud of — not just because of his play on the field, but because of the conduct of his character. He’s not going to run out there and do anything that’s going to bring embarrassment to the community. And he represents the name of the Lord Jesus very well.”
In a Dec. 28 post-game interview, Lawrence described Clemson’s CFP semifinal win over Ohio State by referencing Ephesians 3:20. “God can do immeasurably more than any of us can because of Him within us,” Lawrence said. “That’s just so true.”
The sophomore quarterback has become one of the biggest college football stars in the country over the past two years. In last year’s national championship win, he threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns as the Tigers vanquished the powerful Crimson Tide of Alabama. In this year’s semifinal game against Ohio State, he and his Clemson teammates rallied from a 16-0 deficit, with Lawrence passing for 259 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 107 yards and a third score.
Lawrence finished seventh in this year’s Heisman Trophy voting and is a favorite to be the top pick in the 2021 NFL draft. He was also recognized as one of the most fascinating Southern Baptists of 2019 by the “SBC This Week” podcast.
“He realizes he’s got a God-given talent that he’s worked hard to develop, and God’s put him on a platform where he can excel and share that with others,” said Jay Mayo, a longtime friend of the Lawrence family and a former Sunday school teacher of Lawrence’s at Tabernacle. “He doesn’t look for the attention. He just goes out and does what he does and gives God the glory.”
Cartersville was the home of Sam Jones, a Methodist evangelist in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Southern Baptist missionary Lottie Moon taught in Cartersville for a couple of years before departing for China. Given the local history, Mayo said Tabernacle is a church committed to that missions legacy.
“There’s just a unique spiritual heritage in Cartersville, and I think Trevor’s another part of that,” Mayo said. “Personally, I kind of feel like he’s a missionary come out of our church. We send mission training teams all over the world every year, and what better mission field than college football?”
Lawrence’s high school football coach in Cartersville, Joey King, is a member at Cartersville First Baptist Church. Recently named the tight ends coach at the University of South Florida, King said he was struck by how mature Lawrence was through the recruiting process. While a lot of teenagers would be caught up in the attention coming their way, Lawrence never did.
“God’s Word talks about our citizenship being in heaven, not here, and not being caught up with earthly or worldly things,” King said. “I really think Trevor embodied that well as a teenager.”
The two still talk regularly. When they do, King always asks Lawrence about his heart for the Lord.
“We talk about his quiet time and how God’s working in his life,” King said. “A lot of people think he’s just a football player, but I think that’s one of the reasons that he’s such a good football player — because he knows where his identity comes from. He knows that he’s not defined by what type of performance he has on the field.”
Greg Fain, who taught Lawrence’s Sunday school class at Tabernacle when the quarterback was in 6th and 7th grades, says his days as a lifelong, diehard Georgia fan have been suspended. He and his wife have attended almost all of Lawrence’s home games at Clemson.
“We’re Clemson fans now,” Fain said.
While Fain is certainly excited by what he sees from Lawrence on the field, he’s more encouraged by what Clemson has meant for Lawrence’s faith, which he says has grown significantly during his two years at the school.
“God’s going to use him in a mighty way,” Fain said. “I think we’re just seeing a little bit of what we’re going to see later on in his life. I think he’s going to do some great things — Tim Tebow-level, if not larger.”
For Brown, while he’s witnessed Lawrence excel from afar, he’s also seen the young quarterback’s heart displayed in a way that was especially meaningful. About a year ago, Brown’s 23-year-old son Lane passed away. Lawrence made the three-and-a-half-hour trip from Clemson back to Cartersville for the visitation.
“It just meant so much to me and my family that he would leave the busyness of college football to take time out to drive over here and spend time with us,” Brown said. “We will never forget that.”
— Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.