Quarterback Trevor Lawrence of the Clemson Tigers acknowledges fans as he walks off the field after defeating the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 34-10 in the ACC Championship game at Bank of America Stadium on December 19, 2020 in Charlotte, N.C.
Jared C. Tilton—Getty Images
April 28, 2021 11:31 AM EDT

Trevor Lawrence, the former Clemson star quarterback and presumptive top overall selection in the 2021 NFL draft—which begins Thursday—has had one hectic month of April. He’s prepping for the most important night of his football life. He married his longtime girlfriend, Marissa Mowry. (The honeymoon will have to wait). He signed endorsement deals with Gatorade, Topps, which has offered both physical trading cards and NFTs with his likeness, and the cryptocurrency investment app Blockfolio—his signing bonus was paid in crypto. On Wednesday morning, Lawrence announced he signed an endorsement deal with Adidas.

He’s also received a taste of the ridiculous headaches a franchise quarterback must endure.

Quarterback, more than perhaps any position in all of pro sports, unmasks the obsessiveness of sports fans. Especially a player like Lawrence, whom ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. rates as the fourth-best quarterback draft prospect since 1979, trailing only John Elway, Andrew Luck, and Peyton Manning. The expectations for franchise signal-callers fit a sort of prototype, epitomized best by Manning and Tom Brady: crazed competitors who devour playbooks and film sessions. Who live and breathe football until Super Bowl rings decorate their fingers.

So when Lawrence recently revealed in a Sports Illustrated cover story that he seemed to be a fellow with some work-life balance—gasp!—a little tizzy soon followed. His offenses included utterances such as “I don’t have this huge chip on my shoulder, that everyone’s out to get me and I’m trying to prove everybody wrong. I just don’t have that. I can’t manufacture that. I don’t want to.” And: “I think people mistake that for being a competitor. . . . I think that’s unhealthy to a certain extent, just always thinking that you’ve got to prove somebody wrong, you’ve got to do more, you’ve got to be better.”

What, no chip? Brady was selected with the 199th overall pick in the 2000 draft—so that guy had a chip. Lawrence is missing a chip, so some football fans and media types flipped out. Mowry, his now-wife, noted in the story that “there’s also more to life than playing football.” According to his dad, he’s not motivated by winning a Super Bowl “at all costs.”

To some, this was unacceptable. So much so, that Lawrence felt compelled to explain himself in the aftermath on Twitter. “I love football as much or more than anyone. It is a HUGE priority in my life, obviously,” he wrote in a three-Tweet thread. “I have a lot of confidence in my work ethic, I love to grind and to chase my goals. You can ask anyone who has been in my life. That being said, I am secure in who I am, and what I believe. I don’t need football to make me feel worthy as a person.” He thanked readers for or “coming to my TedTalk lol.”

Did the hubbub surprise Lawrence? “A little bit but at the same time no,” Lawrence tells TIME. “It’s just kind of the way things are now. It’s just what can people find to get mad about, to criticize?” He felt it was important to clear the air, in his own words, on Twitter. “If people still want to have an opinion on the way I think and the way I live, I don’t really care,” he says.

Lawrence says he may hold back his words going forward. He says he’ll be reminding himself that “if you don’t want a reaction, just don’t say anything. Or talk to anyone,” Lawrence says, sort of breaking his own advice. “That’s really the answer. Because no matter what you say, you could say it the perfect way, there’s always going to be something. So think that’s the learning lesson for sure.”

He doesn’t plan to be in Cleveland for the draft on Thursday night, watching at home instead with family and friends. Barring some earth-shattering development, the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team long overdue for a franchise quarterback, will snag Lawrence with the top pick: some Jags fans bought Lawrence and Mowry wedding gifts. “Thank you @Jaguars fans,” Lawrence wrote on Twitter. “We really appreciate the wedding gifts and donations for charities of our choice! In addition to the donations, Marissa and I will also be donating $20K to charities in Jacksonville. Thanks again, we hope to be a part of your community soon.”

Lawrence, who has never been to Jacksonville, says he doesn’t know much about city, besides its location in Florida and near the beach. He says he’ll learn more after Thursday. And if anyone, in Jacksonville or elsewhere, is still doubting his dedication? “Judge me by my actions,” Lawrence says. “If I were to go there and say, ‘football is every second, every day, my whole life I don’t care about anything,’ it wouldn’t matter if I don’t perform well. Either way I’ve still got to go out there and play, do well, and then at that point it doesn’t matter. I know how to work. I’m really confident in my work ethic. I don’t think really anyone outworks me. It’s just playing the long game and betting on yourself.”

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

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