CLEMSON, S.C. -- There comes a time in every quarterback's life when he needs a few blockers to clear a path so he can scramble away.
At Clemson, those blockers do not wear jerseys or helmets, but bright green vests and caps. And their mission starts when the final seconds tick off the clock inside Memorial Stadium, as they race to protect the most high-profile player in the state: Trevor Lawrence.
One of those blockers, Alan Collins, makes the two-hour drive from Columbia, South Carolina, to every Clemson home game. Collins, who serves as an officer with the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services, puts it bluntly when he describes the scene he encounters during his postgame job.
"It's chaos," he said.
This is the new postgame normal at Clemson, where everyone inside the stadium has the green light to run onto the field for the "Gathering at the Paw," forcing a delicate balance between embracing a uniquely Clemson tradition while keeping superstar players protected as thousands of orange-clad fans surge toward them.
On this particular Saturday in September, after Clemson beat Texas A&M 24-10, it feels like all 81,500 fans at the game have descended onto the field. There is no way to know how many made their way there, but Collins said since he started helping protect Lawrence last year, he had not seen a postgame crowd as large as this one.
"There's just so much more hype this year with all the Heisman talk. He's a celebrity," Collins said.
Though Lawrence is not in the Heisman Trophy discussion right now, his celebrity status at Clemson remains unchanged. Some crowds after blowout victories might not be as large, but those who come onto the field have one goal: getting to Lawrence.
So what does chaos look like, exactly?
As Lawrence makes his way toward midfield for postgame handshakes following the Texas A&M win, a wall of fans has already beaten the sophomore there, so the five security people around Lawrence tighten their circle.
Lawrence stops just near the Tigers paw at midfield, and a small window opens to allow a television camera and reporter through for a brief interview. Police officers wearing bright green vests maintain their circle behind him as fans jostle for position, often pushing their way forward. They hold their cellphones high, hoping to get one unobstructed, clear photo of the 6-foot-6 Lawrence standing within arm's reach.
If you are unlucky enough to get trapped in the chaotic scrum behind Lawrence, you are stuck with no view and not much breathing room, either. The hot air feels even thicker as people try to cram in as close as they can just for one glimpse, and it all feels like a mosh pit without all the head-banging.
Then suddenly, Lawrence is on the move and the crowd moves with him. Up ahead, Lawrence has what they call a "ram guy" because his job is to clear a path for the quarterback to jog to the locker room without stopping for pictures or signing autographs.
Five security people surround him, and Collins is directly behind him, gripping the collar of his jersey to steer him through the massive crowd that has formed all the way to the locker room. They use their elbows to create some space, too, and it is not unusual for someone to catch one if they are standing too close.
"Move! Move! Move!" they shout.
The crowd parts, but only a little. Many of these fans want to see No. 16, and this might be their only chance.
"Trevor!" one fan screams. Another squeals after checking her phone to find a close-up Lawrence in her camera roll. Some put their arms out, hoping to touch his arm or shoulder pads. Lawrence smiles but never stops moving, running through a line of fans four and five deep before making it into the locker room, well before any of his teammates.
"It's crazy," Lawrence said. "I just hope no one gets trampled, because if you're in front of us, we're not going to stop. People are just grabbing and everything. It's crazy but we've got good fans. Football brings it out of people, I guess."
Clemson officials have seen this before, but perhaps not to this extent. Since Tajh Boyd helped set the foundation for the national championships that followed, the Tigers have had a superstar nearly every season at quarterback, not to mention big spotlight players such as Christian Wilkins.
Both Boyd and Deshaun Watson had their own wild followings, but security started to ramp up more heavily with Watson. Boyd continued to stay on the field to take pictures and sign autographs his entire career, but by the time Watson began his final season in 2016, Clemson had a state trooper specifically assigned to him postgame.
Clemson also had to find ways to get Watson to see his family once he was showered and changed, without having him step outside to waiting fans.
The difference with Lawrence?
"Trevor was a rock star before he even got here," said Tracy Swinney, coach Dabo Swinney's brother and director of security for the football team. "So we were thinking about safety measures before he even arrived."
Lawrence did have help getting off the field last season, but there are more troopers surrounding him this season. In addition to Collins, Clemson has two retired troopers looking out for Lawrence as well.
"It is nerve-wracking because you've got 20,000 people streaming to that field and they're jumping the wall and sometimes they beat us to the Paw," Tracy Swinney said. "The handshake with the opposing coach is very quick and they go, the players from the opposing team go straight to the locker room because they know it's chaotic. We'll circle Trevor up -- I've got four state troopers, myself, we circle him up get him out there, do the interview and then we'll turn him with our ram guy, and we just slice the pie going through the crowd. We try to be gentle with it. We don't want to trample because there are kids out there, so we're as soft as we can, but stern."
After games, someone from the Tigers staff drives Lawrence on a golf cart across the street to the football facility, which is far more secure. For non-players and coaches to gain entrance, an approved wristband and ID are required. Six additional troopers work in and around the facility. The golf cart option is open to all players and coaches.
Clemson is not the first team that has had to come up with a plan to protect a larger-than-life persona. When Tim Tebow played at Florida from 2006 through 2009, the Gators had to change many of their protocols as his star power grew, including the way he would get from the practice field to the locker room inside the football stadium across the street.
What is not noticeable, even to the player himself, is the emotional toll that sets in when fans just want that one moment in time with you.
"After a while, you realize, 'I'm a little a bit tired, Why is this?'" Tebow said. "Well, look at all the encounters you've had over and over and over again. You have to be smart about it and realize you just can't do everything.
"Fans might only have that one moment with you and so you feel like this is their one chance so this is the one impression I get to leave them, and it's my one chance to encourage them, but you're going to have 10,000 one-mores. This is their only shot. I always hated to cut off a line or cut off a group of people to go to practice or go to meetings, because they're going to think, 'Oh, Tebow didn't have time for us.' It's not that I didn't have time for you. But eventually you have to get to other things, and so it was helpful for me at Florida when there were people helping me as I was taking pictures or signing for kids, 'OK, he's got to get to class, he's got to get to meetings, he's got to go to practice or he's got to get to lunch.' Being able to have that support just to get from place to place is important, too."
Steve Addazio, who served as Tebow's offensive coordinator at Florida, put it this way.
"You're trying to keep their world as grounded and as normal as you can," said Addazio, now head coach at Boston College. "Tim was an extremely grounded guy with his faith and his family, but I've been a part of it at the highest level in terms of peaked frenzy and I think it's hard on anybody. There's so much access and excess. It's a runaway freight train at that level. Human nature's still human nature. I don't care who you are. All that adoration -- you can only be told how great and wonderful and special you are for so long before you start maybe half believing it. You have to be conscious of it, and you have to protect them."
Shortly after Texas A&M beat Alabama in 2012, Aggies officials placed a call to Gainesville, Florida. They wanted to know how to handle a megastar at quarterback, because they now had one in Johnny Manziel. Up until that game, there was some Johnny-mania, but it went over the tipping point following the Alabama victory.
Texas A&M decided Manziel needed to have one dedicated police officer with him for both home and away games and practices as well. During the bowl trips, the same officer dressed in plainclothes and went out with Manziel wherever he went, just to provide an extra layer of safety. But that still did not stop fans from finding him. During one road game, Manziel and his roommate were confronted by someone outside their hotel room door asking for autographs.
That has not happened to Lawrence. At least not yet. When Clemson plays on the road, it hires local security, and there is someone always assigned to him. Last year, for instance, troopers from Tallahassee, Florida, did not recognize Lawrence's parents as he went to greet them after the game.
The big difference Clemson has to deal with compared to Florida, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Alabama or any other program with a rock-star quarterback is what happens postgame. Oklahoma and Alabama, for instance, do not have extra security for their star signal-callers. But none of those programs officially allows fans on the field.
At Clemson, it's the Gathering at the Paw, a term coined in 2003 when athletic director Terry Don Phillips tried to put some parameters around when and how fans got onto the field. The tradition dates back to Frank Howard, who coached at Clemson in 1940-69 and also gave the Tigers their tradition of "rubbing the rock" before running down the Hill.
Howard believed allowing fans on the field to interact with coaches and players added to their overall experience attending games and spread goodwill throughout their community. At the time, he was not alone in that belief. But as the decades passed, schools stopped allowing fans onto the field on a regular basis, and now it rarely happens -- and only when a team has pulled off a major victory.
Everywhere but Clemson, of course.
"We have to be mindful, be sure we're doing the right things for him, but not so over the top that he misses being a part of being everything that's so special about Clemson."Clemson AD Dan Radakovich
Boyd, who is still around the Tigers' program, notes how much times have changed since he was there. And it has been only six seasons since he left. Much of that has to do with Clemson's increasing profile, and the increasing number of elite recruits arriving on campus with sky-high expectations, celebrity status and hundreds of thousands of social media followers.
"I was always getting dragged off the field because I'd stay, and I'd get into the locker room halfway between coach's speech," Boyd said. "As Clemson football keeps getting bigger, Trevor's getting off the field and they're getting out of there, but he has to find time for solitude to reflect and reboot because you can get caught in the chaos -- one day leads to the next and it becomes an overwhelming feeling. Coaches do a great job of helping them decompress, but there's never an off time because even when off, they're on.
"We were on the cusp of it, but it wasn't at this level. For them, it's not as genuine an interaction as it is a snapshot. He's involved in these snapshots every day, every time he goes out to eat, every time he goes to a party, every time he goes to church, class. You don't feel like a human anymore. You feel like something you have to be. That's what I struggled with. I created expectations of what people thought of me and I lived that way."
Boyd added that he has been impressed with the way Lawrence has handled himself. "He's as cool and calm as they come," he said. Athletic director Dan Radakovich points to the way both Lawrence and Watson are equipped to handle all the chaos around them. But there is a line to walk, too, and Radakovich is hopeful the Clemson community understands as well.
Though it is difficult for Lawrence to go to the grocery store or mall without getting mobbed, for the most part his fellow students just let him be when they spot him on campus.
"Trevor enjoys being a college student. He enjoys everything about being a Clemson Tiger," Radakovich said. "We have to be mindful, be sure we're doing the right things for him, but not so over the top that he misses being a part of being everything that's so special about Clemson."
Yet Tebow also offers this, based on his experiences at Florida: "It's probably not going to get any better because they're going to continue to have success and he'll continue to get mobbed. Wait until it's Christmastime and everybody's coming to class with footballs for their family for you to sign."
The week after beating Texas A&M, Clemson traveled to play Syracuse. On the field afterward, Lawrence was seen with his girlfriend, and he had time to shake hands with the Orange players in the relative quiet of the Carrier Dome.
"I love Death Valley. It's super cool everybody goes on the field after the games, but it was kind of a relief, one week no one's on the field, you can shake the other guys' hands, you can make your way around without running straight off," Lawrence said.
That does not mean he would trade his home experience, either.
"Seeing the way it ended last year and how crazy it got, I expected everything to ramp up this year," he said. "It's all good. It's great to play at a place where the fans are awesome, sell out every game. It's been great."