Two years in the making: Travis Etienne searches for redemption back home in Louisiana


JENNINGS, La. — TRAVIS ETIENNE CAME across the picture this summer. It’s not that he needed the reminder. He thought of that moment often enough. But here it was, in stark imagery: the kid he used to be, walking off the field of the Superdome, defeated.

The memories from Etienne’s last game in New Orleans, the 2017 Sugar Bowl, are all bad, starting with the opening kickoff, which Etienne, then a freshman, fielded and returned from the goal line to the 16, where he was met with a thud. He’d been playing football all his life, rarely thinking of the next hit, but this one hurt. And the crazy part? It was one of Alabama’s skill guys who delivered the blow, not some mammoth lineman. Fourteen games into his career, that was his real “Welcome to college football” moment.

It got worse from there. By this point in the season, Etienne was out of gas. The Clemson offense was listless, nothing like the unit that shook up the sport’s power structure a year earlier when it defeated this same Alabama team to win a national title. This was a homecoming for Etienne, a native of Jennings, Louisiana, and the stands were packed with friends and family. He wanted to put on a show. His final stat line: four carries for 22 yards.

In the locker room, Etienne was devastated. This wasn’t how Clemson’s season was supposed to end. For Etienne, however, it went deeper. He’d been widely ignored by his home school, LSU, on the recruiting trail, so this had been his chance to do something special back on Louisiana soil. Instead, it was a career nadir.

The next morning, the rest of the Tigers packed up for the return trip to campus, but Etienne wasn’t going. He was spending the break at home in Jennings, riding home from New Orleans with his mom. Before he left, Dabo Swinney found the kid and put his arm around him.

“You know where the national championship game is in two years?” Swinney asked.

Etienne offered a blank stare. Why were they talking about this?

“Right back here,” Swinney said. “And next time, you’ll be ready.”

To suggest Etienne, now Clemson’s star running back, was obsessed with his chance at redemption would be an overstatement. It wasn’t so simple. Instead, the past two years were more of a march forward, fine-tuning his game with his Sugar Bowl failures serving as the benchmark by which he could measure his progress. Who knew what the future had in store for Clemson? And yet, there was always this feeling of destiny, a sense that, of course he’d be back here.

And he will when Clemson faces LSU in the College Football Playoff National Championship game in New Orleans on Monday, Jan. 13 (8 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App).

“Even when [Clemson] won a national championship in Santa Clara [last year],” Etienne’s mother, Donnetta, said, “we were thinking about this game back in New Orleans.”

And then Etienne found the photo this summer, the image of the kid at his low point. He clicked save, then set it as the backdrop on his iPhone, and for the past five months he’s looked at it every day. He’s not a kid anymore. He’s bulked up, rewritten the Clemson record book, demolished the ACC’s record for rushing average, twice won the league’s Offensive Player of the Year honors and blossomed into one of the most explosive weapons in the country.

Now here he is, poised for a moment of redemption, back in his home state, and, perhaps most fitting of all, aiming to knock off LSU.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT was not Etienne’s finest moment. That’s how he sees it now, anyway. He stood at the front of the locker room at Jennings High, his coaches and teammates gathered around in anticipation, and he jammed a thumb in their eye. Etienne was going to play “at the real Death Valley.”

This did not go over well among LSU-crazy Jennings.

“Even some guys on the coaching staff were upset,” said James Estes, Etienne’s offensive coordinator at Jennings High.

Looking back, Etienne is embarrassed. It was a note of immaturity, he says now. He thought it was funny to rub salt in the wound, but he wishes now he’d handled it better.

The thing is, though, Etienne had every right to his moment of crowing because he wanted to go to LSU, and LSU hadn’t wanted him.

Etienne used to pack up the car with a couple of friends and drive an hour east to see LSU play nearly every week, but back in 2015, Les Miles wasn’t interested in making the return trip. Miles had his eye on Cam Akers, a five-star prospect in Mississippi, and eventual signee Clyde Edwards-Helaire, from just down the road in Baton Rouge. The skinny kid from Jennings was barely on LSU’s radar.

The weekend before Jennings opened spring practice in 2016, Etienne was on the track. He ran in four events. During one race, he tweaked his quad. Nothing major, but it was sore, and he wasn’t quite right. So when football practice began a day later, Etienne was told to take it easy. There was no sense running on a bum leg.

There was a problem, though. LSU had sent an envoy to Jennings. In reality, there were dozens of coaches there, representing schools from all over the country, and Etienne wanted to impress all of them. But LSU, well that’s a little different.

When the coaching staff was focused on other things, Etienne found his helmet. He snuck onto the field with the junior varsity team, running scout drills against Jennings’ first-team defense. The crowd of coaches suddenly came to life. Cameras were everywhere. The first snap was a handoff. Etienne took it to the house.

“We ran nine plays. He scored on eight of them,” Estes said. “It made the defensive coordinator so mad, he shut down practice.”

A few months later, Miles was fired. Ed Orgeron got the LSU job on an interim basis, and one of his first calls was to Rusty Phelps, the Jennings High head coach. He wanted Etienne at LSU.

Etienne said he talked to Orgeron a few times before Signing Day in 2017, and if he’s really being honest, it was a strong sales pitch. Stay home. Play in front of your family. Fulfill a dream.

But Clemson coach Tony Elliott called Etienne from the field after the Tigers won the national championship in January 2017, and he wanted Etienne, too. The pair had a bond. Etienne’s mind was made up. He was going to the real Death Valley — at least, the one that felt right for him.

“Clemson was the place for me,” Etienne said, “and it was the best decision I could’ve made.”

ETIENNE IS THE BEST player in Jennings football history. It’s not really close. He demolished previous records, averaged 11 yards per carry in his career, scoring 103 TDs. But to really understand Etienne’s place in the town’s lore, you need to know about the last best player in Jennings history.

Lawrence Nixon was the star of early 1990s Jennings High teams, winning a state championship in 1992. He was raw talent, a fearsome rusher who devoured defenders on sheer power and determination.

“Lawrence was like Travis. If he was on the field, we thought we were going to win,” said Donnetta Etienne, who went to school at Jennings during Nixon’s run.

Nixon’s story played out much differently, however. His mother died when he was young. He had little in the way of family support. He dropped out of school soon after that state championship. He’s spent the ensuing years in and out of prison, and he’s currently incarcerated at Tangipahoa Parish jail for cocaine possession. In 2007, Nixon was arrested and charged as a suspect in the murder of Ernestine Patterson, though the charges were quickly dropped for a lack of evidence. Patterson’s death was one of eight homicides involving women in and around Jennings that gained national attention. None has been solved and the cases are commonly referred to as the Jennings 8, forever tying the town to the crimes.

“It’s a black eye,” said Henry Guinn, Jennings’ mayor.

When Jennings reached the state championship this December, largely on the strength of Etienne’s younger brother, Trevor, there were plenty of football questions from the assembled media, but there were also inquiries about the Jennings 8. Phelps did his best to offer sympathy for the victims, to change the subject to football, but in the end it’s hard to escape the biggest story from a small town.

But what if there was another story? What if there was a player every bit as talented as Nixon, but with a strong family support group, a mild-mannered personality, a work ethic that the entire town could embrace because his story reflected their hopes rather than sensationalizing their fears? That’s why Etienne means so much back home.

“He’s a ray of light to the kids here,” Guinn said. “To have Travis come and rise to stardom on his ability and his humbleness, it’s wonderful. And it helps take away from a reality that, it’s not just Jennings but a lot of smaller communities face on a regular basis.”

Donnetta Etienne understands what her son means to the town, too. Indeed, it can be a bit overwhelming. When Travis is home, it’s tough to go out to eat or get some shopping done because fans all want to stop and chat. They all have a story about something her son did, some moment on the football field so inspiring they needed to share.

“They feel like we’re the superstars,” said Danielle Lyons, Travis’ older sister. “They want to take pictures with us. I’m like, I’m just his sister. We’re on this journey with you all.”

Some of the stories resonate though, like the teachers who use Travis as a role model, telling kids about how hard he worked and the grades he got and now look where he is.

“Now you have these little kids, they used to be troublemakers but now they’re not because they want to be a star football player like Travis,” Donnetta said. “And if he can do it, they can do it. They’re turning their grades around, turning their lives around, because Travis is such an inspiration.”

BRIAN PARKER’S GRANDFATHER opened Parker’s Workwear in the late 1950s, and his father took over the shop in 1987. It’s a Jennings institution. It’s also the unofficial supplier of Travis Etienne fan gear for the town.

Last year, the job was easy. Orange T-shirts promoting Etienne and Clemson’s run to the national championship were ubiquitous. The schools throughout the town all wore orange on the day of the national title game, with midday pep rallies to support Etienne. At Darrell’s, home of to-go crawfish and the city’s best po boy, diners flocked to grab a seat for the game, all decked out in orange, too. In a town where most residents couldn’t have found Clemson on a map three years ago, nearly everyone was rooting for the Tigers.

This year though, it’s not so simple.

Some of it has been ugly. Donnetta Etienne reported death threats on social media from LSU fans still bitter that her boy is playing for the wrong Tigers. At home, however, it’s simply a town wrestling with a choice between two loves, and in the end they’re hoping they can have it both ways.

“The community is behind Travis 110%. We want him to have a great game,” said Guinn, an LSU alumnus. “At the same time, you have the die-hard LSU people. I’m pulling for them, but I’m pulling for Travis to have a good game as much as I’m pulling for LSU.”

That’s the inspiration behind Parker’s latest shirt. He had them printed up shortly after Clemson clinched its spot in the title game with a win over Ohio State. It’s a purple shirt with “Tigers” printed across the top, half in orange, half in gold. There’s an LSU tiger and a Clemson paw with Etienne’s No. 9 and the word “Divided” running down the middle. Parker has sold more than 400 of them so far.

Jennings High still plans to cheer on their favorite alumnus on Monday, but they’re giving students a choice to wear LSU gear, too. Meanwhile, Darrell’s manager, Mary Craig, is putting in an order for a few dozen of Parker’s shirts for her staff to wear on Monday. The walls behind the bar are adorned with LSU memorabilia, but this is still one of Etienne’s favorite haunts, where he wolfs down surf-and-turf and takes photos with the regulars, so how could they possibly abandon him now?

“It’s a split,” Craig said. “Everybody’s divided, but I think it’d be a win either way it went.”

IN NOVEMBER, Etienne came home for his high school jersey retirement. This made him uncomfortable. Etienne does not relish the spotlight.

It was Clemson’s off week, but he was on the field for Jennings’ playoff game against Church Point. He did his best to blend in with the other fans. Before the game, he spent two hours in the team’s conference room, talking with his former coaches. He said he was nervous to be the center of attention in front of so many fans.

“I was like, ‘Travis, you’re on the field in front of way more people every Saturday,'” Estes said.

But Estes understood. There’s a difference between Etienne the soft-spoken kid from Jennings off the field, and the grown man who sprints past defenders on it.

As Etienne accepted the award for his jersey retirement, Donnetta talked about legacy. In Jennings, family and football mean a lot, and they’re inevitably intertwined. Grandfathers and fathers who wore Jennings jerseys pack the stands to see sons and grandsons play now. Football is the through line that connects generations. And it was fitting, too, that Etienne’s younger brother, Trevor, scored twice that night to lead Jennings to a 14-13 win. Trevor Etienne, by the way, has one college offer so far — from LSU.

Travis understands legacy, too. That’s what really makes Monday’s national championship game so important. Yes, this is a chance at redemption after one of his worst career games. Yes, this is a chance to remind LSU of the one that got away. Yes, this is a de facto home game for a guy who spent nearly every hour of his childhood in the parks of Jennings, now getting a showcase on the state’s biggest stage. Etienne knows how many folks back home are watching, and he can’t let them down.

There’s a Cajun word — “canaille,” pronounced kah-nay — that means mischievous. Estes uses it to describe the look Etienne gets before a big game, when everyone in the room understands what’s about to happen.

“You could tell in warm-ups, he just looks different, like a stallion in the paddock ready to come out,” Estes said. “He’s a quiet guy, but he’s motivated, and those lights come on and he’s a different animal.”

Regardless of the game’s outcome, Guinn said, they’re going to have a parade in Jennings in Etienne’s honor soon. But the parade is never what Etienne wanted.

There’s no hard feelings with LSU, either, Etienne said. Etienne’s game plan, he says: Don’t be emotional, don’t try to do too much, rely on his teammates.

But he’s also been looking at that picture on his phone for months, and he remembers that last homecoming.

“I don’t want to have that feeling again,” Etienne said. “I’m going to leave everything I have on that field.”

The lights are about to come on, and Etienne is about to do something special, Estes said. He can just tell by the look. Canaille.

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