Dreaming bigger: Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson has come a long way, and he has carried Clemson with him
This story appears in the Dec. 14, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
The foundation of Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson's success was poured in 2004, beneath a four-bedroom house on Thorn Bush Drive in Gainesville, Ga., three miles and a world away from the government-subsidized housing projects at 815 Harrison Square where he'd spent the first 11 years of his life. His mother, Deann, the only one of six siblings to finish high school, had craved a better environment for her family, one where her four kids could leave their bikes out on the porch at night, play outside after dark and not worry about drug dealers or stray bullets. For two years she volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, then one overcast November morning in 2006 the family pulled into the driveway for the first time.
As if Deshaun weren't excited enough about the house, he nearly burst when he saw Falcons star running back Warrick Dunn standing out front. Dunn's charity, Home for the Holidays, has augmented Habitat for Humanity's work since 1997 by supplying furniture, computers, housewares and food to more than 140 families. Dunn handed the keys to the Watsons and posed for photos. "I played as him on video games," Watson says now with a smile, "and he's sitting right there giving us a house and giving us furniture and food. I was jumping for joy."
The house evolved into a home, a place where young Deshaun had fewer distractions, a clearer focus and could dream bigger and bolder. In 2011, as a sophomore at Gainesville High, Watson emerged as one of the country's top quarterback prospects, and he committed to Clemson in February 2012. That winter he jotted down his goals on a piece of notebook paper that's still stashed somewhere in the cozy beige house. They included: Win the ACC championship, win the national championship, win the Heisman Trophy and be in position after three years to graduate from Clemson and have a chance to play in the NFL.
Clemson, riding its first undefeated season since 1981 and the top playoff seed, nailed down one of those goals with a 45–37 victory over North Carolina in the ACC title game, and now Watson is in position to check off several more boxes on his list. With 3,517 yards passing and 887 yards rushing for 41 total touchdowns, Watson has been named a Heisman Trophy finalist. And he may already be the country's most tantalizing NFL quarterback prospect even though he's only a sophomore and isn't eligible for the draft until 2017. "He can be as good as there's ever been here," says Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. "I think he's already in that conversation right now."
With everything going his way, Watson has added another goal to his list. He wants to be like Warrick Dunn, giving back to low-income families. "He inspired me," says Watson, "to do the same thing."
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Chad Morris remembers pulling out his cellphone on a blustery night four years ago and calling Swinney. "I saw Vince Young in person in high school, and he was very, very good," Morris, now SMU's coach but Clemson's offensive coordinator at the time, says he told Swinney. "But this kid Deshaun Watson is better than Vince Young."
Swinney responded, "What?"
Morris didn't back down: "This guy is a better high school player than Vince Young."
It wasn't the first time Watson had impressed at Gainesville High, an AAAAA power. As an eighth-grader playing spring football with the varsity, he completed 22 of 25 passes. Coach Bruce Miller, who is 216–133 in 28 seasons as a high school coach, had started only two freshmen at any position in his career. Watson became the third, winning the job in summer camp and debuting against always strong Buford High. Gainesville lost the game 40–19 but found a quarterback who started every game for the next four years. "He threw three touchdown passes," says Miller, "and nobody's asked a question since."
At Gainesville, Watson would arrive at school at 7 a.m. four days a week to watch an hour of film with Michael Perry, the offensive coordinator. Perry provided the sausage biscuits from a local greasy spoon, Longstreet Cafe, and a buffet of different film options. In season, they'd study clips of opposing defenses to tailor the game plan of Gainesville's West Virginia-inspired Air Raid offense. Watson caught on fast. During the ninth game of his sophomore year, an opponent flashed an exotic two-man coverage that the Red Elephants hadn't practiced against since summer camp. Watson identified it immediately, audibled and threw a dig route for a 70-yard touchdown. "Coach Miller and coach Perry made sure I stayed prepared," says Watson.
The early-morning film sessions continued in the off-season. Watson and Perry would analyze college cut-ups or NFL All-22 film of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. (Watson still pops in for film sessions or quarterback drills when home on break.) As a junior, Watson led the Red Elephants to the school's first state championship in 87 years. He finished his career as the state's record holder in total offense (17,134 yards), total touchdowns (218) and passing yards (13,077). Perhaps most impressive, in a state where the elite teams routinely produce a half-dozen ACC or SEC players, Watson was the lone Power Five recruit on Gainesville's state championship team.
But more than the records, Watson and the coaches remember the ride home from the Georgia Dome after dominating Ware County, 49–13, in the title game. Highway patrolmen greeted the team bus at the city limits and escorted it with sirens blazing. The procession arrived at the school near 1 a.m., yet hundreds of fans were waiting. "People were literally crying tears of joy on the field," Perry says. "Football means everything around here. It determines the happiness of a lot of people every Friday night."
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In 2011, when Watson was a Gainesville freshman, his mother called him into the family living room. She was crying. She revealed that the strep throat she'd been battling was actually tongue cancer. "I just started bawling," Deshaun says.
Before Deshaun rallied the community by winning the state title, the community rallied around his family. When Deann, an application specialist for the Gainesville Housing Authority, began treatment at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, about 50 miles away, Deshaun's Aunt Sonia and Uncle Terri Watson would sometimes host him and his siblings, Detrick, then 21, and twins Tyreke and Tinisha, 12. Some nights Deshaun would stay with his best friend, Fred Payne, and another aunt, Yolanda Glasper, also helped out. (Deshaun says he has no relationship with his father.) Coach Miller had seen enough young men without father figures get girls pregnant in high school that he took it upon himself to give Deshaun a birds-and-bees talk. "I said, 'That will mess everything up,'" Miller says. "And he never said a word, like you would if your dad was having a father-son talk with you." Miller pauses and shrugs, "So far there's no little Deshauns walking around."
Deann didn't want Deshaun to suffer with her as she battled her illness. When she underwent chemotherapy and radiation, lost her hair and endured surgeries that removed her tongue and then reconstructed it, she didn't allow her three youngest kids to visit. "I didn't want to turn their lives upside down," she says.
Deshaun called his mom every night, talking to her and waiting for her to write down responses on a piece of paper so the nurse could read them to him. Deann endured about six months of treatment, motivated through the grueling rehab and the lonely nights by one thing. "Her family pushed her through everything," says Sonia. "Being there for her children really gave her so much strength."
Deann tells her story while sitting on a couch at Sonia's house, where an orange Clemson ornament hangs on the Christmas tree and ESPN, playing on mute, reveals Clemson as No. 1 yet again. Deann's speech has improved enough that she can communicate, but it's not as clear as she'd like. In February she'll be cancer free for four years, and she wears a necklace with a small key engraved with the word "Hope." Deshaun gave it to her. "I really am blessed," she says.
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The play was a simple bootleg, but it was Watson's first moment as a Tiger. He'd enrolled early, in January 2014, so instead of enjoying the wind down of his senior year in high school, he was enjoying spring practice. As Watson sprinted out, 270-pound defensive end Shaq Lawson came bearing down on him. Watson could have simply outrun Lawson to the sideline and stepped out of bounds. Instead he faked in one direction with his hips, then stopped on a dime. Lawson flew past, and Watson calmly zipped a 60-yard touchdown pass to fellow freshman receiver Artavis Scott. "How the heck did that just happen?" recalls senior guard Eric Mac Lain. "I watched [former Clemson All-America QB] Tajh Boyd for four years. I never saw him make a play like that. This kid just stepped on campus and was phenomenal."
Less than two seasons into his college career, Watson has pushed Clemson from a fringe title contender best known for unexpectedly losing big games to lesser teams to a legitimate title threat. Watson came in with five-star billing but lacked any of the Johnny or Jameis drama associated with top quarterbacks over the past few years. He battled through three significant injuries his first year on campus—a broken collarbone in the spring, a broken finger midway through the season and a torn ACL that he played through in the regular-season finale, a 35–17 win over South Carolina. "Clemson isn't a place for prima donnas," says Boyd. Swinney sums up Watson's two-year career succinctly: "He's never lost a game that he's finished."
In Clemson's spread attack, Watson has evolved this season to become a more accurate passer. He has completed 69.5% of his passes, and Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson says he has been most impressed with Watson's accuracy on deep balls. Watson has also been clutch, completing 42 of 56 fourth-quarter passes, the sixth-best mark in the country. And he may be the game's most menacing running threat on the zone read (5.4 per carry). He is 6' 2" and 210 pounds and athletic enough that he scissored his legs and leaped over NC State corner Jack Tocho last season on his way to viral GIF celebrity. His speed on the edge, combined with the burst of sophomore tailback Wayne Gallman and the deep threats of receivers Scott, Deon Cain and Charone Peake, has kept defenses off balance. "It's just 60 minutes of pure torture for a defensive coach," says Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. And it all starts with Watson.
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At the First Baptist Church of Mauldin (S.C.) in July, Deshaun Watson stood before a crowd of more than 200 and saw smaller versions of himself. After Watson approached the Clemson staff about becoming more involved with Habitat for Humanity in the off-season, they facilitated the dinner so Watson could connect with families attempting to overcome struggles like his did.
Deshaun told the audience how a new home changed his life athletically, academically and socially. He talked about his mother's cancer and about his hard work on the football field. He followed the speech with three hours of autographs, pictures and conversation. "We believe and hope that Deshaun gets his wish—to become a spokesman for Habitat in the years ahead when he's playing in the NFL," says Monroe Free, the president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity Greenville County.
In gestures large and small, conscientiousness runs through everything Watson does. In March 2014 he appeared at the fourth-birthday party of the nephew of his fourth-grade teacher, Leslie Frierson. He consistently texts Morris's son, Chandler, and daughter, Mackenzie, before their high school games. "He's always worried about everyone but himself," says Morris.
That includes his mother, who is looking forward to the Heisman ceremony—it will be her first trip to New York City—but even more so to Deshaun's graduation next December. "I think that watching his mom go through what she was going through, he realized that he needed a plan for making sure he could take care of his family," says Frierson. "He takes that very seriously."
On the Friday night before the conference title game, the ACC held a Night of Legends. The guest list included Warrick Dunn, who played at Florida State. Dunn had a faint memory that one of the many families he'd helped along the way was Deshaun's, and the pair chatted for about 10 minutes outside the Charlotte Convention Center. Watson also let Dunn know his plans to pay things forward. Dunn feigned anger that Watson had led the Tigers to a 23–13 victory over his Seminoles earlier this year, but in truth he was moved. "It's crazy to have an impact in the community and see it trickle down," Dunn says. "If he's able to continue to do the things he's doing, it can keep influencing kids."
Watson still writes 815 on his wristband before each game to remind himself of the Harrison Square projects he came from. And with every item he checks off his list of goals, his potential to help more families grows. "This," Dunn says, "is a fairy tale."