Gainesville High’s quest to defend its Georgia Class 5A football championship looked bleak. Deshaun Watson, the Red Elephants’ do-everything quarterback, went to the sideline with an injured knee and eight minutes remaining in the state semifinal game.
The chances of winning already were slim, even slimmer with a soft brace being wrapped around Watson’s knee. There really was no need for Watson to risk further injury. He would graduate in a few days, and in weeks would enroll at Clemson, where he intended to extend his football playing days.
“I look up with three minutes to go in the game,” said Bruce Miller, Gainesville High’s veteran coach, “and he’s standing beside me.”
Watson pleaded with the coach.
“I can’t run,” Miller recalled Watson saying, “but I can still go back there and throw the ball.”
Watson’s return to the field did little to change the game’s outcome, a 20-14 loss against Tucker High. But his return told Miller and the Gainesville High faithful a little more about what they already knew.
In addition to his enormous athletic talents, young Deshaun Watson possesses an inner drive and a will to succeed that could have come from only one place.
“She’s why Deshuan has determination,” said Sonia Watson, Deshaun’s aunt. “He keeps going, keeps fighting. He won’t stop because of her.”
His mother, Deann, is why Watson could possibly play Saturday in Clemson’s rivalry game against South Carolina despite being hampered with hand and knee injuries. Any obstacle Watson has to overcome on the football field or off pales in comparison to what his mother has faced since his sophomore year of high school.
Deann was 41 in 2011 when surgeons at Emory University in Atlanta performed a full glossectomy, the removal of her cancerous tongue. She is cancer free today after more than two years of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. She will be fed through tubes for the remainder of her life, and her speech always will be difficult to decipher.
No matter the circumstances, Deann Watson always will be in the stands to watch her son play football. She will forever serve as inspiration for her son as well as her other three children.
One ESPN commentator proclaimed after Watson’s second game as Clemson’s starting quarterback that the budding star would be the face of college football in coming seasons.
Watson’s first collegiate start resulted in a 435-yard passing performance that included a Clemson-record six touchdowns against North Carolina. He followed that with two touchdowns passing and another two rushing against N.C. State. But his splash on the college scene went beyond the numbers. Watson possesses a rare flare for the spectacular.
Late in the first half of Clemson’s victory against N.C. State, Watson rolled to his right and saw Wolfpack cornerback Jack Tocho standing between him and the goal line. In a move of pure instinct, Watson went airborne and leaped over the top of the approaching Tocho, who stands 6-foot, and into the end zone. The hurdle play was Watson’s debut that evening on ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays.
Back in his hometown of Gainesville, Watson’s high school coach was watching the game on TV with his wife, Donna, in the living room of their home.
“Watch this,” Miller said to his wife before the next replay.
“Aw,” she replied after watching the play, “he did something like that in high school.”
That play occurred in the final home game of Watson’s senior season, when he leaped a defender, and – whirly-bird style – fell into the end zone. It was the kind of play Gainesville High followers learned to expect from Watson.
“They’ll be telling Deshaun Watson stories here when I’m dead and gone,” Miller said.
Watson won the Georgia state high jump championship with a leap of 6-feet, 2 inches. He was an eighth-grader, the only year he participated in track and field.
By then, the athletics community in Gainesville knew it had someone special in the making. The Gainesville Middle School football team has run the same football schemes as the high school team since Miller arrived 13 years ago. The middle school team also does not allow first-year players, or seventh-graders, to play quarterback.
So Watson played linebacker his first season of scholastic competition, and quickly established himself as one of the team’s toughest players. He moved to quarterback as an eighth-grader, and coaches decided to open the season with Watson throwing a “bomb” on the game’s first play.
That play went for a touchdown, and every game the remainder of the season began the same way. Each time the play resulted in a touchdown, even though the opponent knew what was coming, according to Michael Perry, the middle school offensive coordinator at the time.
“He just made everyone around him better,” even then, according to Perry, who now serves as the high school team’s offensive coordinator.
Watson also was a quick learner. He played one game at quarterback as a seventh-grader when the starter was injured. Instead of punting, the middle school team used the quarterback to quick-kick the ball on fourth down.
When told he would handle both duties in the second half of that game, Watson turned to Miller, who was standing on the sideline, and said he did not know how to quick kick. Miller demonstrated the kicking style once.
“The second time, he showed me how to do it,” Miller said.
Following his eighth-grade season, Watson participated with the Gainesville High varsity squad during spring practices, although he missed about half of the sessions because of a school trip for a history class. Even so, Watson completed 25 of 28 passes in the spring game and sent a message that he was prepared to challenge the rising senior quarterback for the starting spot.
That put Miller in a similar situation to one Clemson coach Dabo Swinney faced this season with newcomer Watson challenging senior Cole Stoudt for first-team status. During fall practice of Watson’s ninth-grade season, Billy Napier was in Gainesville to look at other prospects. Napier was Clemson’s offensive coordinator at the time.
“Billy, I’ve got a decision to make,” Miller recalled saying to Napier. “I’ve got these two kids here, stand here and watch them and tell me what you think.”
Napier watched Watson throw one pass.
“I can tell you who your quarterback is,” Miller recalled Napier saying as he pointed toward Watson.
Still, Miller wanted to make certain his decision-making process was fair to both parties. He recalled reading a story in Sports Illustrated about an assistant coach at Colorado who devised a scoring system for evaluating quarterbacks in the preseason. Miller telephoned Erik Kiesau, who provided the details of his method.
Miller employed a student assistant to chart every pass thrown by both quarterbacks during all preseason drills. Two weeks before the start of the 2010 season, Miller told Watson he had handily won the starting assignment. Watson was 14 years old.
“The thing about Deshaun is he could throw all the passes,” Miller said. “He could throw the ball in there. He could throw with touch on it. When he scrambled, he looked down field for people open. He didn’t mind taking off running.”
Watson’s first start came against three-time defending Class 4A state champion Buford High. He passed for three touchdowns in the lopsided loss, but clearly was on his way to a storybook high school career.
Chad Morris was hired as Clemson’s offensive coordinator following the 2010 season. He had been on campus two days when he came across a couple of videotapes of high school prospects. One included highlights from Watson’s freshman season. Upon viewing the videotape, Morris got the approval from Swinney to immediately offer a scholarship.
“He’s got to be pretty special,” Morris said of offering a scholarship to a freshman. “I said, ‘OK, that guy can run our system.’ ”
Clemson targeted Watson as a must-get recruit. When Watson attended a camp at Clemson that summer, Swinney got his first look at his future quarterback.
“You knew immediately that he was special,” Swinney said. “It was impressive. He was the best guy in camp as a ninth-grader.”
Robert Smith was a Clemson freshman at the time. He happened to stop by the camp and wandered over to take a look at the quarterbacks. Smith, now a senior safety for the Tigers, could not believe what he saw.
“Right then, I was like, this guy right here, he’s in the wrong age group,” Smith said of Watson being grouped with the ninth-graders. “This must be a mistake. ... I was like, this boy right here is going to be special.”
Smith said he told teammates about Watson and they began figuring if they would have a chance to one day play on the same team with the quarterback.
When Watson returned the following week for Clemson’s basketball camp, Morris and Brad Scott, then Clemson’s offensive line coach, were waiting to greet him when he arrived at Littlejohn Coliseum.
“I told you how much I wanted you,” Morris said to Watson.
It was the start of a full-court press Clemson coaches, and Morris in particular, put on Watson. Morris would attend many of Watson’s basketball games his sophomore and junior seasons, oftentimes being the only college football coach in the gym. Occasionally, Morris’ wife and children accompanied him to the games.
In those basketball games, Morris got to verify Watson’s athleticism. As a junior, Watson once scored 20 points in the fourth quarter of a basketball game.
During his freshman basketball season, Watson learned of his mother’s cancer. Deann first believed she had strep throat. By February of 2011, she was diagnosed with an advanced stage of tongue cancer. Four months later, she underwent surgery with doctors taking tissue from her breast to reconstruct a new tongue.
Deann Watson was one of five children to be reared in Gainesville, the only one to earn a high school diploma. She remains a fanatical reader of anything fiction, and has imparted her thirst for knowledge to her four children.
“To me,” she said, “if you’re going to make it in this world, you have to have that education.”
As a single-parent mother, Watson supported her children by working for 12 years as an office assistant at Hall County’s Department of Family and Children’s Services. Until Deshaun was 13, she reared her family at the Harrison Square Apartments federal housing project.
Then, two days before Thanksgiving in 2008, the Watsons moved into a four-bedroom home in the Rosewood neighborhood off Gaines Mill Road on the outskirts of Gainesville. The Habitat for Humanity home was constructed by volunteers from nearby Grace Episcopal Church. Just before Christmas, former NFL player Warrick Dunn’s Homes for the Holidays program stepped in to furnish the Watson home.
On a recent late summer afternoon, Deann sat with her brother, Terry, and her sister-in-law, Sonia, in the living room at that home. Deann recounted the two months she spent at the Emory University Clinic following her tongue replacement surgery and the ensuing six weeks at the Atlanta Hope Center.
Deshaun’s older brother, Detrick, took time off from his construction job to remain by her bedside. Deshaun and his twin 16-year-old siblings, Tinisha and Tyreke, moved in with their aunt and uncle.
“We did what we were supposed to do,” said Sonia, the children’s aunt, of taking over parenting responsibilities.
Some of that responsibility fell on Deshaun, who often drove the twins to and from school or to football and track practices. The entire family visited their mother on weekends in Atlanta.
When Deann returned home, the children had a new mom. She lost nearly 200 pounds through the surgery and its aftermath. Deshaun said it took awhile for her children to fully understand his mom when she spoke. Then, when Deann finally tired “of sitting at home,” she gained employment at the Gainesville Housing Authority, changing to a job where she was not required to verbally communicate with clients.
No visit to the Watson home is complete without a tour of Deshaun’s bedroom, which could pass as a museum with all the plaques, trophies and tributes to an All-America high school career when he was named the Georgia state player of the year three consecutive seasons.
There is the certificate to recognize Watson becoming Georgia’s all-time leader in career passing yards. Amazingly, he moved to the top of that chart as a junior on his way to 13,177 yards passing and 17,333 total yards. He accounted for 270 touchdowns in four seasons, including 160 passing.
After leading Gainesville to a 46-9 record as its quarterback, Watson’s No. 4 jersey would have been retired. But he insisted that his younger brother be allowed to wear it. When Tyreke failed to attend a summer camp before his freshman season, Miller did not allow him to wear the number, saying he would have to earn it. (When Watson arrived at Clemson, he requested the same jersey number and was permitted to wear it after former Tiger great Steve Fuller allowed the number to come out of retirement.)
The prized possession in Watson’s bedroom is the 2012 Class 5A Georgia state championship ring. Emblazoned on the side is the nickname “Rook,” which is short for rookie and one he earned as a freshman. It is how followers of Gainesville football still refer to Watson.
Watson masterfully directed that team to the only state championship in Gainesville history, winning playoff games by scores of 41-14, 61-42, 64-13 and 28-14. Following that championship game, a stage was constructed on the Georgia Dome field for the trophy presentation.
As the Gainesville senior members of the team gathered on the stage, a fan approached Watson on the field and said, “You deserve to be up there as much as the seniors do.”
Watson replied to the fan, “I’m not a senior. This is their time.”
Miller said it spoke volumes about a young man who never inquired about his statistics, who occasionally changed plays at the line of scrimmage to ensure that a teammate got a chance to score a touchdown, who never was late for a meeting or practice, and who, at every chance, deflected praise for him to his teammates.
“He’s just very unassuming,” Miller said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Morris and Swinney mention the same qualities about Watson. So, too, did Clemson athletics director Dan Radakovich after his first meeting with the prospective athlete.
Morris said Watson is constantly on a quest to learn. After practice, and after Watson attends study hall, Morris said he has learned to expect text messages from Watson with further questions about practice and about the Clemson offense.
During a recent meeting, Watson talked about how much fun he was having as a college football player. More importantly, he said, he loves being a college student. He produced a 3.3 grade-point average in his first semester last spring with a major in sports communication.
“I love going to class,” Watson said, “meeting new people and learning new things every day.”
Watson told of his daily phone call to his mother the day he was named ACC offensive player and rookie of the week following Clemson’s win against North Carolina. Not surprisingly, Watson said his mother was more interested in the results of an exam he took that morning.
“You can tell she was a very key factor in him growing up,” Miller said of Deann.
As Miller spoke, he opened an envelope from the Clemson football office. He removed a photo of Watson standing next to Swinney at Howard’s Rock in the east end zone at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium.
Swinney had scribbled a note to Miller on the photo.
“Never had one like him,” it read.