Though Deshaun Watson and Steve Fuller are forever cast in the fraternity of Clemson quarterbacks, their link might be forged by a mutual preference for the number 4.
Watson chose Clemson two years early, committing on signing day during his sophomore year at Gainesville (Ga.) High. Fuller was not as decisive.
Quarterback of a juggernaut team at Spartanburg High in the mid-70s, Fuller waited until a matter of weeks before August practice in 1975 to end one of the most celebrated recruiting battles for a South Carolina high school football player.
Former Clemson coach Red Parker, who died this week at age 82, once joked that Harold Steelman, an assistant coach on his staff, wore out two sets of tires and blew the recruiting budget driving daily between Clemson and Spartanburg.
Fuller’s career at Clemson was as unprecedented as the manner in which it began. The most revered Clemson quarterback in the modern era of college football, he was the epitome of a scholar-athlete as an academic All-American and two-time ACC Player of the Year.
He finished sixth in balloting for the 1978 Heisman Trophy, was chosen by the Kansas City Chiefs in the first round of the 1979 NFL Draft and played on the Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl championship team.
Clemson retired Fuller’s No. 4 during the 1979 spring game. Banks McFadden’s football No. 66 was the only other number in retirement.
Watson began wearing No. 4 in middle school, and Dabo Swinney wanted to offer it as a carat. Swinney knew, first, that his sales skills would be challenged. Fuller had declined a request for his number from former Clemson quarterback Willy Korn, who shredded the high school record books at Byrnes High.
Swinney first mentioned the possibility to Fuller during a golf tournament the summer after Watson committed. The next year he pressed Fuller for a decision, providing him with background on Watson. Fuller said he granted permission because Watson seemed to be an exceptional young man, and because Swinney believed it was worthwhile for the program.
Shortly after Swinney told him he would wear No. 4, Watson called Fuller to thank him, and they have since met. Swinney had a patch designed for Watson’s uniform that honored Fuller.
The number was never a bargaining chip.
“Coming in, I didn’t know what number I was going to wear,” Watson said. “Before I got here Swinney called and said I could wear his number.
“I took it. I wasn’t going to say no,” he said. “Steve did a great job here, and I’m just honored to have that No. 4 on my back.”
When Fuller was in the stadium for the Notre Dame game, a former teammate wondered aloud about the possibility of retiring the same number twice. Watson accounted for three touchdowns that night in a rainstorm and went on to break the Atlantic Coast Conference record for total offense and finish third in Heisman Trophy balloting.
Watson chuckled at the notion of retiring No. 4 again.
“I’m just trying to enjoy this moment while I can, this short ride,” he said. “I can only do this once. If they decide in the future to retire it again, I’d be honored and blessed.”