Deshaun Watson is one Tiger who has the world by the tail.
Gainesville has taken pride in its share of great athletes over the years, many of whom have gone on to succeed at the highest levels of their sports. But if his first two years of college ball are any indication, Deshaun Watson may bypass them all before he’s hangs ’em up.
The 2014 Gainesville High graduate was a finalist in the Heisman Trophy voting Saturday, placing third in the voting after a stellar year quarterbacking the Clemson Tigers to an undefeated regular season, the Atlantic Coast Conference title, a No. 1 national ranking and a berth in the college football playoffs. The Tigers will take on Oklahoma on New Year’s Eve in the Orange Bowl. A win sends them to the championship game Jan. 11 in Arizona.
Watson becomes the second Gainesville athlete to be so honored in New York City. Billy Lothridge, a 1960 GHS graduate and multi-position star at Georgia Tech, finished second in the 1963 Heisman voting to Roger Staubach of Navy. Lothridge, who died at age 54 in 1996, was an all-pro punter for four teams, including the Atlanta Falcons, in a long pro career.
A year ago, Watson took over as Clemson’s quarterback as a true freshman and flashed his great potential, passing for more than 1,400 yards and combining to rush and pass for 19 touchdowns before suffering a knee injury late in the season. But surgery put him back on track and he worked diligently in his rehabilitation.
This year, Watson exploded as a sophomore, passing for more than 3,500 yards and rushing for 887 more. He combined for an astounding 41 touchdowns (30 passing, 11 rushing), an effort that earned him the Davey O’Brien Award as the nation’s top quarterback and ACC Player of the Year honors. And he’s set to appear a second time on the cover of Sports Illustrated after avoiding the “cover jinx” the first time with a big second half performance to beat North Carolina in the ACC title game.
This was just a continuation of what he started in high school. At Gainesville, he set school and state passing records while leading the Red Elephants to the 2012 state championship, the first in school history. He threw for more than 13,000 yards and 155 touchdowns in red and black, and rushed for another 4,000 yards and 59 touchdowns. No player is more at home in the end zone.
But a rifle arm and fast legs are only part of his skill set. Many athletes are born with great God-given talent, but not everyone can channel that into production at the highest level. Natural ability can only ride a player so far in any sport before the competition is equal to the task. The X-factor is the desire, work ethic and determination a talented player brings to his or her team. Watson is just that player, studious and serious about being the best he can be.
And for a quarterback, it’s all about leadership, that indefinable quality that separates pretenders from champions. Teammates and fans remember how many times Watson willed the Red Elephants to victory in tight contests, a spirit that has infused the Tigers as well. Plenty of quarterbacks can pass and run, but teams look for one who can win. Watson has been, and still is, a pure winner.
“I don’t think you ever appreciate what type of player he was until he was gone,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “He’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime person for me to get to coach.”
Yet to everyone in Gainesville who knows him, Watson is the same down-to-earth guy with a quick smile he’s always been. He has remained humble and approachable, still grounded by family and friends back home he has not forgotten.
Much of that flows from his upbringing by mother Deann and their extended family and friends. Her battle with cancer helped Deshaun maintain perspective even as he was emerging as a high school star. Their Habitat for Humanity of Hall County home helped connect him even more to the fabric of the community.
And thus, all of Gainesville and Hall County can share in his success knowing we all are the products of the places from which we came. His classmates, teammates, teachers and coaches all have a piece of the superstar Watson has become.
It’s easy to root for a guy like Deshaun, who embodies every quality a coach or teammate could ever want in a player. Even on-field rivals of the Red Elephants find themselves cheering the efforts of a local kid who plays the game the right way and conducts himself with class and character on and off the field.
We join everyone in our community in bursting with pride over Watson’s amazing season and offering our full-throated support in his push to bring a national title to Death Valley. No one deserves it more, has handled it better, or has done so much in such a short time to bring honor to his hometown.
The sky’s the limit on an amazing career that has just gotten started, and we can’t wait to see where it takes him.
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