CLEMSON, S.C. — Numerous media outlets from all over the nation — even a crew from ESPN — flooded the gates of Clemson University’s indoor practice facility Tuesday to catch a glimpse and grab a word from college football’s top-rated quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Once the 2014 Gainesville High graduate, who has also graced the cover of Sports Illustrated multiple times, parked himself on a wooden bench in the facility’s courtyard, in front of the many cameras and voice recorders, it was business as usual. He continued to address the same questions about how the Tigers plan to execute this coming football season.
How the state’s all-time leading high school passer manages to stay grounded in his roots with all the national recognition and hype is a different story.
Watson has been all over the country this summer, including an appearance July 27 on the ESPN2 show ‘First Take’ in Bristol, Conn. Watson said First Take is his mother’s favorite of all ESPN programming.
Even with all the madness, there’s always time for a return to his hometown.
“Yeah I’ve been to Gainesville a couple of times (this summer),” Watson said after Clemson’s first practice Tuesday. “Whenever I get the chance to go home and spend time with my family and friends, I try to be as normal as I can, and be peaceful.”
Watson also makes time talk to his mother, Deann, and three siblings whether by text, FaceTime or phone calls.
Besides cutting loose with close friends, teammates and family members, Watson makes a point to dine at his favorite local restaurant, the Longstreet Cafe, whenever possible. Restaurant owner Timothy Bunch said no matter how famous the QB who finished third in Heisman voting in 2015 becomes, Watson enjoys a good plate of chicken tenders with a side of macaroni and cheese.
“It’s always good to see him,” Bunch added. “He represents a hometown, so it’s good when he comes in.”
When it comes to knowing Watson, you get the same guy every day, no matter what, according to Gainesville High graduate and friend Chase England, who snapped the ball to Watson in high school.
“He’s the exact same guy he was when we played 9/10-year-old football,” said England, who played basketball at nearby Piedmont College. “He just brings it every day, is the same guy. And when his recruiting started getting bigger and bigger, people started getting the big head, acting different, he was the exact opposite.”
England can relate to Watson’s grueling schedule. With just two semesters to go, the aspiring nurse England currently works the night shift at Gwinnett Medical Center (3 p.m. to 3 a.m.).
Watson had England’s back for the majority of their playing careers. The former quarterback-center duo often make time to chat on the phone. They generally talk about anything and everything — except for football.
“He just calls and asks how my parents are doing, I ask him how his mom’s doing since she had cancer and everything, just ask how she’s doing,” England said. “We just chat almost about everything except football because that’s all he talks about, 24/7. When we get the chance, we just shoot the crap a little bit.”
England and Watson couldn’t meet up in person this summer, though they generally make an effort to meet up in the offseason.
Clearly Watson can’t go anywhere in Gainesville without being recognized, so the two normally do what most 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds do to kill time: stay up way too late playing video games at a friend’s house and sometimes grab a biscuit at the Longstreet Cafe in the mornings.
England quipped that they still harbor a little disappointment in EA Sports ending the NCAA Football game franchise, and joked that Watson would have made the cover this past year.
“Come on now, we’ve been waiting 21 years to play a video game with our friend on it, and now you’re not gonna make it?” England laughed.
Bunch recently had the opportunity to chat one-on-one with one of his regulars and get his thoughts on the upcoming college football season.
“He said ‘you better watch out this year.’ Don’t be surprised if they score 40 points every game,” Bunch said. “(Watson) said he has the best offensive line he’s ever had since he’s been playing football.”
Watson led the Red Elephants to Class 5A State Championship as a junior in 2012.
Watson, behind a stout offensive line, compiled 5,209 yards of total offense and 47 total touchdowns in 2015, both Atlantic Coast Conference records, in the Tigers’ 14-1 season. The Tigers welcome back running back Wayne Gallman, who broke the single-season rushing yardage record with 1,527 yards. Wide receiver Mike Williams returns after recording 1,030 receiving yards and six touchdowns his junior season.
Watson, along with Williams and senior defensive tackle Carlos Watkins (67 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks and eight tackles for loss) were named as First-Team preseason All-Americans, a list compiled by ESPN staff college football writer Phil Steele, on Tuesday.
The Tigers opened Day 1 of camp on Tuesday with much optimism and enthusiasm according to Watson. When asked about the confidence in knowing that the current pieces in place will win a national championship, he said that mindset has never left.
“It was there last year, it was there my freshman year, and it was there throughout the recruiting process,” Watson said. “It’s just being here, you know? That’s one reason I came here to Clemson. I knew that we could accomplish that goal sooner or later. It’s going to be special in the future to see what happens.”
After the season ends, Watson will be eligible to declare for the NFL draft, where he is expected to be a high pick in the first round.