National Championship game
No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 2 Alabama
When: 8:30 p.m. Monday
Where: Glendale, Arizona
On TV: ESPN
Gainesville High graduate Deshaun Watson has the full admiration from a gallery of sports greats right here in Hall County.
Top-ranked Clemson’s unflappable sophomore quarterback, who finished third in Heisman Trophy voting in 2015, will try to finish his season with a national championship against No. 2 Alabama on Monday night in Glendale, Ariz.
Watson, who guided the Red Elephants to a Class AAAAA state title as a junior in 2012, has managed to get better every year. He has a remarkable right throwing arm, even though he’s known to the nation for being a dual-threat quarterback.
His toughness and tremendous running ability extends plays on a regular basis for the Tigers, who are hunting for their first national championship in 34 years.
“His skills as a player are just amazing,” said Mike ‘Moonpie’ Wilson, who graduated from Johnson High and started on the offensive line for the Cincinnati Bengals during the 1982 Super Bowl season. “(Deshaun) just seems to never get rattled.”
And because of his one-of-a-kind skill set and endearing personality, Watson’s quick rise to the top of the college game transcends sports. That feeling is also shared here in Hall County by Tommy Aaron, who won the green jacket at The Masters in 1973, and baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro, who has lived in Flowery Branch for many years.
As a sophomore, Watson has thrown for 3,699 yards and rushed for more than 1,000. In addition, he was voted the ACC Player of the Year — in a landslide — and led the Tigers (14-0) to the ACC Championship and a spot in the college football playoffs.
As for Aaron, who was also a quarterback for Gainesville High, he’ll “eagerly be watching” the game Monday night to see what Watson has in store for an audience of fans on TV that will span the globe.
“It’s really unbelievable what Deshaun’s been able to do,” said Aaron, who said he was recruited as a football player by Clemson. “I’ve really enjoyed watching him play.”
On any given day, Watson has the ability to win a game with his arm, his feet or a wonderful combination of the two. The Orange Bowl performance was about the most balanced for Watson, throwing for 187 yards and a TD, and rushing for 145 yards and another score in a convincing 37-17 win against semifinal opponent No. 4 Oklahoma in Miami.
Watson’s 420 passing yards against North Carolina was a new ACC Championship game record. Equally as important, Watson made enough plays for the Tigers at home to win battles against No. 6 Notre Dame and No. 15 Florida State.
Another part of what makes Watson elite is his mental edge on the field. No game is ever too big. At this point, he’s a seasoned pro with the spotlight from the national media, including twice gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated this season.
And Watson, well, he might be immune from feeling pain, despite a season-ending knee injury as a freshman. Clemson’s mobile quarterback will likely take a licking against the Crimson Tide, who have made life miserable for quarterbacks all season.
“Deshaun can get the crap knocked out of him, and he’ll get right back up,” said Wilson, a 12-year NFL veteran, who now owns Moonpie’s Sporting Goods in Gainesville.
Niekro hasn’t met Watson before, but is also a big fan of his talent.
“I’ve been pulling for him all the way,” said Niekro.
Wilson’s encounters with Watson started when the young quarterback shopped for football gear in his business, located less than a mile from Gainesville High’s campus.
The former NFL player would tell Gainesville’s all-state quarterback stories about playing in the NFL. The former Georgia Bulldog lineman has his helmets in his stores as a way to remember his time playing for the Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks.
Right away, Wilson picked up on Watson’s kindred spirit.
“Deshaun’s a pretty intelligent kid,” said Wilson, who played in the Sugar Bowl for Georgia in 1976. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
The golfing great Aaron met Watson when the 20-year-old quarterback was still playing for the Red Elephants, during a pre-game ceremony at City Park Stadium. The three-time PGA Tour winner was equally impressed with Watson’s persona and the way he carries himself on the field.
They’re also able to share football stories. Aaron was quarterback of the Red Elephants during the 1954 season.
If he could impart one piece of advice to Watson, it would be to enjoy the moment.
“I’d just tell him to relax,” said Aaron. “He’s just got to focus on playing up to his capabilities.”