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Gainesville graduate Deshaun Watson: 'I'm just trying to inspire people'
Fans, friends describe arduous journey Clemson QB has taken to reach for Heisman hopes
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Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) runs for yardage against North Carolina State during the first half of an Oct. 24, 2014 game in Clemson, S.C. Clemson won 41-0. - photo by Rainier Ehrhardt

Watch a compilation of fan-made videos wishing Gainesville High grad Deshaun Watson luck in the Heisman race.

Read more about Deshaun Watson's most significant athletic moments, from his humble days to Gainesville to his many accomplishments with Clemson. 

Heisman Trophy presentation

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: New York City, New York


Deshaun Watson takes Gainesville with him wherever he goes.

On his right arm, from which he slings inch-perfect touchdown throws, he wears tattoos of a deck of playing cards and his 2012 state championship ring from his junior year with the Red Elephants.

The cards symbolize that he should play the cards he’s dealt. The ring lets him know how much he can accomplish with hard work.

Those Gainesville roots, no matter how high Watson climbs, always keep him grounded.

Clemson’s sophomore quarterback is one of three finalists left in the running for the Heisman Trophy, college football’s most venerated prize. And after leading the No. 1 Tigers to a berth in the College Football Playoff, Watson can relax for a bit and finally enjoy the adoration from his hometown fans, who have supported him every step of the way.

“It’s good to see that the town is proud of what I’m doing,” said Watson at a press conference last week in Clemson. “I’m just trying to inspire people to … achieve their dreams. I want to make people smile and have fun with it.”

Winning is fun. Clemson (13-0) has thrived under Watson’s leadership ever since he officially took over the reins early in his freshman year. Since undergoing surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee toward the tail end of 2014, Watson has thrown for 30 touchdowns and picked up 3,512 yards through the air alone, making him a tough out against fellow Heisman contenders Derrick Henry of Alabama and Christian McCaffrey of Stanford.

Gainesville last celebrated a Heisman finalist when quarterback Billy Lothridge was nominated as a part of Georgia Tech’s vaunted offense. Lothridge graduated from Gainesville High School in 1960 and finished second in the 1963 Heisman voting behind two-time Super Bowl champion Roger Staubach. Lothridge died in 1996.

Most teammates remember Watson for his personality as much as his arm. Chase England, Watson’s former center for Gainesville, will never forget his quarterback’s infectious optimism.

England recalls a playoff game where the Red Elephants went into halftime down by 14 to Kell High School during Watson’s junior year. The offense wasn’t clicking, the line was deep in thought, but Watson never betrayed any concern.

“Deshaun walks over and looks at me,” said England, now a sophomore forward for the Piedmont College basketball team. “He smiles and says, ‘You think winning state’s going to be easy? Think of all the great players who have played at Gainesville. It’s not going to be easy. But we’re going to get it done.’”

The national media doesn’t quite get it. How can Watson, the focal point for the No. 1 team in the nation, still stay so calm under pressure? Clemson has won four of its 13 games by eight points or fewer so far this season. Doesn’t he get nervous, at least?

Said Watson: “Nervous? Like, what kind of nervous, ready to play? Anxiety? I wouldn’t say the moment has ever been too big. … I’ve never been afraid or nervous. I’m here for a reason.”

Longtime friend and former Gainesville High teammate Fred Payne said he thinks Watson learned a powerful lesson of humility from his mother. During Deshaun’s freshman year with the Red Elephants basketball team, Deann Watson revealed to her son that she had tongue cancer.

She had known long before but didn’t want to scare him while she was mapping out her recovery. But the news still took Deshaun aback.

“At first, he wouldn’t talk much about it,” said Payne, one of Watson’s closest friends. “He’d just sit and listen and observe. He would question it, how it could happen. But he had the community behind him. Some nights, we wouldn’t even talk football. We’d just talk family.”

The cancer required her to undergo a 12-hour surgery at Emory Hospital in Atlanta, followed by several grueling months of chemotherapy and radiation.

Deshaun often stayed with aunts, uncles or Payne while his mother received treatment. The therapy caused her to miss long stretches of Watson’s sophomore football season, which she kept up with by listening to the radio and texting Deshaun before and after each game. 

“She doesn’t let him get too high,” Payne said. “‘You’re just Deshaun,’ she’ll say. ‘You’re only going to be as good as what people remember you by.’”

To the Gainesville community, Watson is a legend who made it.

Deshaun, his mother and his three siblings lived among “drug dealers and gang members” in government housing, according to Payne, now a junior defensive back at Western Carolina University. When Watson was 10, his family got the chance to move into a new home, thanks to Habitat for Humanity.

Today, Watson regularly speaks about and supports Habitat, telling stories of when he got to pick out his first room.

“He took pride in that,” said Leslie Frierson, Watson’s fourth-grade teacher at Centennial Arts Academy in Gainesville. “When they moved in, my husband and brother went over to help them put up a basketball goal. We got to spend a long time at that house when it was being constructed. It was filled with so much love.”

With a stable home life and a strong support system behind him, Watson thrived for the Red Elephants. He led the Gainesville football team to its first state title in program history before helping the basketball team to a state title showdown just four months later.

Although Watson attracted several offers from schools across the country, he committed to play with coach Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers in early 2012.

Former Gainesville teammate Shaquan Cantrell swears Watson could have gotten offers from Division I basketball programs, had he chosen to stay on the court after his junior year.

“No doubt in my mind,” Cantrell said. “He was a freaky athlete.”

Current teammate Shaq Lawson, a junior defensive end who recently announced that he will enter the NFL draft in the offseason, said Watson’s ability to torch defenses with his arm or his feet provides an unnerving challenge.

Watson leads the team with 11 rushing touchdowns so far this season.

“You’ve got to have eyes on Deshaun,” Lawson said. “He can mess with your eyes. He likes to move around a lot, He’s helped my game out a lot since coming in.”

Co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott knew Clemson was getting what it wanted from Watson in his first regular season game in his freshman year. Attacked by a heavy blitz, Watson evaded contact and completed a complex checkdown that the coaching staff typically reserves for juniors or seniors.

“He throws a rope on the line about 25 yards and that was the first of many ‘wows’ on the headset,” Scott said.

The nation has taken notice of Gainesville’s latest star: Watson has been featured on the cover of two recent issues of Sports Illustrated. But the sophomore has found ways to tune out the noise. He recently returned to spend time with his family here in Hall County and said he was happy to see others excited about his role on the highest stage in college football.

Watson’s never been to New York before but said he’s looking forward to bringing his mother along for the ride.

“I’m just keeping life simple,” he said. “I’m the same me as I was before.”

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