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Gainesville group raises money for 1,300-square-foot banner to honor Deshaun Watson
Watson, a Gainesville High grad, won this year's national championship with Clemson
This graphic designed by Gainesville native Louis Hokayem will hang on a 1,300-square foot banner downtown to honor Gainesville High graduate and former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. - photo by Louis Hokayem

While driving around Gainesville shortly after Clemson won the College Football Playoff national championship, Louis Hokayem saw the ideal spot.

There in the heart of downtown, on the side of the old Regions Bank building at 111 Green St., was the perfect place for the Deshaun Watson design he created four months ago. Hokayem began launching plans to create a temporary banner to honor the Gainesville High graduate who quarterbacked the Tigers to the football national title.

“I saw that building and thought, ‘Hey, let’s do something big and get the community involved to show our respect and appreciation,’ ” Hokayem said.

And then the community made it possible.

In just five days, the fundraiser for the banner created by Hokayem and a group of close friends surpassed its goal of $4,900. The group announced Monday in a Facebook video the project’s completion and that it had officially ordered the 1,300-square foot banner, which Hokayem hopes will be dropped within two weeks.

Additional funds — which are still flowing into the open fundraiser on — will go to Hall County Habitat for Humanity, with which Watson has frequently worked.

All this to honor Watson, who led Gainesville High to a football state championship in 2012. But his biggest accomplishment came earlier this month when Clemson upset previously-undefeated Alabama 35-31 on Jan. 9 to win the national championship.

“We’ve always been watching Deshaun,” said Graham Williams, one of the four Gainesville High graduates in charge of the project.

The banner will feature an illustration of Watson’s face by Hokayem accompanied by the phrase “hometown hero.”

Hokayem, who works in marketing and brand design, said the group decided on that title after seeing numerous social media posts featuring the phrase in celebration of Watson taking down the Crimson Tide.

“This is a community project, and people of the community were hailing him as their hometown hero,” he said. “It’s very high praise, but we wanted to take what people were already saying about him and incorporate that into the piece.”

Hokayem said the design was originally intended for a mural akin to the one he and Joey Summer, another member of the fundraising group, painted near Bradford St. to commemorate the 1936 tornado that left downtown Gainesville in ruins.

Though not a mural, Hokayem’s design for Watson will still achieve its purpose on a grand scale.

“We wanted to do something big to celebrate his accomplishment and then also acknowledge the fact that he has been such an incredible ambassador for the city,” he said. “But beyond that, we all wanted to put up a way for the community to get involved in something in a real tangible way.”

The group quickly got to work in the days after Clemson’s championship, reaching out to city planners and the owners of the building at 111 Green St. for approval on the project.

With a design already in hand, the four Gainesville natives, who all graduated high school in the late 2000s, soon found a crew of installers and lifts to hang the banner. Once the North Georgia Community Foundation agreed to handle and process all the donations, the only hurdle remaining was actually raising the funds.

That was the simple part.

“It’s easy to get excited about something on social media, but people are actually giving money,” Williams said. “That was kind of the dream, for the whole community to come together.”

Hokayem said most of the funds raised were small contributions of $10-20, though there were a few significantly large donations. As of the latest daily update from the NGCF, the fundraiser has collected $5,700 and will remain open for a few more weeks.

“That’s the thing I loved the most about this project — it was truly funded by the people of the community,” Hokayem said. “It’s just a testament to what Deshaun represents for this community.”

In just two weeks, a reminder of Watson’s impact will hang over Gainesville for at least 30 days. Hokayem said he reached out to the NFL-bound quarterback about the banner, which Watson supported and appreciated.

The location of the banner, which will be hung across from Midland Station Coffee Company, will be more visible to pedestrians than traffic. This will allow Gainesville residents to take photos with and of it, aligning with Hokayem’s vision.

As he stressed, the banner is ultimately meant to be a community project.

“The look and feel of the building, it just has that wide-open space. It caught our attention,” Hokayem said. “Beyond that, we wanted to create a piece where people could enjoy it and interact with it from downtown.”