Leslie Frierson sent the invitation merely as a friendly gesture – she didn’t really expect all-state quarterback Deshaun Watson, just released on his first spring break from Clemson, to come to her 4-year-old nephew’s birthday party.
But there was Watson, back home to visit his family in his freshman year, and making the dreams of one Max Williams come true. Williams, who grew up watching Watson play for the Gainesville High football team, once dressed up as the quarterback for Halloween.
And for the party, there was no better choice of cake than one with a picture of Watson, decked out in his Red Elephants gear.
“He’s definitely been a huge fan,” said Frierson, who was Watson’s fourth-grade teacher at Gainesville’s Centennial Arts Academy. “I appreciate how kind Deshaun has been. He goes above and beyond. It meant the world to him, and he’ll never forget it.”
Frierson, along with several of Watson’s close friends, fans and family will be supporting Watson during Saturday’s Heisman Trophy presentation in New York City.
The sophomore is one of three finalists this year, along with Alabama’s Derrick Henry and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey.
Still, Watson has supporters in high places that are staunchly in his corner. Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said during a Nov. 18 press conference in Charlotte that the Clemson sophomore would be his pick, if he could choose the Heisman winner.
The two have been close friends ever since they met at a passing camp in Atlanta during Watson’s junior year at Gainesville. Watson and Newton often text each other words of encouragement before games.
“That’s my little brother,” said Newton. “I’ve seen Deshaun grow ... He was on my all-star team and was always eager, like a sponge. Always looking to see how he could make his game better. … Hopefully he is a Heisman Trophy winner. I know him, his family, coaches and everything, and he’s a person well-deserving of this.”
Watson has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice this season.
Watson’s on-field accomplishments can only be overshadowed by his continuing kindness, according to Lakeview Academy basketball coach Todd Cottrell. Cottrell coached Watson at Gainesville from freshman year through junior year, when the Red Elephants went all the way to the state title game.
Several of Watson’s close friends say he’ll always take the time to text back and talk, even during the taxing football season where student-athletes are often lacking for any free time.
“There’s not anybody who knows him or coached him that’s surprised about what he’s doing now,” said Cottrell. “He’s the same we’ve seen since we’ve known him.”
Chase England wouldn’t have it any under way. He was Watson’s center on the football team, and was a teammate with him for the Red Elephants’ basketball program during their long playoff run in 2012.
Often, England would spot Watson taking extra sprints after practice, working with his position coach at 6 a.m. or just watching videos of NFL stars like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, just to soak up their winning attitude.
Sure, England has memories of Watson the goofball (“He was never a very good rapper. They used to freestyle in the locker room. He wasn’t awful, but he wasn’t the greatest”) or Watson the prankster (“We’d be pretending like we were asleep in the hotel room and our assistant coach would come up to the door, he’d try to block the door, then (Watson) would try to wrestle with him”), but England wants to make room for a new memory: Watson, the Heisman Trophy winner.
“I think he’s the most talented player in the country,” said England. “I think he’s proven that every Saturday. … Just to be in the same sentence as Cam Newton, Bo Jackson, Herschel Walker, he can say that all of that extra work was well worth it.”
Dreams count for something, too. Longtime friend and teammate Fred Payne recalls a spring break vacation to St. Augustine, Fla. during Watson’s freshman year where Watson said he wanted to be the No. 1 player in the country and win the Heisman.
The two had just finished up with camps down at the University of Florida, where they had seen the likes of Tim Tebow raising the trophy. The boys wanted to emulate their idols.
“We never doubted,” said Payne, now a defensive back at Western Carolina University. “Doubt kills more dreams than anything ever will. I told him, ‘You could do it, you’ve got to aim high, but it’s worth it.’ He built himself as a freak of nature. No one could stop him. He felt he was going to be special.”
The last time the city of Gainesville got to celebrate a Heisman finalist, Billy Lothridge was running rings around his opponents as a part of a dominant Georgia Tech passing/rushing attack. Lothridge, who graduated from Gainesville High in 1960, finished second in the 1963 Heisman voting behind two-time Super Bowl champion Roger Staubach. Lothridge died in 1996.
Red Elephants football coach Bruce Miller said last week that Watson had long since convinced him of his Heisman potential. Stepping into the shoes of Gainesville great Blake Sims, who went on to play for Alabama, Miller said Watson was a natural under center.
“Deshaun’s one of those that you’re lucky in your lifetime if you get to coach one of them,” Miller said. “I’ve had some good ones. Blake was a good one, but the difference between Deshaun and Blake was, the quarterback position was almost made for (Watson). Blake could play other positions, but Deshaun could understand all of the ins and outs of the quarterback. It wasn’t anything I ever did for him.”
Just as he tries to always watch Watson play for Clemson on Saturdays, England will be making sure he finds a suitable TV or live stream to watch his former quarterback during the Heisman selection ceremony.
He’ll be playing for the Piedmont College men’s basketball team earlier that day in Florida.
“I’ll be watching with my teammates,” he said. “Some of the guys are planning on getting together. We’ll be hoping.”
So too will Miller, who’s noticed how far Watson’s fame has transcended the state of Georgia. He once heard of a couple who attended a game in their Gainesville jerseys to watch Watson. Miller said the couple was immediately asked by native Clemson fans if they knew Watson personally.
The veteran coach said he’ll be watching the Heisman presentation at his home, hoping and praying his former quarterback reaches yet another level of fame.
But Frierson knows that won’t change Watson. And that her nephew Max picked the right role model.
“Everyone in the town feels like they’re connected to Deshaun,” she said. “He’s just the same person he always is.”