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Gainesville High graduate and Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson has always strived for greatness
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Clemson quarterback and Gainesville High graduate Deshaun Watson stands next to a giant rock painted in Watson's honor on Monday.

When Deshaun Watson and Fred Payne had the rare opportunity to sit down for lunch on Monday in Gainesville, Payne made sure to remind his best friend to stay poised and relaxed on this exciting journey, as well as something that has never been too hard to do for the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist.

“Just be yourself,” said Payne.

Amidst the craziness of Watson’s life, that much is true. Being Deshaun has never been the problem. Always remembering where he comes from hasn’t been an issue either.

Watson returned home just in time to see his community reciprocate, leaving positive messages of support on billboards all over town.

From Pro Touch Landscapes on Thompson Bridge Road to Longstreet Cafe, all projected the same promotional announcement to anyone driving by. Watson’s image appeared on multiple social media platforms  showing the former Red Elephant proudly standing next to the giant painted rock with the words “Deshaun 4 Heisman” in large letters. He’ll find out if he wins the biggest award to a college football player in New York City, which will be broadcast live at 8 p.m. on ESPN.

Watson is part of the community, and the community is a part of him.

“It’s an honor,” Watson said of the local support on Tuesday. “It was good to get back home and see those people and all the orange and be able to talk, and just celebrate, you know, all the good things going on. Because that’s the reason why I’m doing it, to help my city out and have more people do things that I’m doing.”

Watson hopes to continue to give Gainesville the spotlight it deserves. His suit radiated Gainesville red and black during last year’s Heisman ceremony, in which he finished third in the final voting.

“It’s always good to bring positive vibes, positive things to your town because it really encourages and inspires everyone else in that town, to do great things and try to be special too. Because it is possible if you put your mind to it,” Watson said.

Watson is the first Gainesville native to be named a Heisman finalist since Billy Lothridge in 1963. Lothridge finished second behind winner Roger Staubach. Watson was also the recipient of the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award on Thursday.

“The people in Gainesville are so proud of Deshaun and what he has accomplished,” said Jack Waldrip, a longtime family friend and mentor to Watson. “Just this week, he and I walked into Longstreet Café, his favorite place to eat, and when the people saw him, they all started clapping.”

Payne anticipates he’ll see a little Clemson orange on Watson’s outfit this year. However, knowing his former quarterback, he always has something up his sleeve.

“Who knows. He said it was going to be a surprise to all of us. He’s a guy that likes to keep everybody anticipating,” quipped Payne.

At this juncture, those moments at home are so few, but so precious. When asked what he does to get take the pressure off all the Heisman hype and national attention, Watson said he prefers to spend valuable time with mother Deann and his siblings, not to mention fit in some video game sessions with friends.

“He gets tired like everyone else,” Payne said. “It’s never too much for him. He’s a humble guy so he can handle just about anything. He doesn’t think he’s better than anyone. That’s a great thing about him.”

People see a pro-caliber quarterback. But there’s so much more below the surface according to Waldrip. They may not see a man, who in high school, prioritized his life in four words: God, family, school, football. He juggled athletics, academics, church and work often in the same week.

“Don’t ever think life has been easy for Deshaun,” Waldrip added. “It hasn’t.”

From an early age, winning the Heisman has been Watson’s No. 1 priority. Three years ago, the soft-spoken 18-year-old from Gainesville High declared his one goal to win college football’s most prestigious individual award during the annual Greater Hall FCA Signing Day event at the Longstreet Cafe.

It was a moment that still resonates in the mind of Waldrip, who sat beside Watson that day.

“He said (to the reporter) ‘I’m not thinking about the NFL yet. Right now my goal is to win the Heisman.’ That was pretty cool,” said Waldrip. “That was pretty cool.”

Watson had finished high school in the fall and already settled into campus life at Clemson University, yet made his way back to his favorite local eatery to speak at the event.

Payne and Watson had already come a long way since an early childhood spent in the government-run apartments of 815 Harrison Square. As teenagers, the pair met Waldrip in their time spent at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Hall County. The connection was instant for Waldrip, and to this day shares a close bond with both young men.

In April, Waldrip had an opportunity to tell Watson’s mother, Deann, how much of a blessing it has been since they appeared in his life six years ago.

“I said to Deann, ‘I understand it now. When Deshaun and Fred came to my and Violets home years before, I thought it was God using me to be a blessing to these two young men. Now I understand. It was God that was sending me the blessing.' Deann smiled and replied, ‘Jack, God put you together to be a blessing for each other,’” Waldrip added.

Payne is slated to graduate with a degree in finance from Western Carolina University, while Watson at 21, will graduate with a degree in communications studies next week at Clemson. Payne said he and Watson hope to someday give back to the community.

Watson had previously volunteered with Clemson teammates for the non-profit Habitat For Humanity in neighboring Greenville, S.C. He was inspired to pay it forward by his mother, who invested hundreds of hours to the HFH after being approved for a home through the non profit, and former Atlanta Falcons running back and avid HFH supporter Warrick Dunn. Dunn furnished the Watson household through HFH when Watson was just 11-years-old.

Winning the Heisman wouldn’t be a bad way to start giving back to his hometown. He’ll just have to go through fellow clear frontrunner Lamar Jackson of Louisville first.

Watson was eighth in the nation with 4,443 yards of total offense, passing for 3,914 yards and 37 touchdowns. He also rushed for 529 yards and six touchdowns. His five total touchdowns lifted the Tigers to their second-straight ACC title and college football playoff berth.

Jackson recorded 4,928 yards of total offense with 51 total touchdowns. Jackson is just the third player to pass for 30 touchdowns and rush for 20 in the same season. He Louisville’s first Heisman finalist.

“To see the success (Deshaun’s) having now, is just a blessing for me to see it first hand, just from knowing him as a little kid to the young man he’s grown into today,” Payne said.

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