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Murphy: Deshaun Watson's rise to greatness no surprise to local fans
Gainesville High graduate named Monday as one of 3 Heisman Trophy finalists
Clemson quarterback and Gainesville High graduate Deshaun Watson (4) fends off Florida State's Terrance Smith to gain a first down during the first half of the game Nov. 7 in Clemson, S.C. - photo by Richard Shiro

Just two years and one day.

That’s the amount of time that elapsed from Deshaun Watson’s final pass for Gainesville High in the 2013 state semifinals until he was named a 2015 Heisman Trophy finalist on Monday.

It seemed like just yesterday he was the player for Gainesville, who in every game drew all the attention when he was on the field. Nobody could run, pass and make defenders miss horribly, just trying to get hands on the state’s all-time leading passer (13,077 yards).

If it was anyone other than Deshaun Watson making such a graceful and rapid transition from high school sensation to the best quarterback in college football, I wouldn’t believe it could be possible. Watson’s knee injury late in his freshman season, which required season-ending surgery, makes it an even more remarkable journey.

We’re talking about the Heisman Trophy here. Watson is just one step away from joining the likes of other quarterbacks to win the award in recent years, such as Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III, and Cam Newton — a friend to Watson since the former Red Elephants quarterback was re-writing the state record books.

On Saturday, Watson will sit front and center with Alabama’s Derrick Henry and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey as one will be crowned the top player in college football at the Best Buy Theater in New York City.

“It has been a dream of mine to bring my mom to New York and be a Heisman finalist,” Watson said after Monday’s big announcement. “We have never been to New York.”

Watson, who guided the Red Elephants to a 46-9 record in high school, has been a once-in-a-lifetime athlete who calls Hall County home. Every Friday night during his career from 2010-13 for Gainesville, Watson found a new way to leave fans — and even his own coaches and teammates — speechless.

Now the entire nation’s college football fan base know exactly who you’re talking about when you say Deshaun.

He’s 16-0 as starter for Clemson, and passed for more than more than 400 yards in Saturday’s shootout win against North Carolina for the conference title.

Will Watson win the Heisman this year?

Based on his body of work this season for top-ranked Clemson, he’s sure got a good shot. The sophomore quarterback has thrown for more than 3,500 yards, rushed for almost 1,000, won an ACC Championship and was named Player of the Year in the ACC.

We’ll have to tune in to ESPN on Saturday night to see if Watson’s name is called to join the most elite fraternity in college football.

Watson, the quarterback for the 2012 Class AAAAA state champion Red Elephants, has a national following for his soft-spoken and polite manner — the polar opposite of many of the most famous players who’ve grabbed attention for scandal and eligiblity issues.

His plays have a way of making defenders look like statues frozen in place with his quick feet and fast release of the ball that only his receiver can catch.

“Deshaun Watson is the epitome of what the Heisman Trophy is all about,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “He has been the leader of the only undefeated team in college football in every way.”

Later this week, The Times will have stories that tie together Watson’s upbringing, and how his rare ability has translated into him being one of the nation’s best.

Friends and family saw his unique potential long before he played on Fridays at City Park Stadium.

However, all of us who follow high school football picked up on it quickly when he reached high school. Some of Watson’s high school plays were a precise execution of what they worked on it practice. Others were sheer brilliance when things broke down and he was able to improvise.

I can’t remember how many times Watson hurdled a defender in the open field, but it was at least twice his senior season.

One play stands out in particular. In fact, it’s one I’ll never forget. Standing beside the end zone at City Park Stadium made it infinitely more impressive to see transpire just feet away. It was during the 2013 playoffs, I believe against South Paulding. Watson left us all shaking our heads after he turned a broken play into some aerial acrobatics for a score.

Taking the snap at about the visitor’s 10, Watson was moving around in the backfield waiting to no avail for a receiver to get open. Instead of forcing a low-percentage throw, Watson took it into his own hands. After several seconds looking for a receiver, he tucked the ball down and headed right toward the defender near the goal line on the fourth-down play.

Watson went airborne, was spun after leaving the ground like a helicopter blade and landed in the end zone for the score.

Such a hit had to hurt and probably made him dizzy, right? Nope.

Watson jumped right up, handed the ball to the referee and ran back to an excited Gainesville sideline.

Most people probably didn’t believe they were seeing what Watson had just done.

I did. It was just Deshaun being Deshaun.

Here’s hoping Watson can capture the Heisman Trophy. He certainly has earned it.

Bill Murphy is the sports editor of The Times. He can be reached at or 770-718-3415.

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