Watch a compilation of fan-made videos wishing Gainesville High grad Deshaun Watson luck in the Heisman race.
Read more about Watson's hope to "inspire" the Gainesville community with his meteoric rise through college football.
Heisman Trophy presentation
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: New York City, New York
Even after 41 years of coaching, Bruce Miller still isn’t sure if he’s seen it all.
It’s funny how players like Gainesville High graduate Deshaun Watson can change your perception of what’s possible in the game of football.
“I don’t think you ever appreciate what type of player he was until he was gone,” said Miller in his office earlier this week. “He’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime person for me to get to coach.”
Maybe that’s why Miller could only smile when Watson, who won a state title with the Red Elephants in 2012, burst onto the college scene in his freshman year with a Superman-esque hurdle of a North Carolina State defender near the goal line for a touchdown.
Commentators called his play Heisman-worthy.
Miller had seen such heroics before. And he loved to watch them, even if there was an element of danger that his sprightly quarterback was a little too enthusiastic for Miller’s liking.
“Every time he ran the ball, we’d be going ‘Get down, get down!’ and he wouldn’t get down,” said Miller, laughing. “I see how now at Clemson, he’ll slide down more, but he wasn’t that way in high school. He’d try to stiff-arm you. He’d run into a brick wall. He’s just a dadgum competitor.”
The Times looks into six telling moments from the Heisman finalist’s shining career.
From his young days as a middle school linebacker to the dizzying heights of the No. 1 seed with the Clemson Tigers in the College Football Playoff, Gainesville High’s most visible son has created countless breathtaking athletic moments.
Many of them shaped Watson to be the playmaker he is today.
The first time Miller saw what his future quarterback was capable of, the seventh-grader had to deputize as an emergency punter.
He previously played as a slot receiver and linebacker for his middle school team, but hadn’t yet had any reps at quarterback for the Red Elephants. That soon changed.
“At halftime, the (quarterback) got hurt,” said Miller, who was on the sideline at the time. “I walked over to Deshaun and I said, ‘You know, you’ve gotta punt now.’ We wouldn’t really punt in that system, we’d quick kick it. He said ‘Coach, I don’t know how to do it,’ so I led him through the basics of it. Two quick kicks and he had it down. That was my first dealing with him.”
Then, Watson the quarterback took a snap.
“On the first play from scrimmage, I threw a 67-yard touchdown, so ever since then, I was the quarterback,” said Watson at a recent press conference in Clemson, S.C.
CREATED AT CAMP
Ever since Fred Payne was 5 or 6 years old, he could tell Watson was an unrelenting competitor. The two used to race each other in how quickly they could eat meals or even who would go to bed first.
Payne was hardly surprised when Watson, his best friend, began to truly make his mark on Georgia high school football.
Gainesville attended a team training camp at the University of West Georgia in the summer before Watson’s freshman year. All of the top teams in the state were scheduled to come, according to Payne, who was a sophomore at the time.
Watson had completed 22 of 25 passes in his first spring game that year, but was still in the midst of a quarterback battle who would take over from Blake Sims, who had graduated to play at Alabama.
And there was Watson (“150 pounds with rocks in his pockets,” according to Payne), attracting the attention.
“All year, all summer, we thought we had a kid we thought could be our quarterback,” said Miller. “Every 7-on-7, team-organized drill, any time we were throwing the ball and people were catching it, we were charting everything.”
Thrown up against the best Georgia had to offer, Watson shone. He took hits, dished out laser passes and showed off runs that made senior linebackers look like they were on ice, according to Payne.
“I knew it was pressure for him at the time,” Payne said. “He looked like a veteran. There was a lot of talk about who was going to be the next guy at Gainesville. There were big shoes to fill, and now there’s a freshman coming in? … But they can’t believe this freshman. Everyone wrapped their arms around him and said ‘This kid is unbelievable.’”
Watson never took a snap for the junior varsity team and threw three touchdown passes in his first varsity game against defending state champion Buford. His teammates still lightheartedly called him “Rookie,” according to Miller.
‘ALWAYS THINKING OF OTHERS’
Flash forward to Watson’s junior year in 2012 when he had led his Red Elephants to the state title game against Ware County in the Georgia Dome, broken the state career passing record with his third pass of the game and driven his team to a 21-0 lead in the third quarter.
What happened next surprised Watson’s coach.
With Gainesville driving within the 10, Miller called for Watson to throw a screen. Watson, noticing that sophomore running back Michael Byrd hadn’t yet gotten a chance to run for a score, changed the play on the fly and elected to hand the ball off to Byrd.
Said Miller: “I asked ‘What did you see that had you do that?’ He said, ‘He was a sophomore. I wanted to make sure he could get it.’ (Watson’s) always thinking of others. … I think he always has some feeling that he doesn’t want to let his teammates down.”
Playing against the No. 1 statistical defense in Class AAAAA, Watson diced up Ware County for 304 passing yards, 74 rushing and five total touchdowns in a 49-13 rout.
With the eyes of the sporting world — and the hopes of thousands in the stands — resting on his shoulders, how does one sophomore quarterback stay even-keeled?
It’s the same question Jeff Scott, Clemson’s co-offensive coordinator, had to ask during Watson’s freshman year at Clemson.
“Honestly, I didn’t think there was any way in the world that Deshaun would come in his first year and come close to the expectations that would be for a first-year quarterback,” said Scott. “We saw some stuff in high school, but you never know until you get him here.”
In his final home game for Gainesville, a state quarterfinal against Mundy’s Mill at City Park Stadium, Watson lined up at the 20 yard line. The senior dropped back to pass, broke the pocket, avoided a defender at the 10 and hit another tackle at the 5-yard line before going airborne and spinning 360 degrees into the end zone.
Less than a year later, Watson was completing a similarly spectacular feat of acrobatics in his first collegiate season.
“Deshaun’s calm demeanor is what makes him who he is,” said Miller.
EMOTION ON THE COURT
For all the memories that Shaquan Cantrell has of Watson on the field, he can’t help but rave about how the future Heisman finalist performed on the basketball court.
Cantrell and Watson, who are first cousins, were also close teammates on the Gainesville High basketball team all the way through Watson’s junior year.
Up until then, Cantrell always knew Watson as a quiet leader, never one for showmanship after a sharp jumper or a successful steal. But the work ethic was just the same, from football to basketball.
“He’d go to work every practice,” Cantrell said. “A knockdown shooter who could handle the ball, he played great defense. If he would have stuck with basketball, there’s no doubt in my mind that he could play Division I.”
There was never an off day for Watson, according to fellow teammate Chase England, who was the center on the football team. He would sometimes see Watson work with his receivers after practice “in 20-degree weather,” then wake up to work out with his position coach at 6 a.m.
The natural athleticism was apparent: As a sophomore, Watson dropped 23 points against West Hall in a quadruple-overtime basketball game for the win.
“He has always believed in himself,” said England. “He’s not arrogant about it, but he knows he’s good, personally. But he’s not going to tell anyone else.”
That’s why Cantrell thought it was so remarkable when Watson finally showed just a flash of braggadocio on the court.
Playing Salem High for the Region 8-AAAAA title in a chippy, back-and-forth game, Watson made his move. According to Cantrell, Watson spotted a 3-pointer that had bounced off the rim, jumped past three Salem defenders and crashed toward the rim for a momentous put-back dunk.
Typically the stoic one, Watson came down with a roar that echoed the gym.
“I’ve seen him make plenty of freaky athletic plays, but the emotion really caught me off-guard,” said Cantrell.
‘HE DOESN’T FEEL THE PRESSURE’
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney doesn’t have a Heisman vote, but he knows he’d give it to his sophomore wunderkind if he did. After all, the coach has gotten the chance to witness the feats that so many of Watson’s fans, friends and family have seen for so many years up until this point.
Watson’s latest breakout moment came last month against in-state rival South Carolina. Up by a field goal in the fourth quarter, Watson was facing a critical third-and-7 when he found freshman receiver Trevion Thompson for a 24-yard gain between two defenders that had dropped into zone coverage.
“Man, what a throw. Are you kidding me?” Swinney said after the game. “Right into a two-deep window with the corner sinking underneath it, he just threw a rope. But that’s Deshaun. That’s just what he does. … He doesn’t feel the pressure in crunch time because he’s prepared for that.”
Gainesville coach Bruce Miller can believe it — he’s seen it all before.