Only the best and the brightest football players ascend to the dais that Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and running backs Derrick Henry of Alabama and Christian McCaffery of Stanford will share Saturday night at the Heisman Trophy award ceremony in midtown Manhattan.
But if it’s the dream of every college football player, it was especially far-fetched for Watson, who underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee exactly one year ago Saturday. Reflecting Friday afternoon on the improbable road he’s traveled, Watson said, “It’s been a tough ride, long mornings, long nights and just really grinding every day and trying to stay to the process and control what I can control.
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“I don’t listen to all the media stuff outside because they don’t really know what’s going on. Only me, my teammates and the trainers know what’s going on. I knew how hard I was going to come back, and I wanted to come back even harder and be in this room. Now, having the opportunity is pretty special.”
Watson said he felt 100 percent ready when fall camp began in August barely eight months after surgery. Asked what convinced him it was possible, he said, “Myself. I never doubted myself or put any negative thoughts in my mind. I think I can do anything. I’m very confident, and I know my skill set and what I can do.”
The sophomore quarterback led Clemson to a 13-0 season, ACC title and No. 1 ranking heading into the College Football Playoff. He passed for 3,512 yards and 30 touchdowns and then stepped up his running late in the season to total another 887 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns.
But in a season where there is no clear Heisman favorite, Watson has formidable competition. Henry, a junior, broke the SEC rushing record set by former Heisman winner Herschel Walker of Georgia, totaling 1,986 yards to lead the nation. Stanford sophomore McCaffrey was second in rushing with 1,847 yards but also totaled 3,496 all-purpose yards to eclipse the previous NCAA record set by Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders, a former Heisman winner whose son is a teammate of McCaffrey’s.
When Alabama needed Henry most, he carried the ball 90 times in the final two wins over Auburn and Florida. “It ain’t difficult when you want the ball and you want to make plays,” Henry said. “I told coach, ‘I want the ball because I want to help the team win.’ As a running back, you’ve got to have that mentality.”
McCaffrey, whose father Ed is a former NFL wide receiver, made a late push to join the Heisman finalists. “It’s so surreal,” McCaffrey said of his Heisman prospects. “I’m just trying to enjoy it and really relish the moment. If that were to happen, it would be an extremely emotional moment for me for sure.”