Let’s start with Deshaun Watson’s character on the football field.
The Clemson quarterback directed the Tigers to a 24-21 lead entering the fourth quarter of last season’s College Football Playoff championship. A series of huge Alabama plays, including a 51-yard touchdown pass, a 95-yard kickoff return touchdown and a 63-yard pass that set up a 1-yard TD run, gave the Crimson Tide a 45-33 lead with 3:33 left. But Watson closed the gap to 45-40 with 12 seconds left.
The salient fact is that Watson never stopped.
Every time the Clemson defense gave up a chunk play or touchdown, he led the Tigers back down the field to score. It truly was a remarkable display of poise under pressure that spoke to the character he developed while watching and learning from his mother, Deann, who earned the family a chance to own a Habitat for Humanity home and later overcame cancer of the tongue.
Explaining his response, Watson said in a recent interview with Newsday: “I just really know how to manage adversity. Football is just like life. You have to manage adversity all the time. You have to do the right things and be ready for the moment. I think I just kind of transfer everything to the football field with my lifestyle and growing up and what my mom went through. I was prepared for moments like this and focused myself to where I could control the things I could control.”
Watson and the Tigers finished second to Alabama for the national title, and he was third in the Heisman Trophy race. But Watson has a chance this season for a rare trifecta: national title, Heisman Trophy and being the NFL’s No. 1 draft pick. It all begins next Saturday with Clemson’s season opener at Auburn.
Obviously, leading the Tigers back to the championship game is the priority, but Watson admitted this much: “Of course, I dream about [winning the Heisman] and it’s in the back of my mind. But my main priority is winning that national championship and being the best player I can be right now. If I do that, the Heisman stuff will take care of itself.
“It’s something the voters have to see. I just focus on the little things and just play each and every week and give my all and do my best, and all that stuff is going to take care of itself.”
A good foundation
If there is a poster-child for all the good that can come out of the Habitat for Humanity program, Deshaun Watson is it, and what’s more important is that he has embraced his role as a national spokesman. In fact, shortly after he arrived at Clemson and learned that coach Dabo Swinney had committed his team to assisting Habitat for Humanity in building homes for one week each summer, Watson asked if there was more he could do as the beneficiary of one of those life-transforming homes.
“My mom said it’s always positive vibes,” Watson said. “I love good vibes and that’s what I get off people all of the time. That’s what I want to give out to other people is those vibes and to have hope and dreams and to build that confidence and be encouraged to do whatever they want in life if they put their mind to it. I want to use my platform to show that it’s possible and to share my story and help others.”
Watson can trace his roots to a darker place located in the government housing project at 815 Harrison Square in Gainesville, Georgia, where he grew up with his mother, two brothers and a sister. It’s not that it was a brutal ghetto, but he witnessed gang activity and drug dealing and described it in one interview as a “recycling bin” for neighborhood criminals.
The impact was such that Watson has a couple of tattoos with the “815” address theme to remind him of how far he’s come.
“It was like every other [poor] neighborhood,” Watson said. “It had drugs and violence going around. It wasn’t over the top, but it was a one-way path and that’s to the street life. That’s not what I was focused on, but if you get out of line, things could lead down that path. I had a great support cast around me that led me and made sure I stayed straight.”
That support cast started with his mother and included his aunt, Sonia. When he was 9 years old, Watson attended a Halloween party at his local church at the urging of his mother. “I was in it for the candy,” he told one interviewer, but stuffed in his bag of treats was a flyer for Habitat for Humanity.
His mother checked his Halloween bag to make sure everything was all right, pulled out the flyer and committed to doing all she could to make her family eligible for a Habitat for Humanity house. She put in more than 200 hours of community service to Habitat for Humanity, contributing six-hour blocks of time to building houses in addition to her regular job. She took a class in financial planning because those who receive the houses must maintain mortgage payments.
There were no guarantees when she began the process, but eventually, Watson’s mother qualified to receive a Habitat for Humanity home. “It was hard for her to manage everything, but she did and I know how hard she worked to be able to get the house,” Watson said.
It was a two-year process. Watson was 11 when his family moved into their new home in a suburban area of Gainesville. The move-in date came during Thanksgiving week in 2006 and Watson and his mother and siblings were shocked to find the home came completely furnished with a fully stocked refrigerator thanks to the contributions of an organization run by NFL running back Warrick Dunn, who was on hand for the presentation.
“I knew all about Warrick Dunn,” Watson said. “I followed him on video games. He was giving back to the community. It was a special moment. It was great that we had a new home and to be able to get my own room, a new bed and to have a backyard and actually be able to play in it and just be able to have a family atmosphere.”
Overcoming obstacles, helping others
Living in such a serene setting, Watson said, “eliminated all the distractions.” He led his high school team to a state title. But before he accomplished that goal, his mother learned she had a rare cancer of the tongue. It might have killed her, but she survived after having her tongue removed and then rebuilding it with other body parts. She slurs when she talks now, but there is no one Watson relies on more than his mother.
“It just made me grow up and mature faster,” Watson said of his mother’s health problems. “Of course, it was a sad moment and a tragedy, but God had a plan for us and made us closer. It was all about love. She was strong and battled through it, and now she’s cancer-free and enjoying life again.
“The whole family just looks at life in a different way. You never know what’s going to happen. You’ve got to believe in God’s work . . . My mom is my rock, and I’m blessed to have her as my mother. I can talk to her whenever I need to or want to. She supports me through thick and thin, and I’ll always be there for her.”
SMU coach Chad Morris, who recruited Watson to Clemson and remains close with him, called Watson in one interview a “giver” who cares about others more than himself. That explains why Watson willingly gives his time to communicate the message of how he benefited from Habitat for Humanity and the chance to lead a life without all the encumbrances of poverty.
Explaining his commitment to Habitat for Humanity, Watson said, “It’s an opportunity for me to give back and to be able to inspire kids. I wanted to show it’s all about love and care and being able to give them hope and confidence to fulfill their dreams.”
Nothing could be more powerful than the example Watson sets, not only on the field, but off it with his commitment to help families escape the cruel cycle of poverty.
Watson’s career numbers