Throughout Deshaun Watson’s childhood, his mother Deann made sacrifices to ensure her oldest son had every opportunity to one day live his dream of becoming an NFL quarterback.
Watson’s dream is close to becoming a reality, as is his wish to pay back his mom for everything she did to allow Watson to get to this point.
The former Clemson star is expected to hear his name called in the first round of the NFL draft Thursday night in Philadelphia, and his mom and other family members will be in attendance for the special occasion.
“My whole family is going up, my mom, aunt, uncle, cousin, little brothers and my sister. I head up to New York on Monday and then Philly the rest of the week,” Watson said. “That’s one reason I selected to go to Philly, because I’ve always dreamed of hearing my name called and walking across the stage, receiving that jersey, taking that picture and being able to get selected to the National Football League.”
Even with Watson’s immense talent in football and basketball as a young child, it was hard to imagine him one day reaching the point of being a professional athlete.
Watson grew up in government housing in Gainesville, Ga., about 70 miles from Atlanta.
He was surrounded by gang violence and shootings throughout his childhood until in 2006, when Watson was 11 years old, his mom found a way out.
Deann, a single mother, turned to Habitat for Humanity to provide a better life for her four children.
She invested hundreds of hours in building Habitat for Humanity homes for others before finally helping to build her own. Deann got her family into a safe area, and Watson finally had his own bedroom and a place to call home.
Watson used the mental toughness he built from the difficult circumstances he faced growing up, as well as his explosive athleticism and strong arm, to become one of the top high school football players in the country.
His high school coach, Bruce Miller, said even as an eighth-grader, it was apparent Watson had a bright future ahead of him.
“He was absolutely unbelievable in our spring game,” Miller recalled. “He went 22-for-25 as an upcoming ninth-grader in our spring game, and from then on, I knew we had something special. He won the quarterback job and started as a freshman. He never played a JV down for us.”
Watson had an incredible high school career, including leading Gainesville, a school that is more than 100 years old, to its first state football title.
But even in his new house, his family faced difficulties.
When Watson was a sophomore in high school, his mom was diagnosed with tongue cancer and was forced to spend about eight months at Emory Hospital in Atlanta. He seldom saw his mom during that time and was forced to work four jobs to support his family.
“While 15 years old and playing football and basketball and trying to be a kid, I was also having four jobs and putting food on the table with my older brother and making sure that my younger brother and younger sister were getting to school, having clothes, shoes, food and doing the things they wanted to do,” Watson said this past week on the Rich Eison Show. “I was taking care of them and making sure that the household was steady.”
Watson worked as an Atlanta Falcons ball boy, a tax assessor, an accountant assistant and a real estate assistant.
After chemotherapy, radiation and having a section of her tongue removed, Deanna was able to beat the cancer and was healthy throughout Watson’s college career at Clemson.
Deann and other family members were fixtures at Watson’s games, cheering on the 6-foot-3 quarterback throughout his career with the Tigers, which included leading Clemson to a national title this past season.
“His freshman year he was hurt and was not going to play against Boston College, the whole family went to the game against Boston College. They all drove up there to see the game, and he wasn’t going to even play. That shows you what type of people they are,” said Miller, whose family attends church with Deann. “She’s very important because she’s been the rock all of his life. She’s such a great person. She’s so well-grounded herself, and the family around them is grounded.”
Throughout Watson’s record-breaking career at Clemson, he found time to give back through Habitat for Humanity.
After seeing the way the program changed his life, as well as his family’s, Watson wanted to be able to help other households.
Last October, Watson was honored as one of 12 FBS athletes named to the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team before Watson and the rest of Clemson’s football team worked on a community service project with Habitat for Humanity in Greenville.
“In short, Deshaun was the leader of our program and the face of our school for the last three years,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “He took us to the national championship this year through his performance on the field and leadership. In many ways, he was the face of the ACC as well. He will serve as an example for Clemson players for years to come.”
Watson plans to continue to give back throughout his professional football career, starting with a gift for his mom a couple of days after the draft.
Deann’s birthday is Saturday, and Watson has a surprise planned.
“That’s one of the biggest things that I’m looking forward to is being able to take care of my family, take care of my mom, make sure that she’s settled and that whatever she needs she can get, just kind of enjoying life and let her travel around,” Watson said. “I don’t want to spoil the treat. It’s my mom’s birthday that weekend after I get selected – so something special for her.”
Watson isn’t worried about when he will be selected in the NFL draft or where his NFL career will begin.
He has tuned out mock drafts and is enjoying the draft process instead, including sitting courtside with Floyd Mayweather at a Celtics-Kings game.
That’s a long way from government housing in Gainesville, Ga.
“Everyone had their part,” Watson said of how he got to this point. “Everyone had their part of raising me up and supporting me. My whole family has been the biggest part.”