I felt obligated to use this platform I’ve been fortunate enough to have here at STS to pontificate on the man I feel is the greatest Tiger to ever play at Clemson. I am writing this even before the rematch with Alabama, though will add something at the end pending the result. There have been some good articles out there on this, including the recent piece by Ryan McGee from ESPN you can see here, but I don’t think there is such a thing as too many or too much when it comes to a guy like Watson.
I celebrated my 42nd birthday in December and have been an avid Tiger fan my entire life. I had a #3 jersey in grade school I was happy to tell people was my “Homer Jordan jersey” even though I was too young to know the 81 season beyond the cans of Clemson Orange Soda I had in my room on a ledge below a poster reading DEFENSE featuring William Perry and company taking down Hershel Walker in the Valley. Most of our Clemson heroes in those days were running backs or defensive players. The Perry brothers, Donnell Woolford, Terry Allen, Ronald Williams, Brian Dawkins, and Anthony Simmons all took turns as my favorite Tigers during their runs in orange. The dark days of the late 90s gave way to a small glimpse of sunshine in the form of the dynamic Woody Dantzler and a type of offensive football I had never seen at Clemson. Then Charlie Whitehurst came and gave us the thrilling end of 2003 and four straight wins over USCjr. Still, there was no 10 win season or ACC title from 1990 to then. I’ve often pointed to the signing of C.J. Spiller as the real turning point of Clemson football, followed by the promotion of the man who recruited him to head coach. C.J.’s signing day surprise ranks at the top of most Tiger fans’ recruiting memories since the internet took that part of football to another level. #28 was about as great as it gets, and who knows how it would have been had Dabo been running things from the start of his career, but to use a Biblical analogy, C.J. was like John the Baptist paving the way for Christ.
The first thing I remember about Deshaun was the craziness of seeing a commitment coming from a guy just finishing 9th grade. I had only seen this type of early commit from the infamous Tymere Zimmerman saga, and I was very skeptical something like that would hold. Surely a true stud QB in that state would not escape the clutches of the Georgia Bulldogs, I thought. Having spent 3 years working in Athens, I knew first hand just how powerful the pull of that black G was in that state. However, time went on and Watson stayed true to the Tigers and Chad Morris, who knew a superstar from the second he laid eyes on him. Even as Watson entered Clemson as an early enrollee, I was tepid about the chances of his taking over right away. My PTSD from the Bowden years brought the Willy Korn saga to mind and tempered my enthusiasm. Watson even had to miss most of the spring that year due to injury, and I felt even more strongly that Cole Stoudt would be the guy for the 2014 season. I remember watching with a strange sense of curiosity when Watson trotted onto the field in Athens between the first and second quarters. How would this guy respond in THAT environment? I’d seen some great players struggle in first action like Woody and Tajh Boyd. Then, THIS happened, and Todd Blackledge summed it up with that “wow.” At that point, Watson became like a drug for fans like me. The more I saw him in action, the more I wanted to see no matter what Cole Stoudt was doing.
I had to give up my season tickets when I became a father of three living a solid four plus hours from Clemson, so I’ve only gotten to a few games each season since 2008. Luckily, one of those games was Deshaun’s first start against UNC in 2014. I told my young son who I brought with me that day that he was witnessing something special as Watson expertly carved the Tarheel defense apart for a record 6 touchdown passes. He followed that act by leading an emphatic 41-0 destruction of NCST which featured the leap and first superman celebration. I felt right then he was the best player in college football and still wonder if he would have made a visit to New York as a true freshman had he not gotten hurt vs. Louisville and again at GT.
I know just about every reader here has the black scars of suffering though USCjr.’s five game winning streak against Clemson. I was fortunate to make the 2014 Palmetto Bowl in person to see Watson, playing on what I thought at the time was just a strained knee, team with fellow freshmen Artavis Scott and Wayne Gallman to put an emphatic end to the brief glory days of Gamecock football. When the news broke afterwards that Watson’s ACL was torn, not strained, but he wanted to play on it anyway and end the streak, I felt a statue should be built on campus for him right then and there. His true greatness was revealed in that all he wanted was to win no matter what he had to endure to get it done.
It is hard to explain the sense of supreme confidence that I feel about Clemson football when #4 is taking the snaps. I find it very hard to ever predict Clemson to lose when I do my previews no matter who is lining up on the other side. I was perhaps the most worried when Clemson faced Alabama in the 2015 championship game because of just how good that Tide defense was. Watson didn’t just compete in that game, he DOMINATED in that game in a way really nobody had vs. Nick Saban. Cam Newton had a great half against them, Manziel had a couple of virtuoso games himself, but nobody had put that kind of performance WITHOUT the best WR on the roster and the next best deep threat available. Had the Heisman trophy vote been taken after that game, I have no doubts at all Watson would have won by a significant margin.
The 2016 season has been remarkable in a much different way than 2015. Watson, for the first time, had to face real negativity towards his play in the first part of the season. Many on here and elsewhere were quickly ripping the missed deep passes and some of the interceptions, citing he was “locking on” to receivers and such. Watson himself admitted to pressing and having less fun in the early stages of the season. It is impossible to comprehend the type of pressure of expectation #4 has shouldered during this season. How do you play well when only 25-28 for 350 and five TD’s with 80 to 100 yards rushing will seem to suffice for some folks? Somehow Watson figured out a way to do it and continue to lead this program to the playoffs. Even in the one loss against Pitt, when Watson had two crippling interceptions in the endzone, he managed to put up 74% completions on 70 attempts...just ridiculous. Nathan Peterman played the game of his life that day and only completed 59% on 37 throws. I’m pretty sure the biggest regret of the staff from that game was not having #4 make the play on the last drive himself, either running or passing. It is just hard to imagine him failing in that situation.
In the midst of all of this football awesomeness, Watson has been the model student and citizen at Clemson. He somehow cranked out a degree in 3 years with excellent grades to boot. He has avoided the temptations of the jet set scene that has plagued great talents in the past while avoiding what has had to be countless opportunities for things that victimized guys like Todd Gurley, Jameis Winston, Tyrell Pryor, etc. It seems like the Ring of Honor itself might not be a big enough place to immortalize Watson at Clemson University. The joy that #4 has brought to fans like me who often wondered what it would be like to have a guy like a Peyton Manning or a Tim Tebow who dominated the college scene during their careers cannot be measured. This program has gone from an outsider who can occasionally rock the boat and beat a big boy to one that IS the big boy. Watson hasn’t cast a shadow on Columbia and Athens and Tallahassee as much as he’s left a tattoo of his likeness there. Any NFL team that doesn’t recognize just how ridiculously transcendent Watson is will likely suffer the same pangs of regret Mark Richt and his ill fated UGA staff felt when they didn’t see what Morris saw all those years ago. God Bless Deshaun Watson, the greatest Tiger of all time!
And at 12:49 am of the greatest night of my Clemson fandom, Deshaun delivered like only the greatest can. 400+ yards AGAIN on the supposed juggernaut. Build that statue on campus TOMORROW! GOD BLESS DESHAUN WATSON!