After his team lost the biggest game of his life, Deshaun Watson was his usual cool self. No one would have blamed the 20-year-old Clemson quarterback for being emotional or frustrated after the Tigers fell to Alabama, 45-40, in the national championship game last January, but Watson wasn't either of those things.
By showing such poise at such a young age, Watson has drawn comparisons with a star in another sport: LeBron James, who just happens to be Watson's favorite athlete. ("It's the way he prepares for games and the way he performs, but also the way he takes criticism," Watson recently told Athlon Sports. "It's everything about how he handles himself. He's someone I love to watch and will watch whenever I can.")
Watson calmly walked past celebrating Alabama players, then took the podium at the press conference and proclaimed, "I love my teammates, love my brothers, and you'll see us in Tampa next year," referring to the site of this year's title game.
It wouldn't be wise to bet against him. Against Alabama, Watson threw for 405 yards and ran for 73 more. He did all of that while facing a defense that allowed the third-fewest points in the country. Watson finished the season as the first player in FBS history to throw for at least 4,000 yards (he had 4,104) and rush for at least 1,000 (he totaled 1,105).
Watson finished third in the Heisman race. With most of his offensive teammates returning, his numbers this season should be just as gaudy as they were last year. Just as his team is the favorite to win the national championship, Watson is the favorite to take home the Heisman in December.
That's a pretty impressive list of superlatives for a kid who was just a sophomore. But then again, Watson has always been a quick learner.
When he was a seventh-grader in Gainesville, Georgia, Watson played linebacker because his school had a policy that only eighth-graders could play quarterback. But when the regular QB got hurt, Watson was selected to fill in under center.
In high school, Watson played on the varsity in his first season, becoming just the third freshman started by his coach, Bruce Miller, in nearly 30 years. And he even got an early start on his college career. He graduated from high school a semester ahead of schedule so he could practice with the Tigers in the spring before his freshman season.
On one play during those sessions, Watson was being chased by Shaq Lawson, a defensive end who would go on to become a first-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills. Most players would have just run out-of-bounds — it was only practice, after all, and Lawson is a 270-pound monster. But Watson gave a hip fake, stopped, and threw a 60-yard rocket to a receiver for a touchdown. "How the heck did that just happen?" recalls Eric Mac Lain, a senior guard on last year's team. "I watched [former Clemson All-America QB] Tajh Boyd for four years. I never saw him make a play like that. This kid just stepped on campus and was phenomenal."
Watson arrived on the Clemson campus as one of the most sought-after quarterbacks in the country. He threw for more than 13,000 yards in his high school career and led Gainesville to a state championship.
And he did it while coping with a lot of adversity at home.
When Watson was a freshman in high school, his mother, Deann, was diagnosed with tongue cancer. She had surgery, which temporarily kept her from being able to talk, and was in the hospital for several months. Watson called his mom every night, launching into long stories about how his day went so she wouldn't have to try to talk. Occasionally, she'd flag down a doctor or a nurse and scribble a note for them to read into the phone. Watson gave her a necklace with a small key that has the word HOPE engraved on it.
Deann got through the tough spell. That shouldn't come as a surprise: She's always been a fighter. A few years earlier, she heard about an organization called Habitat for Humanity that builds houses for those in need.
Deann and her four children were living in a rough neighborhood at the time, so she decided that she'd try to get Habitat for Humanity to build them a better home. To do so, she had to volunteer for 300 hours — while working a full-time job to support her family. But she did it, and the Watsons moved into their new house when Deshaun was 11.
The furnishings were provided by another organization, Home for the Holidays, which is run by former NFL running back Warrick Dunn. "I played as him on video games," Watson said. "And he's sitting right there giving us a house and giving us furniture and food. I was jumping for joy."
Watson was so moved by the experience that he now does extensive work for Habitat for Humanity, giving back to those in need. "[Dunn] inspired me to do the same thing," says Watson.
TIME TO SHINE
Watson will likely embark on his own NFL career following this season. He's a junior, but he'll be eligible for the draft, and he's in position to possibly be taken first overall. "He's big and fast and mechanically very good," one scout said. "He throws with velocity and touch and throws a very good deep ball."
Watson still has some unfinished business before the draft, though. He watched the Tigers' loss to Alabama a handful of times over the summer. Sometimes he dissected his play, other times he just watched it to marvel at what a great game it was.
Watson also followed the exploits of his idol, LeBron, over the summer, celebrating as the Cavs won the NBA title a year after coming tantalizingly close. "Kings do king things!" tweeted Watson after the Finals.
Now it's his turn to put on a regal performance. You know he'll be ready.
Photos: David E. Klutho (action), Tyler Smith/Getty Images (running), Chris Keane (pose)