If you’re a Browns fan, just seeing that name probably raised your heart rate and perhaps your blood pressure. You likely had one of these two reactions:
(1) anger that the Browns traded so much draft capital and tied up so much salary cap space on a morally compromised player that may not even see the field this season or…
(2) anger that this fine, innocent young man and outstanding quarterback’s career is being held hostage, along with your team’s future, by a group of money and publicity-hungry women who have made up allegations against him.
I have spent time recently digging into the career and background of Deshaun Watson who, until these allegations went public last year, really was not on my radar. One of my primary sources for this three-part essay was a book he wrote in 2020, during the period when the events in question occurred. The book is titled “Pass It On.” Interestingly, it is written as a leadership guide from, at the time, a 25-year-old quarterback. I found that very insightful toward Watson’s self-image.
There does not seem to be much middle ground these days when it comes to Watson, but the truth about a person, no matter how good or how flawed, is often somewhere in the middle. I found that to be true with him also. That opinion and others to follow in this series, are mine and mine alone unless otherwise noted.
Deshaun Watson is an overcomer. That sounds like an opinion, but the evidence of that is so overwhelming I’ll stipulate that as a fact.
Watson was raised by a single mother with three other siblings, an older brother and younger twins, a boy and a girl, with no involvement or support from their father. They lived in Gainsville, GA, about 70 miles northeast of Atlanta. Their home was in what he referred to as a “government housing complex” that would be more commonly known as “the projects.”
Watson described his neighborhood as one infested with drugs and crime. The only safe place, he wrote, was on the basketball court or on the sandlot football field, where he excelled and began to learn about taking on the mantle of leadership. It was there he began to dream of sports being his ticket out. Others in his neighborhood had that opportunity, but he wrote that they inevitably returned with hopes dashed and dreams broken. Watson found hope to be a scarce commodity in his surroundings, which apparently made him dig deep and develop a laser-like focus on doing what he needed to become the exception.
His mom juggled several jobs to make ends barely meet and had to overcome a serious case of tongue cancer during Watson’s sophomore year of high school. She found the ticket out when she began volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and eventually qualified as a recipient of a house they built in suburban Gainesville when Watson was 11 years old. To top it off, Warrick Dunn, then a running back for the Atlanta Falcons who was known to be a benefactor for challenged families after he basically raised his siblings, furnished the house for them. Watson was deeply moved by the efforts of those who worked on the home and the generosity of Dunn to furnish it, so much so that he later became involved with the organization himself.
Despite his mother’s illness and the need for Watson to take on part-time work to bring some money in for the family, he excelled at quarterback for Gainesville High. Quarterback coach Michael Perry took Watson under his wing, teaching Watson the finer points of football during grueling film sessions. Watson referred to Perry in his book as “a father figure.”
A father figure to be, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, began recruiting Watson after his freshman year at Gainesville High, wooing him by promising to build the program around him-a promise he lived up to after Watson committed to becoming a Tiger.
Watson finished his high school career by setting several state records (he details all of his record-setting numbers in his book) and moved on to Clemson.
Amazingly, Watson graduated from Clemson in 2 ½ years despite twice having seasons extend to 15 games with two national championship matchups vs. Alabama (losing the first despite a great performance by him, as he wrote, and winning the second). His academic success was fueled by his academic advisor, Dr. Maria Herbst, who he refers to as “Mama Maria.” Watson wrote about how she pushed him just as hard as any football coach ever did and gained similar results despite taking upwards of 20 credits a semester.
Watson did not lead any semblance of normal college life and at times he felt it, writing:
Every so often…I desperately wanted to hang with my boys, to be a regular college kid. I hungered for the kind of fun that so many others took for granted. But keeping my promise to my mom (to graduate college), Mama Maria, and myself was far more important to me.
During his sophomore year, Watson tore an ACL…and played against arch-rival South Carolina because of a promise he had made to Swinney that they would never lose to the Gamecocks. He played well and this became another promise kept. He would tear that same ACL a second time in practice during his rookie year with the Houston Texans. Watson missed the rest of that season but came back strong the following year.
The (abnormally?) intense dedication and focus Watson demonstrated toward his football career and academics led him to amazing accomplishments (state champion, national champion, early graduate from high school and college). Part of that dedication was fueled by mentors/parental figures who showed unwavering belief in him and total loyalty, which he reciprocated. Watson generously acknowledges the importance of those mentors in his book. His offensive coordinator at Clemson, Chad Morris, said about Watson’s relationships, “When you get in his inner circle, it’s a bond like none other.” Even after the sexual assault allegations against Watson came out, Dabo Swinney said, “He’s like a son to me. And that’s how I love him.”
Deshaun Watson is an overcomer, but what did it cost him? I’ll examine that in part three of this series. In part two, I’ll review his impressive body of good works in “Deshaun Watson-The Giver.”