College football will miss Deshaun Watson, but it will never forget him

Chad Morris did not want to leave Deshaun Watson. Morris had been offered the head coaching job at Southern Methodist after the 2014 season, a chance to run his own team near his Texas hometown. He had recruited Watson to Clemson as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator, and Watson had become to feel like family. Watson attended his kids’ volleyball games. Morris admired so many of his qualities — his gratitude, his humility, his diligence.

“Single-handedly, he was one of the main reasons I almost didn’t leave,” Morris said last year. “Before I took the job, I called him. We talked long and hard about it. Truly, if he would have said, ‘Hey, coach . . .’ who knows what would have happened? He said, ‘This is an opportunity for you to get closer to your family. It’s an opportunity you may never get again.’ This is a freshman, and I’m calling him to give me his endorsement.”

College football will soon understand what Morris felt, what it is like to part with Watson — to be sad the relationship is over, but to know on a deep level it became better for the experience.

Watson played the final game of his junior season Monday night, and he delivered a magical performance, a second half for the ages in Clemson’s 35-31 triumph over Alabama. Given his talent and achievements, it doubled as the final game of Watson’s college career, the NFL calling. He delivered an ultimate cap to an ultimate career, ending Alabama’s 26-game winning streak with a last-second touchdown pass.

- FWBP Digital Partners -

Put aside Watson’s brilliance. Never mind the 420 passing yards, the three throwing touchdowns, the rushing score, the two go-ahead touchdown drives in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter. Imagine the courage required to invite bodily harm 77 times against Alabama’s violent and alarming defense. Consider the strength, of every kind, needed to keep walking across the coals, and not once, until the final kneel-down, possessing the ball with the lead. Watson threw 56 times and ran another 21 with the full weight of his team on his shoulders, pushing against a six-ton boulder in crimson.

On Alabama’s first possession, linebacker Reuben Foster blasted him in the helmet as another Alabama had his legs wrapped up. It was astonishing no flag was thrown. The hit seemed to daze him, to make him an unwilling participant. He grew tentative when holes opened and lost his dazzling ability to surge through the line. The Tigers fell behind 14-0 and mustered nothing on offense. Clemson was intimidated, reeling, staring at a blowout.

And then toughness, in every form. Watson recaptured himself. He hit Deon Cain on a crucial screen pass to create momentum. He danced into the corner of the end zone, tip-toeing by the pylon. Clemson trailed by only a touchdown, 14-7, at the half.

Even for Watson, a comeback seemed an impossible task. Against Power Five opponents, Alabama had allowed 13 second-half points combined in its last seven games. Nick Saban had been 97-0 when entering the fourth quarter with a double-digit lead.

- Advertisement -

But Watson’s varied talents and Clemson’s pace had flipped Alabama’s advantage, and the Tigers had started to wear down the Tide defense, rather than the Tide pulverizing the Clemson offense. Watson’s accuracy actually improved, and he settled into a rhythm. Wide receiver Mike Williams became a monster. His touchdown on a fade early in the fourth sliced the lead to 24-21.

The Tigers trailed by the same score when Watson took over with 6:33 remaining. He drove the Tigers 88 yards in six plays, the signature play a 15-yard glide down to the 1-yard line that recalled Texas’s Vince Young. A play later, Wayne Gallman plowed into the end zone.

Watson’s work was still not done. Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts scampered for a go-ahead touchdown. Watson got the ball back, down three points, at his own 32 with 2:07 left on the clock. “Let’s be legendary,” Watson told the huddle. “Let’s be great.”

“It was calm,” Watson said.

- Advertisement -

Know his background, and the calm within such a cauldron starts to make sense. Watson grew up in government housing until he brought a Habitat for Humanity brochure home from church to his mother, who looked into the program and signed up. “What could be worse?” she thought. She helped build her own home and raised Watson in it until he reached his sophomore year of high school. She received a diagnosis of tongue cancer, and Watson’s aunt looked after him while she underwent treatments.

“I didn’t even know it at first,” Bruce Miller, Watson’s coach at Gainesville High in Georgia, would recall. “Deshaun just keeps things inside him. He’s very quiet natured until you get to talking to him. He’s very level-headed. He just handles everything. It upset him, but it didn’t deflate him.”

And so, sure, one more drive against Alabama’s ferocious defense? Watson completed his first five passes on the drive, inviting punishment and flinging with accuracy. A pass interference call drawn by Williams put the ball on the Alabama 2-yard line with six seconds left. Watson rolled right. Hunter Renfrow ran an out pattern, helped by a rub from Artavis Scott. Watson tossed it to Renfrow, wide open in the end zone. Only one second remained, and Watson had climbed the mountain.

As Clemson kicked off, Watson sat Indian-style on the sideline and shed tears. He twice finished second in Heisman Trophy voting, and in the future he will be remembered as the best player from both seasons. He completed the ascension of Clemson from regional disappointment to national superpower. He inspired. He encouraged his teammates to join him building houses for others through Habitat for Humanity.

“He was very grateful for the many people in his life who helped him and helped his mom,” Morris said. “He’s so grateful, such a grateful person. He thinks of everybody but himself. That’s kind of what separates him from so many kids. Everything becomes about them, but not him. Everything becomes about everybody else. It has to do with so many people along his journey have helped him out He wants to be a giver.”

Monday night, as he cradled the national championship trophy, Watson had nothing left to give college football. He will leave the sport, but he will not be forgotten.