Years ago, before he carried Clemson back to national prominence and became the face of college football, before the talk of being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft, Deshaun Watson was a frightened 15-year-old sitting next to his mother in a cold hospital room.
Deann Watson showed up that night because she thought she had strep throat. She was diagnosed with stage 4 tongue cancer.
The woman who had raised her four children alone in government housing in Gainesville, Georgia, until just two years earlier soon had her tongue removed and replaced with tissue from her breast. She lost 200 pounds. She had to learn to speak all over again.
For the rest of her life, she will be fed through tubes, and only those close to her can understand her unique speech.
"My inspiration," Deshaun Watson says.
It's no wonder then, that when Clemson's All-American quarterback was asked during a wide-ranging interview with Bleacher Report to describe his mother in five words, there was little hesitation in the response.
"The greatest woman on earth," he said.
The same woman who gave Clemson its greatest player ever gave college football a unique ambassador not afraid to tackle controversial subjects. From stereotypes about black quarterbacks to social justice issues to dealing with newfound celebrity status, Watson addresses it all.
Matt Hayes: The greatest woman on earth? When you get married, will your mother still be the greatest woman on earth?
Deshaun Watson: Of course. No one can beat Momma. She made me the person I am today. The way I think and act and move and talk and speak. It's all because of her. She made sure that I was straight and that Clemson wasn't getting a guy to go mess up or hurt their program.
Hayes: What Clemson got was the face of college football. Has that sunk in yet? Is that something you could've imagined when you were younger?
Watson: It absolutely is. Believe it or not, it's what I wanted from when I was a kid playing the game. I watched Tim Tebow and how he played and how he carried himself and the good that he did for the game on and off the field. I knew that's what I wanted to do. I'm really comfortable with it; I enjoy it and everything that comes with it.
Hayes: Being the face of the game means talking about important issues. Some professional athletes have publicly spoken out on racial profiling with police. As an African-American man, have you ever endured that?
Watson: I really can't speak much on that because I haven't had any experience. It just hasn't happened to me. I try to do the right things. I was always raised that if you do the right thing and obey the law, you won't have problems. I really believe that. But that's just me; that's what I've tried to do because that's how my mother raised me.
She always told us, how do you want people to see you? Do you want them to see your true character, or something else? Coach [Dabo] Swinney always says character is the way you act when no one is watching. I try to act as a man of character if no one is watching or if the world is watching. I'm not saying [racial profiling] doesn't happen; I'm saying I haven't experienced it. I try to do the right thing.
Hayes: Recent problems at a few programs—Baylor, Tennessee, Ole Miss—have been big offseason stories in college football. Do you worry that people see these stories and all athletes are unfairly lumped together?
Watson: What happened at Baylor was disturbing. I really feel for those women. You just hate to see that. It's a lack of leadership, I think. As far as all players [being unfairly connected], people have their own opinions, and they're usually from the outside looking in. I don't listen to someone who is on the outside of what we're dealing with every day on the inside.
I would tell them every program is different. If your program has a great leader, you'll get great things. If you don't have a great leader and people aren't on the same page, you have a lot of different people doing a lot of different things. That's where trouble starts.
Hayes: Late last year, before the national championship game at Alabama, you took exception to a reporter claiming NFL scouts are questioning your ability to throw the ball and that you're more of a runner. You were very animated in your response. Why is that so important to you?
Watson: People say, well he's a dual-threat quarterback. You look at that word...that's a code word.
Hayes: How is it possible, after so many black quarterbacks have had successful careers in both college football and the NFL, that we're still dealing with those black-quarterback stereotypes?
Watson: I have no idea, but it's there. People think, 'Oh, he's a black quarterback, he must be dual-threat.' People throw around that word all the time. It's lazy. The one thing I learned early on as a football player is people have their opinions, and I can't change them. But I can show them what they're missing.
People have assumed that I have to run the ball before I can throw it most all of my career, all the way back before high school. It's a stereotype put on me for a long time because I'm African-American and I'm a dual-threat quarterback. I don't know why that stereotype is still around. It's about talent and the ability to throw the ball, not the color of your skin or your ability to also be a dangerous runner.
It bothered me when I was young until I finally realized the only way to change it is to make your mark on the field and force them to see. So that's what I've been doing.
Hayes: You've always been a thrower, all the way back before your high school days, right?
Watson: I threw for more than 13,000 yards and 155 touchdowns at Gainesville High School and set the Georgia state record for total offense and total touchdowns by the end of my junior season. We won our first state title in more than 100 years. Every school recruited me to throw the football, not run it. I threw for more than 4,000 yards [and 35 touchdowns] last year and was more accurate on throws of more than 30 yards than anyone [in college football—a stat Clemson attributes to an ESPN broadcast but that B/R couldn't verify]. You don't get all of that by running the ball first and throwing it second.
Then everyone said, 'Well, let's see how he does against the Alabama defense'—the defense everyone thought was the best. I think my teammates and I proved we can throw the ball.
Hayes: You're projected to be a top-five pick in the NFL draft; have you made sure your future is covered? Do you have an insurance policy?
Watson: Absolutely. I got an insurance policy this offseason. It pays $10 million for a debilitating, career-ending injury and $5 million for loss of value in the draft. (Note: After this interview, Watson and Clemson settled on a policy that pays $5 million for injury and $5 million for loss of draft value, rather than 10/5.) Those insurance companies are smart; they do their homework, right? They're not giving that policy to someone who doesn't project to throw the football in the NFL.
Hayes: Are you concerned that the NFL will see your history of injuries [knee surgery, broken finger, cracked collarbone] and it will raise a red flag?
Watson: Not at all. I think I proved last year that I am durable and can take the punishment. I've put on about 16 pounds of muscle this offseason, and I'm more prepared than I have ever been to handle the hits.
Hayes: Your hero is LeBron James. What would you ask him if you could pick his brain for advice?
Watson: How do you manage to stay grounded yet always strive to be not just great, but [also] the greatest ever? How do you strive every day; how do you push yourself? What motivates you to push yourself to be the greatest ever?
Hayes: Do you want to be the greatest ever?
Watson: Of course.
Hayes: Not everyone can be the greatest ever, you know.
Watson: Anybody can say they want to be the greatest ever. I take pride in it. If you're around me long enough and watch me work, that's what I'm striving for. I won't stop until I am.
Hayes: Along those lines, how did you go about getting better this offseason?
Watson: I'm always learning new ways to improve my game from both players older and younger than me. Cam Newton gave me a few tips on throwing the deep pass—just some mechanics ideas—because it's so important now in the game. Cam, as a dual-threat guy, got the same criticism I get: He can't throw it; he's only a runner. He heard the same things. So did Robert Griffin III and Tim Tebow and Marcus Mariota.
A lot of people don't understand that it's not about the spread translating to the pro game; it's about how quickly you pick up the process and knowledge of the game and about decision-making. A lot of quarterbacks have big arms and can make all the throws, but the most important thing is knowledge of the game, controlling the offense and, more than anything, limiting mistakes. Knowing what good plays to get your team into at the line of scrimmage and what bad plays to get out of. My goal this offseason has been limiting mistakes. The NFL doesn't like mistakes.
Hayes: If you had your choice, where would you play in the NFL?
Watson: If I'm fortunate enough to play in the NFL, anywhere for anybody would be great. But if I had to pick, it would be the hometown [Atlanta] Falcons because I used to work for them. I was one of the kids who sold Cokes in the stadium. It was a lot of fun being around that environment, watching games and visualizing being there when I got older.
But I guess it will be a new stadium next year, so no more dreams of playing in the Georgia Dome for the Falcons. I don't think there would be any pressure playing for my hometown team. It would be fun. I'd just do the same thing I did before and build on it.
Hayes: What is the first thing you will buy with your first NFL contract?
Watson: Not really a first thing I will buy, but the first thing I would do is take care of my mother and my family and then go from there. Whatever she needs. Not so much a house or car or material things, just making sure everything is taken care of from a family standpoint.
Hayes: Who has better players, the ACC or the SEC?
Watson: You had to go there, didn't you? Why not go with the ACC? Both are very competitive; there's a lot of talent in both leagues, and both do great things on the field. I know everyone says the SEC is so much better than everyone else, but I really don't see the differences. We have the same athletes. I hear that Alabama has this or that, or this SEC team has this or the SEC is so good on the defensive line.
We had the No. 1 defense in the nation last year. I practiced against the No. 1 defense every week. When we played Alabama, there was no difference to me. I'm not saying that Alabama doesn't have talent—they do. They've got some studs over there. But I truly believe there's no difference between the two leagues. It's not overwhelming or shocking to play against the SEC like most fans think.
Hayes: You're a sports celebrity now. How hard is it to find time to yourself? Is it hard to go out without getting recognized?
Watson: First off, I'm blessed that I am recognized. Being in this position, I think you have to embrace it and enjoy it. And that's what I have tried to do. It's not hard to find time; you just can't be in the wrong place. Like if I want to eat lunch, I can't go out at noon and head over to Chick-fil-A or Mac's restaurant and not get stopped. I love to interact with people, but there is a time and place for everything.
My days are so busy with school and football, it's not often that I get out, anyway. But when I do, I like to meet people.
Hayes: How important is an individual brand to players?
Watson: Extremely important. Each person has their own brand and style and the way they do things. I speak on things I'd like to speak on. Anything else, I'll keep quiet. Every day, you always have to be cognizant of your brand. I know it can cost you [future] money, but there are a lot of things more important than money that affect your brand.
It's about giving back, being a good student and being a good citizen in your community. I've been raised to be that type of person my whole life. My mom raised me to be successful and not be a knucklehead and do the wrong things. She still talks to me to this day about those things. I'm always going to make sure I'm doing the right things.
Hayes: Would your career be unfulfilled without a national championship or a Heisman Trophy?
Watson: I want to win the national championship—that's the most important thing. The Heisman Trophy would be another cool award to have, but it's not the main priority. My main focus is not feeling the way we felt at the end of last season. I don't want to feel like that again. We have to finish what we started this time around—week-by-week, play-by-play.
Hayes: Your coach, Dabo Swinney, is a different cat. Anything he does that would surprise people?
Watson: He's a real laid-back guy, except for when he plays basketball. He's intense.
Hayes: Is he any good?
Watson: (Laughing) He's a chucker.
Hayes: A chucker? That's hilarious.
Watson: Nah, he can shoot it...I guess. It's fun to watch him play with the other coaches because he really wants to win. He is so competitive at everything he does. But yeah, he's definitely a chucker. He might not like to read that.
Hayes: Had you not signed with Clemson, where would you be right now?
Watson: That might be the toughest question yet. Probably one of five places: Auburn, Ohio State, Florida State, West Virginia or Oregon. You think I would've gotten enough opportunities at West Virginia for people to think I'm a passer?