His dream season was over.
His NFL takeover, terminated.
Yet as Deshaun Watson lay on a hospital bed—his right ACL torn in a freaking practice—he did not appear to be devastated. Family and friends did not detect any sadness, any madness, any of the hysterics that were sweeping the football world outside that room.
When the news broke, NFL Twitter had transformed into a funeral, with teammates, opponents and fans cursing the football gods in unison. Yet there Watson was. At peace.
Jack Waldrip, a father figure in Watson's life since he was a teenager, was there in the hospital. And as he ripped through movie after movie with Watson, all he saw was "I'll be back" optimism bursting from the 22-year-old.
"The way his demeanor is, he has such a calmness about him," Waldrip says. "It's almost like—and this is me talking—OK, I got that over with. Now let's win a Super Bowl."
Watson didn't say those words. He didn't need to.
Quincy Avery, a quarterback guru who has coached Watson since high school and considers him a "little brother," sensed the same doggedness. He texted his pal, talked to him and heard zero heartbreak in his voice. All he heard was a man determined to return from injury faster than anyone ever has.
"He's been through a lot of s--t that a lot of normal people haven't been through," Avery says. "Every obstacle, he's like, Oh, all right. Here's what I have to do to get past it. And he just does it. He doesn't spend time crying over stuff.
"It happened. So what's next?"
What's next is easy, Avery adds. A real chance to win MVP. To win a Super Bowl. To resume the coronation that was cut short in 2017.
In seven games as a rookie, Watson was a one-man hurricane, tearing through defenses for 1,968 total yards and 21 touchdowns. Those who know him well say to expect more of the same this year. Back in his hometown of Gainesville, Georgia, at Longstreet Cafe—back where Watson used to eat chicken tenders and macaroni all the time before the NFL grabbed hold of him and he switched to broccoli and green beans—the stories hurdle over each other. The southern accents cut deep there, and three signed Watson jerseys hang on the wall.
One from Gainesville. One from Clemson. One from the Texans.
Staring at those jerseys, Waldrip and the restaurant's owner, Tim Bunch, speak without any air of doubt about what's about to happen.
"He won a high school championship, he won a national championship, and I know he wants a Super Bowl—and he'll do whatever it takes in his ability to get there," says Bunch, who's known Watson since he was in ninth grade. "He has a calmness about him. He has a drive, a lot like Jack Nicklaus. He's going to be just like Tiger Woods—at his peak."
No, wait. He's actually like Ted Williams, eyeing the stitches on a baseball as it whistles toward his bat, Bunch continues. He possesses that same ability to slow down the game to a crawl, to process weeks and weeks of preparation in a split second, all while staring down a defense. Hypnotizing a defense.
Waldrip loves to recite a quote from Alexander the Great to describe Watson: "I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep. I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion."
Not that he's calling the Texans a herd of sheep. His point is that it doesn't matter who's in Watson's army because any army led by Watson is an army "that people fear."
"There's something about him," Waldrip says, "that's almost mysterious."
Talk to those who know Watson—those who have seen what he's capable of firsthand through the years—and that mysterious quality comes up over and over again. They describe him as a sorcerer turning humans into pylons, a Favre-ian competitor gritting through injuries that'd leave others in a wheelchair, a winner who cannot be stopped.
The scene in the hospital room didn't shock Waldrip because he remembers the scene in the hotel room after Watson won a national title in college, when Watson told him a surreal "calmness" had overtaken his body as he stepped up to the line to throw a game-winning touchdown.
"He knew he was about to win the national championship," Waldrip says. "How can you be that calm?! And know?!"
Somehow, inexplicably, 11 NFL teams missed this quality, or underestimated it, when they evaluated Watson ahead of the 2017 draft. Somehow, they looked at the player who was the top QB recruit in his class, who was named the top quarterback in college football in each of his final two seasons, who took down mighty Alabama in one of the best national championship games ever, and they didn't realize this was a man who would instantly transform any franchise into a contender.
Watson's coaches did. His teammates. His teachers. His friends. They knew what Watson could accomplish in the NFL, just like they know that starting in 2018 Week 1, September 9 at New England, the coronation will indeed resume. Because they all have seen it before. Like Waldrip did.
Ask them, and the stories just keep on coming.
He will outwork you
Cruising through Gainesville, Waldrip points out the spots that made Watson who he is today.
There's his high school football field.
There's his church.
If you want to understand why Watson inspires so much confidence from those around him, step into the shoes they've seen him wearing. And that doesn't just mean seeing the world from the perspective of a star quarterback.
Waldrip helped Watson land a job at that courthouse, in the office of Judge Andy Fuller, after Watson's mother was diagnosed with tongue cancer. As bills stacked on top of bills, Watson was stricken with whatever's the exact opposite of senioritis. He decided to take charge, to spend any free time he had making the bills disappear.
Every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Watson went to school, then football practice and then worked at courthouse until 10 p.m.
He'd have school and practice Thursday. School and a game Friday. Rest on Saturday. Go to church on Sunday and then head right back to the courthouse for more tedious, time-consuming grunt work. His job was to print and organize paperwork that went to the clerk's office. He was at the courthouse so often that Fuller gave him his own key.
And all along—through the tests, state records, keeping the lights on at home—Watson never uttered a word to his coaches at Gainesville High. Bruce Miller, the team's head coach, had no clue.
"Didn't know a thing about it," Miller says. "It's almost like nothing surprises me anymore about him. I mean, he's just got something about him that makes him care. He'd do anything for anybody."
The math was simple to Watson. His mother was a single parent, so he needed to work.
After his family was awarded a home through Habitat for Humanity, Watson returned the favor by building homes for others too. Those close to Watson never remember him asking for a dime. In college, his celebrity exploding, he stayed the same. Back home one summer, he asked Waldrip for a job that'd get him outside, and Waldrip, who's in real estate, told him he could work with his painting crew.
Temperatures reached triple digits. Watson didn't care.
"No complaints. No nothing," Waldrip recalls. "He didn't ask for any handouts. He was just that type of person. Man, what a work ethic. ... Some people have heart. I don't know if you're born with it or it sometimes comes in somewhere. Some people just have that determination, that spirit to be successful no matter what the circumstances are.
"He just has that. He's just special."
He will take over
The man who once compared Deshaun Watson to Michael Jordan still speaks incredulously, as if he's spiraling through a twilight zone.
Dabo Swinney told you all what Watson was capable of. He warned you. The fact that 11 teams could see Watson on the board and say No thanks remains one of the most "mind-blowing, baffling things" the Clemson head coach has ever seen.
"You take those great ones—the Michael Jordans, the Peyton Mannings, the Tom Bradys—do you know how hard it is to beat them guys?" Swinney says. "You just know those guys hate to lose, and you know they're going to give everything they've got into every single opportunity to beat you and never grow weary from that. That's how Deshaun is wired. He just has this drive and this sweet, humble spirit, and he's just a worker.
"He doesn't have to say a whole lot, and yet everyone around him will be inspired by how he works."
But if Swinney's being honest with himself, he knows full well that he too was initially pumping the brakes.
Watson was only in 10th grade when he called to officially commit to Clemson. Swinney, on the spot, tried to talk him out of it to avoid the drama of such an early commitment, but there was an absolute tinge to Watson's voice. Like he was offended.
"No," Watson told his future coach. "I'm coming. I'm going to be your quarterback in two years."
And he was. Watson stepped on campus, and coaches couldn't feed him enough X's and O's. He thirsted for more, constantly loading his brain with as much intel as possible. He wasn't merely smart, Swinney realized. No, he was "brilliant."
Poor Cole Stoudt, the senior who was supposed to be the starting quarterback when Watson was a freshman, never had a chance. Stoudt knew right away he wasn't the athlete Watson was, but he figured his knowledge of the offense would help him win and keep the No. 1 job. He had waited three years behind Taj Boyd for this opportunity, and nobody was going to rip it away.
Two practices in, Stoudt knew he was in trouble.
"Like, 'Damn.' You can't coach that," Stoudt says. "You really can't get mad at it.
"It was tough. It was frustrating. I'm over here as a 3-star recruit out of high school. I'm thinking the spot's going to be mine, and then all of a sudden, this 5-star kid comes in, and he's a heck of a player. He has that 'It' factor you really can't coach."
Still, Swinney started Stoudt in Game 1 at Georgia. But then he gave Watson a flier of a cameo in the fifth series. The coach watched as the Bulldogs teed up a "Shark Blitz"—a blitz Clemson's coaches had prepared for all week—and braced for impact. Swinney half-expected Watson to retreat into the fetal position.
Here it comes, he told himself. We're in trouble.
All Watson did was call the right audible, drop back and hit Charone Peake for a 30-yard touchdown.
"This is his first series of his career!" Swinney shouts. "And he comes off the field, and we're all excited. I grab him like: 'Man! I'm so proud of you! That was frickin' awesome! You saw the blitz!' And he's like: 'Yes, sir. That's what I was supposed to do, wasn't it?' I'm like: 'Yeah! That's what you're supposed to do!'
"He was so naive and humble in the moment. You just knew right away we had something special here."
Stoudt finished that game, but Swinney wouldn't doubt Watson again. Watson had made it very clear, very early that it was his team.
Stoudt was replaced as the starter by the fourth week of the season but says he wouldn't have changed a thing. He loved Clemson and is glad he didn't transfer. And what is there to be mad about, really? This was pure greatness on an MJ-level. Greatness like this is bound to blast through any obstacle, any quarterback, anything in its path, period.
He was a witness. Not a casualty.
Says Stoudt, now a quarterback coach at Morehead State: "I don't think I've ever watched a game with him where I didn't say, 'Wow.' He does something every game that you just don't see a normal quarterback do."
The Evel Knievel acts. The threading of impossible needles. Everyone who's been around Watson has seen these "Wow" moments, these plays that be must replayed repeatedly to be believed. These are the plays most all normal quarterbacks do not attempt. Whittling down years of them to one favorite isn't realistic, but they try.
The retaliation blow. At his core, Watson's a linebacker. That's the position he grew up playing. So after one interception as a high school freshman, Watson chased the player 60 yards downfield to wallop him at the 4-yard line. The next play, that team fumbled. Gainesville won by two.
"Everybody has the tendency to think the quarterback position has some fluff around it," Miller says. "Not when he's playing quarterback."
The monster jam. Friends are convinced Watson could have pursued a basketball career if he'd so chosen. His cousin Shaquan Cantrell, who played guard at Division-II North Georgia and now plays professionally in Germany, remembers Watson as a pinpoint decision-maker who'd make an offense hum with Golden State-like ball movement. Watson could go all fall without touching a basketball, practices would begin, and he'd drill seven threes in a row the first day.
But the moment Cantrell cherishes was when Watson made the entire gym go bonkers against Salem High.
"A ball came off the rim, and he came out of nowhere to dunk it in over like two people," Cantrell recalls. "He was special."
The hurdle. Against N.C. State. as a freshman, Watson completely cleared a defender, displaying such grace, such ease, his legs splitting so wide that you can pull a groin just watching the replay. Six-foot Jack Tocho stood mano a mano with a clear shot at Watson, and Watson leapt over him to get into the end zone.
"No human should be able to do that," Stoudt chuckles. "The whole sideline went, 'Oh, s--t!' It's one of those things—you sit there, watch him play and say, 'Damn, he's good.'"
The audibles. Most first-year QBs are shellshocked at worst and robotic lemmings at best. Defy your coach, you're benched. Watson? He's never been afraid to defy any call from the sideline. He picks his spots, but when he sees one, he's not afraid to pull a Willie Beamen.
In a 50-35 win against North Carolina, Watson's first collegiate start, he changed coordinator Chad Morris' called play. As Watson barked that audible, instructing Jordan Leggett to run a fade, receiver Artavis Scott remembers Morris going nuts on the sideline: "He's supposed to be in motion!"
No worries. Watson coolly delivered a touchdown, one of a school-record six he threw in the game.
"If you have the confidence and you're on a roll—and you know that you're right?—you make plays," Scott says. "That's what he's always done. Ever since I've known him."
It's no shock coach Bill O'Brien appeared Tony D'Amato stern at the lectern when Watson first took over last season, and it's no shock the Texans offense soon thereafter appeared to be changing on the fly.
The helicopter. Alabama was out to obliterate Watson the night of January 9, 2017. Watson was a human punching bag. So as a first responder to hit after hit after hit, this is the play running back Wayne Gallman points to: when Watson was pulverized by linebacker Reuben Foster midair. The blow sent him spinning horizontally for three full revolutions.
Bama kept teeing off all night, and Watson didn't grimace. No, he grinned.
"The fact that he remained poised and actually liked that—that's football, that's the physicality of the game," Gallman says. "He takes that in. Just seeing that from a quarterback is amazing."
And even when you do hurt Watson, he always finds a way to lift himself up and get the last laugh.
What torn ACL?
His scholarship was secure. His future was set. There was no need for Watson to re-enter the state semifinal game during his chaotic senior year at Gainesville. But with about three minutes to go—knee intensely throbbing—Watson told Miller he was playing.
"You can't run!" Miller said.
"It doesn't matter," Watson said. "I can still throw."
So Watson limped back on the field. Gainesville lost 20-14 to Tucker, but nobody that night will ever forget Watson's decision to play on.
Just as nobody who follows Clemson will ever forget when Watson played against South Carolina with a torn ACL in that same left knee.
After spraining it against Georgia Tech as a freshman, Watson outright tore the ligament in practice. But privately and publicly, he told everyone that he wanted—no, needed—to beat South Carolina.
Right up to game day, coaches had no clue he'd play.
"To this day," Swinney says, "it's one of the most remarkable things I've ever witnessed. Ever."
Because he didn't merely stand in the pocket. He moved. Watson braced up his knee, threw for 269 yards and two touchdowns, rushed for two more scores and wasn't sacked. He never said a word about the pain to teammates either. Most didn't even know he had torn the ACL until after the game.
Nobody knew his knee was wrecked, just like nobody knew he was burning the midnight oil at that courthouse.
"South Carolina had beaten us five times before, and all of us came in like, Man, it's time to end this..." Gallman says. "The fact that he ran on it and scored a touchdown on it—with that brace on it. He just has it. He's one of those players who's trying to be one of those players you'll always remember."
So belief in Watson grew.
Right up to that national championship game two years later. Inside the Clemson huddle, down 31-28, at their own 32-yard line with 2:01 left, Watson was…calm. Creepy calm. He looked at the clock, then to the other 10 players and said aloud, "They left us too much time."
Clemson receiver Mike Williams, now with the Chargers, still gets chills thinking back to that moment.
"You could see it in his eyes, that it's not over," Williams says. "And that motivated everybody else to play even harder."
Watson looked around his huddle, said a few more words that'll live in Clemson lore—Let's be legendary—and the rest is history. It's simple, really: Watson's calm becomes your calm. His belief becomes your belief. Torn ACLs are speed bumps, potholes, trivial. He won't forget how he overcame one in the past, and don't let the docile answers into a microphone fool you.
He won't forget that 11 teams passed on him in overcoming this one.
"I felt like he was the best quarterback in the draft," Williams says. "I'm not sure how anybody else couldn't see it."
Adds Nick Schuessler, Watson's backup at Clemson from 2014 to 2016: "The teams that passed on him? Dear God. ... They need new management. He's going to make them regret it for the next 10 to 15 years."
No wonder the brace was off by June. The brace needed to come off by June.
Mentally, Deshaun Watson could not be held back by the torn ACL that ended his rookie season. So he ripped through Texans minicamp brace-less, reunited with Avery, and the two trained through the rest of June and July together. Avery was stunned. He saw a quarterback who was "literally 100 percent" healthy, who was in full attack mode.
From his hospital bed, Watson promised everyone he'd come back stronger.
Now, he was.
"A lot of times, you see guys, they get injured, and they spend a bunch of time thinking about it, worrying about it, and that's not how he plays the game of football," Avery says. "He's full tilt. His ability to recover from the injury says a lot more about him as a person than I think people see. ... Most guys say: 'Oh, I want to be safe. I want to do this just in case.' He's not a just-in-case guy."
Over the eight free weeks Watson had, five were spent with Avery. They trained in Atlanta, Los Angeles and the Dominican Republic. Because even when Watson sneaked away for vacation, he woke up at 5 a.m. to train.
"He's like, 'Yeah, I'll go on vacation, but I've got to get up at 5, and we've got to go work out before everybody else is enjoying their vacation,'" Avery says. "You might see him doing an Instagram from Six Flags, but you don't know that he just worked out for six hours so he can feel like he can relax and go to Six Flags."
Avery keeps the details of the workouts a secret—parts of this "mystery" must remain a mystery—but says they'd hone in one specific part of Watson's game per day, drilling it for an hour-and-a-half straight. Then it was off to the classroom for another hour.
When Watson took off that brace, even Avery was skeptical. Are you allowed to do that?
When Watson started doing cutting drills, Avery was skeptical again. Do you want to do that already?
Watson showed him his personal checklist. He wasn't going to stop.
Going full tilt allowed Watson to zero in on the blemishes in his game that went unnoticed last season to the naked eye—operating from the pocket, speeding up decisions, etc.
Watson is on a mission to manipulate defenses in Year 2, and to do so, his body cannot lag behind the mind. So at no point, all offseason, he did ever consider tapping the brakes. He trained aggressively so he will be able to play (even more) aggressively. That's why Avery believes Watson is "going to be better than he was last year."
"A lot of people think about the negatives—What if this happens? What if that happens?" Avery says. "He doesn't operate in that mindset. So you never have to worry about that with him. It's never like he's fearful or mindful of worst-case scenarios. He lives life super aggressive.
And the attack mode is contagious. Teammates see it and have no choice but to follow.
"His mindset is just so different, so unique," Avery says. "He has an energy about him that makes people gravitate towards him and allows him to play the game a little bit different than everybody else."
He'll be an all-time great
Now Swinney isn't alone. Nobody is shy when asked if this 22-year-old can realistically go down as one of the best ever or, yes, even be the Michael Jordan of football.
Nobody who knows Deshaun Watson is pumping the brakes on the hype anymore.
Take it from Williams: "The sky's the limit for that guy. You can't put a limit on it. He's going to exceed that."
And Schuessler: "Overcoming the stuff he has, it was like preordained and destined for him to be successful. ... I would say he's going to be one of the greats."
Scott: "Deshaun has no limits. He can be as good as he wants to be."
Gallman: "All I know is Deshaun's going to do his best to get that team to the Super Bowl."
Swinney: "I don't know when it's going to happen, but it's going to happen, and it's going to be sooner than later, because he's a winner."
Or—why not?—his fourth-grade teacher. Leslie Frierson remembers all the pickup basketball games during recess. While other kids hurled the ball up at the hoop every time they touched the ball, Watson relished passing. It was innate. He wanted, needed, to "make other people shine," she says, because "that makes him shine."
And all along, nothing was easy for Watson. Ever. He grew up in a federal housing complex riddled with violence. Dad was not in the picture. Then his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Then his mother's tongue was removed, and her voice was altered forever. No blitz, no hit, no moment will ever frighten Watson after enduring all of this. The past sticks with him.
That's what 11 teams missed before the draft. That's what anyone who doubts him now is missing.
To Swinney, it's simple. Watson makes every throw, is ridiculously athletic, is a football savant and is a worker. "There's nothing he lacks," he says plainly. "He can be as good as we've seen, because I know how he's going to work. He's going to always put the work in. He's not going to get distracted by other stuff. He's going to always keep the main thing, the main thing. That's being a great quarterback for his team and being a great leader."
So count on Watson keeping it fun. Gallman, now with the Giants, misses the days of dancing to the same rap songs as Watson. Migos was a go-to. Count on Watson remembering that he came from the projects, that he could've been devoured by the streets and wasn't. Up close, Williams saw how this experience affected his QB even if he doesn't speak publicly about it. Count on Watson lifting Houston into contention because, back healthy, he's going to be that lion.
"He's a guy people want to follow," Waldrip says.
As Waldrip continues his trip down memory lane in Gainesville, he makes a point to stop at 815 Harrison Square, the government-run apartments Watson grew up in. He wrote "815" on his wristband in college and then had those numbers printed on the interlining of his draft-day suit. Easy to see why too. The fact that the potential face of the NFL came from here is nothing short of remarkable. Waldrip heard that drug dealers never recruited Watson because even they could sense greatness in him.
Today, Waldrip wants to see if Watson's legend is growing where it all began. He parks near the entrance of the complex and approaches a man in a truck to ask if this is where Watson used to live.
And to Waldrip's horror, the man says he's never even heard of a Deshaun Watson.
"You're probably the only person in Gainesville, Georgia, who doesn't know him," says Waldrip, sliding back into his vehicle and shaking his head.
OK, so Watson still has work to do.
Fully healthy, he'll enter Week 1 as the Texans starter. The goal, this year, is to be the last quarterback standing.
Achieve this, Lombardi Trophy in hand, and that stranger will have a story to tell.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.