Correction: A previous version of this article described Steve Fuller as the quarterback of the 1981 national champion Clemson football team.
To those around him, Deshaun Watson appeared comfortable as he walked behind a dais at First Presbyterian Church in Greenville, S.C., in September. Behind him, a blue banner for Habitat for Humanity hung from a long table. The crowd applauded. Watson’s life and accomplishments had taught him to be appreciative and calm, never nervous, in such moments. Watson coughed into his right hand and leaned toward the microphone.
“It’s a pleasure to be up here,” Watson said. “Short story about getting the house.”
Wearing a red-and-white checked shirt with the sleeves rolled up over a white T-shirt, Watson explained the reason he stood there. At 9 years old, he attended a Halloween festival at church in his home town of Gainesville, Ga. When he came home, his mother, Deann, sifted through his candy basket, a typical protective mom. She found, in the heap of bite-size chocolate, a small card that outlined how to apply for Habitat for Humanity. We live in a government house, she thought. Surely this was worth a shot.
Deann filled out paperwork, attended classes and helped build houses for others in Habitat for Humanity, a charity that provides disadvantaged families with homes. About a year after Deshaun brought home the card in a Halloween basket, the Watsons qualified. They moved out of their government house and into their own home.
By age 20, Watson had become a burgeoning college football star, a local icon the organization honored with its first Next Generation Award.
“Growing up in that house,” Watson told the crowd, “it inspired me to do great things.”
Watson, the sophomore quarterback of undefeated, top-ranked Clemson, has led the Tigers to the College Football Playoff, steeling a program with a history of annually tripping over its own shoelaces. He passed for 3,517 yards, ran for another 887, accounted for 41 touchdowns and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting. He pairs smarts and athleticism with humility. Old coaches say they would want him to marry their daughters or for their sons to be like him.
“He represents everything we’re trying to represent down there,” said Steve Fuller,who quarterbacked Clemson to consecutive Gator Bowls in the late 1970s.
The great things Watson has done on football fields have provided him a platform to make an impact beyond them. Watson has become an outspoken proponent for Habitat for Humanity. Clemson’s march to the playoff, where it will face Oklahoma on Thursday in the Orange Bowl, gave Watson a grand stage. His experience made him a grateful person and imbued in him uncommon maturity. Watson attributes his success to the house his mother earned through Habitat, and he vowed to repay the inspiration he received. He has done so, in some cases more than he knows.
“He thinks of everybody but himself,” said SMU Coach Chad Morris, the former Clemson offensive coordinator who recruited Watson. “That’s kind of what separates him from so many kids. Everything becomes about them. But not him. It has to do with so many people along his journey have helped him out. He wants to be a giver.”
Gainesville, a town of about 35,000 located 45 minutes north of Atlanta, is a diverse socioeconomic cross-section. Gainesville proper is suburban, and out in the county are acres of farmland. A lake intertwines the area. The Atlanta Falcons train a short drive away in South Hall County. In a run-down section of Gainesville sits the Harrison Square Apartments. The Watsons lived in unit 815.
“It wasn’t no real bad environment, but you had to know how to live,” said Sonia Watson, Watson’s aunt. “If you left something on your porch, it would be stolen the next day.”
Deann wanted a better life for Watson, his older brother and his younger brothers, a pair of twins. The economic climate in Gainesville tilted against her. Rental rates in Hall County are among the highest in Georgia. Families pay between $800 and $1,200 a month for a one-bedroom house, leaving many with low-paying jobs without enough left over to save for something better.
“The whole concept with government housing is it’s supposed to be a temporary fix,” said Andi Harmon, the director of Habitat operations for Hall County. “Unfortunately, it has become a generational stronghold.”
Deann took the pamphlet Deshaun had brought home, intent on breaking the cycle. When new applicants arrive, Habitat for Humanity officials tell them: “This is difficult.” If they put the requisite work in, they will own their own home. A small number of initial applicants — sometimes as little as 2 percent — make it into the program and not because they do not fit the parameters. Life interferes.
Habitat makes it clear nothing is guaranteed. It does not know when or where a prospective homeowner will move in. Once a family owns the house it helped build, it must make mortgage payments. Habitat for Humanity is a charitable organization, but it is not in the business of handouts.
Deann tracked down references and financial documents for Habitat to review. She took a 30-hour financial education course. She found the time and energy, while working her day jobs, to spend 200 hours helping to build other Habitat homes. The work came in six-hour increments — 33 of them. Sonia teased, “You don’t know how to work on any house.” Deann replied, “Yes, I can.”
Finally, with the help of other Habitat applicants and volunteers, Deann started work on her own home. Watson and his brothers would come with her, sticking close to their mother. They pounded nails, helped clean up and handed out bottled water and lunches. A sign in front of the build site read, “In memory of Ned Gignilliat in Partnership With Habitat of Hall County for The Watson Family.”
Ned Gignilliat owned a dry cleaner in the shadow of Gainesville High’s football stadium. During football games, he worked the concession stand pulled the chain. Friends call him “The Mayor.” He retired on his 59th birthday, and in the following year he volunteered three days a week building Habitat homes. He told friends how much it fulfilled him and convinced them to join him. In less than a year, Ned helped build four houses.
On the week of his 60th birthday, doctors found gioblastoma, an inoperable form of brain cancer, inside Ned’s head. He deteriorated and died soon after. His son, Harris Gignilliat, was sitting in church one Sunday after his father passed. The rector approached him: Habitat wanted to build a house, but it needed donations. He fronted half the money and raised the rest through a network of friends, raising funds on the condition he could work on the house. Harris climbed up and nailed shingles to the roof of Deann Watson’s home himself.
“This house was in his honor,” Gignilliat said. “We didn’t want the house to fall down on itself.”
When the home was finished, Habitat told the Watsons they wouldn’t receive the keys for another two weeks but couldn’t say why. Former NFL running back Warrick Dunn runs a foundation that works with Habitat to furnish homes. Dunn’s foundation filled the Watsons’ house — couches, beds, utensils, teddy bears, a lawn mower, a hose.
Dunn was there the day the Watsons moved in. The boys ran through the house, astonished smiles on their faces, and claimed rooms. At Harrison Square, they shared a bedroom.
In his new home, Watson felt safe and motivated. He flourished at school. The skinny kid who used to play ball on the street outside the Harrison Square Apartments focused on football. By ninth grade, he became the first freshman quarterback to start for Bruce Miller at Gainesville High.
“I’d seen him take some hits in practice, going into freshman year. I’ve had varsity quarterbacks not get up from that kind of hit,” Miller said. “It was just his overall competitiveness. The other thing about him, he was so teachable and coachable. He wanted to learn. He never once acted like, ‘I’ve got this, Coach.’ He always wanted to learn, was always listening. Most stars in high school think they’re stars and act like they’re a star. He never acted that way.”
Early in Watson’s high school career, Deann’s jaw started to throb. She assumed she had a toothache but visited a doctor once it persisted. She had a biopsy. Another test. A diagnosis: tongue cancer, stage four.
“The day she told him she had cancer, [Watson] cried,” Sonia said. “I told him, ‘It’s going to be all right.’ God had a plan.”
Deann underwent major surgery that removed a portion of her tongue, which still prevents her from speaking normally but allowed her to survive. “A miracle,” Sonia said. She started chemotherapy treatments at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. For six months, Watson and his siblings moved in with Sonia.
“I didn’t even know at first,” Miller said. “Deshaun just keeps things inside him.”
Watson persisted, compartmentalizing his mother’s health and his athletic goals. In his career, he totaled more than 17,000 yards, accounted for 218 touchdowns and won a state title. Division I basketball teams recruited him to play guard, and he might have won the state high jump title had he not abandoned track. “He’s a legend around here,” Miller said. “Always will be.”
Watson grew close with Morris, the Clemson offensive coordinator. Morris’s wife, Paula, would often hear him say, “Love you, too, D,” when their calls ended. Watson asked what time Morris’s kids’ basketball and volleyball games were so he could attend. He committed to Clemson as a sophomore and kept that commitment despite a barrage from other big-time schools. When Morris left after Watson’s freshman year to become the head coach at SMU, Morris called Watson for counsel.
“Single-handedly, he was one of the reasons I almost didn’t leave,” Morris said. “Truly, if he would have said, ‘Hey, Coach, I want you to stay,’ who knows what would have happened. He said, ‘This is an opportunity you may never get again.’ This is a freshman. To lose your coordinator with at least two years left in your college experience, that’s tough. He looked at everybody but himself.”
Every year, under directive from Coach Dabo Swinney, Clemson players participate in a Habitat build in Anderson, S.C. This year, having become a football star himself, Watson thought back to a football star’s effect on him. He wanted, he decided, to be like Dunn.
“I lived in a Habitat house,” Watson told Jeff Davis, Clemson’s director of football player relations. “I want to give back.”
“He’s not being pushed to share this,” said Ann Nixon, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Hall County. “He’s leading on this of his own volition. He’s not ashamed or embarrassed in any way. He’s proud. Habitat is misunderstood. People think we give away houses for free, that these are the people who are the takers in life and not the people who are engaged. Every last homeowner pays for their home.”
This fall, Harris Gignilliat scanned ESPN.com and saw a story about Watson’s work with Habitat. He had forgotten the name of the family that moved into the house he helped build. At the end of the article was a picture from the day the Watsons moved in.
“Holy crap,” Gignilliat thought. “That’s Dad’s house.”
Gignilliat has not reached out to Watson, but now he thinks of him often. The 10-year anniversary of Ned’s death made Gignilliat reflect on two awful truths. Time can turn you numb to the death of a loved one, and dealing with terminal diseases, the memories that stick so often come from the end, of the sad, frail moments. The house he built, and what Watson has done with it in turn, keeps thoughts of his father vibrant. It gives him a new, joyful memory.
“What makes it so special is watching him take his gift and spread it like a spider web,” Gignilliat said. “The more Deshaun Watsons are out there, the more support Habitat gets, the better the story is and the more families are touched. At the core of that is something that was so negative: my dad passing. I got to think wherever he is, he’s so happy to see this. It’s a beautiful, amazing thing.”
Gignilliat will watch the Orange Bowl on television and think of his father. The Watsons will travel to Miami and watch in person. Deann is doing well and feeling strong. Sonia speaks for Deann when they are together, keeping an always-close family even closer. Sonia asks Deshaun frequently, “How you feel?” The response, she said, is always the same. “Having fun,” Watson tells her.
“This year had an impact on him, about giving back,” Sonia said. “That’s when he decided he wants to give back. He wants people to know that there’s people out here who can help you and help your family succeed. Everybody has a chance of getting home, and you got a chance of doing better.”
Watson wants his story to spread. Back in September, as he finished telling it again, he tapped on the lectern as he spoke.
“I always wanted to help other people and help other families,” Watson told the crowd. “That’s what I’ve been able to do so far. It’s been great and very inspirational. I just love to see those faces. Thank you.”