Deshaun Watson has played his final college football game, but his legacy will last long after he’s left Clemson.
With a roll to the right and a flick of the wrist, Deshaun Watson ended Clemson’s 35-year national championship drought and denied Nick Saban a Bear Bryant-tying sixth title of his own. Watson’s legacy, already secure in the land of Tigers and ACC athletics, achieved widespread, national reach Monday night in Tampa … with just a tick of the clock to spare. And while he’s played his final game as an unpaid, orange and purple-clad amateur, the impact of No. 4 will be felt in Death Valley for the foreseeable future.
From the moment he signed out of Gainesville (Ga.) High School, turning down a sizable stack of offers from around the country, Watson was going to be a difference-maker. He was the guy who’d take all of the talent accumulated from up and down the Eastern Seaboard and transform it into titles. Watson, even more than prolific predecessor Tajh Boyd, was Dabo Swinney’s missing piece for cracking the championship code that had eluded Clemson since 1981.
Swinney has built so much more than a football program at Clemson. He has successfully created a culture, a bona fide family atmosphere whose foundation is rooted in trust, brotherhood and accountability. It’s a tight-knit ecosystem that’s become increasingly attractive to blue-chip recruits. And Watson has embodied it for the past three seasons.
Watson’s name is all over the Clemson record books. He was the quintessential dual-threat, perfectly suited to operate an up-tempo offense first introduced to the Tigers in 2011 by current SMU head coach Chad Morris. Watson was an ideal fit for an attack that freely allows its quarterback to make plays with his arm and his feet. Even so, he was always so much more than the numbers, which is a big part of the reason why the Tigers have finally reached that next rung on college football’s ladder.
Watson is more accurately defined as a triple-treat, because his athleticism and passing skills are complemented by a duffel bag of intangibles that neatly fit Swinney’s direction for the program. He is a big-picture young adult, brimming with humility, an indefatigable will to win and the toughness to remain upright even after 60 minutes of punishment from the Alabama D.
“Deshaun is just such a good human being,” said Chuck Lynch, a former Clemson and Atlanta Falcons punter who has remained close to the Tiger program. “He’s the ultimate team player and incredibly humble even when he’s the one getting all of the accolades. Deshaun embodies the culture that Dabo has created of giving back to the community, such as visiting hospitals or helping build homes, and none of those players ever view it as an obligation.”
Watson has been the capstone of Swinney’s blueprint for flourishing not just on Saturdays, nor only in the fall and winter. Most fans only know Watson as the playmaker and the record-setter. But he also earned his degree in three years and has dutifully served as both a pillar of the community and a leader in the Clemson locker room. All-American talent on the field. All-American person away from it. Just as the coach drew it up: an unwavering mindset that courses through every hallway and alcove of a world-class football facility that the University not so coincidentally plans on officially opening during next month’s Signing Day.
Monday night at Raymond James Stadium will go down as one of the greatest postseason games in college football history. A proverbial instant classic, it also happened to be a four-hour infomercial for all that’s right about the Clemson football program. The next-level talent, yes. But also the heart of a champion quarterback and the obvious two-way love and respect between a coach and his players.
With one epic game-winning drive, Watson cemented his legacy as a collegian, though Clemson folks would quickly suggest their quarterback’s spot in football lore had been established long ago. And while his decisive flip to Hunter Renfrow will go down as the final pass of his Tiger career, Watson is the rare type of student-athlete whose going to pay dividends to his alma mater long after his NFL career has come and gone. He bought into Swinney’s philosophies, on both football and life, and then helped guide the program to its highest point in generations. If Clemson was a hot spot before Watson came aboard, it’s now a raging inferno in the eyes of top high school recruits.
Swinney has long preached to his players that they’re the temporary holders of the keys to the kingdom. Someone will soon take their place in the revolving door of college athletics, much the way Watson will have a successor in the huddle in 2017. For now, though, Clemson is the king of the college football world, thanks to a coach and a quarterback who’ll inexorably be linked for their three seasons together. Two caretakers of a program that has learned to win at the highest level, and with the loftiest possible intentions.