I used to pretend I was J.J. Redick.
It’s funny when I think about it now — how, for a hot second, I thought I was gonna be a basketball player. When I was a kid, if I wasn’t playing football, you could probably find me on a basketball court somewhere, putting up shots, pretending it was March Madness and I was playing for Coach K at Duke.
Three seconds left. Down by two. National championship on the line. I come off a screen and get the inbounds pass.
No time for a dribble.
I pull up, and….
Just like Coach K drew it up.
I saw Duke run that play for J.J. Redick a million times, and he was always money. He was my favorite player. I modeled my game after his because I was a shooter, just like him. We both played the two. We both wore number 4. And Duke was my mom’s favorite team, too. So, to me, the whole thing mapped out perfectly.
When I grew up, I wanted to be J.J. Redick.
If you don’t know my story, I grew up without a father figure in my home. My mom was a single mother, working multiple jobs to raise her four kids. For most of my childhood, we lived in government housing in Gainesville, Georgia, where I always played pickup football and basketball with the older kids, some of them drug dealers and gang members. Then, when I was 11 years old, after my mom had spent hundreds of hours volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, helping build houses for people in need, our family qualified for a home of our own. We moved into a brand-new Habitat home that had been furnished by Falcons running back Warrick Dunn, through his charity. That’s the part of my story that most people know. I’ve talked about it a lot because it was such a huge moment for me and my family. It was the start of a better life for us. But since that time, I’ve had a lot of other big moments that have changed my life for the better. And a lot of people have helped shape me into the man I am today. When I was 14, just after my freshman football season at Gainesville High, I got a new quarterbacks coach, Michael Perry. I was coming off a really good season, and I already had some D-I schools showing interest in me. Life was good. I was ballin’ out. Then Coach Perry took me to a whole new level.
He told me right off the bat that I had talent, but that I also needed a work ethic to match that talent.
And his secret was … well, he didn’t have a secret.
He just made me work my ass off.
But he also taught me how to work my ass off. He gave me a huge notebook full of plays and defensive schemes to memorize. He made me wake up early and study film for two hours before school — and this was in the off-season. I’d go to basketball practice after school, and then after that to Coach Perry’s house, where he would quiz me on audibles and defensive formations.
For four, sometimes five days a week, that was our routine.
When I met Coach Perry, I was a football player.
He turned me into a quarterback.
But he was much more than just a coach. He made sure I focused on my schoolwork. He got me closer to God. He taught me how to be a man. He was a father figure to me, and he came into my life at a time when I probably needed that more than ever.
Because that was the same year my mom got sick.
She had gone to the doctor because she had been battling strep throat for the longest time and it wasn’t getting any better.
But the doctor told her she didn’t have strep.
She had tongue cancer.
To get treatment, she had to go to Atlanta, which was an hour away. Most days, for about an eight-month stretch, she stayed in Atlanta while my Aunt Sonia looked after me, my two brothers and my sister back in Gainesville. So going into my sophomore year, on top of not having a father figure at home, I also didn’t have my mom.
That’s why Coach Perry’s timing was perfect. He refocused me and changed my whole lifestyle at a time when I really needed it.
And yeah, there were definitely times when I got tired of studying and I wanted to just stay out late with my boys and be a high school kid.
But then I would think about my mom, and how hard she had worked for so many years to provide for our family and to give us a better life. And how while I was complaining about watching film or studying a playbook, she was off in Atlanta fighting the toughest battle of her life, and being stronger than I thought anybody could be.
So I’d stop complaining and get back to work.
My mom always preached education. Coach Perry reinforced it.
Dabo Swinney made me crave it.
That same off-season when I started working with Coach Perry and my mom was battling cancer, Coach Swinney offered me a scholarship to Clemson. It was my first college offer, and I think that’s when everything became real for me, you know? Like, I had all these dreams, but now they were pretty much right in front of me. All I had to do was say yes to Coach Swinney, and I would be able to play college football, have a shot at making it to the NFL, and get a college education without my mom having to pay a dime or go into debt.
Just the possibility of a free education made me realize what a big opportunity — and what a big responsibility — I had in front of me.
What really sold me on Clemson was the fact that Coach Swinney told me that if I went there, he wouldn’t recruit a quarterback the following year. Or the year after that.
He wanted to build the program around me.
My first thought was, Right … I’m probably gonna hear the same thing from Nick Saban and every other coach.
But I’m big on vibes, man. Big on energy. I’m the kind of person who, when I meet somebody, if the vibe isn’t right, I’m gonna shut it down. I’ll separate myself and not say too much. I think I’m pretty good at reading people.
And I’m telling you … Coach Swinney had vibes.
It was one of those things where, when he said something, and he looked you in the eye, you just kind of knew that he meant it, and that he was going to do everything in his power to deliver on it.
So I wanted to make sure that I was going to deliver for him, too. I committed to Clemson — which was the best decision I ever made — and worked hard to graduate high school a semester early so I could get to campus as soon as possible and have a chance to play as a freshman.
One of the first people I met when I arrived at Clemson was Maria Herbst. She was an academic advisor. I call her Mama Maria. And just like Coach Perry transformed me as a quarterback, Mama Maria helped transform me as a student.
When I first met her, I had just graduated early from high school. And I knew that if I handled my business on the field, I would be leaving Clemson early, too — for the NFL. I didn’t want to be one of those guys who goes pro and then waits 15 or 20 years to go back and finish his degree, or who doesn’t go back at all.
Because I promised my mom I would graduate.
So I told Mama Maria I wanted to graduate in three years.
I think she thought I was kidding, because she kind of laughed and said, “Well you’re gonna have to put in a lot of work to do something like that!”
But I was dead serious.
So she said, “O.K. If you’re really serious, you gotta promise me you’re gonna do what it takes. Because this isn’t something many people could do.”
I promised her, we shook on it and she said, “Good, because I’m gonna be on your ass like I’m your mama every day.”
And she wasn’t lying.
All through my three years at Clemson, she stayed on top of me. I was taking 20 credits per semester, even in the summer, when the semester is shorter and the workouts are longer. There were days when I would be up at 4 a.m. so I could get a shower and some breakfast before my 5:30 workout. Classes started at nine, and after that, we’d have seven-on-seven film study. I wouldn’t get home until late in the evening, just as my roommate was leaving to go out, and man … I’d want to go with him so bad, just to go hang with my boys and be a college kid.
But I couldn’t.
I had homework to do.
Mama Maria was also my tutor, and there were definitely days when I called her up and told her I wasn’t coming in. But she wasn’t having it.
“No. You better get your butt in here. We got work to do!”
Through all my successes, failures and adversities on the football field, I was able to stay focused on my schoolwork. And I graduated in three years.
There’s no way I could have done that without Mama Maria.
She’s the best.
I don’t think I could have drawn up my final year at Clemson any better than it turned out — graduating, winning a national championship and leaving school early to be a first-round pick in the NFL draft. It’s storybook stuff, man.
And I don’t think that year would have been possible if it hadn’t been for some advice that I got after my junior season. To this day, as simple as it is, it’s some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten.
It came from Cam Newton.
I first met Cam at his seven-on-seven camp in Atlanta. I was going into my junior year in high school, and he had just won a national championship at Auburn and been drafted No. 1.
He was doing all the things I wanted to do, so I definitely looked up to him.
After the camp, Cam picked me to be the quarterback for the All-Star seven-on-seven team he was going to take to nationals in Florida. He traveled down there with us, and I got the chance to talk to him a little and make a connection.
Over the years, he stayed in touch, texting me or calling me up every now and then just to see how I was doing, or if I needed anything.
After we lost the national championship game to Alabama my sophomore year, I was devastated. We had come so close, but we had fallen short. At the same time, I had played really well, and even though we lost the game, I was getting a lot of praise.
It was tough to know how to feel. I wanted to feel good about my performance and the love I was getting, but at the end of the day, we lost, and that’s the worst feeling in the world. I struggled for a few days with how to handle it all.
Then Cam texted me and gave me a simple piece of advice that has really carried me for the last few years.
Basically, he told me to not let the highs get me too high or the lows get me too low. Have a balanced mentality. Accept both the love and the hate. Because when you’re successful, you’ll always have those who love you. But you’ll also always have haters.
And the only way to shut them up is to win.
I really took that to heart. I could have easily gone into my junior year and given up on my goal of graduating early to focus on football and winning a national championship. But I didn’t want to make a decision like that in response to the fact that we lost. I wanted to stay even-keeled, and the best way to do that was to trust myself and refocus on the things I had been working so hard on before — football and academics.
With Cam’s advice in mind — and the help of Mama Maria, my coaches and all my teammates — I was able to earn my degree and win Clemson’s first national championship since 1981, all in the same year. I walked away from my college career knowing that I had given it everything I had, and that I had accomplished everything I’d set out to accomplish.
I couldn’t dream of a better way to go out.
My life has changed a lot since I left Clemson and the Texans drafted me in the first round in 2017. Things are still changing. Still getting better. But there’s one thing I can say for certain. I didn’t grow up to be J.J. Redick. I grew up to be Deshaun Watson. And the story of how I became the man that I am today can only be told through the stories of the people who helped me along the way. Because I definitely did not do it alone. When you see me play on Sundays, it’s not just me you’re seeing. You’re also seeing a little bit of Coach Perry. A little Dabo Swinney. A little Maria Herbst. A little Cam Newton. And you’re seeing a lot of my mom. Whenever I’m hurting or injured — it could be an ACL, an AC joint, my ribs, whatever — I think about how my mom battled cancer and beat it. It was a tough road, but she’s been cancer-free for a few years now, and I’m so inspired by how she fought, and by the strength she showed through everything. So when I’m dealing with something hard or painful, no matter what it is, I always think, Mom’s been through worse. You can do this. In everything I do, I try to remember that I am a reflection of my mother and the many others who have helped me throughout my life. I want to make them proud, because I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. Just recently I partnered with Reliant to host a flag-football game where we raised money for a few nonprofit organizations and gave out scholarships to high school kids. That’s just one way I’m taking everything that I learned and powering it forward — so maybe I can be some kids’ Coach Perry, Dabo Swinney or Mama Maria. And at the same time, as an NFL quarterback, I can be the same sort of mentor that Cam Newton was for me when I was a young football player. I want to leave a legacy on the field. I do. I want to be remembered as a great teammate. As a hard worker. As a winner. But if I’m not, and the only thing people remember about me is that I was somebody who gave back everything he’d received from others, and more? I’d be O.K. with that, too.