In over 40 years in the sports information business, I have seen a lot of great players.
During my last year at Notre Dame, 1977, Joe Montana was the starting quarterback and I was one of the people charged with organizing his interview requests. The Fighting Irish won the national championship that season with a victory over previously undefeated and top-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
Montana had a relatively quiet personality, and he avoided the limelight, but when it came to gameday, he was the most focused player on the gridiron. And when it came to a final drive with a few minutes to play, no one was better. He was in charge.
I felt as though I returned to my youth this year working with Deshaun Watson leading the Tigers. Like Montana, Watson did not seek the limelight but did what he needed to do when it came to fulfilling media requests and representing the program in a first-class manner.
When it came to performance on the field, the similarities continued. There was the comeback against Louisville when he led the Tigers to two touchdown drives in the final seven minutes in Clemson’s 42-36 victory.
There was the 34-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Leggett with 2:06 remaining at Florida State that proved to be the game winner in Clemson’s 37-34 victory over a Seminole team that finished the year in the top 10.
And finally there was “the drive for the ages” against Alabama that culminated with the touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with just one second left in Clemson’s 35-31 win over Alabama.
How epic was the last drive? It gave Clemson the national championship…it can’t get any more epic than that!
But it came against Alabama, a program that had won four national titles in the previous seven years, something that has only been duplicated by Notre Dame in the 1940s. The Crimson Tide had won 26 straight games and an FBS record-tying 16 in a row over top-25 teams. It came against head coach Nick Saban, his five career national championships and his defense, regarded as the best in many years.
Clemson trailed 24-14 entering the fourth quarter and Saban had been 97-0 with a double-digit lead entering the final quarter. He had never lost a national championship game (5-0 going into the contest) as well.
In Montana’s last game at Notre Dame in the 1979 Cotton Bowl, he threw a touchdown pass on his last play with no time on the clock to give the Fighting Irish a 35-34 victory. Just over 38 years later, Watson tossed a touchdown pass on his last play (sans a kneel-down after Clemson recovered an onside kick) with one second left to give Clemson 35 points in a come-from-behind victory to win it all.
I was 22 years old again.
I have written hundreds of stories and a few books about Clemson football over my 39 years in the sports information office, but if I had written this script before the game, I would have laughed and ripped up the paper. No way this is going to happen.
But such was the case with Watson throughout his career.
That will be his legacy…achieving the previously thought to be impossible during a three-year period when he led Clemson to 32 wins in 35 games as the starting quarterback.
The native of Gainesville, Ga., will need a new wing on his mother’s home (or perhaps just build a new one) for all the hardware he has collected in his time at Clemson.
He swept the national quarterback-of-the-year awards in 2016, taking home honors as winner of the Davey O’Brien Award, Johnny Unitas Award and Manning Award. He won two Davey O’Brien Awards and became the first two-time winner of the Manning Award.
The day before the national championship game in Tampa, Fla., Watson was the recipient of the Bobby Bowden Award, an honor he collected from the hall of fame coach himself at a service that included 5,000 people. It is presented each year to the top student-athlete football player in the nation.
That was an award that had to bring a smile to his face and his family, especially his mother.
Watson also won the Archie Griffin Award and the Chic Harley Award from the Columbus Touchdown Club, two more national player-of-the-year honors. He is the only player to be named MVP of three College Football Playoff games and was the MVP of the ACC Championship Game in 2015 and 2016.
At midseason, he was selected to the Allstate AFCA Goodworks Team for his community service work through the Habitat for Humanity project.
Then there is the Heisman Trophy voting. Had the process included postseason play, he might have won two Heisman Trophies. Instead, he finished third in 2015 and second this year, the only two-time finalist in ACC history.
Here we have another comparison with Montana, who never even finished in the top five for the award. Had there been a postseason vote after Notre Dame won the national title in 1977, he might have won it.
I am not sure what kind of professional Watson will make. I feel very strongly that he will be successful. Will he be “Montana” successful as in four Super Bowl championships? That remains to be seen.
But keep in mind Montana was merely a third-round draft pick in 1979 and had to earn his stripes. But he had a great work ethic and those intangible leadership qualities. Watson is following the same path in all of those areas to the ultimate degree.
We do know one thing about Watson’s legacy, as he leaves Clemson with degree in hand after just three years.
He is the G.O.A.T. for the Clemson program.
• Heisman Trophy Finalist (2015,16)
• Manning Award (2015,16)
• Davey O’Brien Award (2015,16)
• Unitas Award (2016)
• Chic Harley Award (2016)
• Bobby Bowden Award (2016)
• Archie Griffin Award (2015)
• Walter Camp Award Finalist (2015,16)
• Consensus First-Team All-American (2015)
• All-American (2015,16)
• Maxwell Award Finalist (2015)
• Sullivan Award Semifinalist (2015)
• South Carolina Hall of Fame Player-of-the-Year (2015)
• ACC Championship Game MVP (2015,16)
• CFP MVP vs. Oklahoma (2015)
• CFP MVP vs. Ohio State (2016)
• CFP MVP vs. Alabama (2016)
• ACC Player-of-the-Year (2015)
• Allstate AFCA Good Works Team (2016)
• First FBS player with 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a season (2015)
• ACC record for passing touchdowns in a season (41 in 2016)
• Completions in a game (52 vs. Pittsburgh in 2016)
• Passing yards in a game (580 vs. Pittsburgh in 2016)
• Total offense in a game (588 vs. Pittsburgh in 2016)
• Passing touchdowns in a game (6 vs. North Carolina in 2014, South Carolina in 2016)
• Passing yards in a season (4,593 in 2016)
• Total offense in a season (5,222 in 2016)
• Winning percentage as starting quarterback (91.4 (32-3))
• Wins in a career (32)
• Wins vs. ranked teams in a season (5 in 2016)
• Wins vs. ranked teams in a career (9)
• Graduated with a degree in communication in just three years