GAINESVILLE, Ga. — The phone kept ringing. Over and over. Day after day.
“The Boys Club is calling,” Violet Waldrip would tell her husband each time she picked up outreach coordinator Derrick Caldwell’s call. “Derrick would like for you to spend time with two of the young men that come over there all the time. What do you want me to tell him?”
Jack Waldrip would hesitate.
“Listen,” he’d respond to his wife, “let’s let some of the younger guys deal with this. That’s the group they really want.”
“Well, they’re football players,” Violet would say back. “And he really wants you to be involved with them.”
Think about it, she’d urge.
In his early 60s at the time, Jack — a real estate broker known for his loyalty to the Gainesville, Ga., community — had recently undergone successful bypass surgery. He felt like he was getting older. He wondered if he’d be the best fit to mentor two kids he had never met before in need of his guidance.
“God’s been good to you,” Violet would remind him. “You may want to consider.”
And finally he did.
“OK,” he told his wife the next time Caldwell called. “Tell him to bring the boys on out here.”
And so on a Saturday afternoon in northeastern Georgia in the middle of the 2011-12 school year, two kids pulled up to Jack’s driveway for the first time.
One was named Fred Payne, an outgoing defender who was always chatty and wide open. He has since earned a finance degree from Western Carolina, where he captained the football team, and is now training for the NFL.
The other was Deshaun Watson, a shy quarterback who once lived in government housing littered with gangs and drug dealers, but who will become a millionaire Thursday night at the 2017 NFL Draft. This time a year ago, the third quarterback taken in the first round, Paxton Lynch, earned $9.476 million, and Deshaun is expected to follow suit.
With this humble teenager, Jack connected instantly.
Between the two of them, there would be Christmas mornings spent together and Chick-fil-A pit stops on rides to the airport in Jack’s white Tahoe. There would be high school state championships and heartfelt moments at 3:15 in the morning with the game ball in Deshaun’s hotel room after Clemson’s national title. Jack would name his dog Watson; Deshaun would treat Jack as a father-figure in the community where he was born and raised.
“I kept thinking that God wanted me to be a blessing to two young men,” Jack says now, seven years later. “What I didn’t get at the time was he was trying to send me the blessing.”
But the blessing that Jack realized he was receiving was not his alone. It was shared with a tight-knit Gainesville community that adores its local hero.
Long before Watson became a household name, he touched the lives of many in this small Georgia town back when it all began. They helped raise him and these are their stories.
The gold standard
He was always stellar in math but struggled a bit with reading. His desk was immaculate, his handwriting was pristine and he was always a rule follower. Shy, but endearing, he would laugh along with the class goofballs but never instigated the shenanigans. On the day his fourth grade class took its group photo, Deshaun wore a brown U.S. Polo Association T-shirt along with a gentle grin and some blue jeans. He was the skinniest, most meticulous kid in the room.
This is what Leslie Frierson remembers about the elementary school version of Watson, the 9-year-old who stole her heart at Centennial Arts Academy for how he buckled down in the classroom and dreamt of becoming a football player one day.
If Jack is the expert on teenager Deshaun, it is Frierson — now the principal at the elementary school — who knew Watson best well before he started to garner national attention en route to becoming the king of college football.
Her memories are abundant.
There was 2005: Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and now-Baltimore Ravens free safety Kendrick Lewis was displaced to a local high school in Gainesville. He would come to volunteer at the elementary school — and Deshaun found him mesmerizing.
“You could be bigger than him,” Frierson would tell Deshaun. “If you get your schoolwork totally under control, you can go and do anything you want to do.”
There was Christmas 2006: A month earlier, Deshaun, his single mother, Deann, and siblings had moved out of the town’s government housing projects and into a Habitat for Humanity home made possible by his mother’s sweat equity. Former NFL running back Warrick Dunn had generously furnished it a month earlier, and Frierson wanted to give Deshaun a Christmas present. She and her husband brought over a basketball goal — Deshaun’s first.
It was freezing that day, so she waited inside while her husband and brother-in-law assembled the goal, which everyone expected to be a fast process. She sat on the L-shaped couches with Deshaun, his aunt, his mom and his siblings. Together, they watched the Food Network.
“I bet two-and-a-half hours later it was pitch dark and that goal finally was up,” Frierson laughed. “We went outside and my husband was very insistent that Deshaun was going to be the first one to make a basket. It was an event, but it was special.”
And then, there was spring 2014 — the story that still moves Frierson to tears when she tells it. Her nephew, Max, was turning four years old and dubbed his birthday party Deshaun Watson-themed. Home for his first spring break from Clemson at the time, Deshaun called Frierson. He wanted to show up at the party. The ultimate surprise.
“That was his spring break. He’s a college student. Who wants to go to a children’s museum and play at a 4-year-old’s birthday party?” she said. “He didn’t have to do that.”
At Centennial, where every child in the school owns a No. 4 T-shirt or jersey, Watson is the gold standard. He doesn’t know it, but recently a young boy raised by a single mother was disrupting the classroom with routinely defiant behavior. The very mention of his hometown hero’s name changed his outlook dramatically as early as the next day. If Deshaun could overcome his own humble background and turn it into a multi-million dollar career, why couldn't this young boy, too?
“With the kids that come in that are just on the cusp of greatness and have so much potential but are acting like such knuckleheads, you just want to tell them: ‘Would Deshaun do that?’” Frierson said.
‘“He walked these halls. What do you think?”’
'There is nothing he will let beat him'
It’s the same order every time.
Chicken tenders, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, a large biscuit and a large sweet tea.
“You can’t get Deshaun to eat anything green,” Jack laughed. “He hates vegetables.”
Known for its behemoth buffet of southern foods, its gentle, down-to-earth owner and a community feel that no other restaurant in Gainesville can rival, Longstreet Cafe is the place to be. Deshaun loves it here. And much like the elementary school students, Longstreet patrons worship Deshaun.
“We walked in this one time,” Jack beamed, “and we came down to the line and we were going in and people were looking on and everybody just started standing up and clapping for him. I thought, ‘That’s pretty cool right there!”’
Deshaun’s high school jersey, signed, is framed on the wall. So is a copy of Sports Illustrated from after the national championship win, and so is his autograph from National Signing Day in 2014, when he and dozens of other high school students signed their letters in the restaurant — the town’s annual tradition.
Some of the best Deshaun stories are told in this place as a group of men from Fellowship of Christian Athletes stroll down memory lane over fried chicken and banana pudding. But for as much as Deshaun has given these townsfolk who frequent this local staple, this much is clear: perhaps they have given him just as much back.
In high school, the town tradition was for all of the students to have breakfast at Longstreet together every Friday morning. It didn’t matter if Deshaun could afford it. Owner Tim Bunch sent him through the line regardless.
When Deshaun’s mom was diagnosed with tongue cancer when Deshaun was 15 years old and he had no money, Jack asked the employees of the local tax assessor’s office to consider giving Deshaun his first job. They did.
When Deann’s treatment intensified and she needed to go to Atlanta, Deshaun’s familial responsibilities picked up. To help, Superior Court judge Andy Fuller gave Deshaun a job organizing court case files and made an unprecedented move when he gave Deshaun a key to the courthouse so he could log his hours after football practice.
“Deshaun would get up in the morning, go to school, practice football, go work after hours at the courthouse until about 10 at night, go home and somewhere along the way do his homework,” Jack said. “He would do this Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night and then he would not go on Thursday night because they had a game on Friday, so he would rest.
“Friday night he had a game, then he took off Saturday. Sunday, he went to church and went back to work Sunday afternoon. That was his schedule.”
Meanwhile, Deshaun never told any of his coaches — high school or college — about the jobs. After his first semester at Clemson, he worked outside as painter.
“Talk about work ethic,” Jack said. “There is nothing he will let beat him.”
'A legend forever'
She’s going to wear her hair down. This will be a big deal. It’s typically always pulled back, especially for high school Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. She likes it that way.
Her knee-length blue dress is already picked out — not too long, not too short — and for her feet, she’s chosen a pair of spunky blue wedges.
Tinisha Watson, 18, has never been to Philadelphia before — no less the NFL Draft. But Thursday will be the biggest night of her older brother’s life when the draft kicks off at 8 p.m.
“It’s nerve wracking, kind of crazy,” Deshaun’s younger sister said. “I just can’t wait to see who’s going to choose him or where he’s going to play. My team is really the Atlanta Falcons, but (quarterback) Matt Ryan is doing pretty well. I like the Texans because of (former Clemson wide receiver) DeAndre Hopkins. He and Deshaun would probably be a good pair.”
For all the years of hardship — life in the projects, his mother’s cancer diagnosis, working three jobs — the wait for the Watson family is finally over this week when Deshaun answers that coveted phone call from the team that drafts him and makes him an instant millionaire.
Watson's high school coach, Bruce Miller, fielded a call from the Los Angeles Chargers on Monday, and told them the same thing he told all teams that inquired, including the Cleveland Browns, who have the No. 1 pick.
“I said, ‘If you get him, he’ll change a franchise,”’ Miller said. “He’s a difference maker.”
He was a difference maker all those years ago when they first met. Deshaun was just in the seventh grade asking Miller to give him a fast tutorial at a halftime on how to quick kick, and then booted one 40 yards on his first try.
“I said, ‘You don’t need me to teach you anything else,’” Miller said. “Everybody kept telling me he was the quarterback of the future.”
He was a difference maker the following spring, once he got to high school, and completed 22 of 25 passes in his first spring scrimmage. Miller named him the starter as a freshman, something he had never done before and hasn’t done since in 43 years of coaching.
And certainly, Deshaun was a difference maker, when he left for Clemson but always stayed loyal to Gainesville — the city that gave him both nothing and everything simultaneously.
In a few months, when he returns to Longstreet Cafe, he’ll still order his usual. When he plays his first game, he still plans to wear the 815 wristband, a nod to 815 Harrison Square in Gainesville, his address when he lived in the projects.
And when he comes home, Jack won’t be shocked if Deshaun wants to keep planning impromptu surprise visits to his biggest fans.
Analysts will have their opinions, mock drafts will run their course. But if there’s one thing the people in Gainesville are sure of, it’s that regardless of where Deshaun is taken, it will never change the communal son they all helped raise.
To Jack, he will still always be the teenager that made taking a leap of faith worthwhile.
To Frierson, he will still always be the lanky fourth grader with a heart of gold.
To Miller, he’ll be the best quarterback the coach has ever worked with, and a constant example of humility and hard work for Gainesville players to come.
And to Tinisha — to the Watson family who has been there every step of the way — he’ll still be the same older brother and son who recently zipped home for Easter just to spend some time in the living room chatting.
With this new chapter, his financial situation will change dramatically, and therefore so will his family’s life. The plan, Watson hinted, is to buy his mom a new car. But to Gainesville, he stays the same.
“He’ll be a legend around here forever,” Miller said. “I know he’ll take care of his mom and then take care of his family and he will proceed on. And If my intuition is right, two or three years from now, all the teams who passed on him are gonna say ‘Why did we overlook this kid? Why?’ There’s going to be a lot of whys.”