ANDERSON, S.C. -- Deshaun Watson's golden ticket was rescued from the bottom of a basket of Halloween candy.
That's the first part of the story Watson is here to tell. Dressed casually in designer jeans and a button-down shirt with the sleeves pushed up, he's leaning on the lectern at First Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina, eager to share his biography with a packed house of dignitaries and Clemson fans.
He was 9, he says, and he'd been shuttled off to a church function for underprivileged kids about 10 miles from the government-run apartments where he lived with his mother, Deann, and three siblings in Gainesville, Georgia. The complex wasn't a place for trick-or-treating, so the church offered an alternative. "I was just in it for the candy," Watson remembered.
Deann was always careful with her kids, so she inspected the chocolates and sweets before he could devour his bounty. As Deann sifted through the treats, she found a pamphlet from Habitat for Humanity, the charitable organization devoted to providing affordable houses to those in need. It promised a new life if she made a commitment to work for it.
"We were in government housing," Watson tells the crowd. "[Mom] figured, 'What could be worse?'"
Watson talks about the old neighborhood, where he played pickup football games with gang members and drug dealers. He talks about the new house at the top of a hill with a wide front yard in a well-appointed suburban neighborhood. He talks about hope, because that's what he found in his new home.
The crowd, packed with Habitat organizers and volunteers, roars its approval, and Watson demurely waves a thank-you. He's still getting used to being a pitchman.
"I'm a lot more comfortable on the field than I am talking in front of a crowd," he says later.
Watson has never actually written out the speech, but the bullet points were already running through his mind a year ago as Clemson's football team worked on a Habitat build in nearby Anderson, South Carolina -- an annual event during the Tigers' bye week. Jeff Davis, Clemson's director of player development, was making the rounds and chatting with players when Watson pulled him aside and said he wanted to do more.
A few months later, Watson and Davis met with Monroe Free, the executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Greenville, and hatched a plan for how Watson could become the face of the organization in South Carolina. Watson shared his story with Free and said he wanted to reach out to other kids who'd grown up in Habitat houses. When the meeting was over, Free returned home and gushed to his wife: "He's a kid that you say, 'I hope our kids grow up like that.'"
By late July, Free had invited every Habitat family in the area out to meet Watson. More than 300 people showed up to hear Watson's speech about the drugs and the violence and the opportunity he was given to escape it all. Then he posed for pictures and signed autographs and asked every kid what he or she hoped to do with the opportunity Habitat had provided. When Free looked at his watch as Watson wrapped up the meet-and-greet, he realized the Clemson quarterback had been there for more than three hours.
A few days later, Free was on the phone with the directors of Habitat International.
"We've got a kid here who'll be a terrific spokesman for us for years to come," he told them.
And so Watson is here in Greenville just two weeks before what might be the biggest game of his college career, a showdown against No. 6 Notre Dame, donning an orange hard hat with a tiger paw emblazoned on the front and accepting Habitat for Humanity's inaugural Next Generation award for children of Habitat homes who've gone on to achieve success.
For Watson, however, the story isn't about what he's become. It's about how he got here.
To read David Hale's full story, click here.