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 home build organized by the Anderson, South Carolina, branch of Habitat for Humanity. -- 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.
The bus has just pulled away from its stop, and a dozen school-aged children flood the parking lot at 815 Harrison Square in Gainesville, a maze of clean but bleak two-story apartment buildings surrounded by a chicken processing factory, a package store and a cemetery. They run, squealing and laughing in all directions, but circle back to the black SUV parked nearby. The back hatch is hoisted open, and Greg Carlyle and his wife are handing out bags of food to anyone who approaches. Carlyle grew up nearby, and he used to be a police officer. Now he runs a ministry from his house, distributing food to areas where he'd once witnessed poverty claim so many kids.
Watson might've been one of those kids, too.
It's not that Watson grew up in fear, he said. If anything, he was a minor celebrity in Harrison Square -- the young kid with the big arm. Grassy fields bordered by clotheslines buffered the squat buildings throughout the complex, and the older kids played football there nearly every day. Watson yearned to play alongside his older brother, but Deann was worried he'd get hurt. They compromised, assigning Deshaun a permanent spot as quarterback, where he could avoid the big hits and showcase his arm.
"He was the only one of the younger group who'd come play with us," said Joshua Brown, 25, one of Watson's former playmates still living in Harrison Square. "I could look at him and see there was going to be something different about him. It was his ambition."
The older kids afforded Watson a level of respect because he was so talented on the football field and basketball court. They were slinging drugs and skipping school, but they saw something more in Watson.
"A lot of our friends and family were in gangs," said Fred Payne, Watson's friend and neighbor at Harrison Square, now a defensive back for Western Carolina. "They were actually teaching us not to be like that, but you had to do whatever you can to help the family pay the bills and put food on the table. It wasn't the right way, but it was almost the only way that was around the apartment complex."
Every now and then, one of the older kids would leave for a job or an athletics scholarship, but they never stayed gone for long. The pull of the old neighborhood was strong.
"It was like a recycling bin," Watson said.
Watson wanted more, and it was clear to everyone in the neighborhood he had the talent to beat the odds. Deann knew it, too, and Habitat was the lifeline that pulled her family out of the cycle of poverty and gave Deshaun a chance to thrive.
In his new home, Watson excelled in school and on the football field. When he was a junior at Gainesville High, he led the Red Elephants to their first state title, a watershed moment for the entire city. Brown remembers that day fondly. It was also the day a son of Harrison Square finally made it big.
"That was my baby brother," Brown said, "and he grew up and got out."
Watson still carries a reminder of his humble beginnings. Shortly after he arrived at Clemson, he got tattoos on both forearms. His right arm has a picture of a deck of playing cards, a pair of dice, and his state championship ring. It's a reminder to play the cards you're dealt, he said, and that all success comes with a little luck. Inside the ring is the number "815," the address of Harrison Square Apartments. On his left arm is a stopwatch set to 8:15 with a verse about family and remembering your roots.
"It reminds me of where everything started," he said.
Sitting on a chair in the living room of his mother's apartment, Brown smiles at the thought that Watson still remembers those pickup games on the fields just outside the door, but he hopes Harrison Square's biggest success story doesn't spend too much time looking back.
Brown rocks forward and rubs his hands, searching for the right words to explain how much things have changed since Watson left. The kids they used to play with have grown into men, and those men need to pay the bills and put food on the table.
These days, Brown makes music, he said, and he hopes that will be his ticket out. He used to write about the old days, too, but not anymore.
"There's a lot of stuff here that will get you if you look back," he says. "These folks don't care."
The Watsons now reside in a modest ranch house with a bright white front door at the end of a long, sloping driveway, surrounded by leafy trees. A barbecue grill and a rocking chair adorn the wide wooden porch. The neighboring houses are barely visible.
Deann took classes and worked nearly 300 hours of community service to qualify for the house. When she got off work at her full-time job, she'd spend the next few hours volunteering at a homeless shelter. On weekends, she helped build two other Habitat homes in the neighborhood. There were four built in all. Hers was the last.
Deshaun was too small to handle any big jobs, but he remembers hammering nails and lugging lumber across a work site. When the walls were finally framed and the layout came into focus in their new home, Watson dragged his mother though the half-built hallways and into the middle of the three bedrooms along the front wall. "This one's mine, Mama," he said. In the old apartment, Watson shared a room with his two brothers -- bunk beds along one wall, a single mattress on the other. Now, he had a space all his own.
The day the Watsons moved in was a blur. It was late November, two days before Thanksgiving, and as they drove up to the house they saw a host of television cameras. It was cold, and they were excited.
They'd expected a modest ceremony and the keys to a vacant house. Instead, they arrived to find NFL star Warrick Dunn waiting to welcome them. His charity, which partners with Habitat for Humanity, had furnished the house with a sofa and chairs, a television and a computer. They stocked the cabinets with food and provided a lawn mower for upkeep.
The family hadn't planned to stay that first night in their new home, but now there was food and furniture and a life they were eager to start. They spent most of that night just wandering from room to room, doubling back for a second and third look at each gift they'd been given. And when the excitement finally dissipated, Watson fell asleep in the middle room along the front of the house on a bed purchased by an NFL star.
This week, Dunn shuffled through his notes to find details of a welcome ceremony he remembers only vaguely. The file marked "Watson" tells the story of a woman who, like his own mother, was struggling to raise a family and simply needed a helping hand. It includes pictures of the little boy in the dark jeans and black sweatshirt, grinning nervously at the sight of an NFL player. That boy would grow up to become a Heisman Trophy candidate, hoping to share those same gifts with others. It's what Dunn calls "the trickle-down effect" of charity.
Dunn then pulls up a picture of Deshaun Watson today, and he's amazed.
"He's got a few inches on me," said Dunn, a diminutive former running back. "He's a giant."
Three buses roll to a stop in the church parking lot across from where the Tigers are set to work another Habitat build. Watson is the first to emerge. A clamoring crowd snaps pictures, and Alisa Webb whispers to her 12-year-old son, Trenton, "That's Deshaun Watson."
The entire Clemson team is on hand to build two new houses in this Anderson neighborhood -- one of which will belong to Alisa and Trenton -- but Watson is the star. He poses for photos, signs autographs and gives myriad interviews with local media.
He stretches work gloves over his hands but can hammer only a few nails before another reporter or neighbor or fan interrupts to ask for some time. He always has more to give.
Watson doesn't particularly enjoy being in front of the camera, but this is his job now. He tells his story again and again because he knows there are people who need to hear it.
"We all have to embrace our own journey," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says. "Deshaun was gifted with an incredible platform, and he's using it."
In the midst of clacking hammers and whirring power tools, a young boy spots Watson. He has ripped half a page from a pink-and-purple notepad labeled "Leadership Notebook" that his older sister carries, hoping to gather autographs from Clemson players. This would be the prize. He stands paralyzed, pen in hand, waiting to catch eyes with the star quarterback.
Eventually his sister slaps him on the back and takes command of the situation.
"Mr. Watson," she yells. Clemson's biggest star looks up and grins. He stoops for a picture and scribbles his name on the scrap of paper. The boy beams, scampering back to show his father. Watson stretches the gloves over his hands again and goes back to work.
A house can change a life, of course, but it doesn't always take that much. That's the thing about Habitat, Watson says. It's not just the house that set him on this path. It's the hope that came with it, the chance to dream a little bigger. That's what he wants to share.
"I know where I was before, and I know where I want to go," Watson says. "I'm not afraid of who I am."