A year ago, almost to the day, I watched in very real despair as confetti fell on the Alabama Crimson Tide yet again. They had just defeated the Clemson Tigers 45-40 to earn the title of National Champions. The grief I experienced didn’t come solely from my absolute hatred of Nick Sa(tan)ban, the University of Alabama, and all that they stand for, though that did admittedly play a part. No, I was devastated because I had just watched Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson give everything he possibly could against the 3rd ranked defense in the nation, he broke Vince Young’s title game record with 478 total yards, and come up just short. A couple weeks before he had come up just short in Heisman voting as well, placing third behind Alabama running back Derrick Henry and Stanford utility player Christian McCaffrey.
If you have ever taken interest in any kind of sport, competition, or really just life in general, then you know what it is to see someone you were rooting for be disappointed. It feels like a part of you withers and dies, never again to experience true joy. So after seeing a young man who, in my eyes, deserved every accolade in the college football world be denied his due, I couldn’t understand his gracious attitude towards defeat. He handled every situation with humility, perspective, and most importantly, belief. This approach didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, the guy who threw his TV remote across the room when the Patriots lost to the Jets in their 2010 divisional-round matchup. Back to the point, I had to know what kept Watson so grounded in such heartbreaking defeat.
Before we get to that, allow me to sprinkle in a quick story, much like that guy who cuts up meat really fancy and then sprinkles salt like a magician. Three years ago when I was just 20 years old (I’m only 22 now, don’t get ahead of yourself. I’m a summer baby) a mentor of mine told me about a school he wanted me to volunteer at. The Monarch School in downtown San Diego, where I was born and raised, serves youth who are impacted by homelessness. That means they are either homeless right this very second, have been homeless recently, or are in one of a myriad living situations that makes everyday life very difficult. I began volunteering at this school and within seven months I was offered a job because being a reliable and hardworking person is truly the key to life. So anyway, here I am at 20 years old and I’ve just been hired as a P.E. teacher at this school for homeless kids. As a teacher and then an afterschool coordinator and eventually an assistant to the athletic director as well, I quickly found out how tough it is for these youths (“youths everywhere” – Schmidt) to be student-athletes with such a crippling lack of stability in their lives.
So remember that guy we were talking about before, Deshaun Watson, the actual subject of this article? Well after a little bit of research (not a whole lot, honestly. everything is on the internet these days) I discovered that as a kid, Watson and his family of a single mother and three other siblings were given a fully-furnished home through a partnership between former NFL star Warrick Dunn and Habitat for Humanity. Before receiving the home, the entire family crammed into a tiny apartment where they and their belongings were never safe. Deshaun cites the day in 2006 when he received a home to call his own – and his very own room to go with it – as one of the most impactful moments in his life. This story also revealed to me that Deshaun was 11 years old in 2006, the same age as a certain Editor-in-Chief of a certain semi-semi-professional sports publication. This probably means that my window for great achievements has passed me by seeing as how Watson just won a National Championship and I played all of one snap in high school, but ya know whose keeping score anyway?
Again, I digress. There are a lot of superstars in the world of sports who skyrocketed from poverty to celebrity in a matter of seconds, many of them idolized by the students I serve every day, but as an almost parent-like figure I search for a different type of role model — a guy like Deshaun Watson who was simply given an opportunity for stability and turned it into legend. I’ve spent plenty of time, usually during meetings when things like “safety procedures” are being discussed, wondering what a kid like Jasmine could do with that kind of opportunity. Jasmine is a junior in high school, Monarch itself is a K-12 school, with natural talent as both a basketball and volleyball player. Earlier this season Jasmine showed up to basketball practice without the proper shoes because the tent she was living in had been “turned”, which means the police had discarded it along with all of her belongings inside while she was at school. Could Jasmine earn a scholarship to play at the next level if she had a home to go back to?
In the year between Deshaun Watson’s devastating defeat to Alabama and his redeeming victory this past Monday, I told anyone who would listen that he would be back. I had every confidence that he would lead his team back to the National Championship, Heisman trophy or not, and claim his rightful place as champion. As much as I loved Watson as a player and recognized his obvious talent, I needed him to be back. His story couldn’t end in dissatisfaction because too many of the three hundred-or-so stories I was a part of every day already did. I needed him to show me that glory was possible for someone like Jasmine with so little control over the circumstances she is charged with overcoming.
When it was time to leave work on Monday I made sure to remind my co-workers about the game, “Deshaun’s gonna do it tonight”, I said. Huddled around the TV at my buddy Mark’s house, everyone admitted that they were pulling for Watson and the Tigers, but expected Alabama to prevail in the end. Not me. Even after Alabama went up by 10 points in the third quarter, I just kept repeating that “Deshaun would do it”, “Deshaun won’t lose this game”, “Deshaun’s gonna make it happen”. Every hard hit he took, every pass that fell incomplete, every time Alabama scored, Watson shook off each setback and continued to lead his team with an almost otherworldly calm.
Finally, Bama quarterback Jalen Hurts ripped off a 30-yard touchdown run to give the Tide the lead, 31-28, with only two minutes left in the game. The tension in the room, and in every room where fans were watching one of the greatest title games in history, had mounted to a heart-pounding stress. Ever the sports journalism major (I was enrolled in Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism for a whole two weeks), I thought aloud that, “Deshaun must have dreamed of this his whole life. Two minutes left, down by three to Alabama in the National Championship. This is his moment. He’s gonna do it”. Watson, of course, led his team down the field and threw the game-winning touchdown with just one second left to play. The confetti fell, I jumped off of Mark’s couch, and Deshaun lifted the trophy I had waited a year to see him attain.
Deshaun Watson will probably never know my name, who I am, or that I even exist. He may never cross the paths of any of my students and they may never realize what he accomplished, given that they are primarily soccer enthusiasts. But for this young P.E. teacher struggling to stay hopeful for kids who are surrounded by so much despair, Deshaun gave me a reason to believe.
Unfortunately, the reality is that every time I look a child in the eye, pissed off high-schooler or bright-eyed kindergartener, I’m not always telling the truth when I say it’s going to be okay. For every kid that will drop out or disappear, fall into drugs or decide that the streets have more to offer than education, Deshaun Watson gave me hope that one, just one of them, would receive the kind of opportunity he was given. The chance to stop worrying about who might steal their soccer cleats, whether they would eat dinner that night or even if the border they cross every day to get to school would be closed. Watson holding that trophy on Monday night meant that it’s possible for these students to triumph over their unfair circumstances and unlock the potential I see in every one of them. So even though you might never see this, thank you, Deshaun.