Watson turns hometown Gainesville purple, orange

The long back table at the Longstreet Cafe can be a rough place at high noon.

If you’re going to join the ROMEOs — Retired Old Men Eating Out — you better be wearing your cup. They show no mercy when the talk turns to politics or Georgia football or, most of all, each other.

And, so, the introductions went something like this when a stranger pulled up a chair: That’s Bradley, the best third-string tackle ever at Gainesville High School (class of 1955). Bob over there used to be sheriff — he still packs, but, they joke, he’s allowed to carry only one bullet, Barney Fife-style. Wayne here was the AD over at Gainesville High until they just got tired of him.

But when the topic was Deshaun Watson, whose likeness overlooked them from a framed Sports Illustrated cover on the wall, all needling ceased.

These crusty souls turned plush toy soft on the Clemson quarterback/Heisman finalist/son of Gainesville. They began pulling out their cellphones and calling up photos of themselves with Watson, as if showing off pictures of a grandchild.

“I told people a long time ago he was the best high school player I ever saw,” Mickey Long declared.

“Just a fine young man,” Bradley Lawson said. He’s a huge fan. When the Dec. 14 SI featuring Watson on the cover sold out in Gainesville in a heartbeat, Lawson leaned on his son-in-law in Atlanta to send him a keepsake copy.

Make no mistake, this is the maw of Georgia Bulldogs territory, where the high school team’s “G” logo matches exactly that of the college team a little more than 40 miles away.

And so, as a town celebrates one of its own, watching with pride as Watson leads No. 1 Clemson to a New Year’s Eve semifinal game with Oklahoma, it also asks itself somewhat ruefully, “What if …?”

Asked if the pleasure of watching Watson this season had been tinged with any regret that he wasn’t throwing for 3,512 yards and rushing for another 887 for Georgia, ROMEO ringleader Ron Clary said, “There’s a lot of it on my part. An awful lot.” The G on his fleece was a Georgia one.

Who knows precisely how the decision of a single player may shift the fates of two power programs? Back at Gainesville High, Watson’s former offensive coordinator, Michael Perry, will tell you that Mark Richt would still be in Athens rather than Coral Gables had the Bulldogs not blown it on this particular player.

Instead, the citizens of Gainesville suspend their preference for red and black whenever Clemson plays, and try to come to grips with the combination of purple and orange. “It’s amazing how everyone puts the Georgia-Clemson rivalry aside and it’s all because of Deshaun,” Perry, himself a Georgia grad, said. “It would be that way even if he went to Georgia Tech.”

While Georgia concentrated all of its recruiting efforts on a young quarterback from Camden County in south Georgia — Brice Ramsey — at the other end of the state Clemson was on Watson from the time he was a freshman.

By the time he was entering his sophomore season, Watson already had been to a Clemson camp, been offered a scholarship and set his mind to play there. The Tigers staff remained relentless, regardless of the season (Watson, naturally, was a multi-sport guy).

“Dabo (Swinney, Clemson head coach) or Chad (Morris, then the Tigers OC) would show up at a basketball game and sit in Row 1 behind the bench,” said the former AD at Gainesville, Wayne Vickery (yes, another Georgia grad). “Any timeout, who do you think Deshaun was seeing?”

The Bulldogs got in on the hunt as Watson developed into an all-everything, championship quarterback. But the courtship was much too late to have any affect. After watching another of its native quarterbacks spin off in a direction other than Athens — Blake Sims to Alabama — Gainesville paid grudging witness to Watson leaving for Clemson.

The extremes of 2015 speak to the aftershocks.

At Georgia they just spent a season in quarterback purgatory (which may be remedied with the coming of Jacob Eason). Caught short at the most important position, the most tenured coach in the SEC was fired.

Meanwhile, at Clemson they just went undefeated. They are the top-seeded team in the second college playoff. And its quarterback just returned from a whirlwind trip to New York where he made the Heisman main stage but fell short of the trophy. Just a sophomore, Watson has at least one more season to improve his standing in the big bronze sweepstakes.

The Tigers have in Watson a player of immense popularity, whose talent is accompanied by the full menu of preferred personality traits.

The guy is adored by coaches past and present.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to coach someone like that. A better kid than a player,” said Bruce Miller, Gainesville High’s head football coach.

At Clemson, Swinney will take inventory of his guy’s qualities and rank at the top one that has nothing to do with arm strength or agility. “His poise, that might be his greatest attribute,” Swinney said. “The poise that he has in all situations. He just gets it. He has a great understanding for the platform he has. He embraces it and has fun with it. He does not get overwhelmed at all.”

And never question the affection of his teammates.

“I tell him I love him a lot during a game; I’ll give him 15 I-love-yous during a game,” center Jay Guillermo said.

Watson grew up hard in Gainesville, his mother eventually moving the family into a Habitat for Humanity home (with former Falcon Warrick Dunn supplying some of the furniture). The size of his life never determined the size of his dreams. When in high school, Watson committed his goals to paper, and those included winning a national championship and a Heisman. And here he is so temptingly close to so much of that.

“I knew I had the mindset, and I wasn’t going to allow myself to fall short of those goals,” Watson said last week. “I always put high expectations on myself and try to make sure I try to achieve those goals.”

The new year will begin with the ROMEOs gathering at the Longstreet, talking Clemson football, breaking down the Oklahoma game.

Discussion concerning Georgia’s Jan. 2 Taxslayer Bowl date with Penn State likely will be subdued. They certainly won’t be spending much time on the quarterback the Bulldogs favored over Watson. Ramsey may make his greatest impact as a punter.

There’s a footnote even to that aspect. Back when he was still coming up through the Gainesville High feeder program, Watson was told he might have to quick-kick on occasion. Miller took him aside and gave him a two-minute tutorial on punting. The middle-school Watson then kicked it 40 yards his first time. He went on to do all the punting for Gainesville.

Yeah, laments Gainesville’s Georgia base, the Bulldogs might have missed out on a very good emergency kicker, too.