PHOENIX (AP) — Deshaun Watson will always remember the day he walked into a home he could call his own. It was just before Thanksgiving in 2006, a rather brisk day in the suburbs north of Atlanta.
Former NFL star Warrick Dunn was standing at the door, waiting to hand Watson's family the key to a whole new life.
Watson, who was 11 at the time, burst through the front stoop and headed straight down the hall to his new bedroom.
"I felt grown having my own room," Watson recalled Saturday. "Just having my own bed, not really being squished, not really worrying about someone sneaking up on me, it was a great moment, a special moment."
When Watson takes the field Monday night, leading top-ranked Clemson against No. 2 Alabama in the national championship game, he'll be a star quarterback who lives in the moment but never forgets where he came from.
Watson's mother, Deann, raised four kids on her own, the early years spent huddled in a cramped apartment in Gainesville, Ga. One day, Deshaun brought home a note from Habitat for Humanity, laying out a path to home ownership. She jumped at the chance, and put in some 300 hours helping build new houses before they could move in.
When that day finally arrived — Nov. 21, 2006 — Dunn was there with a special surprise. Through his charitable foundation, the ex-running back had fully furnished the four-bedroom, two-bath home, right down to stocking the refrigerator.
"We just try to help put people in safer environments and give kids an opportunity," Dunn said. "You never know what impact you will have. You hope it's a positive impact."
It certainly was for Watson, his mother and his three siblings.
The ranch-style home, located at the bottom of a steep hill in an attractive middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Gainesville, was a haven that allowed them all to thrive. The kids could play in the large yard without Deann fretting over their safety. They could leave their bikes on the front porch without worrying about them being stolen.
Watson might have become one of the country's top players under any circumstances, but there's no downplaying how much it meant to have a real home.
That's just what Dunn had in mind when he started the "Home of the Holidays" program in honor of his single mother, a Baton Rouge policewoman who was killed in 1993 while working an off-duty security job. She died before she could save up enough money to buy her own house.
Dunn, who was 18, used the insurance money from his mother's death to buy a house for his siblings. But he quickly realized there was more to home ownership that just putting a roof over their heads.
"A lot of people might be able to apply for loans to get a home, but most people can't fully furnish a home. They go right back into debt," he said. "Yeah, it's the American dream, but it's not as simple as one-two-three. It's commitment. It's sacrifice. It's learning firsthand what it means to own a home and maintain a home."
For Dunn, the most important part is working with a group like Habitat for Humanity, which requires needy families to put in a substantial amount of sweat and toil before they move in. His charity supplements the home-building program by providing everything from furniture and appliances to lawn-care equipment and money for the down payment, to ensure the monthly payments are affordable.
"We're helping people who are helping themselves," Dunn said. "It's crazy how much pride people have when it's something they work for and not something they're given."
For Watson, it also means paying it forward. He continues to work with Habitat for Humanity, building homes in the summer, and his family is convinced he will make just as big an impact off the field as he does with a football in his hands.
"He remembers everything," said his aunt, Sonia Watson.
The Watson home looks much the same as it did the day Deann and her family moved in, except for the ever-increasing amount of trophies that fill nearly an entire wall of the living room.
"Everyone wants their own home," she said. "We have something that is ours."
Of course, life has a way of knocking you down after you've gotten up.
Some five years after she became a homeowner, Deann Watson was diagnosed with cancer. Her tongue had to be surgically removed, which meant she could no longer eat solid foods and her speech became difficult to understand. But she survived, her grit and courage providing another sturdy pillar for Deshaun to build upon.
"We're molded by our experiences in life," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "It so happened that, as a young person, he had to deal with a lot of things. More than anything, it gave him a very unique perspective on life and this game."
The walls of Watson's bedroom are covered with handwritten messages from his high-school days, beads, caps, pictures and dozens of plaques and certificates from an already stellar athletic career. His aunt points to her favorite memento — a framed copy of a newspaper article than hangs in the corner of the room, over the television.
It commemorates Watson leading Gainesville High School to a state championship.
"Deann was sick at the time," Sonia Watson recalled. "They said, 'We're gonna do this for your momma.' They went down there and, I mean, they done it!"
Now, Deshaun has a chance to lead another team to an even bigger championship.
"We're in it to win," his aunt said. "But no matter how it comes out, we're still winners."
AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org