Nov. 22, 2002
By Ken Kleppel
Sometimes a simple gesture as a freshman can tell the entire story or act as a sign of things to come.
As a freshman in the fall of 1999, Irish linebacker Courtney Watson watched patiently as a reporter interviewed fellow freshman Gerome Sapp. Deciding the time was ripe to make his name known, and before Sapp was able to finish his answer, Watson promptly leaned in, playfully grabbed the microphone away and proclaimed, “Courtney Watson is the greatest!”
“Maybe it just comes natural or maybe it comes from always being a part of conversation between friends and other people, but I’m not really afraid to speak my mind,” says Watson.
Candid by his own admission, Watson goes by several names today.
The most glaring moniker is playmaker. In the 2002 campaign alone, Watson has provided the Irish defense with an impressive array of timely contributions. His third-quarter interception of a Chris Rix-pass led to what would later prove to be the game-winning score at Florida State. An interception in the waning seconds against Navy helped preserve Notre Dame’s 39-game winning streak against the Midshipmen.
You can also call him team captain. Watson has held the honor, appointed by the coaching staff on a weekly basis, on three occasions this season.
The Observer, Notre Dame’s student newspaper, dubs him “Senator Watson.” As Zahm Hall’s favorite son, Watson serves as the residence hall’s representative to the Notre Dame Student Senate and, in that role, works closely with the University’s administration. Each Wednesday night after the senate meeting, he watches NBC’s West Wing, to boot.
One can describe him as superstitious. Watson typically follows the same, patterned routine – from meal to dress – throughout game week.
Finally, you can name him a finalist for the Dick Butkus Award, given to the nation’s outstanding linebacker along with Maryland’s E.J. Henderson and Oklahoma’s Teddy Lehman. Watson leads the team in tackles with 81, including 44 solo, eight tackles for loss, three sacks and three interceptions despite missing the first two games of the season due to a severe viral infection.
Like the award’s namesake, one would think the Sarasota, Fla., native must be defined by an uninhibited mean streak.
“I see him (Butkus) as a toothless, nasty linebacker – a take no prisoners type of player,” says Watson.
“He is a leader on the field and a football guy. He does nothing but try to punish a person on the other side of the line of scrimmage.”
Looks like you could even call him football historian, too.
Regardless, Watson offers a sharp contrast to those lasting images associated with Butkus’ hall-of-fame career. With his affable personality and contagious smile – and even a full complement of teeth – Watson easily lights up the room.
But Watson points to the ability to punish an opponent and leadership as two give-away similarities.
“As far as punishing another opponent, I think we are aggressive in the same types of ways,” says Watson.
“And the mentality – I try hard to be a leader on the field.”
In using speed and agility, not just size, to thwart opposing offenses, both Butkus and Watson also have a penchant for the unexpected.
“Courtney is deceptive,” says senior defensive end Darrell Campbell.
“He may not be jumping up and down, hooting and hollering, but once the play starts you feel that first sting and you look up and it’s Courtney going crazy. I think to myself ‘I didn’t see that coming, did you guys?’ He’s just a really deceptive type of player.”
In fact, few are able to see Watson coming, who at 6-1 and 235 pounds is considered undersized for his position. An even slimmer minority could have predicted his emergence on the national scene.
Playing without a position as a freshman in 1999, Watson, who was a running back in high school, converted to linebacker in time for 2000 spring drills. He replaced All-American Anthony Denman in his first career start at linebacker and promptly responded with a career-best 18-tackle performance against Nebraska in Lincoln in the 2001 season opener.
As a senior in 2002, Watson registered an interception return for a touchdown against Stanford by stealing the ball away from Cardinal receiver Alex Smith before the wideout was able to put the ball away. Watson promptly returned the takeaway 34 yards for the put-away Irish score with a very Butkus-like forced turnover.
Yet in a defense that is characterized by its wide-range of personalities, both on and off the field, it is not illusiveness that enables Watson to carve his own niche among Irish defensive standouts. Rather, he does so through personality.
“He gets you going, gets you pumped up,” says Campbell.
“He’s a real fiery type of guy. You may not think that because his demeanor is kind of calm before the game—he is usually laughing and joking around. I ask him sometimes if [the opponents] are going to feel Courtney Watson today, and he responds ‘Yeah, they’re going to feel Courtney Watson today.’ So you know he’s ready to go. He just plays naturally out there and has fun.”
Watson’s role is best drawn out through a position-by-position run-down of the diverging personas that makeup the Irish defense.
Cornerback Shane Walton is the legislator – the unit’s spokesman. Cornerback Vontez Duff is the athletic specimen – the only player in Irish history to return an interception, punt, and kickoff for touchdowns in the same season. Sapp is the intellectual leader – his strong play and even stronger head guide the secondary. Free safety Glenn Earl is the classic enforcer – an aggressive style has led to an alarming rise in ‘alligator arms’ among Irish opponents this season.
How about Watson?
“I would describe him as being more of the senator that he is,” says Sapp.
“He’s a guy that will line everybody up from the start. If you’re not lined up where you need to be, he will force the law down on you to get you where you need to be.”
From on-campus senator to on-field playcaller, Sapp’s description is on target.
“I just try to balance off everybody else,” says Watson.
“We have a lot of personalities in the secondary – we have a lot of people yapping and stuff like that. I try to keep it even keel and keep us pointed in the right direction. I just try to moderate- it’s not like I’ll go around and parade and politic and anything like that in the huddle. For instance, if Shane [Walton] is talking too much, I tell Shane to be quiet.” This time, Walton gets a word in edgewise.
“Courtney is the straight-ahead leader,” admits Walton.
“On the exterior he doesn’t seem like that, but he gets down to business and that’s why everyone respects him.”
The team also respects the personal growth that has, in part, defined his Notre Dame journey. Turning away schools within a car’s drive from his native Sarasota, Watson held firm that his ideal school would help him develop as a person, and not just in football. He got his wish.
“I chose this type of university because it will help me grow as a person and I think it’s done that,” says Watson.
“It helps you grow up and gives you responsibilities that I don’t know you have at other places. It’s just a byproduct of what goes on at Notre Dame.”
“We joke a lot with him about him really changing his whole persona as he has matured,” says senior nose guard Cedric Hilliard with a smile.
“He certainly is more of a senator now than he was when he first got here. Back then he was more of an anti-senator. Maybe even a rebel. Now, he’s a little more conformed.” Watson’s off-the-field contributions are anything but conforming. Time and again, Watson extends himself beyond the normal call of duty.
During this past offseason, Watson approached Notre Dame’s Coordinator of Student Development Eric Guerra to design an event that would build team chemistry and simultaneously serve the needs of the greater South Bend community.
In an effort to utilize the diverse perspectives and unique talents of his teammates, Watson and the Irish joined forces with South Bend’s St. Joseph Public Library to host a program that incorporated children’s interests in reading, writing, music and art.
More than 100 local youth attended the inaugural event that, judging by the smiles on the children’s faces, was a complete success.
“I think the way in which Courtney Watson conducts himself on and off the field, that’s just a pure representation of an individual who can definitely show you the way in which you should go,” says sophomore linebacker Brandon Hoyte.
While Hoyte refers to Watson’s off-the-field exploits, he could have easily pointed towards Watson’s on-field influence.
As Watson sat out the Maryland and Purdue contests under the influence of a viral infection, Hoyte filled in admirably at the inside linebacker position. Boosting Hoyte’s confidence, Watson provided helpful insight to his understudy throughout the two-week period.
All part of that growth process.
“It comes from within him,” says senior center Jeff Faine.
“It’s him wanting to become a player, being successful and be the best at his position. He’s really striving to be that. He does so much for the team. It impresses me every day.”
“If anything, it is my energy that keeps me going and hopefully rubs off on the other guys when they get tired,” says Watson
If they’re a little down and things aren’t going our way, we need to have somebody step up and make a big play and I want that to be me. I take pride in the defense and what we accomplished thus far and what we can do in the future.”
Such a defining trait – the ability to lead by example – characterizes Watson in more ways than one.
“I think he has a great relationship with everyone on the team, everyone respects him,” says Hoyte.
“But at the same time, you have fun with him because he’s one of the guys. The fact there is no arrogance in Courtney Watson – that’s the reason why he’s able to perform at such a level. He understands that he is a team player, but yet still, we can all see in his actions on the football field there is definitely a spotlight shining.”
Although the spotlight shines bright, it suits Watson just fine.
“That’s what Notre Dame is, it has the best history and tradition in college football,” says Watson.
“If you have any pride in yourself as a player that’s something you want to affect when you leave here. So 15-20 years from now when you hear kids talking about the Gerome Sapp’s, the Carlyle Holiday’s, the Cedric Hilliard’s and the Jeff Faine’s, you want to be mentioned in the same breath with those guys.”
Of course, designate Courtney Watson to that list.
For the man who goes by many names, teammate may just be the most telling – he has grown into that role perfectly.
Then again, he told us all along.