by Alan Wasielewski
Courtney Watson loves to intercept passes. When asked to define his perfect play, intercepting a pass and running it back for a touchdown will be his quick response. As a senior in 2002, Watson was able to pick off four passes and has two interception returns for touchdowns in his career biography.
But when he first lined up as a starting inside linebacker for the Irish in 2001 at Nebraska, Watson was unable to even catch his breath, let alone intercept a pass, when the game started.
“I remember the first play of the game and how fast the game was,” Watson says. “I just remember that they snapped the ball, Eric Crouch ran and gained seven yards, and I didn’t even move. In my mind, it was like nothing happened, but they had run a play and it was second and three. Suddenly I was back in the defensive huddle.”
The future Butkus Award finalist and, one of the top 100 players in college football for 2003 according to ESPN.com, was unable to keep up with the action until late in the contest with the Cornhuskers. For someone seemingly out of his element, Watson eventually made a career-best 18 tackles in the game and was named the ABC/Chevrolet Most Valuable Player for Notre Dame in the contest.
Not bad for someone who had little confidence in himself heading into the game.
After running for over 2,500 career yards at Riverview High School in Sarasota, Fla., Watson entered Notre Dame as a running back/athlete. He spent the 1999 season as a freshman running back, defensive back and eventually a linebacker.
“There was a chance that I was going to be changed to another position,” Watson says.
“When I first came here, I was a running back for awhile. At no point in the recruiting process did they say ‘We want to move you to linebacker.'”
That call eventually came in January of 2000. It took the rookie by surprise.
“I weighted 205 pounds and they said, ‘Courtney, we are going to move you to linebacker,'” Watson recalls.
“I didn’t know much about defense and hadn’t played linebacker before in my life, but I knew that 205 pounds was not going to cut it. As soon as I heard about the switch, everything I had worked for that year was turned back. I was starting all over again. I had to totally reinvent my body and my understanding of the game of football.”
While Watson worked through the sudden change, he also wrestled with the decision that, according to him, many students at Notre Dame need to deal with.
“By coming to Notre Dame, a place that is so different from where I grew up, there are only two choices you can make,” Watson explains.
“You can take it and run with it, or you cannot accept it, rebel against it and not take advantage of the opportunities you have.”
Freshman year can be challenging for any student across America, let alone someone playing football under the Golden Dome and dealing with three position shifts. The academic load at Notre Dame that first year prepares you for the rest of your education and many classes assigned in the First Year of Studies do not coincide with the true interests of the students. Watson, who was also studying defense for the first time in his career, was becoming one of the rebels.
“I rebelled for awhile,” Watson says.
“I think what helped me was when I started to become more involved in playing on Saturday. Before that, I had all the reasons not to continue working and trying. Once things I wanted started to come true – getting more playing time, starting to study the things I wanted to study – I had to face up to it. I can’t complain about getting playing time, because I am playing. I can’t complain about taking philosophy classes because all my classes are now business classes. You reach a growing-up point. The way academics are structured here and the fact that, if you come in as a freshman football player, many of them, a very few, play during their freshman year. That gives you an opportunity to grow as well. That had something to do with my development.”
Watson would develop by leaps and bounds. He packed on extra weight to take the pounding a collegiate middle linebacker is required to endure. He saw playing time on special teams in 11 games in 2000, backing up All-American Anthony Denman.
He was still working on that confidence problem, however.
“When you are a back up, you are not the main concern while they are getting the defense ready during the week,” Watson says.
“So going into my junior year, into that Nebraska game, I didn’t have much confidence in myself. In practice, coaches will concentrate on the negatives. You never hear about the positives. All you get is negative feedback about everything you do. Obviously, positive things are happening, but you don’t talk about what you do right. You always talk about the negative and what you need to do right.”
After playing a whirlwind game at Nebraska, a game which Watson will not call his greatest at Notre Dame, he finally started to believe in himself.
“I think that first game is when I realized I could play the (middle linebacker) position,” Watson says.
“There was some foundation I could work from and understand.”
Too bad for Notre Dame’s opposition in 2001 and 2002. Watson has stacked up 166 tackles in the last two seasons, piled up 24 tackles for loss and sacked the quarterback five times. He ended up as one of the final three candidates for the Butkus Award in ’02, placing him among the nation’s elite at his position.
Watson also has lived his dream – not just playing at Notre Dame, but intercepting a pass and returning it for a touchdown. In keeping with his overachieving style, he has accomplished that goal not once, but twice. His first interception return for a touchdown came against Tennessee in 2001. He also ran back a 34-yard pick against Stanford last season.
Watson’s ability to make the big play comes from his football IQ leaping to genius levels. Against Nebraska in 2001, he was in a Yugo attempting to keep up with the supercharged Toyota’s and Chevy’s. Entering 2003, he is in one of those supercharged autos, passing everyone on the outside.
“From then up to now, the games have become like a walk through,” Watson says.
“It has slowed down for me. The change is unreal compared to what it was. Now, I can go to the sideline and the coach can ask me what happened and I will know exactly what occured. I see the whole picture and know everything that transpired during a play. Early in my career, I had tunnel vision. If you asked me what the tackle did on the last play, I would have no idea. The speed is much slower now than it was.”
Through the twists and turns in his career, Watson has seen it all at Notre Dame. He has appeared in a BCS bowl, but has also been a member of a 5-7 team in 1999 and a 5-6 squad in 2001. He was a key member of Notre Dame’s resurgent 10-3 record a year ago and made a memorable interception against his former favorite team, Florida State.
But does he consider himself a leader of the Irish football team?
“I am a leader because I have been here so long and gone through so much,” Watson says.
“I would say that about any fifth- or fourth-year guy. We have been through so much, the good and the bad.
“I try to lead by example. I am not an in-your-face, rah-rah type of player. I always try to help the freshman out if they have a problem or want to talk about something, but I am not a screamer.”
Watson is looking to make his fifth year the most memorable of an already noteworthy career at Notre Dame. The transformation from instinct-driven player in 2001 to one of the best linebackers in the nation is complete. With law school or the NFL on his mind for the future, what does he want people to say about Courtney Watson when his Notre Dame career is over?
“He was a great person, not a great football player,” Watson responds.
“He was part of one of the greatest defenses to ever come through Notre Dame. He was just a part of something special, not a star by himself.”