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Courtney Watson: An all-around guy

Chris Federico | Friday, November 14, 2003

Last season, Courtney Watson was one of the leaders of a high-flying Irish defense that wreaked havoc on opposing offenses. The squad was known for its big hits and big plays in causing 33 turnovers and scoring five touchdowns on defense.

Playing in just 10 of Notre Dame’s 13 games that year, Watson led the team in tackles with 90 and had 10 tackles for loss in being named one of three finalists for the Butkus Award, given to the top linebacker in the country.

This year, the fifth-year senior Watson has already surpassed those marks for tackles in nine games and is again one of the nation’s leaders at his middle linebacker position.

But those numbers only tell part of the tale. While Watson will go down in Notre Dame lore as one of many standout linebackers, he has left an even longer lasting legacy with the University in his five years in South Bend.

Neo-Mr. Notre Dame

For much of his time with the Irish, Watson has been more than just a football player. In fact, he has broken the mold and shattered the stereotypical image of the “football jock” by serving as a leader both on the football field and off.

“You meet a lot of people outside of football and you get to meet new people and learn about people on more of a personal level – not necessarily as, ‘I’m Courtney Watson – football player, and you’re such and such,'” Watson said. “I think it really helps to break down those walls in between the people I’ve met and learn more about me than just a football player.”

Everyone knows that Watson is one of the undisputed leaders of the football Irish – he has served as game day captain already four times for the Irish this season.

But not everyone may be aware of Watson’s dedication to his fellow students at Notre Dame. Last year, the then-Zahm Hall senior decided to run for hall senator and was elected by a commanding 70 percent margin by his fellow Zahmbies.

“[Running for senator] was something I did that turned out to be a very good situation for me,” Watson said. “I learned a lot from it, and it helped me get more involved in being just a regular student.”

Watson has made a point to try to experience all Notre Dame has to offer an not fall into the mold of being “just a football player.”

“I think to get the most out of college that this is the best situation to be in,” Watson said. “If you want to go to college and just play ball, that’s fine. But this may not be the place for you. If you want to become a better person, this is the right place for you, because I think they do a very god job of trying to incorporate that into everyday life here and try to break down those walls and barriers between student-athletes and students.”

Like many other students, Watson has learned a valuable lesson from his experiences in campus life and in campus politics – stay out of the political world.

“I don’t think [I would like it],” he said with a laugh. “The way politics have been going right now, it’s too much pressure. I’ve been in some high pressure situations with football, but I don’t know if I could deal with all of that.”

Put him on either side

Like many players in college football today who were too athletically skilled to be wasted on the defensive side of the ball in high school, Watson began his career with the Irish on offense.

“I think it’s common everywhere, just because a lot of times in high school they put the best guys in position to make the play for the team, so you have a lot of defensive players who are playing offense,” Watson said. “I think that’s just the way it is when you don’t have as much talent on one particular team in high school as you do on college, where someone can play more of a natural position for that individual person. In high school, you have to try to get the ball to the best athlete on your team, whether he plays offense or defense.”

Watson was recruited out of Sarasota, Fla., as a star running back who racked up over 2,500 yards rushing and 25 touchdowns in his junior and senior seasons combined. But when he got to Notre Dame in 1999, the lack of depth behind Irish middle linebacker Anthony Denman had then-coach Bob Davie looking for anyone to fill in that position in the years to come.

The freshman tailback from Florida – whom many coaches thought had the body frame to grow into a defensive player – was tabbed for the assignment.

Four years later, Davie is looking like a genius – at least in one area – as Watson has developed into one of the premier linebackers in the country. Watson has recorded 267 tackles over his career and has led the team in that category the past two seasons.

“I’m happy I changed. I’ve taken to this position and have tried to make myself as good as I can be at this position,” Watson said of his switch to linebacker. “I think I’ve had a pretty good career here, so I’m very happy about the change, and I don’t think it could have gone any better”

Through good times and bad

If there’s one thing that Watson has a lot of after nearly five years with the Irish, it’s experience. That makes him nearly invaluable as a senior leader on a team with a lot of young talent.

In his career, Watson’s gone through just about everything you can imagine. He’s struggled through a position change from offense to defense at the early part of his career. He’s waited patiently for his time to get into the game behind older athletes.

“You see the team struggling and you think you can go out there and help,” Watson said of his own experiences at the beginning of his career. “But everybody has to wait their turn, and I think you just learn that as you become more mature and understand college football a little more.”

Over his five years, Watson has also witnessed first hand the extreme highs and lows that can come with winning and losing as Notre Dame.

He’s seen the good times and bad in Irish football ranging from Notre Dame’s 8-0 start last year and Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2000 to it’s current 3-6 season, a 5-6 finish in 2001, a 5-7 season as a freshman in 1999 and an alleged rape scandal that caused three players to leave the University and left a big hole in the team.

If anything, Watson hopes his knowledge and the things he has learned can be put to good use in the minds of the younger players coming up through the program now.

“I try to tell the guys that aren’t playing that it’s for a reason, and the coaches know best,” he said, of the advice he gives to younger players who are itching to get playing time just as he was as a freshman in 1999. “Maybe you could go out and perform to the same level as the guys out there, but the coaches have those guys out on the field for a reason. They’re going to do the best thing for the team and for yourself to get both you and the team developed.”

Even in Notre Dame’s current difficult season, Watson still feels a great sense of duty to the University he loves so much. He knows that even in his short remaining time here, he still has more to teach and more to learn.

“Right now, you just play for wins. You want to just put this team in a position to have some momentum for next year,” he said. “My goal is to get better as an individual, but at the same time, to help our team get better to win the next game that we have, then after that the next three games, and just try to end the season on a good note.”

If there’s one thing Watson can be positive about with all the things he’s seen in nearly five years at Notre Dame, it’s that the great Irish football tradition will not fade away any time soon.

“I see the program just going up,” Watson said. “I see coach [Tyrone] Willingham staying here and getting a good hold on the program and putting his touch to it and getting a lot of players in here. I see the system just taking off and getting back to the glory days.”