Sept. 11, 2001
By Samantha Carruth
In 1997 after a stellar career in both football and baseball, T.J. Watkins, the starting catcher of the North Augusta High School baseball team, was drafted in the late ninth round in the professional baseball draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Today after four years of hard work on and off the football field and three different position changes, the senior Watkins looks back and does not regret his decision he made four years ago to give up his baseball career.
“I planned on playing baseball in college,” Watkins said. I loved it in high school and it was my favorite sport, way over football. I miss it now, but I do not regret deciding to play football over baseball.”
Watkins, a first team offensive guard, grew up in North Augusta, a small town on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River from Augusta, GA. It was in his hometown where he was groomed into a true southerner with all the southern qualities including a country drawl, a love for country music, a passion for the outdoors and sports.
Growing up with a dad who played on the defensive line at The Citadel influenced Watkins, a Tom Lemming and SuperPrep All-American in high school, to play sports including football, baseball and basketball. Watkins remembers traveling down to the historic city of Charleston to attend The Citadel’s homecoming each year as a child. “We always came up to homecoming games at The Citadel,” said Watkins. “I would always wear the entire football attire.”
Not only did his dad influence his decision to play high school football, but growing up in North Augusta, one of many small towns in South Carolina where football is the thing to do on Friday nights, impacted his decision to play football.
“When we went out and had fun in North Augusta we usually went down to the river and went fishing or floated on the river. There isn’t much to do there, but on Friday nights everyone is at the football game. People in the town are football fanatics down there. It is a big part of the community.”
Just like most high school athletes, Watkins went from sport to sport as each season ended. During the spring and summer, the Blue Chip Athlete, would spend most of his time on the baseball diamond. In 1997 Watkins helped lead North Augusta’s baseball team to a South Carolina Region 4A state title, the first state title at North Augusta High School since 1947.
Even though baseball was his first love, Watkins planned on furthering his education unless he was drafted in the first round of the baseball draft.
“I could not see myself at the age of 18 being a businessman in the baseball league. I was not ready to give up football just yet,” he said.
Watkins made plans to attend Clemson as a freshman tight end where he would play football in the fall and in the spring possibly play baseball. It was the small country town atmosphere lured Watkins to Clemson. “I am not a big-city person and I could not stand living any place bigger than this.”
Watkins, a 2001 preseason second-team All-ACC choice by The Sporting News, arrived in Tigertown as a tight end. Watkins and offensive guard Will Merritt were placed in the same dorm room in Mauldin Hall with center Kyle Young next door. These three Tigers from South Carolina formed a friendship that has lasted throughout their years at Clemson. Not only has their friendship grown with time, but each of these offensive lineman have watched the others grow in football and grow personally.
After red-shirting his freshman season, Watkins became the first-team tight end. He started four games and played in all 11. His big play of the year was against N.C. State when he had a 34-yard catch. Watkins was looking forward to the 1999 season, Coach Tommy Bowden’s first season with the Tigers. Coach Bowden and his fast pace offense included a passing game for tight ends. During preseason two-a-days, Watkins was moved to left tackle to bolster an offensive line that did not return a starter for the first time since 1943.
“I thought maybe I had done something wrong, but the coaches explained to me why they were moving me and what they thought needed to be done. I just wanted to play no matter what position I was playing.”
Despite having to learn a new position, Watkins was looking forward to the change. “I had to adjust to the physical nature of playing the offensive line. I went from playing 30 snaps a game to the entire game, so there is not much to complain about. The biggest change was re-learning pretty much the whole offense and learning the defenses more,” said Watkins.
Watkins battled injuries most of the 1999 season, but the injuries did not keep him sidelined in during the Tigers’ 12 games. However, along with the injuries came Watkins’ frustration.
“I had to overcome the injuries and learning a new position. It was hard mentally because I was trying to fight two things at one time and I did not feel like I could do it. I felt like I was not playing to the best of my ability, but I had to fight through it and play my role as a team player.”
Watkins has never given less than 100 percent when he is on the field and his love for the game is evident when you watch him play. During the 2000 season Watkins was moved to tackle. He had a consistent season, grading between 68 and 72 percent in nine of 12 games. His best game was against Duke with a grade of 77 percent and a career-high 16 knockdown blocks, which earned him the Army ROTC Offensive Take No Prisoners Award for his knockdown blocks. Watkins love for football was evident during the South Carolina game in November when he played 53 snaps despite suffering from the flu.
Since arriving in Tigertown in 1997 Watkins has beefed up. When he changed position in 1998 he joined the smallest offensive line in the Atlantic Coast Conference. While playing left tackle his sophomore season Watkins weighed in at 257 pounds and now at 6-foot-3 he weighs in at 292 pounds. The only concern of Watkins is that he feels he is not as fast as he was at one time, but being able to eat more of his favorite meal, steak and baked potato, was definitely a benefit. “I am now close to 300 pounds and it bothers me because I am not as fast as I was, but I have maintained some speed from playing tight end my freshman year,” said Watkins.
Watkins has worked extremely hard in the weight room as well and showed tremendous leadership qualities since joining the offensive line. The pride and initiative he takes in improving himself has gained him the respect of teammates and coaches.
“His weight gain can be credited to hard work and dedication,” said strength coach Joey Batson. “He is a blue collar guy that comes to work everyday and gives you a full day’s work, clocks out and takes care of himself at home.”
The preseason second-team All-ACC choice might be one of the most laid back players on the team. Watkins is known for listening to country singer Merle Haggard before football games. While most players listen to rap or heavy metal to energize them before the beginning of games, Watkins would rather listen to Haggard and relax before the start of a game.
“I would rather go into a game relaxed and concentrate on my role during the game. I do not want to start the game that intense.” However, when the game starts Watkins is focused on his duties and becomes a whole different person than he is on the sideline and locker room.
The intensity Watkins shows on the field is seen by fans, teammates and coaches. “T.J. is a very intense person and takes a lot of pride in doing things right,” said Offensive line coach Ron West. “You want your offensive lineman to be very disciplined and very intense and he is that kind of football player.
Watkins, a member of LIFE LINE, the team’s leadership organization, is a very unique student-athlete. The offensive lineman is one of three graduates on the offensive line and he is one of two married linemen. After receiving his degree from Clemson in marketing in May 2001, Watkins married his high school sweetheart. The newlyweds dated in high school and maintained a long distance relationship the past four years.
The most unique characteristic about Watkins, is his love for rodeos. Two years ago he started team roping after hearing about it from Tony Bullock, the husband of assistant athletic trainer Donna Bullock. The art of team roping involves one guy roping the head of the cattle, while the other guy ropes the feet. Just the mention of a rodeo brings a huge grin to Watkins’ face. He has not been a part of a rodeo quite yet, but Watkins hopes in the near future to participate after more practice at team roping.
“I have been a rodeo fanatic since the first day I started (attending Clemson). I attend some of the rodeo club events that go on at the Garrison Arena in Pendleton,” said Watkins. “Team roping is something different than everything else. It is definitely hard, but it’s worthwhile because it is fun.”
Watkins is currently pursuing another degree at Clemson in construction management. He would like to start building houses on his own on day. However, his ultimate dream is to play in the NFL. Watkins remembers looking at his father’s articles from college and letters from pro teams when he was growing up. His father could have played in the professional league, but did not want to.
“I do not know what else I would do without football because I have played it almost my entire life,” said Watkins. “You grow up as child watching the guys on television and say that is what I want to do.” Watkins draws some inspiration watching Carolina Panthers offensive lineman Matthew Campbell. Campbell, like Watkins is from North Augusta, and was a tight end when he played at South Carolina, before moving to the offensive line in the NFL.
“Campbell lived down the street from my family. I have looked at his career and where he has come from, which is very similar to my career.”
This season Watkins is starting at his third different position as a Clemson Tiger. The first team offensive guard hopes to remain healthy throughout his senior season and would love to have a 10 or more win season.
As Watkins looks back over his career as a Clemson Tiger, his most memorable moments will be meeting his teammates, Merritt and Young, and watching them mature not only as athletes, but as men.
Even though Watkins passed up on his dream to play baseball, his first love, he now has an opportunity to fulfill another lifetime dream, playing in the NFL. Watkins is considered a pro prospect this season because of his experience of playing different positions and also because of his size and strength. He might have given up the opportunity to play baseball, but he still supports the Clemson baseball team, by attending all of the home games during baseball season.
With the dedication and pride T.J. Watkins demonstrates on the football field, he will definitely have a promising future. He will never regret the decision he made four years ago when he gave up the baseball diamond, but Watkins could soon reap from the benefits of giving up one dream to pursue another with a possibility of one day playing in the NFL.
Samantha Carruth is from Landrum, SC and is a first-year graduate assistant in the Clemson Sports Information Office.
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