Being a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame is no Sunday stroll in the park. The rigors of classwork alone are enough to send students into fits of panic, not to mention all of the other demands and time restraints that go along with playing a varsity sport. Our Lady’s University excels at drawing the caliber of individuals who shine under this special brand of pressure. Courtney Watson was just this sort of student-athlete. Not only did he excel both on and off the field during his time at Notre Dame, he also spent an entire year serving on the student senate, representing his dorm Zahm Hall, as well as shining on the courts of Bookstore Basketball. Watson left Riverview High School in Sarasota, Florida as a standout running back, rushing for 1,220 yards on 133 carries and scored 15 touchdowns his senior year in high school, and went on to become one of the most productive linebackers during his time at Notre Dame. In Watson’s senior year at ND he led the team with 90 tackles in just 10 games, was named a first-team All-American by ESPN.com and was ranked as the 17th best middle linebacker nationally by The Sporting News which propelled him into a NFL career with the New Orleans Saints. This is Courtney Watson’s story.
Gold helmets and Touchdown Jesus
I wasn’t really interested in playing football at Notre Dame until I met Coach Urban Meyer. The only things I knew about ND were gold helmets and Touchdown Jesus. Coach Meyer took me through an education process of what Notre Dame is all about from the time I met him until the time I got there. Being from Florida, where a ton of kids go on to play football for a school in the state or at an SEC school, I decided to take a leap of faith and follow the opportunity that I was being offered by Notre Dame. I let my academics and football skills take me somewhere I normally would not have gone. I played both football and basketball in high school and the only time that I could get away to make my recruiting visit to Notre Dame was while the students were on winter break and barely anyone was on campus. My student host was Tony Fisher and I also spent time with Terrance Howard, Brock Williams and Jabari Holloway. I really hit it off with the guys on my recruiting visit. We were similar in a lot of ways. They told me if I came to Notre Dame I would walk away with a great college experience, I would be pushed academically to achieve success in the classroom, and that unlike many other schools Notre Dame did not have “football dorms” and the athletes were not separated from the rest of the student body. This was a big selling point for me but I didn’t completely realize this until I was a student at ND. By not spending all of your time with other football players you gain so many more collegiate experiences. You get a chance to make lifelong friends outside of this little bubble of football. That’s very rare at most big-time football schools. I was able to sit around my dorm, make friends with people who were different from me, from different parts of the country. They were interested in me and I was interested in them and they truly inspired me.
Watson’s peers and fellow dormmates were an inspiration to him. One of his favorite moments from his time at Notre Dame involves the overwhelming support his Zahm Hall classmates gave to him.
Off the top of my head the first thing that comes to mind is when I got to speak at the pep rally before the Michigan game (it was either my fifth year or my senior year). At the time I was on the student senate and my Zahm Hall guys were seated front and center at the pep rally. They all made signs with my headshot from the football program on them. There were 50 or 60 of them chanting “Senator Watson” through the whole pep rally… no matter who was speaking (including through Coach Willingham’s speech); until it was my turn to speak, of course, and then they got quiet. On the field my favorite memory would have to be playing (and beating) Florida State in Tallahassee. Being from Florida I had a ton of family and friends at the game and I also had an interception. To play that well, to beat FSU on their home turf, that was such a high for me and for the whole team. There were very few games that I remember being nervous before, having butterflies, and not being able to control my emotions. This was one of those games.
During his time at Notre Dame Watson played under two head coaches, Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham. A head coach change adds to the stressors already felt by a student-athlete at Notre Dame. This is where the Notre Dame Value Stream teaches student-athletes to be flexible and fluid and to learn to adapt with the changes placed in front of them. Student-athletes who can flow with great changes can achieve great success
The biggest difference that I noticed between the two coaches was their management styles. Coach Willingham was a delegator. His management style was looking at the big picture. He let his coaches do more of the teaching and day-to-day instruction. Once he and his staff decided on the game plan for the week and what we were going to be taught, he was a macro manager. Coach Willingham understood that there was much more to being Notre Dame’s head football coach than the day-to-day coaching.
Coach Davie was more of an X’s and O’s guy. He was very hands on in the every day process. Because of the Coach Davie style of “micro” managing there was a lot of back and forth and changes made to the game plan during the course of the week. Sometimes when you micro manage like that you can get tunnel vision on certain things and forget about everything else that needs to be done. Coach Davie was one of those mad scientist type of guys. You could lock him in a room for 12 hours and what he’d emerge with would be nothing short of brilliant… Coach Davie didn’t want to deal with all of the global head coaching responsibilities; all he wanted to do was coach football. Unfortunately there is much more to the job than just that. They were both able to get results. They each just went about it very differently.
Watson took advantage of many opportunities that Notre Dame had to offer, including participating in the esteemed tradition of Bookstore Basketball.
I participated in the Bookstore Basketball tournament for three years. My team won the tournament twice and we made it to the final four three times. Carlyle Holiday and Justin Tuck were both Division I basketball recruits (in addition to football) out of high school and neither one of them can say that. I loved playing Bookstore Basketball. I loved playing basketball growing up, even more so than playing football probably. I quit football for a while in high school to focus on basketball until my coach (who coached both teams) told me that I was an idiot and that I needed to go back and play football. Basketball was always my first love. I always played on a Bookstore Basketball team with guys in my dorm. It was never a super team, but we played all year round and had a really great time. We played a lot of pickup games at the Joyce Center together. It was really important to me to go out and play with the guys that I lived with. We built a great camaraderie living and playing ball together. Bookstore Basketball is such a remarkable thing — I love how the student body comes out to support all of the teams. It was a great way to end spring football and celebrate the arrival of spring on campus. I always explain to people how our dorms acted as our fraternities and sororities on campus.
In addition to participating in Bookstore Basketball, Watson also took advantage of yet another opportunity at Notre Dame which very few football players are able to participate in due to the level of time which must be devoted to it: Student Government.
Student Senate Representative
Prior to moving into Zahm Hall I heard a lot of bad stories about the dorm from some of the upperclassmen on the football team, but I absolutely loved living in Zahm. I loved my roommates. The guys were crazy and completely nuts, probably because everyone said the guys who lived in Zahm were crazy and nuts and they were trying to live up to the reputation. You know, the day before first semester finals start, the guys run through LaFortune and the second floor of the library wearing, um, bells. Yeah, those are Zahm guys. Not only were they crazy, but they voted for me to be their student senate representative. The year they voted me to the student senate they had a legitimate candidate; he had posters, gave speeches, was on the ballot. Then two days before the election my buddies convinced me to run. We got a bullhorn and walked around the night before the voting and told people to vote for me/write my name in on the ballot… and I won. Those crazy Zahm guys!
I’m not sure I realized going into it how much of a time commitment was required when you were on the student senate. We would meet every Tuesday. There was one person from every dorm on the senate, plus a president, vice president, and secretary. It was my job to represent what the guys from Zahm wanted regarding the different issues that the student senate was discussing. It was really cool. I would do a weekly meeting in the dorm to tell them what we talked about at the last senate meeting and what was up for discussion at the next one. It was really fun and I wished I could have done it again but time wise, it was tough. Tuesday was our long day of football practice and in order for me to go to the senate meetings I would have to miss part of the team meeting and the first part of practice. Coach Willingham was okay with that for one year but I didn’t want to push my luck beyond that. It was an amazing experience. It was nice to be part of something bigger and to see how the student senate went about getting things accomplished. All of the student activities on campus that are not sponsored by a specific group, they are all put on by the student senate. At first I had no idea they did so much. I really got to see the inner workings of what happens on campus.
Watson’s journey through his Notre Dame football career was filled with ups and downs. Fortunately for Watson, he had the Notre Dame Value Stream to guide him through the rough waters and show him that every dark cloud has a silver lining. Watson talks about the highs of the 2002 football season compared with the lows of the 2003 season.
They are very similar for me. When you have those highs, you try to keep everything in check, so it is really not that high. And the same goes for the lows. You try to take everything in stride, regardless of how good or bad it’s all going, and you work hard every day to get even better. You are always focusing on the next year; the next season. But at the same time, to have those highs and to have them at Notre Dame… that was incredible. I’d rather have those highs at Notre Dame than anywhere else. I haven’t been there in almost ten years, and we didn’t win a national championship, but the teams I played on are remembered as if they had. At most other schools you don’t get remembered unless you won a championship. We didn’t realize at the time that our team was going to go down in Notre Dame history. It made me incredibly proud when they compared our team to the 2012 team, they compared me to Manti Te’o. We are considered one of the great all time defenses at ND.
Life is full of challenges, which can be perceived as a bad thing, but being challenged from an early age can set us up for success as we progress through life.
Being a student-athlete at Notre Dame was quite a challenge. If you cannot manage your time well you will not be able to succeed in both the classroom and on the field. I’ve heard from talking to other guys who I played with in the NFL that they felt the NFL demanded so much of our time. If you don’t come from a place such as Notre Dame where that is the norm, you are going to struggle. At Notre Dame you are taking a real class schedule alongside your peers who are very smart. You have to manage class, practice, games, media request. You’ve got to eat and try to have a social life, too. Notre Dame taught me how to juggle all of the demands that were put upon my time.
Being a red shirt freshman was great for me. I knew I was not going to play that first year, but that if I showed up on time and worked out I would have chances. That year gave me an opportunity to transition into school and the rigors of Notre Dame. If I had been like Julius Jones or Gerome Sapp and had played as a true freshman it would have been a lot more difficult for me. I took the year to learn about myself, about being away from home, and how the system worked. I got myself into a groove and was more than ready to play the following year. My freshman year in Zahm, each section had a flag football team. The games were at night during the week and I played in every flag football game with my freshman section. This helped me stay in shape while I was red-shirted. What I learned is that when there are so many demands on your time, when you actually have some free time, you should do your best to fill it with something you like to do. When you have a free hour, take advantage of that free hour and use it well because you never know when you’re going to have another one. As a red shirt freshman, I went from being a starter in high school to being a whipping boy and stuck on the sideline at Notre Dame. Playing flag football with my Zahm dorm mates gave me an opportunity to be out on the field, having some fun playing football, which is all I ever wanted to do!
So ... what do you think about this week’s game? Do you think Florida State will be a walk in the park, or a force to be reckoned with? What say you?!
Cheers & GO IRISH!