Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Football

Choices and Consequences is the Message For Xavier Watts

June 19, 2019
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Father’s Day is a big day for most fathers.  I think most of us look at the day as an opportunity to appreciate all the wonderful things life has given us, our children especially, but it is also a day to remember the responsibilities we have as a father.  As I endured the heat on Sunday at a carnival I didn’t want to be at, riding rides I didn’t want to be on, I sat contemplating those very same things. Thinking about what’s really important. My guess is most fathers did as well. 

Omaha native, Jeff Watts, was feeling pretty reflective about his own son a few days before Father’s Day when I interviewed him last week about his boy, Xavier.  

Xavier Watts is an outstanding football player and student with many options ahead of him.  The senior-to-be gridiron star can dazzle on offense with long touchdown runs and catches, and wow you with his explosive speed on returns.  He is also a fine defensive player, and his versatility is what has made him such a coveted player in this recruiting cycle for many top teams across the country.  

Jeff and Xavier have quite a bond as father and son; Jeff Watts has a lot of reasons to be proud; but also one good one that drives him in regards to his responsibility as a father.   

Xavier is an only child, and one who from an early has brought a lot of great memories to their household.  

“I remember him being a kid, and how he’s so much different now, because you want to look cool when they get to this age,” Jeff Watts said with a laugh when recalling his only son.  “He had so much energy as a kid and talked all the time.  Now, he’s not as talkative, but people close to him can get him going.

“There’s a big perception that Xavier is a super quiet kid and real mellow, but I think it’s just that he’s a real smart kid.  He knows there is a place and time for everything.  When he’s dealing with grown adults, it’s not that he’s being quiet and doesn’t want to talk, it’s that he’s being respectful and listening.  When you start talking to him, he will start talking to you.  All his friends, and certain people that can tap into him, once you get around him enough, he opens up.  You’ve just got to get into his shell.  You will see he’s really a goofball, and he likes to play around and joke around and laugh.  He just has his guard up until he can trust you.”  

Irish Sports Daily
Xavier Watts

The Omaha Burke high school star’s first love wasn’t actually sports…or, at least, not real sports.  

“He loved John Cena and WWE wresting,” Jeff said when asked what Xavier’s first interests were as a child.  “We used to take him to the Qwest Center here in Omaha.  I think there was one in Lincoln we took him to one time.  He used to love wrestling.  John Cena was definitely his guy.

“Even for Halloween one year, he dressed up as John Cena, and I took him to my job because they always did stuff for Halloween.  He had on the full John Cena outfit.  One of my managers happened to be a big John Cena guy, and he had the John Cena song on his phone and he played it and my son started singing, and dancing along to it, and becoming the John Cena character.  He just loved John Cena.”  

It wasn’t long, however, before real sports started to dominate his interests and time.  

“He also loved football and basketball, and he’s been playing both since he was about five on organized teams,”  Jeff recalled.  “He played baseball and soccer, but football and basketball were the two he really loved and took to.  You go to these games and you always see one or two kids who kind of stand out more than the others.  He always been one of those kids.

“His first year playing flag football, he was actually the smallest kid on the team, and he actually had to play center because he was the only kid who knew how to snap the ball.  About a few games into the season, the coach was able to teach some kids to snap the ball and they eventually moved him to the skill positions.  He looked funny out there snapping the ball as the smallest kid out there.”  

Once he got the ball in his hands, Xavier was off and running, and the elder Watts started to recognize that his young son might be a bit different from the rest of the kids on the field.  

“He played quarterback, running back, wide receiver,” Jeff recalled about his early years on the football field.   “On that particular team, they ran kind of a wing bone with a quarterback in the shotgun and a running back on either side.  Whenever they needed, they’d move him.  He’d play quarterback, running back and wide receiver in the course of just one game.  He did that a lot.”  

Xavier didn’t really notice his talent until later.  In fact, he had his eyes set on a different career.  

“He wanted to be a treasure hunter,” Jeff said when asked what Xavier always said he wanted to be when he grew up.  “This was when he was little….like 4th, 5th, 6th grade.  He never was really like, ‘I want to be a basketball player or a football player.’  He had his certain teams he loved, but he wanted to be out there looking for treasure. I don’t think he really knew he was a talented kid until later.”    

What he did most, however, was score a lot of touchdowns.  

“I’ve got so many videos of him just taking off for long touchdown runs,” Jeff said.  “When he was playing flag football, he really stood out and got it before the rest of the kids, so I was a bit surprised.  He was just naturally faster, and just naturally understood what was going on.  Same thing with basketball.  We started him off in little recreational leagues, and then once we saw him performing better than a lot of the kids, we decided to let him try out for some of these select teams, and he was still a bit above the players on those teams.  I didn’t want to spend a whole lot of money on these traveling teams if he wasn’t at that level and wasn’t into it, but he really was.  He just kept getting better year after year after year.  When he got to sixth grade, I remember being at these games and the announcer was calling his name all the time because he was making a lot of plays.  He played linebacker on defense because he wasn’t afraid to come up and hit you.  I had so many parents coming up and saying what a great athlete he was.  That’s when I started to think, ‘well, maybe he is pretty good at this.’ “

Growing up in Nebraska, close to everyone is a Husker fan.  You can’t go anywhere on a football Saturday in the great state of Nebraska and not see red.  It is literally everywhere, and you just don’t get it until you have lived here.  Almost everyone grows up a big Nebraska fan…but not everyone.  

Irish Sports Daily
Xavier Watts
 

“Football, was Oregon,” Jeff said when asked which teams Xavier gravitated towards as a young football fan.  “I think it was about that time when they started implementing all the jerseys and helmet combinations.  He’s always been an Oregon Duck fan.  There was a really good running back for Oregon at that time.  He was the big dog for them.  He was the kick returner, punt returner, running back.  I think it was DeAnthony Thomas.  That was his guy back then.  For basketball it was Kentucky.  He’s always been a big Kentucky fan.  We’ve always been Vikings fan.  His favorite player is Stephon Diggs.  He didn’t really have a NBA team because he’s a LeBron James fan, and he’s never been with one team.”  

Sports isn’t the only thing important to the Watts family…far from it…and Xavier knew from a very early that if he wanted to play sports, he was going to have to take care of business elsewhere as well.  

“He’s always been really smart,” Jeff Watts said of his son and his outstanding academic achievements.  “Xavier went to a junior high school that had a program called the Focus program.  It was a class where you could have a little bit more focus on what you’re doing.  Instead of being in classroom with 25 kids and one teacher, now you’re in a classroom with 15-18 kids and two or three teachers.  You’re doing more than just one core class in there.  The classes were more advanced. 

“Burke (high school) had the same Focus program, so we were very interested in Burke because of the Focus program.  Xavier understands that none of this sports stuff is going to fly unless the grades are good.  It’s not just your parents telling you that you’re not going to play, it’s going to be the school.  He had a very clear understanding of that.  My wife is also in higher education.  She used to work at Creighton (University) in higher education.  She’s worked at Metro.  Now she’s at Clarkson at higher (education).  Academics are extremely important to her, and to both of us, It’s always been put into Xavier’s head, since day one, that these grades are important, and education is important.  

“Every time we knew of another situation where a kid wasn’t eligible to play sports because of their grades, or we turned on the TV and we saw somebody in college who wasn’t eligible to play because of their grades, we made sure we always pointed that out to him.  It doesn’t matter if he has all the talent in the world, it won’t matter if his grades aren’t together.  Xavier is just naturally gifted with his grades.  He really hasn’t come home with a lot of homework over the past four years.  Every time we go to parent/teacher conferences, they have nothing but excellent things to say about him.  That always makes us proud.”  

With both football and academics going very well for the young Xavier, Jeff Watts also had another very important reason to teach his son about life, right and wrong, and staying on the right path.  

“We don’t sugarcoat anything in our household,” Jeff explained.  “When I turn on ESPN and I see kids getting kicked off the team in college, or I see some high school kids doing this or that, and they get suspended and kicked off the team, we make a point to bring that up to Xavier.  We make him watch it, and we make a point to talk about it.  This kind of stuff happens really fast.  You can be doing this one day, and you make the wrong decision and it’s all over.”

“I’m the perfect example for him,” he continued.  “He sees that every day.  I was shot in my back and was paralyzed back in 2003.  That was just me being a bad kid, in the streets doing things that I had no business doing, so he sees that every day.  I wake up, I’m in a wheelchair, and he knows what it’s the result from, and I think he understands that you only get one life, and one wrong decision can turn your whole life the wrong way.”

A lot of kids read about the situations Jeff has found himself in, but Xavier has had it staring him right in the face every single day, and Jeff thinks that while his situation isn’t an ideal one, it is a great teaching moment he can give to his son.  

“It’s not a hard conversation, because I know,”  Jeff explained.  “My Dad had me when he was really, really young.  He was only 17 when he had me, so he was a young adult trying to raise a young kid.  The older you get, the wiser you get, and you start to realize what’s important, and what’s important in this world.  I didn’t really have people telling me, ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’ because they didn’t know themselves.  My Dad was young himself.  I always said I wanted to raise my son differently and just be very honest with him about everything that happened so he can learn from it.  Xavier has a really good understanding of what’s going on around him and in this world.  We are just very honest with him, so he has a better understanding of it earlier than probably a lot of other kids, so hopefully he knows how to deal with it if situations like this come up.”  

Jeff also believes that Xavier understands the sacrifices he and his wife have made to make sure he doesn’t end up in the same situation, but he also gains strength from watching his Dad work his way through life every day.    

“I think he knows that my wife and I have put him into position where he doesn’t have to make the decisions to go down the path of life that I did,” he explained.  “I think he appreciates that, but I also think he understands my situation, being in a wheel chair.  I get up, and he sees that I’m not just sitting in the house feeling sorry for myself.  He sees me getting up every day motivated to go out do all these things.  I do a lot of things on my own.  I think he sees that and pays attention to that, and it drives him.  He understands that ‘my Dad can’t walk, and he does a lot of things that people who can walk aren’t doing’ and so that motivates him to be going hard all the time.”

“Going Hard” is something Xavier has done his whole life, and it has paid off for him quite well these past few years.  

“I was actually doing some physical therapy at the time.  My phone rang and I didn’t answer it,”  Jeff Watts said about the first time Xavier told him he had received a scholarship from a school.  “It rang it again, and I didn’t answer it.  It kept ringing, so I thought I better check and I missed three or four calls from him.  I called him back to see if everything was alright and he told me that he just got a scholarship from South Dakota State.  I was like, ‘yeah right.’  He was like, ‘no, I’m serious.’   I was excited!  I told him congratulations and I was super proud of him.  He was just super happy about it.  He wanted to tell me the good news.  

“I remember hanging up the phone and I called his coach because I wanted to know what this meant and I didn’t know how this worked.  He said they saw him and really liked him and wanted him, and yes, the offer was legit.  We were just like, ‘wow, this is real now.’”  

“The next school that really came after him after that was Purdue,” he continued.  “They came and watched one of his basketball games and he got an offer that same night.  Maybe a week later Iowa State offered as well.”  

And the offers kept coming.    

“One of the coaches who was recruiting (2019 Burke high school defensive end) Nick Heinrich had met Xavier, and that’s when he was invited to a Notre Dame camp his sophomore year,” Jeff explained about Notre Dame’s early interest in his son.  “Xavier was playing AAU basketball, and even though he had some football scholarship offers, basketball was really important to him so he wasn’t able to go.  He could probably go play either football or basketball in college, but the football offers kept coming, so he started taper off a bit at basketball and started to make football his main focus.  

“We had come out to Notre Dame to visit, and we went to the Stanford game at night last season.  That’s when we got to meet the coaches, and when we left there he was really excited.  When he got his offer from Notre Dame, he was like, ‘alright, now this is real serious.’  When Notre Dame is reaching out to you, it’s serious.  It’s not every day the skill position players in Omaha get offers from Notre Dame.  He was really happy and excited about that.”  

Notre Dame wasn’t the only top school who offered.  School like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Northwestern, Nebraska, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan also jumped into the ring and gave Xavier a lot of options.  

“It’s such a joy to sit back and see everything unfold.  When you watch him as a kid, and you see him doing real well, you don’t want to get ahead of yourself because you’ve seen other kids dominating, but as time goes by, and we get into high school, some of those kids didn’t pan out,” he explained.  “They were really great at that young age, but for whatever reason, they just didn’t pan out.  It’s exciting to see him recognize he has this talent, work really hard for what he wants and watch it all unfold.  He hasn’t let distractions get to him.  He hasn’t let peer pressure get to him.”

With so much interest from schools, it is easy for any kid to get caught up in the moment.  Jeff said he and his wife had conversations on how to handle all of this.  

“I’m very proud of his mature responses to everything,” he said when asked about how they dealt with all this attention.  “We told him when he’s dealing with these coaches, just be honest, and if you don’t feel like talking to them, you don’t have to.  Move at your own pace at this.  You don’t have to make a decision today or tomorrow, but to still be honest and respectful to the coaches.  

“We told him just be a kid.  We’ve been telling him that he’s in a boat where he’s in a little bit of a different situation than a lot of his friends.  You’ve got to see the bigger picture.  You can’t always do everything that they’re doing.  When it comes to hanging out, you have to be smart about what you’re doing.”  

Despite all the attention and excitement, Jeff Watts agrees that the process is winding down.  He feels his son is getting closer to a decision.   

“We will be at Notre Dame on the 21st,” Watts said when asked about the plan moving forward.  “He is going to Nebraska this weekend (June 14th) for their Friday Night Lights.  He’s not going to participate, but he’ll go down and watch and be around that atmosphere with the coaches.  The bad thing is he’s doing summer school to get this English class out of the way so he can graduate in December, but that’s made it really hard to set up any other official visits this June, other than Notre Dame.  I think it’s a dead period between the end of June until August 31st, that’s why he’s kind of stretching into the fall a bit.  He wants to give the schools a fair opportunity to kind of get their last impression in on him.  

“He and the Michigan coaches are still kind of going back and forth on if the August 31st day is going to work for an official there, and then he’s kind of let people know that he may make his decision the first couple of weeks into his high school season,” he continued  “I think ideally, that is what he wants to do, but, at the same time, he’s kind of just getting to the point where he knows the top three or four schools he’s thinking about, and it’s kind of an equal race between them…maybe a couple maybe a bit above the others.  He’s kind of just going off of feel.  If he goes on a visit and he has a good feeling, then he’s just going to make a decision.  The time frame right now is going into the first couple of games of the season, but he hasn’t ruled out just making a decision earlier, it is what it is.  He’s just kind of going off of feel.”  

Every parent is proud when they send their child off to college, and most college-bound kids don’t have the extra burden of playing big-time football added to the list.  Both of his parents have hopes and dreams, like we all do, but they really just want him to be happy.  

“That’s been one of the things we’ve really talked about,” Jeff said when asked what he really wants Xavier to get out of his college experience.  “Again, just the different things that can happen in life.  We know you have NFL dreams and aspirations, but if it doesn’t work out, where would you like to have a degree from?  If you get injured while playing football, where would you like to have a degree from to further you on in life?  That’s important.  Also, just being around the guys and having fun.  Life goes so fast, and before you know it, you’re going to be 37, and you don’t want to have any regrets going forward on what college you went to, and what was important to you.  

“We’ve sat down and talked about what’s important for sports, and academics, and just life.  I just want him to go have fun.  I know he’s going to be a great kid.  Wherever he goes, because I’ve seen his whole life, when he gets there, he’s going to do well.  He’s a real mature kid.  Once they get to know him and the intangibles he has, I think they’ll really appreciate him because he’s going to come to work and do the right things”

Options, choices, forks in the road…we all have them in our lives.  One bad decision changed Jeff Watts’ life forever, and now he is hoping it also made a huge impact on his son.  Judging by the results, it seems pretty clear it has, and for all the right reasons.  

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 
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