Being a student-athlete at Notre Dame is no easy feat. Just the rigors of class alone are enough to send students into fits of panic, not to mention finding time for practice, time in the weight room, training table, travel and games. However, Notre Dame seems to draw 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, 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. Courtney had the chance to sit down with me this week and reminisce about his time at Notre Dame and where life has taken him after football. And without further ado … Courtney Watson!
Q: Growing up in Sarasota, Florida, how did you end up playing football at Notre Dame and not at a school near home?
A: “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 up 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 so I made my recruiting visit to Notre Dame 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 that if I came to Notre Dame I would get a great college experience, that I would be pushed academically to achieve success in the classroom, and that unlike many other schools 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.”
Q: What is your best Notre Dame football memory?
A: “Wait, I have to pick one?” (laughs)
“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 head shot 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 at home, 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.”
Q: What was it like playing for Bob Davie? Tyrone Willingham?
A: “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 Xs and Os guy. He was very hands on in the everyday process. Because of Coach Davie’s 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 micromanage 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. However, what happens when you have such tunnel vision is you lose focus on everything else that is going on. 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 just each went about it very differently.”
Q: Can you talk about your bookstore basketball success?
A: “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. To my knowledge I am the only scholarship athlete that can say they won it twice. Carlisle 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.”
Q: Can you talk about your role as a Zahm senator?
A: “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 bull horn 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!”
Q: Tell us what it was like to be on the student senate?
A: “I’m not sure I realized going into it how much of a time commitment was required of you 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 from 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 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.”
Q: Can you compare the highs of 2002 with the lows of 2003?
A: “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 played for a championship. 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 this past season 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.”
Q: How do you remember your NFL draft?
A: “My NFL draft wasn’t supposed to be very stressful, but of course, it was. It didn’t need to be, but it was self-inflicted. We had a good idea as to what round I was going to be drafted in, just not which team. I had family over to the house and I was feeling pretty comfortable. For me it was going to be a celebration regardless of where I went. It started out mostly as family being with me watching the draft but as the day wore on more and more people came over. I knew I wasn’t going to be drafted in the first round. There was a chance that I would be drafted in the middle to end of the second round but more likely at some point in the third.”
“The problem was that myself and my agent thought I would go ahead of certain other linebackers, so when people like Boss Bailey and Teddy Lehman came off the board before me my mood started to change. I really thought that I would go before them and they were coming off the board much earlier than we had anticipated. It was another 20 picks before I was drafted. That was only about an hour time difference but it seemed like a week.”
“You had to submit two different phone numbers for the draft and so I had two phones sitting in front of me. It got to the point where I had people checking to make sure the phones were working. I was sure that there must be something wrong with my phones. I was frustrated and completely distraught. I went into the back room and just closed the door. I had to separate myself from what was going on. Calm down. Talk myself back into reality. When the phone rang I ran out to get the phone and it was Jim Haslett from the Saints telling me they were going to draft me, and then I heard everyone out in the front room screaming because it was at the bottom of the TV screen. My Dad and Mom and my aunts all jumped on top of me on the bed. It was a great feeling.”
Q: What was it like playing in the NFL?
A: “The low for me was not the first time I got cut, but the second time I got cut, because at that point I pretty much knew that was it, that my NFL career was over. You don’t get much lower than that.”
“The highs? Every game that I was able to go out there and play, to do what I had wanted to do my entire life — that was a high for me. I’m not a person who gets all jacked up before a game, but to have that feeling, to know this is what it’s like to accomplish a lifetime goal, that was huge. Every time we went to a new city, a new locker room…every Sunday was better than the Sunday before. Those feelings were just the best feelings for me. It was the entire experience. There are only a select group of people who can say they graduated from Notre Dame and went on to play in the NFL — I am in that select group.”
Q: What was it like to play for the Saints post-Katrina?
A: “Post-Katrina was crazy. It was tough because a lot of people don’t remember that you couldn’t even get back into the city after the hurricane hit. Even if you didn’t have any damage to your material things you couldn’t even get back in to get them.”
“First you couldn’t get in to the city at all. Then they were letting people in but only during the day time. Very quickly we realized, even though they were letting people back in, the city should not be open at all. There was no trash pickup. They had curfews set up to help prevent looting and vandalism. Marshall Law was in place. The National Guard was there, armed, sitting on top of Humvees. Gangs were fighting for territory. There were shootings every day. The NFL sends us back there and we had to live like that. I was renting in New Orleans and my home was in Florida so I had to find a new place to rent in a decent area…which just didn’t exist. There was just random crime all the time.”
“The NFL and the Saints did a great job at putting a band-aid on the dome but the city was in absolute chaos. It was very sobering to see. It was an experience like no other. It was sad to see how many people not only lost everything they owned, but loved ones, too. The whole experience was crazy. You could go weeks at a time and it would not come up…but even now, every time it comes up, it completely takes me back there and I can remember it vividly.”
Q: Where did life take you after football?
A: “During my first year after I was cut from the NFL I pretty much worked out in the hopes that someone would pick me up. I tried to stay in shape and showcase my talents but no one expressed any interest in bringing me back to the game. I didn’t want to do that for two or three years. After one year I knew it was really over. There are always younger guys coming out of college who can do it faster, better, and cheaper. So at that point I knew I was truly retired.”
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do post-football. I planned on playing in the NFL for ten more years than what I did so I was not prepared for the transition into my next career. While I was playing in the NFL I had opened a restaurant back in Florida. My dad was running it and I was just kind of helping out, but I knew I wanted to do more than that.”
“I ran into a few guys I went to high school with who were firefighters and one friend who was a fire chief and decided I wanted to learn more about what it took to be one. I signed up for the academy to see if it was something that I wanted to do. I knew I had a great degree from Notre Dame but I didn’t want to have a 9-5 job, that just wasn’t for me. The further along I got in the academy the more I knew this was where I belonged. I loved the crazy schedule. I loved being outside, working with the guys as a team. I really took to it and have not looked back since.”
“I finished the academy and some medical schooling as well … it took me a year to finish the academy and I got hired by a fire house within three weeks. I started in July of 2009 and just celebrated four years here. I love it. It’s been the best decision that I’ve made since my decision to go to Notre Dame. I get to use my business degree as I move up the ranks and my schedule allows me to do side work as well.”
“In addition to my work with the firehouse I speak to kids and sports teams and help out with their clinics here in the area. I have also developed a successful personal training business. I train young people/athletes, as well as doing personal training for individuals who are looking to get in better shape. My schedule allows me to do a lot of different things. I can give back to the community while I further my career. One of my long-term goals is to get more minorities into civil services — both firefighting and the police. Where I grew up you were either really smart and went to college, or you really didn’t have any direction regarding your future. You don’t have to go to college to go into civil service. It’s a really good thing for kids who either can’t afford to go to college or don’t feel like college is a good fit for them. I want to create awareness within minority groups to the opportunities available to them in civil service. It’s a great way to have a career and be able to give back to your community.”
“There is a lot of carryover from football to the police department and firefighting. Instead of being in a locker room you are in a fire station, but you still have to work together as a team, and you still need to be prepared for the situations you are going to face before you face them. You have to already know how you are going to react. Especially in dangerous situations, if you are not prepared, a life or death situation could go wrong very quickly. For those of us who played sports, we have developed a skill set that works very well in this sort of career – that’s a skill set that many people don’t have.”
Q: What was it like being a student-athlete at Notre Dame? How did being a student-athlete at Notre Dame prepare you for life after college?
A: “Being a student-athlete at Notre Dame is quite a challenge. If you cannot manage your time well you will not succeed in the classroom or 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 with your peers who are very smart. 85% of my classes are legit classes that everyone else had to take. 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 have 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 and having some fun playing football which is all I ever wanted to do!”
Q: What advice would you give current student athletes?
A: “Try to get engaged in non-football activities while you are in school. It is a great chance to go out and meet people who will become lifelong friends. There is more to life than just football. Mingle, meet people who can support you in the non-football aspects of your life. Take advantage of all opportunities put in front of you in college. Get engaged and be involved.”
“I worked in the Zahm hall cafeteria on Sunday nights cooking pizza and selling soda. It was awesome to be an integral part of the dorm and have a chance to really meet and get to know people. I went to college to get an experience and I wanted to take advantage of everything I possibly could.”
I’d like to give a big thank you to Courtney for stopping by the blog. It was an absolute pleasure to walk through his journey with him. Stay tuned for many more great stories in the “Where are they now?” series!
If you enjoy these “Where are they now?” pieces, please check out my new book: “Echoes From the End Zone: The Men We Became.”