Toss a nameless resume on the table, and it’s difficult — if not impossible — to know which Notre Dame student you’re dealing with.
Former Irish linebacker Courtney Watson, featured here in the Oct. 18, 2002, edition of “Irish Insider,” served as a senator for Zahm House.It’s not uncommon for an Irish student to play Bookstore Basketball and interhall flag football or serve on Student Senate.
It’s just slightly less common for that seemingly standard Notre Dame student to be an All-American linebacker.
Courtney Watson made it clear he wanted to immerse himself fully in Notre Dame culture and student life. Zahm Hall senator? Bookstore Basketball mainstay? Interhall flag football quarterback and safety? Watson had an extensive and varied resume.
The three-year starting middle linebacker, who earned All-American honors in 2002, was exposed to all sides of life at Notre Dame on his recruiting visit to campus.
“That actually became a huge part of the reason why I came to Notre Dame, having an opportunity to meet and be friends with and live with guys who weren’t part of the football program,” Watson said recently by phone.
As a freshman oozing with energy during a season spent redshirting, Watson was raring to go after not doing much in practice. Someone convinced him to check out flag football, so he went out to watch a game.
“Screw this, I’m playing,” he thought.
With no rules prohibiting him from playing — it wasn’t tackle — Watson strapped the flags around his waist the next time out.
“We weren’t very good at all,” he said.
But there was Watson at safety, gunning for interceptions on any passes “more than five yards.” There was Watson at quarterback, scrambling around until he found room to run or an open receiver. But other teams caught on to the All-Sarasota (Florida) selection. Soon it was just underneath routes. Soon there were no pass-rushers, just everyone dropping into coverage against Watson. So he moved to wide receiver, trying to push the team forward in his lone season on the flag football field.
“The next year I actually started participating in practice, and I was too tired to do it,” Watson said.
Watson tired himself out with Bookstore Basketball as well. A former two-time all-city selection in basketball who drew some interest from a few small colleges, Watson helped his team advance to three Final Fours and won two tournament titles. Watson found basketball manageable in his first few years as a underclassman, but piggybacking spring football practices with Bookstore games proved exhausting.
“Bookstore Basketball was a blessing and a curse at the same time,” Watson said. “My last couple years there it just became increasingly hard for my body to do all of that.”
In one particular Final Four showdown, Watson’s team — on which he was the only scholarship athlete — took on a squad featuring his football teammates defensive lineman Justin Tuck, quarterback Carlyle Holiday and safety Abram Elam. The game, however, followed a full-squad spring football scrimmage. Matched up against each other, neither Watson nor Tuck, Notre Dame’s eventual all-times sack leader, could muster much.
“We were just holding each other down so we wouldn’t run down to the other end of the court because we were so tired,” Watson said.
Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham had pulled up in his car alongside the court to watch some of the game. The next day, he poked fun at Watson and Tuck for how bad they looked on the basketball court.
At the beginning of his senior season in 2002, Watson went to Willingham with a proposition. The fourth-year linebacker had just been elected the Zahm Hall representative for Student Senate, but he hadn’t run it by his head coach yet. After all, the whole concept came together suddenly. Put up to it by his friends, Watson and his makeshift election committee roamed the halls of Zahm with bullhorns on the night of the election.
“That pretty much fits with Zahm Hall,” Watson said, laughing.
He won as a write-in candidate. When presented with the notion, Willingham did his “due diligence” before signing off on the new post. Watson had to miss the first 45 minutes of practice — including the beginning of that week’s defensive install — on the first day of each new game week to attend the Student Senate meetings.
“It started off as a joke but I’m glad that I got into it because there were a lot of things that went on that I had no idea that students had a say in,” Watson said. “I had a chance to see a side of Notre Dame that I would have never been able to experience otherwise and I think I was able to … at least shift some positive thoughts about student-athletes at Notre Dame.”
It seemed like Watson took so easily to Notre Dame, but it wasn’t always so straightforward. The Sarasota, Florida, native grew up a Florida State fan but was recruited only lightly by the Seminoles. Notre Dame, Duke, Stanford, Michigan, some other Big Ten schools and other Florida schools courted the linebacker. Watson, who said he originally only knew about Notre Dame’s gold helmets, not even Touchdown Jesus, when the recruiting process began, eventually pledged to the Irish.
“Had I been recruited the same way by Florida State as I was by those other schools, it would have been easy,” Watson said. “I would have been a Seminole without a doubt.”
So when the No. 6 Irish (7-0) traveled to Tallahassee, Florida, in Oct. 2002 to face the No. 11 Seminoles, everything came “full circle,” Watson said.
“You had that opportunity to show someone the mistakes that they’ve made or whatever,” Watson said. “I was given that opportunity to do it in front of my friends and family in the stadium that I grew up dreaming of playing in.
“It was surreal.”
With roughly 30 friends and family members watching, Watson and the Irish rolled. On Notre Dame’s first play from scrimmage, Arnaz Battle scored on a 65-yard pass from Holiday. In the back of the end zone, Battle mockingly did the tomahawk chop.
“It was one touchdown, but it was like it was two touchdowns for us,” Watson said. “At the time, we were having this dream season, and we still were trying to believe in ourselves. And that touchdowns was a huge — huge — momentum boost.”
With the score tied 10-10 in the third quarter, Watson intercepted Seminoles quarterback Chris Rix. Watson remembers looking up in the stands after his interception and seeing family and friends, including one of his high school coaches — Coach Nick, as they called him — cheering.
Twelve years after Notre Dame’s 34-24 victory, Notre Dame will play its second-ever game at Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday. Watson will be there.
After being selected in the second round of the 2004 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints, Watson spent two seasons in the NFL.
At the conclusion of his football career, Watson went back to Sarasota. He already had a non-profit organization and a restaurant to keep him busy, and he knew he didn’t want a nine-to-five job. One day, he ran into some high school friends who recently had become firefighters. They explained to Watson — who had never considered the profession — how the training process worked and the requirements of the job.
“They sold me on it,” Watson said.
Watson’s father then put him in touch with the Sarasota fire chief, a family friend. Becoming a firefighter appealed to Watson as an opportunity to give back to the community and a job that provided flexibility for his other endeavors.
After finishing firefighting school, Watson said it took only about two weeks on the job until he knew he was “hooked.”
“Ever since then, I’ve been gung-ho about it,” Watson said.
In July, Watson, 34, celebrated five years on the job.
“With the exception of probably going to Notre Dame, it’s probably the best decision I’ve made to go the firefighting route and make a career of it,” Watson said.