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In his three years as a starting offensive lineman, Southern Nash High’s Luke Watson has helped pave the way for the Firebirds to gain nearly nine miles of offense on the ground.
That’s roughly about a third of the way from Southern Nash to Watson’s next stop as the Firebirds senior will suit up for the Battling Bishops of North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount. Watson said that he was also recruited by N.C. Wesleyan’s rivals in the NCAA Division III USA South Conference — Averett, Ferrum and Methodist. But with the academic package he received, and wanting to stay closer to home, Watson decided on the Bishops.
Five months ago, however, playing college football was not on his mind. Watson and his Firebirds teammates had just finished a grueling 16-game season that ended with a loss to Charlotte Catholic in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A championship game. The starting center, Watson played nearly every down as Southern Nash posted a 15-1 record, its best season in school history. But at the time, Watson had had enough.
“For a while there, I knew college was going to be kind of different and I knew that it was going to be a lot of work, for school and for football,” he said. “And I didn’t know if it was really worth all of that.”
Watson had learned to weld in classes he had taken at Nash Community College and thought he might make good money doing that for a living.
But Firebirds head coach Brian Foster, who had played at Lenoir-Rhyne University, sensed that maybe Watson was just tired after the season and not tired of football.
“I just thought it was important for him, if he anything left in his body and still had a desire to play, that he went ahead and tried it,” Foster said. “He was thinking about doing other stuff with his welding and stuff like that. I was telling him, ‘You know, you can do that all your life. If you want to play football and still have something in your system, you need to explore it.’”
Watson said he talked it over with his parents, Kathy and Kevin Watson of Middlesex. Watson said that his dad, a fixture on the sidelines at Firebirds games, obviously would like to see him keep playing football and his mom would support whatever decision he made.
“I just decided it’s a good opportunity and the way the world is now, a four-year degree is a whole lot better to your name,” Watson said.
It helped that Watson was able to land enough academic scholarship money to account for the lion’s share of his tuition at Wesleyan.
“They helped me a out a lot,” Watson said. “Everybody, all the schools really, make it possible where it’s not crazy expensive and football coaches help out and everything.”
Watson said he’s not sure what his major will be but he’s considering business.
Watson was all business on the football field, where he played virtually everywhere on the offensive line, or “tight end to tight end” in the Firebirds’ double-wing offense.
“He’s played at tackle, at guard, at center — he’s done a little bit of everything,” Foster said. “That’s the thing I liked about him is we could, if somebody got hurt, move him into another position and do different things. You love to have people like that you can interchange with any position on the offensive line. They are a little bit different and you’re going to have to have a little bit of a different skill set. It’s a credit to him that he could do all that.”
Watson thinks he’ll be a center for head coach Jeff Filkovski’s Bishops, who went 6-4 last season but ended 2019 on a three-game winning streak.
“I’ve moved around but I’ve always stuck to center and that’s where I’ve always ended up being,” Watson said. “So I think center will be a good spot for me. I just have to get used to their place-blocking schemes and stuff like that.”
Foster thinks the 5-foot-11, 255-pound Watson will fit in just fine at Wesleyan.
“I think the thing with him is that he’s a good football player but he just doesn’t have the natural height that some of the bigger schools want to see,” Foster said. “But he’s capable of playing at the next level and Division III may be a good fit for him. I think they’ll keep him at center, which is a position that I think he can excel at.”
Watson is facing the same challenges that every other athlete is right now amidst the COVID-19 pandemic — lack of a place to train with facilities everywhere closed.
“I think everything’s up to him now,” Foster said. “If he can get in shape in this situation we’re in. That’s what I told him: Everybody’s in the same situation so what you do with your own time is going to determine how good you’ll be.”