She wants success for him so badly that it almost hurts, but she also knows that one day the pain will be worse when she sees her boy leave home, probably for good.
Perhaps only a mother can fully understand the range of her emotions. There is that incredible sense of pride that she felt Thursday at a press conference when it was announced that C.J. has been selected to play in the US Army All-American game (sponsored by Scout.com), the first time a Union County High School player has ever been chosen for the most prestigious high school all-star game in the country. It isn't every day that your son is chosen as one of the best 78 football players in the nation. There is also that sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, the realization that part of what this game represents means her son will leave home to play college football someday. For a mom whose son is the light of her life, that is a tough pill to swallow even if she fully understands the future for C.J. Spiller is somewhere other than Lake Butler, Florida.
She knows the day he leaves Lake Butler for a college campus will arrive sooner and not later so the days are precious that she spends with a son she says is "every mother's dream." As much as she would like, there is no way she can delay or even slow down that day when her "best friend" leaves small town USA for a college education and the possibilities of football fame, stardom and maybe even a shot at a professional career.
"I've known this day was coming since the first time I saw him running with the ball in Pop Warner," said Patricia Watkins Thursday afternoon following the ceremony that announced C.J. Spiller to the East squad for the US Army Game. "He was only eight and he was so small then --- nothing like what you see now --- but he could run so fast and he could make people miss him even then.
"You could see that he had something special even then, so yes, I've known this day was coming for a long time. Just because I've known it's coming doesn't make it easier, though."
The little guy who was the star of Pop Warner football is now a strapping 5-11, 190-pound elusive ball of mercury whose highlight films could be subtitled "catch me if you can." He's as explosive as he is elusive and that is why he's one of America's most highly recruited running backs. That is also why he's going to be leaving home in a matter of months.
Leaving home for C.J. Spiller could mean a 30-minute ride down the road to Gainesville and the University of Florida or it could mean a 2,000-mile flight to Los Angeles for the University of Southern California. It could mean Tallahassee, Tuscaloosa or Miami or a dozen other places. All the big schools have offered him a football scholarship. There just aren't many running backs with his natural instincts that have turned in times as low as 4.28 in the 40-yard dash. Throw in the fact he's a fully qualified student and the reason for all the attention becomes abundantly clear.
When there is talk of C.J. Spiller, inevitably the conversation leads to his speed. But speed is only a fraction of the total package and it is the total package that Scout.com recruiting analyst Scott Kennedy says is the reason "he's the number one running back in the south right now."
Consider Kennedy a big C.J. Spiller fan. That's because Spiller is the embodiment of all the right things both on the football field and off the football field. Kennedy watches endless hours of video on the best prep football players from all over the nation in his position with Scout.com. When he started watching Spiller on film, several things stood out other than the fact that this kid has the kind of speed and breakaway ability that drives daggers into the hearts of defensive coordinators.
"Normally you see highlights of guys who simply have the speed to turn the corner and go," said Kennedy, "but you watch C.J. and you see all the little things he does. He's a very good lead blocker and he catches the ball so well out of the backfield. You watch an entire game film on him and you always come away impressed with how unselfish and team-oriented he is."
His coach, Buddy Nobles, will tell you that the on the field C.J. Spiller and the off-the-field C.J. Spiller aren't all that different. On the field, C.J. is humble, hard working, a leader and popular with the coaches and teammates that surround him. Off the field, he's humble, hard working, a leader in the school and community and popular with students and adults alike.
Nobles says he is relentless as a football player, one who never takes a play off either on the field or in practice and one who is always asking his coaches what must he do to improve.
"How many kids do you know that you can always say they gave you their very best no matter if it's a game or in practice?" Nobles asked. "How many kids do you know who are that good and yet that humble? Being humble isn't an act with him. It's the way he is."
Patricia Watkins laid the framework for C.J., teaching him to appreciate what he has, to never look down on someone who has less, and to never think you're better than others just because God has gifted you with special abilities.
She's always known that God gave her son abilities that you rarely see --- the speed, the elusiveness, the instincts and the leadership. She has made it a point to teach C.J. to use these gifts wisely and to never lose sight of what is truly important.
"I'm so proud of him because he has always stayed humble and because he always remembers to give thanks to God for what he's got," she said. "Knowing that he's always got his feet on the ground won't make it not hurt when he goes away to college but it will make it easier for me because I know I'll never have to worry about him."
The great question in Lake Butler these days is just exactly where will C.J. Spiller go away to college? Will it be 30 minutes down the road in Gainesville or possibly three hours to the west in Tallahassee or six hours to the south in Miami? Will he leave the state? To Alabama? To Southern Cal? Is it possible that another school could sneak into the mix? Tennessee has made a hard push but so have Georgia, Clemson and Michigan.
Told that there is a rumor that he's told coaches at one particular school that he's made his decision already, Spiller laughed and said, "No truth to that one. I don't even know where I'm going to go. It's all wide open with me. Everybody is even and it's going to stay that way until I've made my visits."
He will take all five of his official visits, but only one has been set so far. He'll make the trip to Los Angeles on the weekend of November 18 for the Southern Cal-Fresno State game.
"All the other visits will happen after my season," he said. "At some point I'll talk it over with my mom, with my pastor, with Coach Nobles … and then the choice I make will be the one that I know in my heart is the best one for me. I really want to go to a school where I can come out a better person as well as a better football player. The school I pick has to be as concerned about me as a person as they are about me for football."
Spiller gave a brief summary of the five schools that he talks about more frequently than others:
ALABAMA: "They're very young and they have a great young coach in Mike Shula. He likes to run the ball. Andrew Zow [Former Bama quarterback who is from Lake Butler] is a coach there and I know I can go hang out with him. Something inside told me that Alabama needs to be on that list. I'm very comfortable with Alabama."
SOUTHERN CAL: "Those two running backs [Reggie Bush and Lendale White] will probably leave this year and that would open the door for me to play early for Coach Pete Carroll. I'd like to be used the way they use Reggie Bush in their offense. It's a long way from home, that's true, but right now they're on top and their players are going to get a chance to go on to the NFL if they have a good career there."
MIAMI: "They play the I-formation and that's the offense I love. Coach (Larry) Coker is a great guy who has coached some of the greatest backs ever like Barry Sanders. Six hours from home isn't too far away and it wouldn't be too tough for my mom."
FSU: "I grew up a Florida State fan, everybody knows that. They have a coach [Bobby Bowden] who's won more than anyone else. Whenever I go up there I like hanging out with all their guys. My mom can get here pretty easy."
FLORIDA: "Thirty minutes from home and that means I can be at my church on Sundays and Wednesday nights and that's very important for me. I can see my mom all the time, too. They play the spread offense and I like that you don't know who's going to get the ball because they spread it around. I like the way Coach (Urban) Meyer has made it a family atmosphere."
The final choice won't be one he takes lightly. He is determined to give each school on his list a fair and thorough opportunity to make its pitch.
"What I do will affect the rest of my life, so I have to make the right choice," he said. "That's why everybody's even. I've got to do the right thing."
And doing the right thing means he will be breaking his mother's heart that day when he leaves home.
"I know it's what he's got to do and this is what's best for him," she said. "That won't make it any easier though. He's made me so proud and I know he'll keep on doing that wherever he goes."