The shelf life of a running back isn’t long.
Don’t tell that to Terrell Watson, a senior running back at Azusa Pacific University.
College wasn’t even supposed to be a reality.
The 6-1, 240-pound Watson leads all of college football in rushing in 2014.
His road to stardom (the outside world’s opinion, not his own) was unconventional.
His success is unchartered at the bustling NCAA D-II school.
When Watson was a junior in high school, he was playing his first season of varsity football at Oxnard (Calif.), starting at middle linebacker.
But when Oxnard’s starting running back got hurt, Watson volunteered to carry the load for the Yellowjackets, starting the final four games of the 2009 season.
“I only played running back for four games because our starting running back got hurt,” said Watson. “I was happy just playing linebacker.”
Then came a senior year to remember, even if most college coaches saw his rushing line and quickly forgot about him.
In his 2010 senior season, Watson rushed for 2,905 yards and 37 touchdowns, carrying the ball 369 times while catching 21 passes for 206 yards and a touchdown.
He didn’t give up defense either, recording 100 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and deflecting two passes.
There is an old adage in the scouting world: ‘Don’t be a stat scout.’
Colleges bought in to the adage, but not Watson’s numbers.
“I got letters from random schools here and there, but not any that said they were interested in offering me a scholarship,” said Watson.
A two-star by Scout.com in the 2011 class, Watson’s college options weren’t even limited. They didn’t exist.
Hurting Watson was the fact he wasn’t NCAA qualified.
What schools hadn’t known was Watson was abandoned when he was two weeks old, adopted by Billy and Janice Watson.
A learning disability wasn’t detected until later in his schooling.
“Because I had a learning disability, I wasn’t able to be in the right classes,” said Watson.
So NCAA schools ignored him. Just about every school ignored him.
Everyone but Azusa Pacific University.
The Cougars were still an NAIA school at that time. They’d had modest success as a program in the Southland, the lone NAIA program in Southern California for several years.
APU produced 1989 AFC Offensive Player of the Year Christian Okoye, who had gone to APU to star in their vaunted track and field program.
In 1998, the Cougars won the 1998 NAIA National Championship behind two-way star Jack Williams, now the head coach at Downey (Calif.) HS and a transfer from BYU, who scored the winning touchdown then sealed the game with an interception in the final minutes of the NAIA National Championship Game.
But it wasn’t until the Daily News All-Star Game in the San Fernando Valley that Watson realized he’d have a chance to play in college.
“I was playing in the Daily News All-Star Game and Coach (Jim) Benkert (of powerhouse Westlake HS) told me he was going to get in touch with APU,” said Watson.
Benkert reached out to APU head coach Victor Santa Cruz and offensive coordinator Rudy Carlton, a former Cougar quarterback, and the future suddenly appeared less bleak.
“Coach Santa Cruz and Coach Carlton came and checked me out and then I took a visit to APU,” said Watson.
Because the NAIA qualification standards were different than the NCAA’s, Watson’s career had the chance to continue.
“Because APU was an NAIA school, they had different requirements and I had two meet 2/3 of them. You had to either graduate with a 3.0, be at a certain type of school or graduate in the top half of your class. When I graduated, it was with a 3.0 and in the top half of my class.”
And just like that, the short shelf life of a running back added a few more years.
With no desire to play JC ball, Watson needed to go to APU to keep football in his life.
“I didn’t want to play at a junior college,” said Watson. “I didn’t want to go that route. I was ready to start living my life.”
Granted the opportunity to play college football, as small the level it may be, Watson embraced it.
Instead of dreaming of playing in the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl, like most high school football players in Southern California, Watson just wanted to play, period.
Watson’s freshman season coincided with APU’s final season as a full-fledged member of the NAIA.
He ran for 697 yards and 15 touchdowns as a freshman.
The next year, APU’s first as a D-II transition school, was a rough one to start but the Cougars got hot down the stretch. Watson ran for 1,094 yards and 11 touchdowns to help ease the transition.
His 2013 junior season saw the Cougars win the Great Northwest Athletic Conference in just their second year in the conference. Because they were still in transition to Division II, they were ineligible for the postseason playoffs but they earned an invitation to the NCCAA Victory Bowl, a game where the Cougars rolled defending champion Greenville 67-0.
Watson was named the GNAC Offensive Player of the Year, the NCAAA Offensive Co-Player of the Year and was a D2Football.com Honorable Mention All-American.
He finished the year with 1,812 yards and 23 touchdowns, setting school and conference records for yards and rushing touchdowns in a season.
Watson was shattering the records that Christian Okoye, the ‘Nigerian Nightmare’, had set, that most considered unbreakable, almost every time he suited up.
Not even born when Okoye winded down his career with the Kansas City Chiefs, and not really being much of a football fan growing up, Watson had no idea who Okoye was or what kind of impact he had on Azusa Pacific, or small college football in general.
“I didn’t know who Christian Okoye was,” said Watson. “I feel like I really didn’t know who he was until my sophomore year. I saw his jersey in the Cougar Den but never put together who he was or what he did. It wasn’t until around my sophomore year that someone explained who he was and what he had done.”
Okoye (left) talks with Watson (center) and Santa Cruz (right) following APU's win over Simon Fraser in 2013
APU running back coach Ben Buys had a successful career for the Cougars as their featured back and all Watson wanted to do was break his records.
He had no idea the enormity of breaking Okoye’s records.
“When I came in my freshman year, I just wanted to beat Coach Buys’ record. Beating his record was more important than anything,” said Watson. “He told me I could be great and is an amazing coach. That’s who’s record I wanted to break.”
But Watson took it up a notch and shattered most of the ones that Okoye owned for nearly 30 years.
“If you had asked me when I got here if I could have ever expected to break Okoye’s records, I would have been surprised,” said Watson. “First, because I didn’t know who he was and second because I didn’t think I would have the career I’ve had.”
This year, Watson has put it all together to become the leading rusher in all of college football. Not just in D-II or the NCAA but in all four-year college football.
He’s rushed for 1,687 yards in nine games and was the first college football player in all divisions to reach 1,000 yards this season. He’s been named the GNAC Offensive Player of the Week five times.
NFL scouts are suddenly checking in at Azusa Pacific, a school 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles.
But Watson hasn’t been thinking about the NFL.
“You’d be softly surprised but I don’t think about the NFL that much,” said Watson. “I tell myself not to. I’m big on being in the moment. If after college, that opportunity presents itself, then, yeah, it would be awesome. I would love to keep playing the game I love. Day to day, though, for me, its looking at the now.”
APU’s offensive line coach is Jackie Slater, one of the finest NFL offensive tackles in the history of the game, and a 2001 inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Two years before he was enshrined in Canton, Slater presented Eric Dickerson, his Los Angeles Rams teammate, at his own induction.
Watson said that Slater often compares him to Dickerson.
“Coach Slater has said a lot about Eric Dickerson, and that’s a big compliment,” said Watson. “I’ve learned a lot from Coach Slater about what it takes at the next level. He played it for 20 years and he said you have to be detail oriented and that’s helped me a lot. Eric Dickerson has come to our practices. We’re friends on Twitter. That means a lot too.”
Nothing, though, is like his relationship with Okoye, the man who put APU’s football program on the map, the players who’s unbreakable records have fallen on Watson’s personal playground.
“Our relationship is really good,” said Watson. “He comes to practice and he’ll ask me how I’m doing. He comes to every game. He asks me what I see. Our offenses are different from each other, so he asks me how I process things. He means so much to this university.”
A university that means so much to Watson. A school that gave him a chance to extend his shelf life, to extend his education, to extend his love for the sport that has made him in to the man he is.
“Its not where you go, it’s how you play,” said Watson. “You don’t have to go to a school that is well known. You go where you can go there and wake up in the morning and enjoy going to class and enjoy being around other students and your teammates.”
Watson has learned much from Santa Cruz, who’s in his ninth year as the head coach at Azusa Pacific.
“What I’ve learned from Coach Santa Cruz is that you don’t let football be who you are,” said Watson. “He’s told us to be more than football. That even if you didn’t have this sport, you’d still know who you are.”
While other Southland players in the class of 2011 flourished in some spots (DeAnthony Thomas was an electrifying player at Oregon and now plays for the same Kansas City Chiefs that Okoye starred for), other running backs, ranked ahead of him and recruited over him fizzled out.
Determined to show that he could play at the next level, Watson said he hasn’t regretted for a second his choice to pick Azusa Pacific University. Mostly because Azusa Pacific picked him.
“I’ve been asked the question a lot if I could see myself at a bigger school,” said Watson. “And I can honestly answer that, no, I couldn’t see myself anywhere else. I feel like APU has shaped me so much in to the man that I am today. That if I hadn’t gone to a school like APU, my values may have changed and I may not be the player that I am today. And more importantly, that I wouldn’t be the man I am today.”
With the success that Watson has had, the national attention has followed.
It’s not as if Azusa Pacific hasn’t had famous alums before. Aside from Okoye, Dave Johnson won a Bronze Medal at the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics but was known more for being Dave in the “Dan and Dave” commercials that year by Reebok.
Bryan Clay was the 2004 Athens Silver Medalist in the decathlon and then won the Gold Medal at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, earning the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete” and his face on a box of Wheaties.
But from a football perspective, Watson has helped moved APU into the national lexicon, slowly but surely.
“Where much is received, much is required,” said Watson. “I’m fine with being the face of the program. As long as we’re winning, we’ll get attention, and I want to keep on winning. All I care about is winning. Do I feel like I’m making APU a national name? I don’t know about all of that. But I hope people recognize and respect the APU football program.”
In APU’s season opener, the game was televised nationally on CBS Sports Network, the No. 24 Cougars against No. 2 Grand Valley State, the school where Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly cut his teeth as a head coach, winning two D-II national titles.
That night, the game Watson calls his most memorable moment in sports, the senior opened the season in style.
He rushed for 202 yards on 42 carries, the fourth time he’d gone over the 200-yard mark in his career.
He scored three touchdowns in the game, two of them in overtime, including the game winner in the second overtime, and carried the ball on each of the 11 snaps that the Cougars had in the two overtimes.
“Grand Valley State, hands down, was for sure the most memorable game in my career,” said Watson. “It’s the most fun game I’ve ever been a part of. It was a David vs. Goliath game. They were No. 2 in the nation and one of the powerhouse programs. We were No. 24 and still new to D-II. And to go out there and see our team in that moment, there is no other greater feeling ever for me to experience.”
Watson celebrates APU's win over Grand Valley State
The workmanlike effort by Watson was a big reason for the win. But he deflects the praise for that game and just about every other game.
“My yards are a tribute to the linemen we have here,” said Watson. “I’m not getting touched until the second level most times.”
In a year where the NFL’s best running back, Adrian Peterson, has been suspended for much of the season, and where the FBS level’s best running back, Todd Gurley, has also been sidelined by a suspension, Watson anonymously and quietly is putting together one of the best seasons by any player on any football field across the country.
And whether he wants to admit it or not, the NFL is a very real possibility, even if he may have to take a path like the one he took to APU, after all the seats on the train have filled up.
“We have had multiple scouts come so far to the school and I’ve met with every last one of them,” said Watson. “They said I have a chance to play in the NFL. One said I have a chance to be drafted. One said I have a chance to be a free agent. But right now, my concern is taking APU to the playoffs and winning.”
Even when his teammates bring up the NFL, Watson is quick to quiet down the conversation.
“I don’t look at it like it’s about getting me ready for the next level,” said Watson. “ I told my teammates that I would do anything to take us to a win. If that’s me carrying 50 times, I can do that. Fortunately the position I play requires me to get yards and touchdowns. But it’s never about me. It’s about the other players who were an APU uniform.
In their first year as a full-fledged member of D-II, the Cougars are in line to receive a berth in to the NCAA D-II playoffs.
In a school that’s produced an NAIA Player of the Year, and an NFL Pro Bowler and conference player of the year, Watson just wants to add to the history of the Cougars.
“Our coaches always talk about leaving a legacy,” said Watson. “And I feel like with all of the stuff we’ve done, winning the conference, beating Grand Valley State on television, having a chance to go to the playoffs, we’ve got a chance to leave a legacy. It’s a testament to our coaches and the way they recruit guys and the way our team plays.”
College football’s best player gets the Heisman Trophy, usually given to the best player at the NCAA D-I FBS level. The best player at the FCS level earns the Walter Payton Award.
For D-II, the highest honor one can attain is the Harlon Hill Trophy, which has seen Danny Woodhead and Ronald Moore, both NFL backs, win in previous years.
Watson is one of the favorites for the Harlon Hill Trophy and APU is campaigning for Watson to win the award (Life on Film: Terrell Watson, Azusa Pacific University).
If the NFL doesn’t find a place for Watson, he’s already at peace with that. Football was supposed to end four years ago. The shelf life isn’t long.
For a student that wasn’t recruited because of his learning disability, expected by many to never accomplish much in the classroom, Watson will instead have a college degree in just a few months.
He’s on track to graduate with his degree in May and he’s already dreaming of a post-football career.
“I’m graduating in May with a degree in sociology,” said Watson. “I want to be a police officer, then be on a SWAT Team. Then hopefully be hired by the DEA. I already know what I want from my career after football.”
His parents, the ones who took him in when he was two weeks old, who adopted him and raised him, can be seen at every APU game.
“My family comes to every game,” said Watson. “They come to every home game and they make pretty much every away game.”
Like all who know Watson, they’re thrilled to see what his football endeavors have brought. But they’re more concerned with who he’s become off the field.
“From when they got me at two weeks old, to when I was getting in trouble as a little kid with school, to the man I am now, I know they are proud of me, and I’m proud of them and love them,” said Watson.
While many college all-American’s are counting down the days in their college career, thinking of what they’ll spend their first professional paycheck on, Watson thinks about the now.
“I’m a pretty plain and boring person,” said Watson. “It’s cool for people to know that there are NFL scouts at our practices and games, and it will help with recruiting, that if a player chooses to come to APU, they could be seen too and it will help with the recruiting process. But I worry about now. I worry about winning. I’m boring.”
Down the street from APU is one of America’s most famous donut shops, ‘Donut Man’. Often featured on television shows, Donut Man is known for its foot long Tiger Tail donuts and its Famous Strawberry Stuffed donuts.
When Watson goes to Donut Man, though, he orders the same thing.
“I get a sugar donut every time,” said Watson. “I’m a plain person.”
A plain person with no ordinary path to the success he’s enjoying.
“I didn’t really envision things playing out the way they did,” said Watson. “But it’s cool to look back at how I first got here and to see now where I could be headed.”
When Watson leaves, he’ll own numerous records. He’ll leave a gaping hole in the Cougar offense.
But he’s already helping the next generation of Cougar backs realize the importance of their role in the offense and in the community.
“I’ve told our young backs and Coach Buys and I talk about it all the time, that if they understand the system, they’ll be great backs,” said Watson. “But I want them to be great guys for us and this school.”
A statement that Watson has embodied as he’s extended his shelf life as a college running back, but more importantly, as he’s become the student and man that Azusa Pacific was determined to turn him in to.