Before Manti, Jaylon, there was Courtney

With no prep background at the position, Watson became the most dominant Irish LB of the decade, leading the team in tackles in 2002-03 with 39 career tackles for loss.

In an era when quality individual play often was overlooked by the team’s failure to match the consistent success of the Lou Holtz era, 6-foot-1, 234-pound Courtney Watson was a standout for the Fighting Irish.

Watson, a Sarasota, Fla., product who rushed for 1,220 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior at Riverview High School, blossomed into a quality college linebacker, pacing the team in tackles in 2002 and 2003 while also becoming Notre Dame’s big-play man on defense (along with defensive linemen Anthony Weaver and Justin Tuck).

Watson was a ball hawk for the Irish. As a red-shirt sophomore in 2001, he had 18 tackles against Nebraska in his first career start, and 10 each against Michigan State and Texas A&M.

A year later, he was named to the ESPN.com first-team All-American squad when he had 90 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, eight passes broken up and four interceptions, including a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown against Florida State. Against Michigan State, he had 15 tackles, 12 of which were solo.

Watson capped off his college career with a 117-tackle fifth-year senior season, totaling 15 tackles for loss, 3 ½ sacks and two more interceptions.

Watson’s brilliant college career – 294 tackles, 39 tackles for loss, 8 ½ sacks and seven interceptions – led to a second-round draft selection (60th overall) by the New Orleans Saints. After a brief yet productive stint with the Saints, Watson, now 35, bounced around with a couple of organizations before settling on a new career – firefighter – in his hometown of Sarasota, Fla.

TIM PRISTER: When Lou Holtz and his recruiting coordinator, Vinny Cerrato, arrived at Notre Dame in the 1980s, a pipeline between Florida and Notre Dame was established. You came along a bit later under Bob Davie. What prompted you leave Florida to come to Notre Dame?
COURTNEY WATSON: Just like you see now in college football where top-rated players from the east are going out west, or top-rated players in the west are going east, I think television exposure and the education of kids and parents have shown that playing time and opportunity can be found in many places.

Offensive schemes have made the landscape so even that you can have a University of Houston turnaround in one season because of a coach and a quarterback. The opportunities for a player to go somewhere and compete are everywhere. If you leave after your junior year, you may get only 36 games to showcase your ability, and that’s not a lot.

The exposure that Notre Dame offers athletes that can get into Notre Dame is a huge opportunity because if you listen to the NFL people, they’ll say that guys coming out of Notre Dame tend to be a bit overrated, but that can work in your favor, too.

TP: Did you have any trepidation about leaving Florida and coming up to South Bend?
CW: For me, I didn’t have any trepidation because the examples that I used are the ones that I applied to my decision. Not so much for the NFL because when I was being recruited, the NFL wasn’t anywhere on my play card.

But when you’re recruited by Charlie Strong and Urban Meyer, both of whom were at Notre Dame at the time, you connect as young guys and get past some of the old stodginess of Notre Dame. They got us to focus on the future.

If you go back and look at my recruiting class (1999), that’s one of the best recruiting classes we had in the last 15 or 20 years based on what we did on the collegiate level and how many guys we got placed in the NFL, and we didn’t even have a quarterback in that class. That was the year we had (quarterback) C.J. Leak and we ended up losing him.

TP: Who did you ultimately choose Notre Dame over? What other schools did you consider?
CW: I only took three visits – Notre Dame, Duke and Georgia. So for me, it was down to Notre Dame and Duke.

At the time, I was also being recruited by Michigan and Stanford. Lloyd Carr didn’t do it for me. But when Tyrone Willingham was still at Stanford, after I took my SATs, they came back to me and said, ‘Hey, we want to offer you, but we want you to take the test again. We want you to score 100 points higher.’

I was like, ‘Notre Dame, Duke, Michigan…All these schools want me just the way I am.’ I loved Stanford and I would have loved to live in northern California for four or five years. But retaking the test on the possibility they would offer me didn’t appeal to me at the time. So that was it.

So two years later, I’m at Notre Dame and Willingham comes in as the head coach. The guy who was recruiting me at Stanford had been running backs coach Buzz Preston. Now he was coaching at Notre Dame. So I ended up playing for those guys anyway.

TP: You rushed for about 1,500 yards your senior year in high school. So when Notre Dame recruited you, was it as a linebacker or did you still consider yourself to be a running back?
CW: They recruited me as an athlete. They told me they would give me a shot at running back, which they did. But when I walked in the door, a guy named Julius Jones happened to be walking in the door at the same time. So that freshman camp was essentially me realizing that my days as a running back were over.

From there, they put me in the secondary. Then after my freshman year, they told me I would be switching over to linebacker. Up to that point, they had me playing a little safety, a little cornerback.

TP: You preserved a year of eligibility your first year. What was that transition like to major college football at a new position and probably a bit undersized at that?
CW: The beginning of it was literally trying to learn a foreign language. I was thrown into and immersed into something that I did not know in terms of verbiage and terminology. And I was with Anthony Denman, Tyreo Harrison and Rocky Boiman, all of whom were all-conference type players. We also had Kirk Doll as our linebackers coach, who came from Texas A&M and was accustomed to coaching great players.

My first day of practice at linebacker, I was second team behind Denman, taking reps with the twos, and Kirk Doll is standing behind me, lining me up, and telling me to go right or left. I literally was just running where he told me to run. That was how it started.

Four years later, I was team captain, Butkus finalist and all that stuff. It’s amazing what can happen in such a short period of time. By that point, I felt I could play in just about any system and excel in it.

TP: You were at Notre Dame at a time when you guys were one year up, one year down, one year up, one year down. Bob Davie was new to head coaching. What was the state of the program at that time?
CW: We were never able to nail down an offensive identity. When (quarterback) Jarious (Jackson) left after the 1999 season, we stumbled along with whatever was handed to us at the time and tried to adapt to that.

We overcame that in 2000 (when the Irish finished 9-3) because we had a senior-laden defense that was opportunistic and could bail out the offense. We dominated a lot of games on defense and created turnovers, getting extra possessions for our offense. Then we became uber conservative on offense and relied on our defense and special teams.

We had guys getting hurt. Carlyle Holiday got hurt at quarterback and we had a walk-on, Pat Dillingham, come in and play. We had true freshmen playing quarterback (Matt LoVecchio in 2000-01, Brady Quinn in 2003), so we scaled things back even more. Then Carlyle got moved to wide receiver, we brought in Jared Clark, and then put Gary Godsey there. We never really settled in at the quarterback position.

Losing C.J. Leak on signing day – regardless whether he was going to be good, bad or whatever – we didn’t have that safety valve to go back to. We got top-rated recruits, but looking back on it, they weren’t for the system we had. So we were always trying to tailor something for somebody and they weren’t the best fit for that particular offense.

TP: I’ve always said the 2002 defense under Kent Baer in Tyrone Willingham’s first season at Notre Dame was one of the most underrated defenses in school history. What was it like playing for Kent Baer? You guys appeared to be pretty solid and fundamentally sound.
CW: That’s exactly what Coach Baer was. He was a solid, fundamental guy. Our playbook was not huge. He was high on execution. He wanted us to be able to line up and play, and when we needed to make in-game adjustments, he was very good. It helped we had a senior group that understood the philosophy and what we were trying to do. We were able to adjust to things on the fly.

When I was a fifth-year senior, I was 24-years old, and we had some coaches who were 31-, 34-, 35-years old who had been coaching in college for quite some time. You couple that with players that were 21-to-23 years old, so as long as you’re buying into it and are on the same page, you had a recipe for success, albeit for short periods of time.

The 2002 season was a culmination of that. We were an opportunistic defense. We scored a lot of points that year on defense. It was all those things mixed together.

TP: Why didn’t it work for Bob Davie?
CW: Coach Davie, at the time, was not ready for the scope of the position. Being there as a defensive coordinator and having Lou Holtz take all of that pressure off so he could focus on his job in the film room made Davie’s first job at Notre Dame easier. When he had to do everything else as the head coach, it put such a big strain on him that he wasn’t able to make the best decisions all the time.

It’s kind of like Chip Kelly. Maybe your first gig in the NFL shouldn’t have been in Philly because that’s a football market and they’re going to pay attention to everything you do. Maybe Davie’s first job – even though he was recommended by Holtz – should have been at A&M or somewhere else.

It’s not that I don’t think Bob Davie was a good coach. I, personally, loved him as a coach. But I was a defensive player. Had I been an offensive player, I don’t know how I would have felt about him.

TP: What influence did Coach Willingham have on you?
CW: For me, Willingham brought a different level of expectation to the program. With Davie, he expected you to go A+ in the weight room, A+ on the field, A+ in the film study, and come out and play and perform.

With Coach Willingham, it was literally I want you to be A+ in every single thing you do every day you wake up. That means saying please and thank you to the people who were serving you lunch in the cafeteria. He expected you to excel at every single thing you did while you were representing the university and representing yourself and your parents.

That’s the way he approached his daily life and he wanted that for his players. To me, Davie was a good ol’ ball coach. Let’s be prepared for the game, everything else will work its way out, and come Saturday, we’re going to be ready to hit somebody in the teeth.

TP: Willingham always struck me as a guy who coached for the right reasons, and he walked the walk that he talked, so to speak, but there was a finite amount of time that he allotted for football and he didn’t veer from that plan.
CW: When I was a senior, I had gotten elected to be a student senator representing my dorm. We had meetings every Tuesday or Thursday, and they were during our practice time. I had discussed this with him before I ran for the position. I honestly didn’t think I would get the position. He was fine with it, even though Tuesday was install day during the season. He let me miss the first couple periods of practice once a week.

Just to compare the situations, if that were Davie, I never would have considered running for office. I definitely wouldn’t have gone to him to ask to miss practice time because I would have already known the answer.

TP: You were already gone from Notre Dame when Willingham was fired. What was your reaction to it?
CW: I thought it was an overreaction. To me, it was not only an overreaction to let him go, but it was an overreaction to think that Charlie Weis was going to change the world at Notre Dame. Sometimes we think the grass is greener on the other side, and that’s not always true. The next offensive guru is not always the answer to run a program.

TP: What were some of the games that stand out to you during your time at Notre Dame? You certainly opened with a splash under Willingham in 2002 with eight straight victories out of the chute.
CW: For me, the most memorable time was the 2002 season, obviously because of our fast start. It started out as one of those magical-type seasons and to be a part of that program and to have a run like that was fitting.

My first game starting at linebacker in 2001 when we went to Nebraska to start the season was very memorable. They had the Heisman Trophy winner, Eric Crouch, at quarterback. I had 18 tackles in Nebraska’s Stadium. I think about both of my games against Florida State (2002-03) because I grew up a Florida State fan. Going to Tallahassee in ’02, beating them and picking off (quarterback) Chris Rix was memorable.

Unfortunately, we then suffered the worst home defeat in Notre Dame history (37-0 in ’03) to Florida State. But individually having a good game and reading the quote from Bobby Bowden saying they screwed up by not recruiting me left an impression.

There was also the Gator Bowl and playing N.C. State, who was quarterbacked by Philip Rivers. I was injured and couldn’t play in that game. Being there for bowl week and not being able to participate was very difficult for me. My injury was late in the season, so that was devastating.

TP: After your last year at Notre Dame in ’03 and until Manti Te’o came along, you set the standard for linebacker play. How did you perceive yourself coming out of Notre Dame?
CW: When I was coming out, I was pretty confident in myself and pretty confident in my skill set. The only problem at that time was we were pretty much just playing Big Ten, Pac 10 and Big East teams. I didn’t get a chance to play against any SEC schools or anyone like that.

The year I came out was a good year for linebackers – a couple guys from the SEC, a couple guys from Oklahoma -- so I perceived myself pretty well. But I automatically put a knock on myself just based upon where these other linebackers were coming from.

Then we go to the combine and all of a sudden I thought that maybe I was selling myself short. Maybe I’m better than I thought I was. It was a learning process for me. I thought a certain way about myself and it was kind of a rollercoaster until I got the validation of that draft pick. That helped me with my confidence walking into New Orleans.

TP: So you were a second-round pick of the Saints. What was your NFL experience like? You were with them for a couple of years and started a bunch of games.
CW: Getting drafted that high is a dream come true. I didn’t have a team per se that I grew up rooting for, so when I went to New Orleans, I kind of adopted that place as a second home. I thought I was going to be there for eight or 10 years.

We didn’t have much success when I was there. They made a coaching change around the time of Katrina. Jim Hazlett was our head coach. Then they brought in Sean Payton, who brought with him a lot of guys from the Cowboys. They switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4, and that’s when the movement started.

Once I was moved by the Saints, I was never able to catch on with a team and get on my feet and get comfortable because in New Orleans, I started every game my first two seasons. But when they made the head-coaching change, they made the coordinator change also. I was unable to impress in the 3-4 defense as an undersized inside linebacker.

TP: So you were healthy? An injury didn’t derail your career?
CW: In my rookie season, I missed two games with a knee. But I started the rest of the games. I started all 16 my second year. When I got traded, at the end of my second year, I was coming back from an injury and was a little out of shape.

But when I went to Buffalo, I was totally healthy. The things they wanted me to do, my skills did not translate. So they let me go and I ended up going to Houston. They wanted to keep me on, but because of my service time, they couldn’t put me on the practice squad. So at that point, they either had to sign me and cut me and sign someone else. Once that season was done, it was time for me to move on with my life.

TP: You began the process of joining the fire department in 2009. Was that something you had always wanted to do, or was it a part of your family growing up?
CW: Absolutely not. I knew nothing about it. I came back home, and I ran into a guy I went to high school with and a family friend of mine who was in the higher echelon of the fire department. They started talking to me about the department and how it was very much like a locker room atmosphere, a lot of teamwork, and it piqued my interest.

So I decided to sign up for fire school, just to see if I liked it. It took me about two weeks and I was like, ‘Dude, this is it. I like this. I want to pursue this.’ It moved quickly. I went to fire school, EMT training, and I tested at the beginning of 2009. I was hired in July of 2009.

TP: You are very passionate about being a firefighter.
CW: Absolutely. I’ve been here almost seven years and I am very passionate about it. There’s a lot of civic duty that comes along with it. There are so many things you do that are positive that you don’t know if you’re not involved in it or don’t have family members in it.

My entire life – from the age of five until my last year of playing football – I’d always been a part of a team. I’d always been in a locker room. The fire station replaces that for me. It’s just like a locker room and just like a team. When we’re working on a shift, we’re a team for that day. You know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s something that I’m very passionate about and very important to me because it still gives me many of the same feelings I had when I played football.

TP: I imagine you’ve found yourself in some very dangerous situations.
CW: You avoid them when you can, but sometimes you can’t. It’s like walking into a big game. You have that adrenaline flowing and you have to use your training and get through the task at hand, regardless of the situation. It’s like walking into Nebraska’s stadium and it’s 100,000 people, it’s your first game starting, and you’re playing against the Heisman Trophy winner. I need to calm myself because I’ve got 10 other guys looking at me to see if I can handle the pressure.

We deal with those same situations, except this is life or death for the people we’re working on where football is just a game and you want to excel because it’s something you care about. I enjoy doing it. I love it.


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