Linebacker Courtney Watson, who led the Irish in tackles in 2002-03 and was at the forefront of Notre Dame’s first 10-victory season in nine years, has been a contributor to Irish Illustrated’s Captain’s Corner series.
Earlier this week, he weighed in on the two incidents from this past weekend that led to the arrest of six Notre Dame football players.
Still living in his hometown of Sarasota, Fla., and working as a firefighter, he is surrounded by college football fans who don’t understand – in his mind – the difference between Notre Dame and other college football powers.
Watson lends a bit of perspective on what it’s like to be a football player at Notre Dame.
It’s unfortunate that today’s college athlete is held to the kind of standards we place on guys like Tom Brady and other professional athletes. Ryan Lochte is 32-years-old and he made a decision in Rio that will impact him for the rest of his life.
That’s the way we judge 18-, 19-, 20-year-old college athletes today and it’s tough for someone so young, away from home and trying to adapt to Notre Dame, to make mature decisions. Lochte is 32 and he didn’t.
The end of camp, whether it’s high school, college or professional, is always a time when players feel like they’ve gotten over the hump. You can understand kids that have been ‘locked up’ for weeks, only doing football 24 hours a day, seven days a week, wanting to let off some steam. I can remember looking forward to the start of school because at least then, you had a ‘distraction’ from football.
When I was at Notre Dame, 10 percent of the guys really had aspirations to play in the NFL, but the other 90 percent didn’t want to play football beyond college. They wanted to enjoy the college experience. They wanted to enjoy all the stuff that comes with being at Notre Dame.
That’s not an excuse and it doesn’t condone the actions, but if you look at a different perspective, you can understand someone wanting to go out and have a good time. Now, you have to do it within reason. Having weapons is never a good thing, especially if you’re drinking and doing drugs. But wanting to blow off some steam is natural. If you didn’t, you’d go crazy.
The players know from the beginning that they’re not supposed to have guns on campus. Everybody knows that and Notre Dame does a very good job of letting us know that. But as far as the early prosecution of everyone, the way they’ve been shown on ESPN the last four days, it’s not right, but it comes with being at Notre Dame.
If these were guys in the NFL, it’s a totally different conversation. But these are young kids away from home, living the college experience, maybe alcohol and drugs were involved…To write them off and then to write off the program and talk about Brian Kelly not being vigilant enough is just not an accurate portrayal of Notre Dame.
This is not like Florida when Urban Meyer was there and guys were getting arrested for violent crimes on a regular basis. I love Urban Meyer, but just to use an example, this isn’t that. This isn’t Baylor where we’re having accusations of a mass cover-up of domestic violence and rape. These are stupid mistakes that are all misdemeanors. I’m not excusing it, but we need some perspective.
One of the good things that can come out of this is that if you’re a guy down on the depth chart, this gives you multiple games to develop even more depth, which is something that’s hampered Notre Dame since I was there. Having the twos and threes that can step in and play well certainly was beneficial last year, particularly at the quarterback position.
Even if the opportunity is only to get in a special teams role right now, that playing experience and being a part of the game plan was the biggest jump for me. When I went from a special-teamer to a starter who was a part of everything, being engaged, every meeting, you’re an integral part of it.
If you’re at work and you’re not part of a project, you’re not going to necessarily be as engaged in that project as you would be if you were a part of that project. To be involved in game-planning situations can help spur some growth from some of the younger guys even faster.
I live in Florida and there are a ton of Gators fans down here. When you try to explain to people how difficult it is to get good players at Notre Dame, they just kind of laugh it off because they see us on television and they don’t see it that way.
I’m not saying Notre Dame is the equivalent of the SEC elite. But to be able to go out and compete against the Pac 12 and ACC teams with twos and threes, that’s saying a lot. We’re not playing a Florida State schedule where half the teams in the conference were .500 or below last year.
Making a decisive decision in terms of punishment is always a good thing. Even if you get it wrong or need to adjust it, at least it’s already done. When you sit back and allow the media to rail on Notre Dame, you’re never going to win. If you make a decision quick enough and all you get is the media’s reaction to the decision, that’s just a reaction.
If Kelly and the school react quickly, it’s done and we move on.
Another thing that gets lost in all this is that whatever the suspension the player gets is just football. They still have to deal with the school. How many other top 10 programs do the same thing?
For example, the Jameis Winston situation at Florida State a couple of years ago. The lack of the school acting on the alleged things that happened has now brought a lawsuit on that school. They’re being sued for their inactivity. That would never happen at Notre Dame. You have to deal with the coach, and THEN you have to deal with Residence Life.
There were two guys at Alabama this summer, and one of them (offensive tackle Cam Robinson) is a top 10 pick. They were giving Nick Saban grief for what he did or did not do with those players. Yet at no point did anybody talk about the players getting kicked out of school.
My sophomore year, Notre Dame kicked off the best football player on the team (Julius Jones) for an entire year because he didn’t go to class. When did that ever happen at Alabama or Florida State or any other place? They leave it up to the coach. Notre Dame doesn’t function that way and that’s a difference that should be made.
Brian Kelly and Notre Dame will do the right thing. They won’t cut corners just for the sake of having another good football player on the field. It’s unfortunate when these things happen, but they do happen, and how a school responds to it says a lot.