Originally published October 2002 (vol. 1, no. 3) in The Bootleg Magazine. "The Watkins Award" by Mike Eubanks
The National Alliance of African American Athletes presents the Watkins Memorial Trophy annually to honor the most outstanding African American male high school senior student-athlete. The Watkins Award is the most prestigious award today for young black males in the country, yet chances are you have never heard of it. The young men who are selected each year as Watkins Finalists are winners in the classroom, in their communities and on the field – criteria that epitomize Stanford University's student-athletes. So, it is not surprising that Stanford has dominated this award, and the underlying story of the Watkins and Stanford institutions and the young men that connect them is long overdue.
On today's Cardinal football roster, you can find the past two winners of the Watkins Award and six of the 17 Watkins Finalists from the past four years. With a nationwide search that covers every corner of every state in this country, this resulting concentration of excellence is remarkable. No other university even comes close, with the other 11 finalists from the past four years spread out among 11 schools. Stanford's proud honorees include this year's winner Marcus McCutcheon, the 2001 winner Michael Craven, 2001 finalist J.R. Lemon, 2000 finalist Brandon Royster, 1999 finalist Chris Lewis and 1999 finalist Luke Powell. Stanford head coach Buddy Teevens proudly calls this fine group of young men, "people whom you would like your children to be around."
The obvious question is why have so many Watkins kids chosen Stanford over other top football programs in the country? Redshirt freshman tailback J.R. Lemon examined all of his options more deeply than 99% of high school recruits because of his father's position as a Federal education investigator. What he saw on his innumerable visits impacted him. "There were only two teams in the country, where at the end of the day, the whole team got together to say, 'Where are we going, as a team?' Just Stanford and Miami," recalls Lemon.
Redshirt junior wide receiver Luke Powell similarly notes, "You might have an idea about a school, or how good their football program is, but when you go there, you see that the team is segregated. You may be together for a dinner, but then after that you won't see the white recruits or the other white players on the team. Here at Stanford, I can really say that when you go where the football team is hanging out, you are going to see black faces and white faces – there is hardly ever a segregated moment."
Quarterback Chris Lewis connected with Powell when they were recruited in the same class, and they have been connecting for big plays on the field ever since. Lewis cites the camaraderie with Powell and all of his teammates as an attribute of Stanford. "I really don't think anyone else in the country has the bond that we do. We hang out together all the time," attests Lewis. "There are no racial boundaries with any of our players."
It is indeed immediately clear that these players recognize the unique and attractive fit with Stanford football. As the talk spread to more overarching characteristics of Stanford University that they sought as young African Americans, freshman cornerback Marcus McCutcheon confirms, "I think it's a great place for anybody for the lifestyle – not just academics or athletics. It is a great place for gifted and achieving African Americans because there are so many here just like you."
Lemon chimes in with another factor that helped him decide to travel 3000 miles from home. "It's in California," the Atlanta native grins, "with beautiful weather all the time!" Redshirt sophomore receiver Brandon Royster came from Virginia, amidst heavy pressure from UVA and Virginia Tech, and also glibly cites, "The one thing I don't miss back East is all that snow." Royster then more seriously admits, "But the real reason I came out here was Stanford itself, and that doesn't matter whether it is located in the East or the West. There are so many benefits to being out here, and it's been great so far".
As confirmation of this exemplary fit for young black males at Stanford, look no further than the 2001 report by Black Enterprise magazine on the Top Colleges for African Americans. This report surveyed 936 African American professionals in higher education for their ratings of universities' social and educational environments for black students. Stanford rated #7 on the prestigious list, and was notably the #1 school with an enrollment that is not predominately (over 90%) black students. Stanford is also the only school in the top ten competing in Division I-A football.
Linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Tom Williams presents a unique African American perspective on Stanford. As a former player and now current coach, he has seen Stanford through the years from different perspectives. The one constant of excellence he has noted all this time has been the people. "It's the clientele you deal with – the movers and shakers of the world. Not only are you with them in the classroom, but you live next to them in your dorm. Your classmates and teammates will all move on to be the leaders of tomorrow," he said.
Another nationally regarded young black coach came to Stanford as part of this new staff, but he had none of Williams' ties to The Farm. Associate head coach and receivers coach David Kelly describes himself as "Southern Dave," with all of his life defined by things East of the Mississippi. That was, until he accepted an invitation as a personal favor to Buddy Teevens last January to consider Stanford. "I had zero intention of coming to Stanford and fully expected to turn right back around the next day to go home to my family in Atlanta," admits Kelly. Instead, he was unexpectedly impacted by these Stanford kids, with what they said, how they carried themselves and how they treated one another. By that night, he was on the hook.
"I've been to a lot of excellent universities," Kelly says, "but this place is second to none. Regardless of where someone is or what their situation is, if they are a current or former member of the Stanford family, they will do anything to help pull another up. Our present kids – they all like each other, care for each other, have a concern for each other. It's almost as if we are living in a fantasy world here at Stanford because it's not supposed to be this way. The biases and the jealousies with people pulling against each other – here, there's none of that."
That fantasyland is what drew in these amazing young men, and each of them in turn helped to pull in another. C