As his father followed the bouncing basketball for a paycheck through Europe and South America, Deon Watson Jr. saw exotic ports of call, met interesting new playmates and acquired some skills which flabbergasted his parents.
And being a tot at the time, he remembers next to none of it.
“We would put him in school in most places,” recalled Deon Sr., “and he would come home speaking Spanish. He’d pick it up from classmates in daycare and we wouldn’t know what he’d be saying.”
That wouldn’t necessarily be the last time young Deon crossed up the old man – he picked football as his athletic path.
But otherwise the parallels run pretty true.
Like his dad – and his mother, Anna Hegbloom – he chose the University of Idaho. Like his dad, he endured a coaching change before he’d even played a game. Like his dad, he stuck it out and found a niche under an exacting replacement.
And like his dad, Deon Watson Jr.’s truth is in the staying.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard,” said Watson. “It’s hard, coming off a 1-11 season and those days being up at 5:30 to do a workout. It took a lot of faith and hard work. But just not giving up was what it was all about.”
Now UI’s senior receiver from Coeur d’Alene is down to his last workout Wednesday – at a more reasonable hour – on the eve of the Vandals’ appearance in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise against Colorado State.
The 41 bowl games are a veritable holiday forest, and there are bound to be some Charlie Brown trees among the full, lush spruces. The Potato may be one of those on its face – the report that CSU has managed to peddle only about 450 of its allotted tickets is certainly telling.
But the easiest way to justify the excess of games is to trot out the example of an Idaho, and the premise that somewhere there needs to be a reward for the Vandals’ special kind of success this season. For a program that prevailed through far too many disparagements in its recent history – even in just struggling to find its place – this doesn’t have to be deliverance.
It’s just a well-deserved good time.
When he signed with Idaho in 2012, Watson knew there would be challenges – but he’d been through those before.
“It was the same when I went into (high school),” he said. “They were 3-9. But we had a good group of guys and by my senior year, we were undefeated. But coming in (to Idaho) I just felt confident we could change the atmosphere and turn the program around.”
But first, a death spiral. Coach Robb Akey was fired midway through Watson’s redshirt season. Two more one-win seasons followed under Paul Petrino, whose doctrine was to turn up the heat. Players fell by the wayside – including Chad Chalich, who’d done the pitching for Watson’s catching in high school.
Watson wrestled with moving on, too, in discussions with his parents.
“It was just a situation where, although I wasn’t seeing many balls, I was getting a lot of playing time,” he said. “I felt like Petrino had faith in my ability. It was hard, but I had a feeling I was going to grow.”
His father could empathize. Deon Sr. didn’t play on bad teams – the Vandals were 79-43 in his four years in the early ‘90s. But the coach he’d signed with – Kermit Davis – vamoosed to Texas A&M, and in his place came Larry Eustachy.
“He was a coach like Petrino – very demanding,” said Watson’s father. “You play for guys like that and you get out and life is easier – no boss is going to say anything I hadn’t heard. He was just trying to get the best out of you in his way.
“What I tried to tell Deon was that the hard times are when you learn the most about yourself. It’s one thing if you’re not happy with how you’re being treated, but don’t leave because you’re not playing or not winning. That’s not a good enough reason.”
So you work a little harder, stay a little longer, develop a thicker skin. Watson also pitched to “play a bigger role” on the team, and became a hybrid tight end-receiver whose size offered the Vandals another dimension. Nine touchdowns among his 47 catches during Idaho’s 2015 bridge year showed his value. On the day Idaho became bowl eligible, he racked up 116 yards on just five catches. And 10 days ago, he collected his degree in general studies, with an emphasis in nutrition.
Now there’s one more game.
Bowl weeks are business, yes, but they’re about laughter, too. On Monday, Watson posted to Twitter a UI video in which his teammates were asked to name all the potato variations they could muster.
“I froze up,” he wrote. “I said powdered mash potatoes. Glad they left that off. “
No sweat. Start to finish, Deon Watson Jr. got more than enough right.
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