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Clemson's Carlos Watkins Was Devastated by Personal Tragedy, but Not Defeated

Greg CouchNational ColumnistJanuary 8, 2016

Nov 29, 2014; Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson Tigers defensive tackle Carlos Watkins (94) brings down South Carolina Gamecocks running back David Williams (33) during the first half at Clemson Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

The moral of Carlos Watkins' story is that there isn't a moral to every story. You just go about your life, through incredible highs and outrageous lows, and celebrate one and try to survive the other.

Watkins is at a high point right now. A defensive tackle at Clemson, he will play Alabama on Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship. He made the key play of Clemson's dream season, the one that made his team fully believe it could get here.

A year ago, he was on the team but not in position physically, emotionally or mentally—for sure not mentally—to make a play like that.

Watkins was still suffering after a car crash left him trapped in the passenger seat for two hours while the fire department arrived and tried to figure out how to get a 295-pound man out of the wreckage. He was in and out of consciousness, with one of his best friends screaming next to him and another dear friend hanging halfway out the window, not bleeding, not moving. When Watkins was awake enough, he knew that friend was dead.

Two hours of that. Imagine.

"I was just wanting to move," he said. "My legs were falling asleep. I started panicking."

That was in September 2013. It's been a long journey for Watkins from that day to Monday's national championship game. It took time, caring, loving and hard work. His support base back home in Mooresboro, North Carolina, helped him through. And it's one of the special things about the Clemson program, and head coach Dabo Swinney, that the place feels like a family.

Nov 28, 2015; Columbia, SC, USA; Clemson Tigers defensive end Shaq Lawson (90) and defensive tackle Carlos Watkins (94) celebrate after the play during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Williams-Brice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joshua
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

"The physical aspect for him was more of a process that he felt he had more control over than the mental anguish of losing such a close friend," Daniel Bailey, who was Watkins' coach at Chase High, said. "I think that just kind of weighed on him pretty heavy. I told him that death is not easy for anybody, but much less for a young person. You have such a long life in front of you and ahead of you, it kind of derails your plans.

"With Carlos and his nature, he's a football player, but he's never been one to like to really hurt people. He doesn't like seeing anybody hurt. He's just a tenderhearted young man. And they'd all grown up together [Watkins and his friends], and the families are so close. There was no one blaming anyone. I think the biggest change in him is that he knows some things are just out of your control. They were not doing anything wrong. He had to come to the realization that things just happen."

When Watkins describes it now, he tells the story so calmly, even the horror of it: There was no alcohol involved. There was no other car. There was just a rainstorm, Watkins' SUV and a telephone pole.

He had let his friend and cousin Tajae McMullens drive. Watkins sat in the passenger seat. Dache Gossett, nicknamed 'Sheeke,' who was a former quarterback on Watkins' high school team, was in the back. It was just a few days after Watkins had started in Clemson's game against NC State.

The three young men were headed to a cookout when the SUV hydroplaned and ran into a telephone pole, splitting the pole in half. It fell onto the car and into Watkins' lap. It was only the massive muscles in his legs that kept them from snapping in two, too.

"My cousin was driving the car, and he came up on a turn and me and my friend yelled his name," Watkins said. "He tried to get back to the road and he hit a pole. The window shattered, and I think my head shattered the window, because I was unconscious for a little bit, which I didn't know.

"Somehow, part of the pole had lodged in the car. It was on my legs, and I couldn't move. I had to wait until the fire trucks got there to cut the pole out. They had to drag me out of the back window. I had regained consciousness. I woke up, and my cousin was screaming in the driver's seat."

And what about his friend in the back seat?

"Once I woke up and turned around, I just saw his legs, and half of his body was outside the car."

Watkins spent three days in the hospital with blood clots in both legs. He said he had trouble eating, lost 30 pounds and got emotional help from a team counselor, his coaches and teammates. He felt the accident was his fault—that if he had been driving, maybe his friend wouldn't have died.

"It was my car," he said. "I could have been the one driving to prevent this."

Watkins had back, hip and leg injuries, too, and he said it was hard to get back physically to playing condition. He didn't play the rest of 2013 and wasn't the same when he returned to the field in 2014.

Life moves on for Watkins. And this year, as a fourth-year junior, he made second-team All-ACC. He returned an interception for a touchdown against Appalachian State on what would have been Sheeke's birthday.

Sep 12, 2015; Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson Tigers defensive tackle Carlos Watkins (94) carries the ball during the first half against the Appalachian State Mountaineers at Clemson Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

But his big moment was in the Notre Dame game. In the week leading up to the Orange Bowl, three Clemson players admitted to me they weren't 100 percent sold the team was good enough to win a national title until after it beat the Irish on Oct. 3. That turned out to be Watkins' moment—and the team's moment.

Clemson was up 18 points in the game, but the Irish came back and scored a touchdown with seven seconds left. With all the momentum, Notre Dame just needed a two-point conversion to take the game to overtime. Watkins made the tackle, stopping quarterback DeShone Kizer on the 2-yard line, and Clemson won.

"It happened fast," Watkins, who remembered feeling exhausted going into the play, said. "I actually took a bad step on that play. I stepped inside, and it kind of threw me out of position. But I got back, rolled my guard, and the quarterback ended up coming to me. Once we made that play, it was like a lot of relief."

Clemson improved to 4-0 with that win and has just kept winning, bringing a 14-0 record into the championship game.

Bailey has told Watkins no matter what happens in the championship game, everyone back home is proud of him, proud of the way he represents himself, their community, Clemson University.

From tragedy to the mountaintop. What's the moral? No moral, really.

"This right here is the story of my life," Watkins said. "I remember talking to my dad when I was younger. We used to watch NFL or basketball players have a life story, some sort of tragic incident they went through. I told my dad, 'I really don't have [a] story.'

"He said, 'You'll have one.' I feel like this is one of those stories."

It's not exactly a story anyone would want, but you don't always get to choose. You just live it.

Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report.

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