By Steve Gunn
He made the jump with two teammates – Cameron Martinez and Jordan Porter. Of course Martinez, an All-State quarterback at MCC, got most of the headlines, while Watts and Porter’s arrival drew far less publicity.
That didn’t matter to Watts, a small but speedy running back who had shown real potential at MCC.
He had experienced a state championship as a freshman, when the Crusaders won their fourth straight Division 8 title in 2016, but was limited to playing on special teams that season.
He wanted to experience that feeling as a starter, while playing at a bigger school against some of the elite teams he had watched in the finals at Detroit’s Ford Field, like Detroit King and Warren De La Salle.
But midway through last season he made a decision that nearly ended his football career, quitting the Big Reds for personal reasons, well before the state playoffs. Muskegon made it to the Division 3 state championship game, but Watts wasn’t there to participate.
“I didn’t have my head on straight, to be perfectly honest,” Watts told LocalSportsJournal.com.
At some schools that might have been the end of Watts’ career, but they believe in second chances at Muskegon.
He talked to Big Reds Coach Shane Fairfield in the offseason, asking for the opportunity to rejoin the team. He agreed to run track in the spring, a sport that Fairfield also coaches, to prove he could make it through a full season without walking away.
He was allowed back on the football team this season, but wasn’t handed anything. The coaches and other players put him through the paces and made him earn his place again.
Despite the challenges, Watts kept working and never gave up, and was finally given the chance to start in the Big Reds’ third game of the season against East Grand Rapids. He started in place of Tarran Walker, a talented two-way player who was freed up to concentrate on his defensive duties.
Last Friday Watts cashed in on his second chance, rushing for 185 yards on 14 carries and scoring four touchdowns in Muskegon’s 59-0 victory over Fruitport in the pouring rain. He had scoring runs of 21, 37, 2 and 62 yards.
Martinez gets most of the carries for the Big Reds, and deservedly so. But Watts’ performance made it clear that Muskegon has more than one offensive weapon.
“I look at it like, if a running back can help, that’s another threat for us,” said Watts, who will be in the backfield on Friday when the Big Reds travel to Jenison for a key O-K Black Conference game. “That can help open up Cameron’s runs, and put a lot more pressure on the defense.”
Watts heaped praise on Muskegon’s offensive line, which some observers expected to be less effective this year, after losing several huge and talented players to graduation last spring.
“I got to give a lot of credit to the whole line,” he said. “They are definitely underrated. We had a lot of big dudes up front who are gone, so people were saying we weren’t going to be able to do what we did in the past. But those guys have put in so much work at practice, and it makes it a lot easier for us.”
Fairfield said Watts earned some carries by being an unselfish player who performed his blocking assignments well in his first few starts.
“Tommy had been playing a lot, but the plays were not designed for him to get the ball,” said Fairfield, whose team is 5-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state in Division 3. “He was doing a lot of great blocking. He was on the field, but nobody knew about him.
“Friday night, in the worst possible conditions, Tommy goes out and does that. That says a lot about him and his toughness. As the season continues we want to start spreading the ball around more. It puts more pressure on defenses, and it’s good for Cameron that another guy can help carry the load.”
Fairfield said it’s important to remember that young people sometimes make bad decisions, and it’s only right to give them the chance to correct their mistakes – if they are willing to earn that chance.
“Those mistakes don’t define who you are,” Fairfield said. “It’s all about how you manage to come back from them. We didn’t give him a lot of reps or opportunities to start with. We challenged him and he never wavered. He kept saying ‘trust me, I’ve changed,’ and after a certain amount of time you stop challenging him with negative things, because he’s done everything you’ve asked him to do.
“It says a lot about his character. The one mistake he made last year was just that. He was not going to become a quitter. Here at Muskegon, it’s about getting opportunities to climb out of that hole.”
Watts says he’s grateful for the chance to get back on the field with the team, and says he’s having the time of his life playing for Muskegon.
“It’s a whole lot harder, to be perfectly honest,” Watts said about playing for the Big Reds against some very tough opponents. “The players are bigger, and the weight room is a lot more important. And it’s way faster. But coming here was definitely worth it.
“Coach Fairfield has helped me out with a lot of stuff, and I really want to help the team this year, because I wasn’t able to finish last year. I figure I have a lot to prove in my senior year. That’s put a chip on my shoulder and given me more motivation.”