Road to recovery
Going into the 2011 football season, Chase High School's Carlos Watkins was one of the most touted defensive lineman in the country.
The community reveled at him, his coaches loved him, opposing coaches feared him and college coaches coveted him.
The mailman couldn't deliver recruiting letters fast enough and the local paper hardly had enough space to report all of Carlos' accolades.
Carlos wound up at Clemson University, and in his freshman year he had 16 tackles.
Carlos took the momentum from his freshman campaign into his sophomore season with the Tigers in 2013. On Aug. 31 against Georgia, Carlos started his first game for Clemson. The next week he played against his younger brother, Tray, and the South Carolina State Bulldogs in front of dozen of fans from back home who made the trip to watch the brothers play on opposite sides of the field for the first time.
But two weeks later, the momentum stopped.
After a Thursday night game at North Carolina State University, Carlos went home for the weekend. And on a rainy Saturday, Sept. 21 night, Carlos and two of his boyhood friends were involved in a single-car accident on Old Henrietta Road.
One of Carlos' closest friends, 21-year-old Dache Gossett, was pronounced dead at the scene.
Carlos, the front seat passenger in the car, was trapped under a utility pole for nearly an hour before rescue crews pulled him free. He suffered a hematoma, a localized collection of blood outside the blood vessels, on each leg as a result of the pole crushing them. He was transported to the hospital to have the hemetomas drained. In all, Carlos spent three days in the hospital. He missed the rest of the football season.
More than nine months after the accident, Carlos is nearing 100 percent physical recovery. He even made an appearance at a Chase football free clinic June 28.
When I caught wind that Carlos would be at the camp, I knew I had to go and talk to him. Not only because I wanted to, but because I knew how much the area cared about him.
So on an unusually cool Saturday morning in June, I made my way to Chase. As I parked my car and walked up the hill through the wet grass onto the practice field, I could already feel the energy at the camp.
Parents were posted in their lawn chairs while young boys flipped tires, caught passes and tackled dummies.
Across the field I spotted Carlos. It wasn't too hard considering he was the only 6-foot-3, 295-pound man wearing a bright orange shirt.
I slowly walked that way, shaking a few hands along the way. Once I made it to his station I just watched.
I watched how he talked with the kids and set them up for drills. I watched how the kids responded to everything he said and listened with no hesitation. They knew who Carlos was. They watched him play on the Chase field just a few years ago and they've heard the stories. This is the player these kids hope to be.
After about 20 minutes with this group of kids the air horn blew. It was time to change stations. As the group of boys leaving Carlos' station lingered, the new group bolted over in a dead sprint. This was the station they were waiting for.
Carlos worked the boys through defensive line drills alongside his brother, Tray.
Uniquely enough, there was a set of brothers in the group. Carlos and Tray continuously encouraged them to outdo each, much like they did growing up as talented defensive linemen.
The last 15 minutes of the station was just for fun. The kids challenged Carlos and Tray to cover them on pass routes hoping they could go home and tell their parents how they "burned" a college football player. Needless to say, none of the boys were quite so lucky.
Eventually the camp ended and it was my turn to spend some time with Carlos.
I asked him what life has been like since the accident. This was a young man who worked at his craft throughout his childhood and turned it into blessing after blessing. His career was on a constant upward swing and in one night it all came to a stop.
"It's been unique," Carlos said. "After the car wreck I lost 30 pounds. I wasn't eating and I got really small. I wasn't able to work out much once I got back, but once the season was over I was really able to get back to working out. It's been a good journey though. I've recovered real well and I feel 100 percent."
As he talked I could tell that he came into the interview ready to talk about football. Why wouldn't he? That's all he's been interviewed about from the time he was 16. But there was more to his story. Yes, he had to rehab his injuries, but this was a young man who lost one of his best friends suddenly in an accident he was involved with.
"It was tough," Carlos said. "When it first happened I was real hard on myself. I kept asking God 'why?'"
Carlos and Gossett were friends and teammates in high school, but it went beyond that for Carlos.
"We always hung out. Whenever I came home he was the first person I called," Carlos said. "He was like a brother to me."
Carlos went on to tell me how his coaches and friends at Clemson "made bad days good days" and said that the outpouring of concern from the Rutherford County community on social media helped him through the early days after the fatal accident. As he talked I looked at his right forearm, covered in small scars from that night.
I could tell, even though I didn't know much about Carlos as a person before this day, that he was a different man after the accident.
"I matured a whole lot from that incident," Carlos said. "You're living young and you see one of your friends get taken out like that, it makes you slow down and really think about life in general. It gave me a new perspective.
"I'm just focusing on my grades and trying to take my game to the next level. I'm just staying focused and trying to stay straight with God because you never know when your last day is."
The dream of reaching the NFL is not one merely rooted in boyhood aspirations and the encouragement of family and coaches, but it now takes a much deeper meaning.
"Dache [Gossett] always told me I would make it to the NFL," Carlos said. "I just work hard for him to keep that dream alive for both of us."
That dream is still alive and Carlos is helping to instill that dream in a new generation of Chase Trojans — a generation that lit up when he walked onto the field just to help them develop.
"It's a great feeling. I came from this area and we didn't have this when I was young," Carlos said. "It feels great to have kids look up to you. It makes me work harder. I want to do well so these kids know that they have the same chance to do what I do."
Carlos is nothing short of a local celebrity. He was just a kid that came from Rutherford County and worked his way into a starring role at one of the top football programs in the country. Now everyone wants to ask him how he's doing and maybe put in a small request for tickets to Death Valley. But despite all he's been through as a player and a person, he's still the eager kid that wore No. 44 for the Trojans and hit the same pads the kids hit on this Saturday morning in Henrietta.
"It's crazy because I grew up in this place and when I come back around people look at me like I'm some different person, but I'm the same kid," Carlos said. "I was just blessed enough to go to a Division I college and perform."
Sprinkled into those that look at Carlos with wide eyes are old coaches that still tease him like they would if he was still 16.
As Carlos and I talked, Chase head football coach Daniel Bailey and Chuck McSwain — another former Chase player that went on to play for Clemson before playing for the Dallas Cowboys — strolled over to remind Carlos that they wanted a group picture with all the players and kids. And in those short seconds they made sure to leave with a jab at Carlos for carrying a cell phone in a pink rubber case.
"Boy, times sure are changing," the 53-year-old McSwain said as he walked away. "Now we got 300-pound men walking around with pink phones."
After Carlos shook his head I asked him about working with a young set of brothers with his brother by his side.
"We started side by side and stayed together all though high school. It really gave me flashbacks," Carlos said. "It's a blessing to come back and see where we came from. Not many people from around here make it like we did. We just want to show the kids that if you work hard and do well in school that you have the opportunity to get to the next level."
I left the interview at that. I lingered around for a few minutes while Carlos talked to the campers about the importance of hard work and good grades. I watched little hands shoot into the air to ask him questions. He answered every one with a smile.
Then I thought about how proud of Carlos this community was when they shipped the talented young kid off to Clemson almost two years ago. And now, as he's recovering from the most trying time of his life, how proud they are of the man he has become.
*Travis Durkee is the Sports Editor of The Daily Courier. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.