Saturday, 25 May 2013

J.C. Watts: Athlete, leader, role model, part one

J.C. Watts, number one, running with the ball.
I'm not sure what it was. The name, the hair, the electrifying play on the field. Whatever it was, there was no football player in the 1980s I liked more than the one and only Julius Caesar "J.C." Watts. Not only would he wow and thrill fans in college, but he came to the Canadian Football League and almost engineered one of the greatest upsets in Grey Cup history. To top it off, he returned home and became the first African-American Congressmen in the Republican party elected in Oklahoma. Athlete, leader, role model. There was only one J.C. Watts.

Quarterback to leader
 J.C. Watts came to my attention in the 1980 Orange Bowl. The team was led by Billy Sims, one of the greatest runningbacks in college history. He had won the Heisman Trophy the year before as a junior, and could have won it again that year, but Charles White of the USC Trojans had an even better year. Still, Sims rushed for 1,506 yards and was the runner-up for the Heisman. The 1980 Orange Bowl would be Sims' last game in college, as he was in his fourth year. He made it a memorable one as he rushed for 164 yards, shredding the Florida State defence, en route to a 24-7 victory. It was the first Orange Bowl I ever watched. My outstanding memory of J.C. Watts, beyond wearing number one and J.C. actually standing for Julius Caesar, was he basically transferred the ball from the centre to Sims. Yet in reality, he too rushed for more than 100 yards as the number five Sooners upset the unbeaten, fourth-ranked Seminoles and Watts was named offensive MVP.

Watts would have to carry an even bigger load as the 1980 season opened. Sims went on to be taken first overall by the Detroit Lions in the 1980 NFL draft. Watts returned for his senior year, and would be the team's leader. He was an option quarterback in a wishbone offence. The team got off to a rocky 2-2 start in the first month of the season with a win over Kentucky, loss to Stanford, win over Colorado, and a loss to Texas, dropping them all the way to number 17 in the rankings. With two losses, a national championship was out of the question, but the Sooners did not give up. They reeled off seven straight wins to end the regular season at 9-2 and ranked fourth. They finished unbeaten at 7-0 in the Big 8, securing the conference championship and a trip to the Orange Bowl. Watts led the way with 18 touchdowns, and 615 yards rushing in that run-oriented offence.

Awaiting them in Miami were the 10-1 and number two ranked Florida State Seminoles, looking for their first national championship with a win, and revenge for their loss the year before.

Rough start
Statistically, the 1981 Orange Bowl would not be J.C.'s greatest hour. He fumbled four times and lost three of them, but it was the way he finished that made him a leader.

J.C. Watts in his favourite spot – on the run.
The first quarter was scoreless, then Florida State went on a 70-yard drive, jumping out to a 7-0 lead. The Seminoles had a tough defence and they stymied the Sooners. Late in the second quarter, Oklahoma finally got on the board with a field goal by Michael Keeling right before halftime. The teams went into the break with Florida State leading 7-3, setting up a wild second half.

Halftime adjustments can be so important. Oklahoma took the second half kick-off 78 yards, capping it off with a touchdown by David Overstreet and a 10-7 lead. (Overstreet would play two seasons for Montreal in the CFL before moving on to the Miami Dolphins. Not much after that, he died tragically in a car accident at the age of 25). The Seminoles tied it 10-10 at the end of the third quarter on a field goal by Bill Capece, who was one of the nation's best kickers, and an All-American.

Tragedy struck for the Sooners four minutes into the fourth quarter. Backed up deep, they were forced to punt out of their own end zone. There was a bad snap and Florida State fell on it for a gimme touchdown and a 17-10 lead. Nothing was going right for the Sooners.

That lead held up. Time was running out on the Sooners. They took over with 3:19 remaining, and 78 yards to tie the game. It would likely be their last chance. To make matters worse, that run offence made it difficult to come from behind, and score quickly. J.C. the runner would have to go to the air.

Epic finish
As he trotted out, I did not have much hope. It was late, I had the TV low so I wouldn't keep my parents up, and I huddled in a blanket with my 10-year-old face right next to the screen. J.C. rolled out and found a streaking Steve Rhodes down field for 42 yards. Rhodes was playing on an injured hamstring, limiting his speed. He would have scored with a healthy leg. Instead, he left the game.

Watts went for the end zone the next play, but threw it just a bit long for Jim Rockford (who would block a punt in the end zone for the Hamilton Tiger Cats in the 1986 Grey Cup). The incompletion stopped the clock. J.C. took the next snap and hit Chet Winters out of the backfield for 14 yards and out of bounds to stop the clock.

Then tragedy almost struck again. The rush came, J.C. panicked, and threw it right to a Seminole defender. He bobbled it and dropped it. New life for the Sooners. Watts had to avoid the rush again on the next play, this time rolling to his left and running 11 yards down the sideline before getting out of bounds to stop the clock again. He tried Rockford in the end zone again, but this time Jarvis Coursey almost intercepted it, knocking the ball down instead. (Coursey went on to be the co-MVP of the Orange Bowl, playing one of the best games of his life. Just one play short as it turned out).

New life again for the Sooners. J.C. dropped back and found Rhodes in the end zone. Touchdown! I let out a mighty scream, hoping I didn't wake up my parents. The Sooners still trailed 17-16. It was Rhodes first play back on that bad leg since that 42-yarder. He beat Bobby Butler, who moments earlier had recovered that botched snap for the go-ahead touchdown.

What would Coach Barry Switzer do? No overtime in college football back then. No chance at a national championship. Why not go for two points and the win? If they failed, they were likely giving the Seminoles the national championship, or a very good case in any event.

Oklahoma went for two.

The defence expected a run. J.C. dropped back and found Forrest Valora in the end zone. It was good enough for two points and an 18-17 lead.

Still, there was 1:27 to play, and Florida State had the best kicker around. Quarterback Rick Stockstill moved the Seminoles into position for a last-play field goal. The problem was it was 62 yards and Capece was short.

The Sooners had come all the way back to stun the Seminoles in one of the best games in Orange Bowl history. J.C had been playing hurt much of the game, but he gutted it out when he needed to. He finished the game completing 7 of 12 passes for 128 yards, including 67 on that last drive, and rushed for 48 yards. He was named the Orange Bowl MVP for the second straight year. Oklahoma finished the season ranked third overall, while Florida State plummeted to fifth.

Never leave early
About a week later I was visiting some relatives. I asked my cousin if he saw the Orange Bowl. Now this cousin could never admit he was wrong. Ever. He said he loved the Seminoles and was glad they won. Wait a second, I said, the Sooners won.

"No, they didn't," he said.

"Ya, they did."

"No, they didn't," he insisted. No i-Phone or Internet to settle the argument.

I then recounted the entire final drive for him (although I needed this YouTube video to remind me again).

He still insisted.

"You went to bed before the game was over, didn't you?" I asked.

He nodded yes.

"Never leave early."

(I should send him this link, because he probably still doesn't believe me)

What comes next?
The Orange Bowl was J.C. Watts final game with the Sooners. He completed 89 of 201 passes in his career for 1,953 in three years. He carried the ball 343 times for 1,444 yards and 35 touchdowns.

So what was next? It would be so cool if he came to the CFL…

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