CLEMSON -- A former youth football star sprinted down a residential street in Fort Myers, Fla., on Mother's Day night 2008. Willie Fletcher was a phenomenal athlete. Locals said he was going to be their Michael Vick. He had blazing speed. Now he was running for his life.
Fletcher had fled a block party, chased by a man wielding a pistol. He was shot five times. He fell to the sidewalk two houses down from the home of Mike McMiller, a Pop Warner football coach who had enjoyed watching Fletcher play as a youth.
Fletcher was five years older than McMiller's stepson, Sammy Watkins, a sophomore in high school at the time. Watkins and McMiller heard the gunshots and raced outside to find Fletcher, who later died at the hospital.
Watkins, now a freshman receiver at Clemson, recalls what McMiller told him that night: "Remember this night, stay on your course."
"There are a lot of people like me in my neighborhood," Watkins said, "probably even faster, they run just like me. If they lined up and raced
me, they'd be right there, but they didn't follow their dreams, they went the other way."
Three-and-a-half years later, Watkins is running into the end zone in Clemson's football season opener. He scores a touchdown 26 seconds into his Clemson career, the quickest in school history.
This is the story of how Watkins ran from a troubled neighborhood and into the record books.
Brad Scott visited South Fort Myers High in 2008. The Clemson assistant had scoured the area for years, first as an assistant at Florida State in the 1980s and 90s when he recruited a prospect named Deion Sanders at North Fort Myers High.
Some of the high school coaches that knew Scott from his FSU days were still around, now serving as mentors for new coaches or nearing retirement. South Fort Myers High coach Grant Redhead had played under Scott's friend. Redhead told Scott his school might have a player worth a look.
"I remember going to practice and saying, 'I think you are right,' " Scott said.
Clemson was one of the first major college programs to show interest in Watkins.
Sammy and older brother Jaylen, who now plays at Florida, thought track was a good way to stay in shape for football season. As a sophomore in high school, Watkins ran the 100-meter dash in 11.5 seconds, finishing 50th in the state in Class AA. He didn't love track but he liked competing. He wanted to be faster. He wanted to be the fastest prep athlete in Florida.
Clemson coaches were surprised to see the amount of notes Watkins compiled from just one meeting last month. Five, six pages of writings. Watkins wanted to absorb the offense quickly.
The staff had a sense of Watkins' rare focus when he visited their camps as a prospect. It's when he fell in love with the Clemson campus and the sleepy town.
"You gotta look real hard to get in trouble," Watkins said of Clemson.
It's a place where he could quietly focus on becoming the next Julio Jones, the Atlanta Falcons receiver whom he models himself after, and a potential body double as Watkins has the same braided hair and has added 13 pounds in one year to his sculpted 6-1, 203-pound frame.
Julio with hands, McMiller says.
Perhaps the best measure of his worth ethic was his track time, a verifiable measurement.
As a junior, Watkins went from 50th in the 100-meter dash to sixth as a junior, running a 10.66 time at the state meet. While he didn't have a say about the double-teams defenses threw at him in the fall, he could have a say about his speed. And he could be faster.
South Fort Myers High was tied with Southeast Bradenton with two minutes to play in the playoffs last December. Watkins scored the game-winning touchdown on a 72-yard pass play.
The next week, South Fort Myers trailed by a touchdown with less than two minutes to play. Watkins returned two punts for touchdowns in the game's final 100 seconds.
Many asked why a great player was committed to a six-win Clemson team. The Florida coaches wondered, too. On the last day of the recruiting contact period, Florida coach Will Muschamp and coordinator Charlie Weis traveled to South Fort Myers High to persuade Watkins.
Watkins refused to speak with them.
"I looked at (Clemson) as the perfect place, perfect time," Watkins said. "We can turn the (program) around."
This past spring, Watkins won the 100-meter dash at 10.45 seconds. He was the fastest man in Class 2A.
McMiller and Watkins' mother, Nicole, scrambled to find the Clemson-Troy game on television last Saturday. They added a cable package, thinking ESPN3 was part of another digital tier. They learned ESPN3 offered webcasts. They found the game in time to see Watkins turn a short pass into a 33-yard touchdown. It came just 26 seconds into the game.
"Raising kids, you never actually think they are going to be doing this," McMiller said. "You just root for them and stay behind them as much as you can."
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