CLEMSON — Freshman football players will often ask their older teammates why they redshirted.
Carlos Watkins is happy to explain, but he doesn’t need to say much. Clemson’s fifth-year senior defensive tackle can simply raise and curl his right arm, displaying a forearm that’s thicker than most men’s biceps, and show a dozen scars caused by shattered glass.
Those are the only physical reminders of a harrowing experience Watkins will never forget. The deep bruises on his legs have faded away, and his football attributes have returned. Watkins is one of four Tigers with three sacks this season.
Mentally, Watkins says it took a year and a half to fully come to grips with surviving the fatal car accident that took the life of his cousin. But it’s evident now that the wreck did not dampen Watkins’ desire to play football.
“Things played with my head,” Watkins said. “That next year, I played, I got on the field, but I’d say it took me a full year and a half before things started to come together for me.”
The accident happened on Sept. 21, 2013. Clemson had given players the weekend off following a Thursday night game at N.C. State and
Watkins stayed in North Carolina to visit friends and family in his hometown of Mooresboro.
Late that Saturday night, the Dodge Durango carrying Watkins and three other young men hydroplaned and struck a telephone pole.
Dache Gossett, Watkins’ longtime close friend, died at the scene at age 21. Dane Rogers, Watkins’ cousin and a defensive end at Clemson, recovered from his injuries and played sparingly before transferring to North Carolina A&T, where he is attending school but no longer playing football.
Watkins suffered massive blood clots in both legs, along with numerous cuts and bruises. As a true freshman in 2012, Watkins played in nine games. He was in the starting lineup as a sophomore in 2013 for Clemson’s season-opening 38-35 home win over Georgia in a matchup of top 10 teams. But suddenly, his career was derailed. After the car crash, he would not play again in 2013, taking a medical redshirt, and was eased back into the rotation for the Tigers’ No. 1-rated defense in 2014.
“We wondered about his mindset, physically, all of that. It’s a pretty horrific thing to go through for anyone to survive and witness the death of his (friend,)” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “Just the whole trauma of the whole event. That’s a pretty tough thing to deal with.”
Never once, though, while trapped in that Dodge Durango for hours waiting for paramedics to pry him free, did Watkins wonder if his career was over.
“I was thinking the whole time, ‘when am I going to get back out there and play?’” Watkins said.
Now the clear leader of the Tigers’ front four on defense, Watkins has matured in two ways — he cares more about his duties as a veteran player, and he isn’t selfish about his playing time, according to senior linebacker Ben Boulware.
“Before, he was a quiet dude, tried to take care of himself, do his own job,” Boulware said. “He wasn’t worried about helping anyone out — which, that’s how it is for most guys. But now he’s realizing he’s got a couple more games left, and next year, this is going to be in Christian (Wilkins’) hands and Dexter (Lawrence’s) hands. So he’s trying to get them as prepared as possible for the future. He teaches them techniques and some things about the game they might not know.”
Watkins’ football career won’t end when he leaves Clemson. He has been listed as a first-round pick in numerous mock NFL drafts.
“I try not to pay attention to that. People might tag me in something, but in large part, I don’t think that matters right now until the end of the season,” Watkins said. “I mean, it’s good to be recognized. But if I ain’t playing well, then it doesn’t matter. I’ve just got to do my job and not let that distract me.”
He also doesn’t let memories of that tragic night three years ago distract him any more.
“I don’t think about it as much as I used to,” Watkins said. “It’s something that pops up rarely, like a flashback. I just reflect back on it, where I came from. It kind of motivates me to get better.
“You can’t take this life you have for granted. It kind of opened my eyes a whole lot after the incident. It’s made me love the game a lot more, and I cherish every moment I get with it.”