Originally created 08/12/01

Watson deserves fair shake

It's August, and the college football slate is clean.

Duke and Georgia Tech are both 0-0. Same goes for Vanderbilt and South Carolina ...

And Derek Watson.

Tabula rasa - a clean slate.

Depending on your perspective, Watson gets his second, third or fourth chance to live up to all that is expected of him. Last week, he was reinstated as a South Carolina student by the university's Office of Judicial Affairs.

Watson was subsequently reinstated as a Gamecock football player and the SEC's leading returning rusher coming off a 1,066-yard sophomore season.

Many critics will be quick to snipe about another athlete receiving special treatment. There's plenty of history to back up that perspective.

I'm not one to give a kid a free pass on accepted human behavior just because he scored three touchdowns and beat Georgia, but I won't go there.

Instead, I'll defer to the system and reinstate Watson, in good standing, to a fresh start with at least this corner of the media. A clean slate.

After this column, I will make no more references to his past transgressions or twin suspensions. No more mention of the teammate's car he wrecked or the student referee he reportedly shoved or the female student he allegedly punched. No more modifiers such as troubled, embattled or controversial will stand before his name.

A clean slate is just that - clean. It shouldn't come with an asterisk or a scarlet letter on his jersey.

Watson's end of the bargain is to keep the slate clean. Play football. Do your studies. Act like a responsible young man. Don't lean on a hard upbringing for justification.

That seems to be what Watson wants to do, judging from his comments to reporters at the Gamecocks' media day Thursday.

"What's done is done," Watson said. "I can't tell nobody how to feel. If they feel I made a lot mistakes and I shouldn't have these chances, that's their own belief. I'll be happy once we get football started because most of this stuff about my personal life will be overshadowed by the season."

Watson kept a low profile during the summer, completing a laundry list of things head coach Lou Holtz outlined for him to be considered for reinstatement. Holtz won't say what was specifically asked of Watson. The old coach has admitted that he wasn't sure Watson would fulfill his obligations.

But Holtz said Watson has come a "million miles" from where he was, and I'll take his word on it. Watson appreciates that support, saying Holtz wouldn't stand up for somebody who is a "bad person."

The same was once said of Nebraska's Tom Osborne when he stood up for Lawrence Phillips. But I digress.

Watson says he's learned from the experience. He says life makes him stronger with every lesson.

"You learn something every day," he said. "I've realized everything I do is like in a fish bowl, but I can't worry about that. I have to do what Derek Watson has to do."

References to himself in the third person should be on top of that list of things not to do. Coming to grips with his first person is hard enough.

Watson says he's learned. Holtz says he believes him. The players say they'll accept him back as one of their own.

Should we question all that? No. Watson's chance should have our blessing. What he does with that chance is up to him.

"When you're driving down the street and you have a wreck, you know not to have a wreck next time, drive straight," Watson said.

The real key in life is understanding not to have that wreck in the first place. Some of the pitfalls are pretty obvious.

Drive straight, Mr. Watson. We're right behind you as long as you can keep it between the lines.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.


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