Originally created 11/15/02

Spiritual center

Lance Watkins is talking, and it's not hard to see there's something different about this high school football player.

Maturity and knowledge shape the aura surrounding his body and soul. His voice is strong and true. He says what he feels, and he believes what he says.

Watkins is no phony.

Then he begins speaking: "When all hell breaks loose, you have that peace in your heart. When all hell breaks loose, you remain cool and collected. It's about that peace, you know?"

No, actually you don't know. Is he talking about football? Or is he speaking about spiritual beliefs?

Maybe it's a little bit of both. You see, Watkins is more than the football stereotype.

On the football field, Watkins - the center for North Augusta - is a force on the offensive line. A year after switching from defense, Watkins proved he's adept at making transitions.

Colleges have noticed. Last weekend, Watkins took an official visit to Appalachian State and was offered a scholarship. Georgia Southern, East Carolina and Alabama-Birmingham also have shown interest in Watkins, a 6-foot-2, 275-pounder.

Off the field, in what might be an even more important role in his eyes, Watkins is a licensed minister at Old Storm Branch Baptist Church in North Augusta.

"He's a standout in church, for the football team and the community," said Rev. Nathaniel Irvin, the pastor at Old Storm Branch Baptist. "He's very gentlemanlike. He's shown most outstanding courage, and he's an exceptional young man. He's a blessing for the football team with his stability and his poise."

Along with Bryant Pontoon, Watkins solidified a line that's allowed Yellow Jackets running back Martise Quiller to gain 1,426 yards and 20 touchdowns and the entire team to average 5.3 yards per rush.

"The offensive line is the beginning and the end," Watkins said. "It's where it all starts. If you don't win the battle in the trenches, you don't win the game."

He and the rest of his linemen will try to continue that productivity at 8 tonight when North Augusta plays at home in the first round of the South Carolina Class AAAA playoffs.

"He's become a great player for us," North Augusta coach Joe Long said. "He's very intense; he brings everything to the game. I pat him on the back, because he's worked very hard to get to where he's at. He's an outstanding player, but he also has outstanding character."

Being a minister helps define his character.

"My call is to be a minister and to go around preaching God's word," Watkins said. "My love of God is what made me want to be a preacher and tell everybody the good news. People want to feel forgiven. That's what Christianity does."

Watkins was raised in a religious home but began taking an interest in church when he was a freshman.To become a minister, Watkins hadtodeliver several sermons in front of his church, then gain the approval of Irvin and the restofhis congregation.

On April 28, 2001, Watkins earned his license to preach. Now, he addresses local youth groups as a rough-and-tough football player with a heart filled with love.

"It feels awesome to preach," Watkins said. "There's no pressure. It's like God is smiling on you. It's like building another brick or stone on your house in heaven.

"I'm 18, but people think I'm 22 or 23. I really feel I have the maturity level of a 22- or 23-year-old. I feel like I'm a father among my peers."

He displays that maturity on Friday nights and Sunday mornings.

"A lot of people look up to him because of the way he acts," senior defensive tackle Richard Bush said. "What he says, people do."

Right now, Watkins isn't sure he wants to continue moving up the church's depth chart. He says he's not interested in becoming an ordained minister. He'd rather play his game.

"On the football field, I don't cuss," Watkins said. "It's all about physical action. On the field, you have to be mean, because it's a mean game. On the field, I click on a different switch."

But he doesn't lose the aura of maturity. That stays - whether he's preaching about his love of God or blocking his opponents.

"When something happens on the offensive line or if someone is beating us, he's the one that calms us down," Bush said. "He tells us everything is going to be all right."

Reach Josh Katzowitz at (706) 823-3216 or josh.katzowitz@augustachronicle.com.


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