Justin Watson: Penn Throwback

By RICH CIRMINIELLO

From Reds Bagnell and George Munger to Chuck Bednarik and current Club president Mark Dianno, the connection between the University of Pennsylvania and the Maxwell Football Club runs quite deep. The bond is growing even stronger with the selection of star Quaker WR Justin Watson as the 2017 Brian Westbrook Tri-State Player of the Year.

Watson’s recently concluded Penn career will go down among the most memorable in program history, certainly of the modern era of Quaker football. The young man from Bridgeville, Penn., a quaint Pittsburgh suburb, played in the Ivy League the past four seasons. However, Watson consistently performed at an ACC or Big Ten level, even if interest from major programs was tepid back in 2013. And NFL scouts have taken notice.

Watson was no late bloomer. In fact, his record-breaking, title-winning South Fayette (Penn.) High School career paralleled his time as a Quaker. Yet, his choices were limited, with FBS interest coming from the Mid-American Conference. The hometown Pitt Panthers? Not an option, which stung. Enter Penn, which landed Watson with its package of superior academics, engaging staff and alluring campus.

“You know, this is a very special place,” says Watson. “I’ve looked around the huddle at times and wondered where my teammates will be in 10 years. What medical breakthrough or Wall Street innovation will they develop? There’s just so much dedication here, and I feel so grateful to have been a part of the Penn family.”

In a harbinger of things to come, Watson was immediately productive for Penn in 2014, establishing a school freshman record with 42 receptions for 497 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The ground floor down, he proceeded to build on it with unwavering drive, determination and focus, an homage of sorts to his parents, Doug and Terri, who instilled a blue-collar work ethic into their children.

As a sophomore, Watson evolved into one of the FCS’ premier playmakers. Year 2 marked his first of three unanimous All-Ivy League and FCS All-American selections, and the true beginning of his assault on the Quaker record books. It was also around that time when pro scouts began to take notice and FBS Power Five coaches started kicking themselves for missing out on Watson two years earlier. And why not? No. 5 is the type of pass-catcher who can transform an offense and elevate his quarterback’s play.

Even when Watson is covered, he’s open. In others words, put the ball near him and he’ll make a play on it, particularly in crunch time. He’s a well-put-together 6-3, 225-pounder who has packed on muscle through the years without sacrificing speed or agility. When Watson gets to second gear, he possesses the long gait and the build-up speed to outrace defensive backs to the end zone.

But it’s the finer points to Watson’s game and his keen attention to detail that helped transform him into a two-time finalist for the Walter Payton Award, given annually to the FCS Offensive Player of the Year.

Sure, Watson has the measurables, the desired blend of size and athleticism, to succeed at any level. He caught more passes for more yards and touchdowns than any player in Penn history, though it was largely due to the little things that often go unnoticed. Watson’s sticky hands, for instance, or his body control and tight routes that help him find the soft areas of defenses. Plus, that indomitable quest for personal improvement, which was forged at home and honed at South Fayette High, burns brighter than ever.

As a Quaker captain, Watson was often the first to practice and the last to leave. While he didn’t play on special teams, he’d attend unit meetings, because, well, that’s the kind of example that leaders set. Watson also led in the classroom, earning a semifinalist nod for the William V. Campbell Trophy, presented to the nation’s premier scholar-athlete. And he shined visibly in the community, too, rallying classmates to register as bone marrow donors and bonding with local fan Vhito DeCapria, a preschool cancer survivor who’s become a fixture around Franklin Field in recent years.

In 2017, Watson’s Philly finale, the senior did what he’s always done—he consistently delivered a level of production that ignited the Quaker attack and inspired those teammates tasked with being his successor. No, Penn didn’t capture a share of the Ivy League title for the third season in a row. But Watson was as tough as ever to defend, hauling in 81 passes for 1,083 yards and 14 touchdowns, including at least one score in all 10 games. It was the first time in Ivy League history that a player had caught a TD pass in every regular season contest.

In his wake, Watson leaves behind a legacy that’s going to pay back Penn for many years to come. Yes, there are the highlight-reel plays and gaudy pass-catching numbers that could dot the school record books for a very long time. But his biggest asset—by far—will be the on and off-field standard he established for current and future Quakers to emulate. Success in life is a choice, and Watson elected to strive for excellence at every juncture of his Penn experience.

“Justin is just so different, one of those 1% of kids who is absolutely relentless in his pursuit of excellence,” offers Penn head coach Ray Priore. “That kid would utilize every resource we have here—strength and conditioning, cryotherapy, nutrition—anything in order to get better. Justin never missed a practice, let alone a game, while he was here, which tells you all you need to know about his leadership and commitment to his teammates.”

The era is distinctly different from the days when Bagnell and Munger and Bednarik roamed this campus. Justin Watson, though, served proof that the caliber of student-athletes being developed today at Penn remains very much the same. Focused, dedicated, bright and accomplished, he represents a nod to yesteryear and the latest link in the chain connecting the University of Pennsylvania and the Maxwell Football Club.

Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.

Award Profile

Winner: BRIAN WESTBROOK TRI-STATE PLAYER AWARD -University of Pennsylvania