Nov. 3, 2011
By Leah Howard
"No man is more important than the team. No coach is more important than the team. The team. The team. The team." -- Bo Schembechler
Perhaps no concept in the history of Michigan athletics carries more weight and holds more value than that espoused by Bo Schembechler in his famous "The Team" speech to the 1983 Wolverines. Michigan's football legacy, in particular, is built on the team concept, and its football players, who are more concerned with wins than statistics and quick to redirect praise to their teammates, are wholly bought into that concept before they even step foot on campus.
On principle, the Wolverine team is made up of 115 team guys.
And then there's Steve Watson.
It's not unusual for a football player to switch positions. But it is quite unusual for said player to switch as often as Watson, who has appeared at five different positions, played under five different position coaches, and gone from offense to defense and back to offense in a span of five years. Over his career at Michigan, and largely away from the spotlight, Watson has been in a state of near-constant change.
He came to Ann Arbor in August 2007 as a tight end, where he had been an all-state selection at Mullen High School in Colorado, and remained there through his redshirt year. After missing the first half of his second season with injury, he played tight end and special teams before depth concerns necessitated a move to offensive tackle just before the final game of the season. Then he was moved to outside linebacker as a redshirt sophomore, to defensive end as a junior and back to tight end -- well, tight end and fullback -- for his fifth and final season.
Every college football player goes through inevitable growing pains. New surroundings, new coaches, new schemes and terminology can all lead to temporary feelings of uneasiness. But for Watson, every position change brought renewed growing pains, and every time he started to feel comfortable at a new position and believed he could become an impact player, he was moved again.
"When you first get to a new position, the first few months are really difficult," said Watson. "You don't just walk in, pick something up and be good at it. But it was through those growing pains and through my teammates and coaches helping me out that I was able to make progress at those positions. I ended up playing at each spot, but sometimes it felt like it was all growing pains."
He put up with the pains because he knew it was best for the team. Whatever was going help Michigan win was simply what he was going to do. His father, Steve, a nine-year NFL veteran and Pro Bowl receiver with the Denver Broncos, had long instilled the value of being a team guy, and to Watson that meant doing whatever possible within his own power to help the Wolverine program.
The thing about being a team player though is sometimes, amid the sacrifice, you can lose a bit of yourself. It's uncomfortable when you don't really know what you're doing, don't understand your role or worry about always trying to do the right thing by everyone else.
The best advice came from his father.
"Whatever I did, he would tell me to just do it to the best of my ability," said Watson. "Football is football. You get in there and study film, listen to your coaches and ask questions. That was basically his message to me. It didn't matter what position I was at, he said if you work hard at it, you'll be good at it."
So Watson worked hard at every position, and he learned to adapt. The more coaches he had, the more he learned to be coachable. He eventually grew comfortable with the position switches, and by his senior year, when he returned to his preferred position of tight end, the sum of his experiences had molded him into a better-rounded and tougher player.
Kevin Koger (86) and Jeremy Gallon (10) were the first to congratulate Watson on his initial catch, a touchdown at Northwestern.
"Playing defense added to my versatility on offense," said Watson. "It made me more of a physical player. I wasn't afraid to, as they say, get my nose dirty. It taught me how defensive ends play, it taught me coverage and how certain defenders play certain plays. So when I moved from defense back to tight end, it was pretty easy for me."
"I don't know many college players who would have gone through the transitions he went through so willingly," said fifth-year senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen, "and he always gave 100 percent effort regardless of his position. I think it just speaks to how much he really cares about Michigan and being a team player. The kid just loves playing football, and he was willing to do whatever it took to get on the field and contribute. He has no self goals. Anyone who has a guy like that on their team has to be pretty proud of the fact that he wants to play. He's everything a coach and a player could want in a teammate."
After appearing in 16 games over his first three years, Watson has played in all eight for the Wolverines this season, earning starts on the road against Northwestern and Michigan State. He registered his first career touchdown on Michigan's opening drive against the Wildcats, collecting a nine-yard reception -- also the first of his career -- all alone in the end zone.
"I hadn't had that feeling in four years," said Watson. "It was great to feel that again. When it happened, I keep telling myself, 'Don't make a big deal about it. There's going to be other ones.' I firmly believe that as long as I keep working hard, there will be more this season."
While Watson might have tried to convince himself that the touchdown wasn't a big deal, his teammates, who swarmed him the instant he came up with the ball, clearly believed otherwise. Everyone likes a team guy, after all, and there are few things better than a team guy earning his moment in the spotlight.
"I was so happy to see him get that first touchdown," said senior tight end Kevin Koger, "and it's great to see him having the year he's having. It's just a testament to how hard he works. Whatever is asked of him, he'll do it. If they need him at tackle, he'd give it his best to play tackle. I have a lot of a respect for him. He's the kind of guy that if you're having car trouble, you can call him up and he'll be glad to help. He's just a great guy on and off the field."
In the end, it's the team player that often receives some of the greatest rewards. Now in the twilight of his career at Michigan, Watson is enjoying football more than he has in years. The growing pains are gone, and he is comfortable and confident in his role.
Schembechler would surely be proud.