Senior Day is normally a bittersweet celebration for Duke football players, taking the field at Wallace Wade Stadium for the final time accompanied by their family, friends and teammates. But Tyree Watkins’ Senior Day Nov. 24 was more bitter than sweet, because instead of taking the field to a standing ovation with his teammates, he watched the Blue Devils’ season-ending loss to Miami from his couch in Camden, N.J.
After being kicked off of Duke’s football team last Spring, Watkins received a rare second chance. The wide receiver will graduate at the end of the semester and play out the remainder of his NCAA eligibility at Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y.
Watkins was dismissed from the team April 4, following his arrest for a domestic dispute. Watkins’ then-girlfriend reported the incident April 1—hours after Duke’s annual Spring game—from outside of the popular Durham club, Shooters II. Watkins had gone out that night to celebrate with his teammates after leading his squad with five catches for 78 yards in the scrimmage.
A warrant for Watkins’ arrest was made later that morning by Duke Police Department officer Nicole Hawkins. Watkins turned himself in on April 2, when he was held in county jail for a little more than an hour before posting $500 bond.
“I was hurt. I was devastated. The hardest thing I can remember was [Duke head coach David] Cutcliffe asking me if I wanted to call my mom and tell her what happened,” Watkins said. “That was the hardest thing I had ever had to do at that point, was to tell my mom that I was dismissed from playing football, something that I loved. That was definitely a real low point in my life.”
The Durham district attorney agreed to defer prosecution of Watkins for assault on a female—a class A1 misdemeanor in the state of North Carolina. Watkins agreed to 75 hours of community service and six months probation. The state dismissed the case Oct. 31, 2012 and it is set to be expunged from Watkins’ record in early 2013.
“A deferred prosecution is an agreement entered into by the defendant and the state that sets out certain terms and conditions in a period time,” Watkins’ attorney Edward Falcone said. “As long as the defendant agrees to it and complies, the state agrees to dismiss the charge against the defendant. The alleged victim’s wishes are a lot of times taken into account by the district attorney in working out some resolution of the case.”
Piece by piece
Watkins said he viewed his dismissal from the team as the ultimate wake-up call, vowing to put his life back together.
He remained in Durham throughout the summer of 2012, hosted by a family he met through Ebenezer Baptist Church. Although he intended to finish his degree and to graduate, the Duke Student Conduct Board suspended him for the Summer 2012 semesters, preventing him from finishing his undergraduate degree until Fall 2012.
Watkins used his time in Durham to complete all of his community service hours and join the work force by getting a job at Sears in the large appliances department.
He also stayed connected to the game of football as a volunteer coach at Orange High School in Hillsborough, N.C., where the son of his host family played for the team. This allowed Watkins not only to work out and stay in shape, but also to experience football from the other side of the whistle. Watkins’ teaching paid off as the Panthers reached the semifinals of the state football playoffs this season.
“I could see myself one day being a coach,” he said. “Those kids just wanted to work, and that’s great seeing it from a different eye. Now I can see why coaches are so hard on players—you can see that the talent is there, but the kid doesn’t see it yet.”
Duke life without football
Watkins returned to Duke in the Fall poised to finish his final semester and earn a degree in sociology with a minor in education. Although his football career at Duke had drawn to a close, Watkins’ top priority was to earn his degree. He focused heavily on academics in the Fall, making sure his grades would be good enough to play college football again should another team come calling.
“A lot of my friends were on the football team. I was used to waking up at 6 a.m., practicing and then going to class. Now it was different,” Watkins said. “I felt a little lost not working out with the guys I had built camaraderie with for the past three years.”
Watkins filled the void left by football by becoming more involved on campus. He took an interest in Duke’s new housing model, becoming the president of his house council in Few HH.
He continued to support the Blue Devils as they finished the season with a 6-6 record, becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 1994, and earning a trip to the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. later this month.
“I’m proud that they’re able to make the bowl game,” Watkins said. “But it was hurtful at the same time because that was the goal that a lot of guys who I came in here with had. We wanted to accomplish that before we all left.”
Cutcliffe, who declined to comment for this story, had mentioned in a press conference earlier this season that leading up to Watkins’ arrest, he expected the senior to be a contributor to this Duke team’s receiving corps. Tallying just 24 receptions for 152 yards in his career with the Blue Devils, Watkins longed for the chance to be a starting receiver in college. Despite the circumstances that prevented him from doing so at Duke, he might get that chance now.
Starting anew at Wagner
Watkins gave a verbal commitment to Wagner Nov. 28. He will enroll for the Spring semester there, working toward a master’s degree in education and will begin spring practice with the football team. Watkins has one guaranteed year of eligibility remaining and can petition the NCAA for a second year of eligibility as well.
The Seahawks finished the 2012 season with a 9-4 record, falling in the second round of the FCS Playoffs to Eastern Washington. Watkins said in addition to playing receiver at Wagner, the coaching staff will give him the opportunity to try the defensive side of the football as well.
“It’s a blessing,” he said. “Before I had no idea what I was going to do. I didn’t think I was ever going to have an opportunity to play football again. So for me to have a second opportunity, I’m not going to take it for granted.”
Not only will Watkins have this second opportunity, but he will also be closer to his family at Wagner. They will get to watch him play football, which did not happen often while he was at Duke.
Determined to finish what he started at Duke, Watkins has already received permission from his coaches at Wagner to return to Durham for commencement ceremonies in May. As fate would have it, those ceremonies will be held at Wallace Wade Stadium—let’s just call this his Senior Day.
As he moves into the next stage of his life and football career, Watkins said he considers the events of the past year to be nothing short of a blessing in disguise.
“Having an opportunity to play football here, but also be a student here has been great. Being taught by all of these different professors, being able to experience Duke basketball and the culture here has been incredible,” Watkins said. “Coach Cutcliffe is a great coach and it’s good to see that all that hard work that they’ve put in here has been paying off. I don’t regret anything that ever happened to me. I feel like it happened for a reason—everything does.”