Story by Thomas Corhern
COOKEVILLE -- 2011 was a big year for the Tennessee Tech football team, as the Golden Eagles won their first Ohio Valley Conference championship since 1975 and made their first appearance in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
But it was also a big year for Tech senior Corey Watson. Helping lead the Golden Eagles to the title, Watson was named the team's defensive player of the year after ranking second in the conference in interceptions and third in passes defended.
Now, Watson has a new title to add for his efforts -- Tennessee Tech Athletics' Man of the Year.
Watson beat out eight other finalists for the award, including Zach Bailey (basketball), Ben Burgess (baseball), Tyler Cassetty (golf), Alex Chen (tennis), Dontey Gay (football), Justin Kirstein (tennis), Charlie Stevens (football) and Richmond Tooley (football).
"I'm just speechless," Watson said. "Those guys are all great guys, so to be picked for the award is just amazing."
Winning the OVC title was a big moment in this past year for Watson.
"I've been playing football since I was six," Watson said. "I won a little-league championship when I was little, but growing up through high school and even my first year of college, I thought about how awesome it would be to win a championship and be able to call myself a champion. To be able to do it in my last year at Tech, it was an absolute miracle. It was awesome.
"I was thinking earlier in the season, I had been there for four years at Tech and I realized that our team that year was closer than we had ever been before. I knew we had enough talent to win, we just had to put it together. To be able to win that championship was an amazing feeling. I really didn't get much sleep the night before the Austin Peay game to finish it out, because I was so excited. It was awesome to sit there the week before with some of the older players who had played at Tech and gave us perspective on it. To be able to win the championship for them after 36 years, it was a miracle."
Tech coach Watson Brown saw Watson as one of the biggest pieces to the season's successes.
"Corey, man, what a great story," said Brown. "Him and Tim Benford in the same class. Corey was highly recruited like Tim was. We sign him and he goes to the Tennessee-Kentucky all-star game and breaks his ankle on the last play of the first half. The kid's been behind the eight-ball ever since he has been here at Tech. He didn't get his true speed back until midway through his junior year."
Brown continued, "But this kid has been one of the best leaders whether he was a second-teamer or not playing at all because of a redshirt or being the defensive MVP of our team as voted on by our players this year. It didn't matter how much that kid played. He was just one of our best leaders and one of the most positive kids I've ever coached. I just think the world of him. He wants to go into coaching and he's the kind of guy I'd hire."
Watson had a breakout season, recording 62 total tackles, one sack, recorded two fumble recoveries and had three interceptions, including two for touchdowns.
"He had an amazing season and it was the first time he was healthy," Brown said. "The other thing we had done to him was move him around. He was on offense some, defense some, but he never was the real Corey Watson until midway through his junior year. That's when we started seeing it. He had a great spring prior to his senior year and ran corner because Caleb Mitchell was out of spring ball because of shoulder surgery. We put Corey there and he did fantastic. When Caleb got back, we moved him to the strong safety position and he just fit that to a T. When you're voted on by your peers as the defensive MVP, you're a pretty good player on a good team."
Watson has been a well-rounded player for Tech, something Brown really appreciated.
"The skills were there," Brown said, "but he's such a great kid with great morals. He was never in my office over any issue. Never a problem in going to class, never a problem off the field, never in my office fussing about this or that or why am I not playing more. I just can't say enough about him."
Brown continued, "I don't know where we will be picked this year, but we lost some great players this past season. There's still things that just can't be replaced. Some of the intangibles from Corey are just going to be hard to replace."
The Man and Woman of the Year awards is the pinnacle of what it means to be a Tennessee Tech student-athlete, and Watson was a perfect example of that.
Graduating this past December, just weeks after winning the OVC football championship, Watson was named to the CoSIDA Academic All-District team, was named a National Football Foundation Scholar and was selected to the Football Championship Subdivision ADA Academic All-Star team, in addition to being named to the Dean's List and Athletic Director's Honor Roll every semester at Tech and the OVC Commissioner's Honor Roll three times.
"It's really tough to balance academics and athletics," Watson said. "I learned really quick during my freshman year that if I didn't schedule out my days on my own, it was going to be a tough time to get things done. It was football and workouts in the morning, practice in the evenings after class. Really the only times we had to study were in the night time. You just really have to be disciplined and find ways to study and succeed in athletics as well. It was one of the toughest things to learn, but it was worthwhile because I've been able to use that in my life."
Community service work is also an important part. Watson was the vice-president of Tech's chapter of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and was active in community service projects with Dismas House, Habitat for Humanity and church programs like holiday food baskets and Vacation Bible Schools.
"It's certainly a privilege," Watson said. "It's a good chance to go out in the community and give back. Really for me, I love Jesus Christ, so for me to be able to go out and be able to serve others, it's a chance to really exemplify Christ to other people and share my faith with people. That's one of the biggest things I look forward to and show them that there's more to life than just this. I like to show people how my life has been changed through Jesus Christ. He expects us to go out and serve others as well. That's what I want to do."