It was a common sentiment throughout the offseason — as Gabe Watson goes, so goes the Michigan defense.

Like the defense, Watson enters the 2005 campaign with a bull’s eye on the back of his jersey. While it remains to be seen whether his offseason conditioning will improve his stamina in the grueling Big Ten season, one thing is certain — if anyone can handle adversity, it’s Watson.

On his left bicep, just below the sleeve of his jersey, Watson has a tattoo, a scroll inscribed with a Bible verse — James 1:2-4 — whose meaning transcends his on-the-field struggles.

“It’s basically saying that when you’re going through tough times, just be joyful and know that good things are going to come out sooner or later,” Watson explains. “It’s been part of my life a long time.”

Watson’s faith is one of the values his mother LaVon instilled in him at a young age. But far too early, Watson had something just as precious taken away — his mother’s constant presence in his life.

Along with his father and six brothers and sisters, Watson weathered the erratic behavior caused by LaVon’s mental illness.

It’s the kind of childhood that could have hardened him. But as his tattoo illustrates, the Southfield native has never lost his ability to see the good — and the humor — in his life, no matter how hard his coaches push him or how much he missed his mom as a child.

“You don’t grow without going through adversity,” Watson says. “You just have to get used to it.”

 

Trying to understand

Watson’s eldest brother Chuck sounds more like his father as he shares his memories of Gabe as a child.

Chuck used to lift weights in the basement of their house. One day when Gabe was about seven or eight, he came downstairs and started throwing shoes and socks at Chuck. He waited for his big brother to get angry and then ran up the stairs. Chuck followed him, but, when he reached the top, he slipped on the banana peel that Gabe had placed there and fell down in the middle of the hallway.

Chuck looks back on that prank with a father’s fondness rather than a brother’s bitterness.

“He always was a funny kid,” Chuck said. “You had no choice but to laugh.”

Chuck never expected to be a third parent to his younger siblings. But with his father often holding more than one full-time job and working up to 16 hours each day, he had to take on some of the day-to-day tasks, like cooking and cleaning and making sure all seven kids got to school on time with only one bathroom to get ready in.

And as his mother’s condition worsened, his responsibilities continued to grow.

LaVon was at her worst in the mid-1980s. She heard noises and at times went days without eating or sleeping. She often walked around the house late at night, and on the warmest days of the summer she would wear three or four layers of clothes, unaware of the heat.

Gabe was just four years old when doctors diagnosed his mother’s mental illness. It’s still hard for him to understand it now, but as a preschooler, trying to comprehend her “crazy” behavior was almost impossible.

“There’s a lot of things you look at like why is she doing this or why is she doing that,” Watson said. “You try to understand it, but you just can’t understand some parts of it.”

 

“All we got is us”

For much of Gabe’s childhood, his mother was in and out of the hospital.

“Sometimes we would see her for two years, and then she would disappear for 11 months,” Watson said. “Then we’d see her again, and then 11 police cars would come up to our house and take her away.”

Chuck didn’t want to call the police at first; he felt disloyal to his mother. He eventually realized that in her mental state, LaVon needed more help than he could give her.

The image of police officers taking his mother away still breaks Gabe’s heart.

“It was tough growing up and seeing your brothers and sisters — looking in their eyes and seeing them cry, so hurt from the things that were going on,” Watson said. “It was tough. You don’t want your family, your loved ones, going through that.”

The first time LaVon came home, she gave Chuck the responsibility of making sure she took her pills every night at 9 p.m. Chuck said that no matter where he was or what he did earlier in the day, he always got back to give LaVon her medicine.

Sometimes she would refuse to take it; eventually she would relapse and have to leave again.

“We spent a lot of time without her,” Gabe said. “It brought us a lot closer.”

Said Chuck: “We all did things together. This wasn’t exactly how it was, but sometimes we felt like all we got is us. We were pretty much all there for each other.”

Nothing could take away the pain of missing their mom, but they knew they couldn’t dwell on her absence.

So they made each other laugh — Gabe more than anyone.

When he was around nine or 10, Gabe stood up in the living room and started performing spinning roundhouse kicks. He executed a dozen or so perfectly before he landed funny and claimed he twisted his ankle.

His siblings’ laughter changed to concern as Gabe collapsed on the couch and held his leg.

Then he confessed he was faking the injury. And as frustrated as Chuck is sure he was, he only remembers laughing.

LaVon says Gabe always stood out as the funniest of her children. And he’s carried that humor with him to Michigan.

Everyone from co-captain Pat Massey to coach Lloyd Carr smiles when asked about Watson’s sense of humor. Massey says Watson lightens the mood when practice is tense, and Carr calls his “wonderful personality” one of the main reasons his teammates respect him.

LaMarr Woodley — one of Watson’s friends off the field as well — agrees. It might be hard to picture the 6-foot-4, 333-pound lineman quacking, but Woodley claims Watson’s Daffy Duck impression is one of the notorious jokester’s best.

“That’s the one that sticks out for me,” Woodley says with a big smile. “Gabe is the biggest comedian.”

 

Learning from the past

Watson is no stranger to high expectations — he came to Michigan in 2002 as one of the most highly regarded freshman linemen in the nation.

But he struggled to live up to the hype, earning no more than limited playing time in each game that year.

Watson began this season in much the same way. He was named to the watch list for five major postseason honors. But this time, Watson said he understands how to handle the pressure.

“Some guys get preseason honors and then they relax and get complacent,” Watson said. “Coach Carr knows how to keep his foot in your butt and keep you motivated.”

Watson would know. In spite of his accolades and talent — or perhaps because of them — Watson incurred his share of Carr’s wrath in his first three seasons.

And after a lackluster performance in the season opener last Saturday, there’s a chance Carr may sit Watson against Notre Dame this weekend.

At first, it seems as if the All-Big Ten nose tackle is getting a raw deal from his coach. But Carr has seen how great Watson can be; he’s said the senior has as much potential as anyone he’s coached in 26 years at Michigan.

He just hasn’t seen Watson live up to it yet.

“I always tell our players — the more talent you have, the more I expect from you,” Carr said. “What I’m trying to motivate him to do is to be the very best nose guard in the United States.”

Watson believes he can play better.

“The beginning of last season, I started off with a bang, and during the end of the season I died out,” Watson said. “I know I haven’t reached my potential.”

Watson spent the offseason in the weight room, trying to improve his conditioning so he won’t repeat last year’s late-season slide.

Despite his hard work and his claims that he’s in the best shape of his life, questions remain about Watson’s ability to get it done in the fourth quarter. Carr, for one, makes it clear that it will be weeks before Watson can prove his effort paid off.

But the doubt doesn’t faze Watson.

“When you want to quit and you want to give up, you look back to that time to push yourself,” Watson said. “And you push yourself even harder.”

 

Joy from pain

Watson recently made a deal with his mother. If she lost enough weight before the Wolverines’ first game, she could come to Ann Arbor and see it in person. If not, she would have to watch it on television.

In that time, LaVon dropped a dress size but not quite enough pounds to ensure a trip to the Big House.

“I’d better start walking more if I want to get to a game this season,” LaVon said laughing.

LaVon is better now, thanks in part to improved medication, and she lives with Chuck at his home in Southfield. Watson’s relationship with his mother is the most stable it’s ever been — he visits her every time he goes home and calls her regularly.

It’s the reaffirmation of a life-long belief for Watson.

“Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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