TALLAHASSEE — Linebacker Dekoda Watson's exuberance for the game, his passion for Florida State football, are unmistakable.
You can see it in his smile, or at times his tears of joy when he's on the field. You can feel it, even from afar, when he fearlessly and, at times, recklessly collides with a ball carrier. And you can hear it when he candidly talks about playing through pain.
"Early in the season, I knew for a fact I wanted to leave Florida State after the season because of the whole cheating scandal," said Watson, referring to the academic misconduct that involved him and 60 other student-athletes in 10 sports and three former university employees.
"I was just down for a long period of time, and even though I sat here and told you guys (in the media) that I was fine, it really, really got to me. I felt discouraged. I felt like giving up."
Watson, who said he's re-energized and committed to returning for his senior season, sees a bright future with Florida State, one that could begin in earnest with Saturday's regular-season finale against No. 2-ranked Florida. If he and the rest of the No. 23 Seminoles can defy the odds, they would regain some status as one of the nation's elite programs.
"I want to be part of something special," Watson said.
The fast and strong 6-foot-2, 221-pound Watson is a big part and can be a bigger part. Although he has been limited by a left elbow injury (one that might require offseason surgery) and a left hamstring injury — setbacks that came after he had to sit out the first three games for his role in the academic scandal — he's an unmistakable game-changer.
He's fourth on the team in tackles (38), tied for third in tackles for a loss (seven), has an interception, has broken up three passes and has blocked a punt for a safety.
"He's a high-energy guy," defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews said. "He's a guy that you like to have on the field."
Watson appeared in 12 games in 2006 and finished his freshman year with a strong game in the Emerald Bowl against UCLA, including a punt block that Lawrence Timmons returned for a touchdown.
Last year he started every regular-season game and, despite his youth, emerged as a leader, in deeds and words, just as he was in high school in Aiken, S.C., when he'd walk in the rain or ride his sister's pink bicycle in a pinch to make it to a summer workout.
Following the embarrassing 45-12 loss at Florida last year, he was the lone defensive player to meet with the media, answering questions with grace and disarming frankness.
"We always told him, 'Be honest. Tell the truth, whether it's good or bad,' " his mother, Angela, said.
Things got bad, however, when Watson was among the players who had to sit out the Music City Bowl, the first of a four-game suspension for those involved in the academic scandal.
"It took a toll on him," his father, Greg, said. "We'd talk, and at points, it was just my job just to listen. No dad advice. I just let him get things off his chest."
Like his decision to leave for the NFL after this season. His parents didn't try to talk him out of it; rather, they pointed out the pros and cons of whatever path he chose.
"I was down, but the one thing I kept telling myself was, 'You can sit here and mope about it, or you can actually do something about it. You can get better,' " Watson said. "Even though I was with the scout team, I got better. I tried to work on my takeoffs. I tried to work on my techniques. I tried to get my team better. When it came down to it, even though I wasn't playing, I was still part of the team."
That means something to him.
Now and in the future.
Although Watson doesn't try to conceal his goal of making it to the NFL as a high first-round pick, he said the way to do that is to continue to learn how to play the game better in college.
"I want to provide for my family, and I don't mean in a sense of money, but showing my cousins, 'Yes, you can do it,' " said Watson, the first member of his family to attend college on an athletic scholarship. "I want to show them it can be done, that they don't have to sit back and just accept what we have in Aiken; there's more out there than where I live. … It comes down to who wants it the most, and when I want something, I'm going to attack it."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.