This will be the first in a three-part series of stories that will take an inside look into second-year Ola Mustangs football coach Jared Zito and how the overhaul he’s brought to the strength and conditioning program is changing the Mustangs’ outlook on football and life.
By Gabriel Stovall
McDONOUGH, Ga. — When you’re not fully comfortable with your surroundings, you’ll wear long sleeves and long pants on the football practice field when it’s 95 degrees.
You’ll keep a smile on your face, and politely brush off the curious looks and occasional questions from people who are trying to figure out why.
Aren’t you hot? Don’t you want to put on something cooler out here?
These were the things Ola football coach Jared Zito silently wondered about Marcus Watkins when he initially stepped onto the field at the McDonough high school.
“When Marcus first came to us, he had on these long sleeves and long leggings, and it’s August, man. It’s 95, 96 degrees outside,” Zito said. “But I never really asked why. He would only say, ‘Coach, I’m good.'”
That was the way Watkins handled things at first. A smile. A casual answer and hard work on the football field.
That hard work paid off too, as the sophomore safety — a transfer from Houston County — showed his worth to his new football team in what is, annually, the biggest game on Ola’s schedule — Union Grove.
And it didn’t take Watkins long to figure out exactly how big that game is.
“Oh yeah, that’s the rivalry game right there,” Watkins said while nodding and smiling.
Perhaps the smiles and nods came because he recalled how big his performance was that day. Watkins had a pair of picks to help spur the Mustangs on to a 35-14 win over its main nemesis. It was the first Ola win over Union Grove since a 17-14 victory back in October 2010.
It was also the latest sign that Watkins was starting to belong.
The first inklings came, Zito said, as he and his coaching staff began to uncover why Watkins dressed like it was a late November night under the Friday night lights despite practicing in the midst of a late summer heatwave
Then Watkins began to uncover, albeit gradually. Zito said the transformation that brought Watkins from standoffishness to trust was slow, but sure.
“I think someone had mentioned that he may have some scars or something,” Zito said. “But, again, we never said much about it. But it was kind of funny because as he got to know us and we got to know him, slowly the shirts and long pants began to disappear. Next thing you know, he’d be walking around with his shirt up as if he didn’t care.”
Now he will freely show you the scars on his left shoulder and arm and all down his left thigh and leg. He wears them almost as badges of honor. Pride. Persistence. He doesn’t care if you know the scars are there, let alone the story behind them.
But before he got to Ola, Watkins cared. He cared because of what happened on March 19 of last year — a date that changed his life because it almost ended his life.
While Watkins and some others were pulling a truck across the school track while he was still a student-athlete at Houston County, he suddenly and inexplicably experienced the truck starting to pull him.
“Someone else had let go of the rope and the truck started going backwards,” Watkins said. “And somehow, instead of it running me over, I got stuck under the truck and it drug me, and I slid through the whole straightaway on the track field.”
When it mercifully came to a stop, Watkins could only lay there writhing in pain and scared to figure out the fullness of his injuries. He had to wait for his mother to come and play ambulance. Apparently no one called 911.
“My mom had to come and pick me up and take me to the emergency room,” he said. “No one else was able to take me there.
The results were grim. Third degree friction burns and injuries that would require surgery. He missed the rest of the 2013-14 school year, and was confined for a time to a wheel chair. Over a full year removed, he’s still dealing with the after effects.
He was forced to miss some time in the weight room during the offseason as he recovered from another surgery to remove keloid scars from his wounds.
But through it all, the rising junior said there’s been Ola football and the Ola weight room to keep him sane.
“It’s been a long, tragic and sad ride,” Watkins said. “But I’m thankful for Coach Zito and the teammates I have out here. If it wasn’t for the motivation and the players we have here, I wouldn’t be here where I am now. I just thank God, my family, my teammates. I’m still struggling with some stuff now, but I know if I keep it honest and keep moving, I’m always going to be strong and positive.”
Watkins’ story is a tale of how the revamped weight room experience Zito has brought to Ola football has been developing strength both in tangible and intangible ways.
Zito spent Wednesday rattling off numbers, stats and anecdotes that provided a sketch of his 2015 team’s strength and conditioning exploits so far. And Watkins has been one of his most improved lifters.
Since January, Watkins said he’s increased his back squat from 315 pounds to 355 pounds, and he’s gone from front squatting 275 pounds to 335.
“He’s worked his butt off here, and even besides the story in the story, he has brought an incredible intensity to our weight room,” Zito said. “He always wants one more (set). He’s always saying, ‘Coach, give me one more.’ I appreciate that. He brings that attitude to our team. He brought it last year too. He made some great plays and we’re glad we’ve got him for two more years.”
That makes two who are glad. Watkins said being at Ola is something different and refreshing from anywhere else he’s ever been regarding football. He said the increased weight room focus under Zito is a huge part of his strengthening and stabilization, both physically and emotionally.
“Here at Ola it’s like 50 percent football and 50 percent becoming a man and developing your manhood and what kind of man you’re going to be and how you’re going to represent yourself and Ola,” Watkins said. “Everywhere else it’s been like 95 percent or 99 percent football with nothing else. But this place is unique. It’s taking me places I never thought I could push my body or mind.
“Ola’s definitely been sunshine out of a dark place.”