Oct. 15, 2012
It's been a long day for Zach Watts. His day starts early; early even in West Point terms. For his first three years at the United States Military Academy, football practice had been held in the afternoon after classes. But this year, practice has been moved to even before the breakfast bell rings.
In the barracks, the alarm clock in his room (which he shares with two classmates - a lacrosse player and a former-service guy who now fills the role as a manager for the women's tennis team) buzzes at 0550, an hour before the sun actually rises, giving him time to get up to practice at the Foley Center. One perk of being up so early, he doesn't have to fight his way to the sink in the communal bathroom which he shares with 100 other cadets.
This week's practices have been limited for the senior defensive end, however. Watts went down in the fourth quarter of the Northern Illinois game with a knee injury, forcing him to miss the Wake Forest game - the first time he's missed a contest since the Temple game during his sophomore season on Oct. 2, 2010.
If he wasn't dealing with a banged up knee, he'd be busy going through circuits, doing individual workouts with his fellow position players and defensive ends coach John Mumford before coming together as a larger unit for game simulations. After about 90 minutes, practice is over and the under-the-radar Watts, who typically doesn't get media requests ("I guess I'm not a show biz kind of guy" he jokes), heads up to the Kimsey Center to eat breakfast.
The typical post-practice spread is eggs and ham or eggs and sausage, but the self-confessed "food fanatic" would much rather be devouring an omelet with bacon, zucchini and mushrooms with wheat toast, or having stuffed French toast at his favorite breakfast spot in Cornwall (which he doesn't want me to name in fear that it will drive more people to go there and he won't be able to get a seat when he wants).
He boards the bus which takes him down Stony Lonesome hill to class, which on this Thursday includes History of Military Art, a seminar on Officership and a capstone for the engineering management major.
Watts spends his afternoon rehabbing his knee and getting as much homework done as he can, which lately has come from his History of Military Art class. He spends time trying to explain why standing armies were important in the 18th century, and if past performance is any indication of his future, he explains the homework question well. Watts earned first-team Capital One/CoSIDA Academic All-America honors last season, while also excelling on the gridiron.
But for someone like Watts, that's the only way it should be. He lives by the code of striving for perfection in everything he does. "I'm not sure who first said it, but perfect should be in everything you do; don't try to do just one thing well because then you allow yourself to slack off in other areas," Watts stated. "It's a lifestyle. If you do something, do it well."
And he does. Zach's high-achieving, workaholic ways make him the prototype for the Type A personality. But this is West Point - you'd be hard-pressed to find cadets that don't fill that mold. At an academy which admits roughly 10 percent of those who apply, one-time standout overachievers quickly find themselves among the norm.
For Watts, he wasn't always that way. When I asked him if he was always this committed to perfection, he laughs and reaches into the pocket of his ACU pants and pulls out his wallet. He begrudgingly shows me his license photo, taken before the Pittsburgh native even thought about coming to West Point. The relaxed smile and surprisingly long hair shout rebellious teenager, not Academic All-American on the West Point football team.
But looks can be deceiving. Despite not having much of a military history in his family (an uncle and a grandfather who have served), when Army football came calling while he was playing at North Allegheny High School, Zach and his twin brother Corey both listened.
"Zach came up with the idea that he was going to go to West Point during our senior year of high school," said Corey. "It seemed like a great idea."
Zach had chosen West Point over a few offers from Ivy League schools, but was hit with challenges right off the bat. "When he got to West Point, he was told he was undersized and too slow and would never play," said Corey. "But Zach has always had a stubborn nature that he uses to prove his critics wrong, no matter what the odds."
His first year on the team, Zach never stepped on the field, something which only ignited the fire within him. Sophomore year was a different story. He played in all but one game and started the three biggest contests of the year - Air Force, Navy and the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl against SMU.
The game against the Falcons was somewhat of a breakthrough, totaling a career-best five tackles to project him up Army's takedowns ledger. Amongst a group dominated by seniors, Watts was one of just three sophomores ranked among the top 15 of Black Knight tacklers in 2010.
He kept that starting spot through his junior season, taking the field with the first squad in all 12 games. The once "undersized and slow" defensive end out of Pittsburgh tied for the team lead with 6.5 tackles for a loss and three quarterback sacks. He added another five takedowns against academy foe Air Force to boot.
Those numbers are important to Watts because that's how his mind works. "I think in terms of math, in numbers, in bullet points, not in some big paragraph," he remarked. "My favorite class so far has been Economics because it quantitatively looks at a social science. I love adding numbers to anything, giving me a finite answer."
A couple of other important numbers: two, 670 and four. Two are the number of people he is closest to on his team - his brother Corey and junior Jarrett Mackey; 670 are the number of people in his graduating class at North Allegheny; and four, the number of people he remains close with from that class.
Unlike his brother Corey, who Zach describes as more outgoing and is someone who is constantly going out of his way to make sure everyone is enjoying themselves, Zach is more introverted, or as he describes it, "I tend to be in my own zone."
But that reserved nature doesn't mean he undervalues his relationships; if anything, he puts more worth into the ones that he has. "My brother is more conservative than I am, but only until people get closer to him and get to know him better," said Corey. "He values personal relationships more than being a character or an entertainer for the group."
Zach understands the importance of building strong relationships. It goes beyond the day-to-day life in the barracks and spills onto the football field, and in eight months when he becomes a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, it will become even more important.
Watts, who branched Infantry, draws parallels to his future plans to what he's currently doing at West Point. "I'll get a similar experience in the Infantry branch as I do with Army football: being with a bunch of guys and just getting after it, and at the same time, being able to explore and see different things. I wouldn't want to go to another country and be the guy that just sits back; I want to get out there and see it and be active. West Point has prepared me well for that."
Watts credits a summer at Fort Benning for his Cadet Troop Leadership Training (CTLT) and classes like Military Science to better prepare him for when he is out in the world, serving as a second lieutenant. Personal relationships with Maj. Lee Evans, Maj. Josh Gaspard and Army football defensive coach Robert Lyles have also helped ready him for life after West Point.
With his competitive drive and full commitment to everything he does, Zach Watts personifies the Type A personality. But that's not a slight or an insult; it's that acute way of life that has made him admirable, ambitious, a standout athlete adept at his craft, successful in the academic realm, and hopefully able to adjust to the latest bout of adversity that has been thrown his way.
After working hard to recover from an injury, Watts is slated to return to the field, undoubtedly with an attitude. While his final season at West Point may not be a perfect one, he is committed to making it successful, regardless of how you might quantify that.