Family lessons guide Penn WR Justin Watson to give others a hand

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A lot of lessons are learned at home. Justin Watson only needed to observe his parents’ demanding daily routine and the challenges his older brother faces in order to establish a sound foundation.

Seeing how hard his parents worked served as motivation to attend an Ivy League institution with the idea of putting himself in position to succeed to the point that he and his future family will live comfortably.

It is not that the Penn receiver was ever lacking or wanting. Rather, he has endeavored to turn the lessons he learned at home into making him the best person he can possibly be no matter the task.

“My father was the first in his family to go to college,” said Watson, who is a junior finance major in Penn’s prestigious Wharton School of Business and who also received interest from Yale when he was in high school. “I knew that I never wanted money later in my life to be an issue. I want to be comfortable and for my kids to be able to what they want to do in their lives.

My parents both worked two jobs, worked their butts off and my mom always had a hot meal on the stove when I came home from high school football practice. So I think when the Ivy League reached out to me, and I knew that was going to be the harder route with the academics as well as football, I thought I should challenge myself because that is what my parents always do. ”


While the lessons of his parents, Doug and Terri, have meant the world to Watson, so has the person in his family that is unable to work and play. His oldest brother, Tommy, has cerebral palsy, a disorder of movement, muscle tone or posture that is caused by damage to the brain before birth or in infancy.

One day when Watson, who has two older brothers and a younger sister, came home from football practice at South Fayette High, about 12 miles outside Pittsburgh, he was not in the best of moods given the aches and pains resulting from another workout. Alas, one look at Tommy snapped him into reality.

“I was complaining that my legs hurt, I was tired and cramping and I looked at my brother and he is smiling and I think, ‘Wow, he would kill to go through what I am going through,’” Watson recalled. “From that moment on I just felt like there is no reason why I should not be smiling almost all the time.”

Watson has put smiles on the faces of the less fortunate, particularly around the university community, which is located in the western part of Philadelphia. Among other things, he has helped rally students to get registered for a bone marrow drive  and has become a close friend of Vhito DiCapria, a young boy who has battled cancer and who was named a team captain.

“It really lifts my family up when somebody can make my brother smile,” said Watson. “It can lift the load from my parents, even if it is for 10 minutes. So if I can help somebody else, and I know how good it can feel for them, then I am more than willing.”

Watson is more than willing to do what it takes to help the Quakers’ cause on the football field. He heads into a game at Princeton, Saturday on ASN, leading the Ivy League by a wide margin in receptions (56), receiving yards (807) and all-purpose yards (896) while having scored seven touchdowns in as many games.

His effort this season follows a 2015 campaign in which the runner-up for the Ancient Eight’s offensive player of the year caught 74 passes for 1,082 yards and nine TDs.

Not bad for somebody who aspires to get into the hedge-fund businesss.

“If you watch him on the field and in the weight room you see that he is the hardest worker we have on the team,” said coach Ray Priore. “We have others like him, but he is one of those guys that is a one-percenter and on game day he gets very fiery, into game mode and takes off from there.”

Watson, who stands 6-3 and bulked up over the summer to 215 pounds, has a little saying on his Twitter account that means a lot: “Commitment is when the purpose in your heart is stronger than the pain in your body.”

It was a message from his father when Watson was in high school and it is what he lives by on the football field.


“When you are training or playing during the season and battling through injuries, commitment is when pain does not matter, whether it is the pain in your legs or the pain from a bruised shoulder,” he explained. “The purpose of coming out here and winning and playing with your teammates is much greater. You are going to push through it. That has been my motto since I was a senior in high school.”

Penn pushed through in last season’s thrilling 26-23 overtime victory against Princeton when Watson had a career high 13 receptions for 117 yards. On Saturday the Quakers, who are tied atop the Ivy standings with Harvard and one game ahead of the Tigers, will likely have to push even harder to win the 108th meeting between the schools separated by less than an hour’s drive. Princeton leads the all-time series 65-41-1 and would love nothing more to beat Penn and get into the title mix.


“You can always feel the juice is a little different during Princeton week,” Watson said of the vibe around campus. “The alumni, especially, are the ones that drive that message. There is no love lost in this rivalry especially when you talk to those guys. A game like last year only built this rivalry even more. We are anxious and I am sure they are ready to get after it, too. It should be a good game.”


Photo courtesy Hunter Martin/Penn Athletics 
Tom Layberger

Tom Layberger

Tom Layberger is a freelance writer based in Glen Mills, Pa. Follow him on Twitter at @FallFootball