Photo by Gabriel Stovall
Former Jackson High School football standout Cherronte Watts (left) earned a scholarship to play wheelchair basketball at Oklahoma St. Harmon Matthews (right) and the Henry County recreation center’s program opened the door for Watts.
The first time Cherronte Watts played basketball was when he tried out for the Jackson High School team in the ninth grade.
The result? Two lost teeth and a determination to never play the game again.
Little did Watts know the twists of fate that would happen in his life just six years later that would bring him back to the game that hurt him.
Little did he know that the game that once caused him physical pain would become the main player in the journey toward emotional healing.
And what a journey it has been.
In January 2008, Watts lay in a bed at Atlanta Medical Center feeling pain, feeling fear, feeling confused.
Feeling everything except his legs.
“When I woke up,” Watts said, “I asked, ‘Where are my legs?’”
The night before, he and about five other friends piled into a Chevy Tahoe and made their way to Athens for a sorority party.
It was three in the morning — a time where most people would be sound asleep. And on this night, the driver of the Tahoe would be no exception.
The driver lost control of the vehicle which Watts said flipped over more times than he could count. No one was wearing seat belts and Watts and one other passenger was ejected from the car.
Watts said he knew he had been hurt badly. But he wasn’t prepared for the fullness of it all.
“After I got to the hospital, the doctors were telling me that they were going to work hard to get me back on my feet and walking again,” Watts said. Two days later, they sent my mom to tell me that I wouldn’t be able to walk anymore.”
Watts discovered that he had a T-7 spinal cord injury — the type which completely paralyzes from the waste, down.
The news was like a sucker punch to the gut for the standout football and track athlete at Jackson who earned a scholarship to play football at Fort Valley State.
Watts was a decent student, but his heart was for the gridiron. A football tucked soundly into his arm was enough to make him and his beloved family happy. They got joy from seeing his exploits on the field. They felt pride with each yard gained and each touchdown scored.
Now that was gone. And Watts was left to pick up the pieces of broken dreams and a broken life. He had no idea where to go from here.
“I never, never thought something like this what happen to me,” he said. I had no backup plan and I was stuck trying to find a way to live.”
Watts said it was more than a year before he began doing anything more than playing video games and staying inside his house. And though he said he never harbored any ill feelings to the driver of the car, “because he was my friend,” he said, he spent many days asking ‘why?’
“I questioned myself over and over again,” he said. “I was doing everything right, I was living right, I was going to school. I didn’t understand why this was happening to me.”
Add to that the fact that no one else sustained any life-long injuries from the crash. One of Watts’ friends, also a passenger on that fateful night, sustained brain injury that kept him in a coma for about two months.
Watts said his friend made a full recovery -- as if nothing ever happened.
Watts will never be able to say that for himself. And that could have caused him to become bitter. But thanks to a good, faith-filled family support system — led by a praying and optimistic mother, Watts never allowed bitterness to take root.
“All I was doing was praying that whatever happened,” said mother Janice Watts. “And when we made it to Atlanta Medical, all I could say to him was ‘Thank God you’re still alive. He may not have his legs but he still has the top part of his body. It was hard at first, and I stayed with him in the hospital the whole time. He’s only had one real breakdown, but other than that, he’s been doing real good.”
And since he met coach Harlon Matthews, things have gotten even better.
Since 2006, Matthews has served as the Therapeutic Recreation Specialist at the Henry County Parks and Recreation Department in Locust Grove. A large part of what he does is helping people excel in wheelchair athletics.
That means he’s seen scores of people with disabilities still find hope through sports.
But he hasn’t seen many like Cherronte Watts.
Matthews met him after Janice Watts called him up, hoping he could help her find something for her son to do to shield him from the dangers of idle time.
Matthews shared with her some details of the recreation center’s wheelchair basketball program, and the Watts family wasted no time in following up.
“To his credit,” Matthews said, “the next time we had our program, Cherronte showed up. And he showed up with a great support team who helped create awareness in Jackson of what we do. Before he came to us, we had about six people at the time in our program. Now we have 16.”
At first, Cherronte Watts saw this as something to keep him active and to help him fill his time. He had all but given up on his dream to play sports at a collegiate level.
“From the day of that accident I thought going to college and playing sports was over,” Watts said.
That is until Matthews told him that colleges played wheelchair ball. And that he knew a couple of coaches he could contact about regarding Cherronte’s skills.
“You could see the look on his face,” Matthews said. “It was excitement. Everything on his face was saying, ‘Really? I can do this?’”
It didn’t take much convincing or time to make Watts jump on a plane for the first time in his life to go to a wheelchair basketball camp at the University of Texas-Arlington.
What followed was the opportunity of his life.
“He came back and said, ‘Oklahoma St. wants me to play for them.’” It didn’t surprise me because I’ve been around this for a long time and I can tell a natural athlete. And Cherronte is a natural athlete.”
Oklahoma St. offered Watts a scholarship to play. He left Jackson for Stillwater, Okla. on Tuesday and will begin classes as a business management major next week.
And though the self-proclaimed “momma’s boy” said he will miss home, the chance to be a student-athlete again was too good for him to pass up.
“I’m excited and sad at the same time,” he said. “I’m going to miss my mom and brothers and sisters, but I’m excited that I can make them happy playing sports again in another way.”
Janice Watts confirmed her son’s happiness.
“It makes me feel great knowing that he was not going to let the disability stop him from what he desires to do,” she said.
Both Cherronte and Janice Watts attribute their son’s success to Matthews, but Matthews won’t allow it.
“Cherronte is the one who did this,” Matthews said. “The success story is his,” he said. “Not Henry County Recreation or Harlon Matthews. When he’s at Oklahoma State I’ll still be here in Henry County. Watching him do what he’s doing is better than any award I could ever receive.”