It is the last play. A show of sportsmanship by the home team. A 45-yard gallop into the end zone.
But this isn’t how Phoenix Brophy Prep freshman running back Adonis Watt, 14, wants his first high school football game to end – a scripted feel-good moment with nobody from Gilbert Highland attempting to defend him.
He isn’t asking for a gift touchdown because he’s completely blind.
“He would prefer them tackling him,” says Veronica Watt, Adonis’ mom.
Watt, 6-foot-2, 140 pounds, doesn’t want anybody’s pity.
Fellow freshmen at Brophy call Watt “Hollywood” for all of the media attention he has been getting. He has done interviews since he was 7, the media picking up on his story along the way:
– How he was floating in a swimming pool at age 5, looking into the clouds, submerging in the water, only to come out unable to see.
– How he later smacked his face into a door knob, scratching his eye.
– How he still couldn’t see the next day.
– How he had surgeries on his eyes to alleviate pressure, and still couldn’t see.
– How he was diagnosed with a rare condition of congenital glaucoma.
– How he told his mom and dad no more surgeries, explaining, “I can still see; I just see differently.”
Over time, his vision faded gradually, until it was completely gone.
But he embraced life with “blind courage,” as Veronica calls it, getting into football, becoming a pianist and a ranked wrestler, fundraising for other blind children.
And getting ready to play his first high school football game last week, using his cane and holding onto a coach’s shoulder as he made his way onto the Highland field.
“I’m ready,” Watt says, tying his cleats. “I know all of my plays. Let’s go.”
Playing through obstacles
Brophy has two freshman teams, a White and a Red team. Watt plays on the White team. Scott Heideman, who coaches all the freshmen, is leading the White team this evening at Highland.
During warmups, Watt holds onto the back of a teammate’s shoulder, as he is led into a drill. He puts his hand on the ground, and, on command, shuffles five yards one direction, five yards the other, moving forward, the coach telling him, “Good job.”
Watt accidentally bumps into Heideman – again. He says, “It’s almost like you’re not blind; you’re harassing me all the time.”
Heideman has been coaching for 27 years, but he says Watt has taught him ways to coach through a different lens.
“I’m Adonis’ biggest obstacle,” Heideman says. “These kids’ safety is always a concern. I’m the one who worries about him more than he worries about himself.
“So much about football is visual-oriented. And to think about overcoming that is more of an obstacle for me as a coach than it is for him as an athlete. He’s forcing me into his world. He’s already been in ours for a while.”
‘No point in being scared’
Watt sees with his ears. He hears defenders coming. He relies on instincts, his guts, to make a move.
“No point in being scared,” Watt says. “That’s how you get injured.”
Heideman sends Watt into the game for the first time midway through the first quarter. In a no-huddle offense, the players receive the play with a hand signal from the sideline.
Out of shotgun, with Watt lined left of him, quarterback Landon Wagner speaks into Watt’s helmet ear hole to tell him what the play is. Watt knows all the plays by memory and where he should go.
Wagner hands the ball off to Watt, who fights for a yard. Every player and coach on the Brophy sideline applaud wildly.
Watt sees the plays developing in his head.
“If it’s a run play, I’m on the left side of the quarterback,” he says. “I go across him, go right. You have to know exactly where you have to be.
“Most of the time, I try to use my ears to hear anything that is coming. The plays happen so fast. I just tell my linemen to do their job and get (the defenders) out of the way.”
Watt wants no special treatment from opponents. He doesn’t care if defenders are trying to strip the ball from him.
“I’m a football player and that’s what they’re supposed to do,” he says.
Fellow running back Carty Shoen says Watt has more guts than anybody on the team.
“He’s my man,” Shoen says. “God gives everyone challenges in life, and he clearly overcame his. His personality is crazy fun. Every day, you wake up thinking, ‘Adonis is going to have something funny to say.’ “
Once, when Watt walked into the living room of his Ahwatukee home, where an NFL game was on TV, he blocked his mother’s view.
“I told him, ‘I can’t see,’ ” Veronica Watt says. “Adonis said, ‘I can’t see and you don’t see me complaining.’ “
Watt has been doing fundraising for the Foundation for Blind Children since he was 7. He met President Obama in the White House during an anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
It was through the Foundation for Blind Children that Watt was led to Brophy Prep. Marc Ashton is the foundation’s CEO. His son, Max, a 2014 Brophy graduate, was born blind.
Max Ashton is an amazing story himself. He climbed to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro when he was 13. Through the foundation, Watt is starting up sailing lessons at Lake Pleasant to join a group later this fall that will sail the Spanish Caribbean.
Ashton returned to Brophy Prep this summer after receiving his degree in history from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
He teaches two social studies classes and assists with the Loyola Academy, a junior high feeder into Brophy. He also makes time in the afternoons to meet up with Watt and help him with technological advances that allow him to adapt to the mainstream student population and keep up with the demanding courses.
“I hadn’t seen him in a while, then I hear he is going to Brophy, which is impressive in itself,” Ashton says. “I hear everything he’s doing here. … When I was here, I wrestled. It’s sport that’s not that difficult for someone who can’t see. And he’s in football, which sounds ridiculous, but he’s going great at it.
“He fully embodies the idea of not giving into it. Your disability is adapted. You thrive, in spite of it.”
Navigating campus life
At Brophy, Watt’s computer is voice-activated. He uses his iPhone, relying on Siri, which also helps him get football scores. His Siri voice has an Australian accent.
He has braille textbooks. He will take tests in braille. He is being taught to use a MacBook. Once he is comfortable with that, Ashton says, Watt should be able to do everything himself.
“He is doing things I did while I was here and doing things more impressively than when I was here,” Ashton says.
There are roughly 1,200 students at Brophy with 300 in the freshman class. Watt is the only blind student.
It only took two tours around the campus with Learning Resource Coordinator Kristin Venberg for Watt to get familiar with the 90-year-old campus, the different stairways, the tricky turns to the classroom halls to navigates it on his own with the use of a cane.
“After a couple of times, I asked him if we would like to go around again,” Venberg says. “He said, ‘No, I’m good.’ “
Along the way, students stop to say hello, shake his hand, make him smile with a joke.
“He’s already a big man on campus,” Venberg says. “You can’t go more than five feet without somebody stopping to talk to him.”
Bill Kalkman, an assistant football coach and head track coach at Brophy, has Watt in his first-hour freshman biology class. Watt, sharing a table with three others students, puts together different colored and sized balls to form a molecule as if he had solved a Rubik’s cube.
“He’s very tech-savvy,” Kalkman says. “He gets everything the first time. He takes a quiz, is done fast and does well.”
Back in the game
It is the second quarter, and Watt is back in the game at Highland. Again, he stands next to his quarterback, who tells him the play. He gets the ball.
This time, at contact, he doesn’t go down. He drags a couple of tacklers with him for four yards. Two plays later, Watt gets the ball again, a six-yard gain, again dragging tacklers.
Marvin Watt, his father, sits in the stands with Adonis’ little sister to see his son’s first high school game.
“When they call his number, I think he can do it,” Marvin says before the game. “He wants to be treated just like the rest of the other guys. He gets it from his big brother. He gets it from me. He gets it from his mom. He gets it from everybody.”
When Adonis lost his vision, his family didn’t babysit him through life.
He wanted to get back into doing what his big brother, Jordan, did: play tackle football.
“They kept putting him at center and he kept telling them, ‘I’m a running back’ ” Veronica says. “They’d say, ‘Well, you can flip the ball back to the quarterback.’ “
Initially, Jordan Watt, a sophomore defensive end at Chadron State College in Nebraska who played football at Phoenix Mountain Pointe, would only allow Adonis to play football if he was coaching his youth team.
On Saturdays, after he was done playing, Jordan would radio in plays into Adonis’ helmet, so he knew what was coming.
But he said it was important to treat his brother no differently than the way any of his friends treated their little brothers.
“He wanted to be better than me at everything,” Jordan says. “I had to make sure he wasn’t better than me at anything. A handout in our household is, ‘If you want something, you outwork everyone for it.’ “
Heideman puts Watt in at noseguard in the second half against Highland. He takes on a double team that opens it up for teammates to gobble up the ball carrier at the line of scrimmage.
“He’s got a spacial awareness that is impressive,” Heideman says. “He’s been around Brophy for three weeks and he’s very independent. He’s always mapping it out. I’m always astonished at how he gets from place to place, let alone find holes and places on the field that he’s going to fit into.”
“He doesn’t know he should be afraid,” Veronica Watt says. “I don’t think he’s afraid of anything. He thinks he’s as big and strong as everybody else.”
In four years, as he continues to navigate his way around every obstacle that tries to get in the way, Watt will be set up beyond Brophy’s walls.
“We want him to be prepared for a career,” Veronica said. “I never want him on a disability check.”