Dekoda Watson couldn't have been more than 13 years old when he walked down those stairs. When he saw his mother pouring over a pile of bills. When he saw the tears welling up in her eyes.
Angela Watson was on the verge of giving up. Not on life, but on her dreams of finishing her college degree.
Raising three children on her husband Gregory's firefighter salary was tough enough. But the additional expenses of university tuition and books were strangling the family's budget.
And what about the future? What would happen when Dekoda and his two younger sisters, Amber and Tamber, would venture off to college as well? How would the family make ends meet then?
It was overwhelming.
But just then, when things seemed most bleak, Angela Watson found some words of comfort from the unlikeliest of sources - from the lips of her barely teen-age son, Dekoda.
"You won't have to worry about me," the eighth-grader told his mother. "I'm going to get a scholarship and pay for my schooling. Don't worry about me."
If Angela Watson's tears weren't flowing freely before, they certainly were now.
It didn't matter that Dekoda was practically still a child, or that he had no way of guaranteeing such a promise. It didn't matter that Dekoda wasn't much of a football player at the time; so average that his own father didn't know if the boy would even become a standout in high school.
What mattered was the sentiment -- the love in his heart, the compassion in his soul, and the determination in his mind. That is what melted Angela Watson.
And that is what makes Dekoda Watson.
'The turning point'
Truth be told, no one truly believed those words.
Not the mother. Not the father. Not even the boy.
"When he first said it, I just looked at him and thought that was very admirable of him," Gregory Watson recalled. "I was like, 'All right, he's taking that kind of initiative.' The only thing that scared me was he wasn't the best on the team."
Dekoda put it in less delicate terms.
"I was just a horrible player," the younger Watson recalled. "And a lot of the boys I grew up with were great athletes. So I constantly got picked on."
But things changed that day in his family's Aiken, S.C., home. Dekoda Watson's pledge to his mother was not empty, like most adolescent promises. It was a life-changing event.
At that very moment, a boy became a man. A struggling young athlete decided he would be more than that. And he would stop at nothing to make it happen.
"That was just a turning point," Dekoda recalled. "I was brought up that if you want something, you work for it."
Dekoda learned that lesson from his father. He had seen Gregory Watson put in countless 24-hour shifts as a firefighter-EMT. He had waited and worried while his father battled raging infernos -- like the one that burned for days at Aiken's Carlisle Tire and Wheel Co. And he also looked to his father for guidance in the athletic arena.
"I coached him in everything except soccer," Gregory said. "And I was tough on him. I never tried to make him anything that he wasn't, but I was tough on him. I pushed him to the point of what I knew he could do and what I expected of him."
Soon, though, Gregory Watson learned that he wouldn't need to push anymore. Inspired by his new sense of purpose, Dekoda would drive himself to greatness.
He joined the track team even though he hated it, because he knew it would make him faster. He worked out by himself in the mornings. Then after track practice in the afternoons, he would work out again that night.
"There were several times that he got out of the car and cramped up in the yard so bad that I had to carry him into the house," Gregory Watson recalled. "But the very next day, he was back in the gym again doing the same thing."
The work continued at home. Before he would go to bed, the teen-ager would force himself to do 200 sit-ups. Then he'd follow that with 200 push-ups.
If Dekoda wasn't doing something, he felt as if he was wasting time. So when someone gave him a set of light dumbbells, just a few pounds each, he wrapped them together in a sheet and created his own exercises to work on his biceps and triceps.
The lanky youngster didn't even know if the drills would be effective; but he had to try.
"He made up his mind that that was what he wanted to do," Gregory Watson said. "And I commended him all the time because he was that diligent with it. He worked hard at it."
By the time Watson settled into high school, the effort started paying off. His coaches moved him from receiver to defensive end, which better suited his aggressive nature, and his newfound speed and strength became major weapons.
As a junior, Dekoda racked up 102 tackles and 18 sacks for South Aiken High. Soon, the recruiting letters started coming in -- though not nearly as quickly as the Watsons expected.
While other players in the area were being courted by in-state powers Clemson and South Carolina, Dekoda's only offers were from Kentucky and North Carolina. He didn't receive much respect from the national recruiting services either -- one listed him as only a two-star prospect.
Those slights never derailed him, however. They made him stronger.
"Life isn't fair," Watson said. "But at the same time, what do you make of it? Do you quit? No. You strive to get better."
Dekoda channeled that energy as a senior, posting 123 tackles and 32 tackles for loss. He recorded 11 sacks.
But still, the scholarship offers weren't pouring in -- not until he forced the issue at the North Carolina-South Carolina Shrine Bowl, a postseason All-Star game featuring the best players from both states.
"That whole week of practice, the coaches at the Shrine Bowl didn't really give him a lot of playing time," Gregory Watson said. "They were focused on what they felt were bigger-name guys. He called me the night prior to the game and said, 'Daddy, I'm not gonna start.'"
Gregory Watson could feel the sadness in his son's voice. But like he had done so many times before, he encouraged Dekoda to make the pain work in his favor. And like he had done so many times before, the boy responded.
Dekoda played like a man possessed that day, leading his team with nine tackles and a sack. He was named Defensive Most Valuable Player. And during that night's awards ceremony, his longtime dreams finally took flight.
Kevin Steele, who was Florida State's linebackers coach at the time, approached Watson's parents immediately after the game. Steele admitted that he hadn't really heard of Dekoda before the game, but he saw all that he needed to see. Dekoda would have a scholarship with the Seminoles if that were something he desired.
"That was a joyous time," Gregory Watson said. "It was just joy and jubilation all the way home. That was his goal. That was his dream."
Something to prove
Four years later, Dekoda Watson is still fueled by the same motivation. Not to pay for his education, but to carry his own weight. To prove his worth.
Even though he is a senior leader for one of the nation's most successful football programs, Watson still feels the need to earn respect. Every time he straps on his pads, every time he walks from the locker room to the practice field, he senses the doubters.
"I feel like I've been an underdog all my life," Watson said. "Nothing was handed to me. I didn't have a big name when I got here. I had to work for that. And I feel like it's always going to be like that. I felt like I had to prove to everybody, 'Yes, I'm a ballplayer.'
"I was probably one of the lowest-recruited players on the team. But I've just got that mindset where don't tell me I can't do anything. That's just going to make me want to do it even more. It's just the way I was brought up. You fight for what you want. That's what I'm doing now."
The fuel for Watson these days is overcoming the disappointments of his junior season -- a year that started with a three-game suspension and ended with his body a wreck.
Though he played in all of the Seminoles' final 10 games, his production was limited by an assortment of ailments, including an elbow injury that required postseason Tommy John surgery and a knee that needed to be scoped. He underwent both surgeries the same day.
Finally, after a summer of rehabilitation, Dekoda Watson is healthy again. And in his mind, this is his chance to shine. The former two-star prospect is a preseason All-Atlantic Coast Conference linebacker.
"Last year was tough for him," Gregory Watson said. "But I told him that he can use that. Your goal is to make three times as many tackles this year, and that many more sacks. When you walk off that field, everybody will know that Dekoda Watson played that day."
'It all worked out'
Her son is pleased to tell you that Angela Watson finally earned that degree from the University of South Carolina-Aiken. She now teaches and is a whiz at interior design.
It wasn't an easy road. With Gregory gone so often with his firefighter shifts, Angela often had to drag all three kids to her classes. But she made it. She found a way.
"That was a joyous day," Dekoda said. "To see my Mom walk across the stage was a special thing. She worked so hard."
Hard work is a Watson family tradition. For Gregory, the father and firefighter; Angela, the mother and college graduate; Dekoda, the son on a Division-I scholarship; Amber, the daughter attending college and getting her start on a modeling career; and Tamber, the younger daughter who is a high school track standout. The accomplishments are varied, but the work ethic is the same.
It has been nearly a decade since Dekoda Watson made that promise to his mother. And he admits now that he didn't always believe he could keep it.
"When I walked up the stairs," Watson remembers, "I was like, 'God, now you know I'm not a great football player. And my schooling isn't all that great. So I don't know why I just made that promise.' But the funny thing is it all worked out."
Even if it hadn't, that wouldn't have diminished the effort he put forth. For Gregory and Angela Watson, watching their son work and sweat and endure excruciating pain in pursuit of his goal -- a truly selfless goal -- was rewarding enough.
"I think I was more proud of him committing himself to do that ? even if he hadn't been able to do it," Gregory Watson said. "I was so proud of the work that he put in just to even attempt it. He worked so hard."
This feature originally appeared in this week's print edition of the Osceola, the only newspaper devoted exclusively to covering Florida State athletics. For subscription information, click here or call 1-800-725-4321.