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University of Minnesota

Of principal interest

January 24, 2010

Tommy Watson.

Tommy Watson, who received a B.S. from the University of Minnesota in 1997, helps lead a rousing rendition of the Palmer Lake Elementary school song.

Photo: Patrick O'Leary

University alum and football player Tommy Watson overcomes childhood chaos

By Rick Moore

I looked around at our new home, the Triple A Motel—cigarette-burned carpet, one window, two beds, and a bathroom, $35 per night—resting on the outskirts of Denver in a place called Commerce City. One lousy motel room to house nine miserable lives. It would be the first of two different motel rooms that we would call home over the next year and throughout the course of my eighth-grade year of school. Disheartened, at best, described my state of mind. —Tommy Watson, from A Face of Courage

The world of athletics is rife with tales of overcoming adversity, and we’ll see our share during broadcast coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Stories range from athletes rehabilitating knee injuries to finding chemistry with new skating partners to forgetting crushing defeats. (You know, the whole “thrill of victory and agony of defeat” thing.)

But few can compare to the tale of University alum Tommy Watson, who endured more emotional tumult as a child than most people will in a lifetime. In fact, he would be the first to tell you he’s lucky to even be alive.

But luck has little to do with where Watson finds himself today: a University of Minnesota graduate on track to get his doctorate; an elementary school principal; and author of his own life story to date: A Face of Courage: The Tommy Watson Story.

Heroin, not heroine

Think your childhood was tough? Watson grew up in Five Points, an inner-city neighborhood of Denver riddled with poverty, drugs, and gang violence. His parents were heroin addicts who supported their habit by shoplifting.

By the time Watson reached the third grade he had lived in three different foster homes, three crisis centers, and three motel rooms, as well as in his grandmother’s home three times.

Focusing on multiplication tables isn’t easy when your parents are spending most of their energy on finding enough money to buy drugs.

In a strange twist of fate, it may have been his inability to promote himself at that tender age that kept an angry Watson from joining a gang.

“The reason I didn’t end up joining is because I didn’t feel that the members were taking me seriously about wanting to lead the gang as a third-grader.”

Lead the gang?

“Yes, lead the gang. I had a lot of hurt and pain inside of me, and I was willing to administer that hurt and pain on others.”

‘Basketball saved my life’

At about that time his aunt “rescued” him and steered him from the streets to the basketball court.

“Basketball literally saved my life,” Watson says. “Many of the things that I had been seeking from gangs I got from participating in sports—the collective relationships with other groups of guys, the celebration, the excitement and enthusiasm of participating in things that were recognized in the community. I wasn’t a good athlete, but it was just the thrill of being connected with something bigger than yourself.”
Watson began playing football too, and received another break when he was recruited as an athlete to attend Mullen High School across town. He took three buses to get to school and three to get home, which resulted in some 16-hour days.

The extra effort paid off. At Mullen, Watson became the top-rated football recruit in Colorado, and he caught the attention of Jim Wacker, who was about to become the head football coach at the University of Minnesota.

‘Do or die’ at the U

When Watson arrived at the University in the fall of 1992, his family life was still in chaos.
His mother, father, and little brother were all in prison, and his grandmother, who had been his last legal guardian, was in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s disease. That doesn’t even count the drama in his other siblings’ lives.

“I came here on a Greyhound bus and had no home address back in Denver whatsoever,” Watson says. “And it became do or die when it came to getting an education at the University of Minnesota, so the U of M is a very, very special place for me. … The five years I spent at the U were the most stable years of my life.”

Those were not glory years for the Golden Gopher football team. Chris Darkins, who would become a good friend of Watson, was the star running back, but the team’s collective record in Watson’s time was only 16-39.

He suffered a back injury in his junior year, and it was about that time that he realized his dream of playing in the National Football League was unrealistic, and that a degree was his key to success. So he asked his adviser what he needed to do to graduate.

“She and I put together a plan that was going to entail me missing football my senior year, and I committed to the plan,” he said. “I would literally lock myself in my room, close the blinds, and unplug the phone, when everyone else was talking about going to Lake Calhoun.”

“I knew that leaving the University of Minnesota without a degree was not going to be an option,” he adds. “There was nothing but doom and gloom waiting for me back in Denver, and a lot of people waiting to tell me that they were right—that I wasn’t going to make it.”

They were wrong.

A rousing principal

Watson is now the principal at Palmer Lake Elementary, a school of about 700 kids—75 percent students of color—nestled in a quiet area of Brooklyn Park near its namesake small lake.

He’s a big man in a land of small desks and low drinking fountains, and that has more to do with his calm, caring demeanor than the fact that he’d still fill out a football uniform well.

As he walks the halls, students beam “Good morning Mr. Watson!,” and he entices one class to sing Palmer Lake’s school song, which has a very familiar ring.

He’s a “high care, high demand” principal, and his own life experiences give him a unique ability to help others.

“When I have kids walk in through the door with those same [difficult] circumstances, I can always provide them with an element of hope that someday they’ll get beyond that,” he says.

Down the road, he envisions getting into personal executive coaching and motivational speaking.

“I’ll always stay in the helping-people business,” Watson says. “There’s nothing like helping people live out their lives and dreams. I’m doing that as a principal, and we do that as educators now, but I’d like to broaden that horizon to be able to work with adults as well.”

 “… the reality of it all is this: had I not persevered through these many painful episodes of my life that often seemed hopeless, I would not have been standing where I was on one particular day—that special day in 1997 when I became the first person in my family to attend—and now graduate—from college. Wow! …

In the words of my good friend Jamil Salaam, “Often, during troubled and chaotic times, miracles are born.”


Watson's book A Face of Courage is available at Barnes & Noble and You can contact him at



Tags: Athletics

audioPalmer Lake Elementary school song