Deon Watson Jr.’s journey to the University of Idaho began more than two decades ago when his father joined the Vandal men’s basketball team.
The standout performance of Deon Watson Sr. at the collegiate level led to a career as a professional basketball player, allowing Deon Jr. and his family travel across Europe and South America.
“From what I remember, which was mostly Argentina, it was fun watching my dad play basketball,” Deon Jr. said. “I always wanted — not necessarily basketball — to play a sport professionally. Seeing my dad do that was pretty inspirational.”
Anna Watson said Deon Jr. spent many childhood days perfecting his jump shot at the local court.
“He basically lived in the gym from the time he was little,” she said.
The birth of Haile Watson in 1996 encouraged the family to settle down in the United States. After moving to Coeur d’Alene, Deon Jr. was introduced to football when he joined a local youth league, but he continued to remain heavily involved with basketball.
“As a young kid he had great coaching,” Deon Sr. said. “We were like a shuttle or a taxi, driving from one practice to the next. We had tournaments in Seattle, Bellevue, Portland and all over.”
Deon Jr.’s interest in multiple sports eventually led to a difficult decision at Coeur d’Alene High School — to play football or basketball at the collegiate level.
“I told him he was athletic — he could run and jump — he was a basketball player playing football,” Deon Sr. said. “He might take offense to that, because he considers himself a football player, but in my mind those are great basketball skills. The footwork, the vertical jump, the hands.”
Anna Watson said the family was surprised but supportive when Deon Jr. committed to football.
“You always worry because there are a lot more injuries that could occur in football,” Anna said. “It’s a normal thing for moms to have those kinds of feelings. But he was really talented, and I know he liked it and we backed him up and everything.”
A difficult decision
As a high school athlete, Deon Jr. received interest from both Idaho and Washington State.
“Robb Akey was such a genuine person, and he really didn’t even know what they were going to do with Deon or the positions they would put him at,” Anna said. “Ultimately he just said that he knew Deon was a wonderful athlete and he had no concerns that he was going to be successful in the program.”
Meanwhile, Washington State attempted to recruit the Coeur d’Alene standout for the defensive line.
“At WSU it was the defensive coordinator that was recruiting him,” Anna said. “It was kind of a unique thing in that they realized another aspect of his game.”
Deon Jr. said his parents provided guidance during the recruiting process.
“All they wanted to do was make sure that I was committed to whatever I did,” he said.
After several weeks of deliberation, Deon Jr. made the decision to be a Vandal.
“It was pretty exciting for me and my wife, he would be close to home and we could go watch him on Saturdays because it’s right down the road,” Deon Sr. said. “We’ve been to nearly every home game. We were excited for him because he was pursuing his dream.”
Deon Jr. watched from the sideline as a redshirt in 2012 while the Vandal football team struggled through a 1-11 season.
He earned a starting nod on offense in 2013 and 2014, but Idaho continued to post one-win seasons.
“There was sometimes frustration,” Anna said. “They didn’t have the best seasons, there was a lot of losing. But you never want your kid to sense your disappointment because it’s not about you.”
Deon Sr. said he sat down with his son to offer advice during the early struggles of his career.
“I told him you’re not going to remember the 1-10 record, you’re going to remember the friendships that you made and the stories from the road,” Deon Sr. said.
The Vandal football team made progress in 2015, recording four wins under Idaho head coach Paul Petrino.
“I told him that things would get better and to just keeping working hard,” Deon Sr. said. “Show up in the weight room early, stay late at practice and just stay away from all the negativity around the program.”
Deon Jr. said the success stemmed from an attitude change within the program.
“I just think there’s a general care about each other,” he said. “We might not necessarily get off the field and Kumbaya — we’ve got 80 dudes on the team and not everyone is going to hold hands and sing along. But I think when we come to the (Kibbie) Dome, everyone has the idea that we are here to work and get greater.”
Deon Sr. said he instructed his son to lead by example.
“He could have left the program, but he said he believed in what they had going on there,” Deon Sr. said. “I’m just so proud of him for being a part of that culture change.”
Deon Jr. developed into one of the most versatile weapons in the Sun Belt Conference during his senior season. He caught 35 passes for 538 yards and a touchdown during the regular season while alternating roles as a tight end and receiver.
“That part of his game is amazing to me, because you have to learn routes at both positions and you have to learn how to block,” Deon Sr. said. “He just told me that he wanted to be able to help out his team any way that he could.”
On Nov. 12, the Vandals cruised to a 47-14 road victory over Texas State. Deon Jr. reeled in five catches for 116 yards to help Idaho clinch bowl eligibility and its first postseason appearance since 2009.
“To this day I still remember Idaho winning the Humanitarian Bowl down in Boise against Bowling Green,” Deon Jr. said. “Just to be able to say that the seniors and I took the team to another championship like that is a blessing.”
The win marked the third time Idaho clinched bowl eligibility in two decades of play in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“The university is going to have something to talk about now,” Deon Sr. said. “That’s a huge accomplishment, and they get to go down there and represent the University of Idaho. All the talk will be about them and they’ll get to be on TV.”
Deon Sr. said the bowl appearance is a fitting conclusion for the hard work and success his son has displayed at the university.
“We as parents are just so proud of him because he’s a good kid,” Deon Sr. said. “He’s graduating, they’re playing in a bowl game and his brother and sister are encouraged by his work ethic and commitment.”
Josh Grissom can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @GoshJrissom