Watkins Award features local finalist for first time since move to D.C.

WASHINGTON — The world of amateur athletics is stuffed full of obscure awards, to the point where they can begin to lose their value. But some honors stand out for their purpose and for their track record in rewarding the types of student-athletes to which we want our children to aspire.

You might not have heard of the Watkins Award, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this weekend. Started by the National Alliance of African American Athletes, it is given to one of four or five finalists each year who succeed in the classroom and give back to their communities.

“What we really wanted to do was to take those individuals and show people that these athletes are really great people, great community servants, good students,” says Everette Pearsall, NAAAA executive director.

The ceremony for the award has lived in several different cities throughout its history, but moved to Washington in 2014. After a weekend full of activities from school appearances to a hospital visit and a teen summit, the award banquet will take place at the Renaissance Hotel downtown Saturday night.

And now, for the first time since its move to D.C., one of the finalists will be local.

Dwayne Haskins, Jr. made his name as a quarterback at Bullis and is Ohio State-bound in the fall. Rated by ESPN among the top 100 prospects in the country in his class, he was heavily recruited by teams across the country. But he’s happiest about what the Watkins Award says of his work in the classroom.

“Just being acknowledged as a student-athlete was really important,” says Haskins, who also appreciated the community that has been created by past award winners. “I thought it was intriguing that they continue to mentor you. Sometimes you hear from (awards), then you don’t hear from them again.”

There are number of recognizable members of the Watkins Award family, like four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Past local nominees include Alex Carter (Briar Woods HS), Arrelious Benn (Dunbar), Doug Dutch (Gonzaga), and Brandon Royster (Fairfax). But perhaps the best representative for the type of student-athlete the award looks to honor is Myron Rolle.

Pearsall (left) welcomes Haskins to the Watkins family. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Pearsall (left) welcomes Haskins to the Watkins family. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

Rolle postponed his NFL career after playing college ball at Florida State to pursue a Rhodes Scholarship, studying at Oxford University after completing his undergraduate degree in just two and a half years. After playing for the Tennessee Titans for two years and spending a year on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ practice squad, he returned to Florida State to enroll in medical school.

Rolle’s standout tale aside, Pearsall is proud of the lasting legacy of all 90 finalists who have been a part of the award to date. Nearly all have gone on to graduate from college, with more than 20 adding graduate degrees.

“I would venture to say that if you really put a camera on any one of our guys since 1992, you’d be very impressed with what they’ve accomplished,” he says.

Four new members will join the family this Saturday, with Messiah DeWeaver of Dayton, Ohio (Michigan State), Orangeburg, South Carolina Heathwood Hall Episcopal School’s Brandon Hill (Duke), and Brandon Burton from Northern California’s Serra High School (UCLA) joining Haskins. They’ll meet as strangers, but they’ll walk away forever tied through the legacy of the Watkins Award, no matter who takes home the hardware.

“One of the things that we talk about as we go through our weekend is that it really is more than an award,” says Pearsall. “It’s a brotherhood, it’s a movement. It really is something we put together by which we know these individuals can have an extreme positive effect on those who look up to athletes, but really for a different reason than being an athlete.”

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