By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
Jamal Watkins said having his mother present last month when he competed in the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships was like receiving a late birthday present.
The Birmingham-Southern College sophomore made it a present to remember with a runner-up showing in the 60-meter final at Grinnell (Iowa) College. His second-place time of 6.76 was just 0.03 seconds behind national champion Alex Koenen of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Watkins ran a 6.72 in preliminaries, which broke the Grinnell College facility record of 6.75, set in 2012.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Margaretta Watkins had been stationed in Kuwait for nine months. She had not seen her oldest son perform athletically since he transferred from Dodge City (Kansas) Community College, where he played football.
“It was almost like a birthday present for me even though my birthday is in January,” Watkins said. “It was a birthday present for her to get back days before nationals so she was able to come up and watch me compete.”
The feeling was mutual.
“It was more like an early birthday present for me,” Margaretta Watkins said. “My birthday was March 20th so just to receive that prior to my 45th birthday … It was more a birthday present for me.”
The senior non-commissioned officer at Fort Riley, Kansas, had long told her older son that he should compete in track. She had seen his running ability on the football field.
“At that time he was young and he didn’t want to do track,” she recalled. “I was very excited that he had taken an interest. And not just an interest but that he had excelled in it.
“I knew he had the speed on him at an early age, maybe 10, playing football,” the mother continued. “But I did not know he had matured so well in his running style. I was amazed at how well Jamal has developed.”
Watkins had been looking for Division I or Division II options for continuing his athletic career when BSC sprinter Cedric Campbell challenged him to consider the Panthers. The two were close friends at Georgia’s Dutchtown High School; he even moved in with Campbell when his mother was in Kuwait.
“He just said, ‘I bet you won’t apply,’” Watkins recalled. “It doesn’t take much to motivate me.”
The move to Birmingham was productive for the sophomore as he led Birmingham-Southern football in receiving with 40 catches for 567 yards and six touchdowns in the 2015 season. The highlight of his first BSC football season came Sept. 14 in a 35-34 victory over Huntingdon College in which he scored three touchdowns.
Two of those TDs came on back-to-back, fourth quarter kickoff returns of 92 and 93 yards. He finished with a game-high 289 all-purpose yards.
But track coach Ken Cox saw greater potential.
“I said he would shine even more in track and field,” he said, “and that was before the indoor season even started.”
Cox proved to be a prophet as Watkins’ times dropped from his first meet to his second, and then to his third.
“He’s like a sponge. Everything I’ve told him to do technique-wise, start-wise, mentally and physically, he’s done it well,” the coach said. “For that, he was rewarded at nationals.”
Watkins said there could be a benefit to falling short of the championship, giving him some success with motivation to improve.
“It sucks but it was close,” he said of the photo finish. “I’m blessed to have outdoor to go through it all again and this time come back with the gold to BSC.”