ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —** Growing up in the small city of Aiken, South Carolina, linebacker Dekoda Watson can remember the last people who made their way to the NFL from his alma mater of South Aiken High School. Michael Dean Perry and Ray Roundtree's careers had much different arcs; Perry was a six-time Pro Bowler and a two-time All-Pro during his 10 years in the NFL, but Roundtree's NFL career was all too short: just four games in 1988.
Watson may not have the Pro Bowls of Perry and he may have longevity beyond Roundtree, but that undeterminable time at the top for a select few over the past four decades is part of a message he wants to impart on the youth of his hometown.
Since 2012, Watson has addressed his goal of giving kids in Aiken a brighter future with his Koda's Kids Foundation, a non-profit that provides scholarships to one student from each of the seven high schools near Aiken that draws students from the city.
"My foundation provides opportunities for the kids and giving themselves a chance by knowing how to go about certain things and how the real life is," Watson says. "I'm not promising everybody a scholarship or everybody's going to be a star athlete or anything like that, but I can say that their education is promised if they work hard at it."
The scholarships are the crown jewels of the organization's outreach, but it goes further with events like its upcoming golf tournament (June 17), white gala (June 17) and free football and cheer camp (both on June 18). The two pillars for Watson, as has been the case in his own life, are fitness and education.
That's why the coaches at his football camp aren't professional athletes, though some were. There's Myron Rolle, a former sixth-round NFL Draft pick who was arguably even more talented in the classroom, earning a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University. Another is a strength and conditioning coach with the Dallas Cowboys.
"You've got to have a backup plan," Watson says. "You've got to make sure you have something in case your number one doesn't work out, and that's just the way life is.
"I've got athletes coming to the football camp, and a few of them are not even playing football in the NFL. Some actually have daytime jobs, and what I'm trying to say is, 'OK, this football thing didn't work out, but they did also graduate and they are having a great, successful career and they have something to fall back on, because whether it's they couldn't prove themselves in the NFL, whether they got hurt, whether something happened where they could not continue their NFL career, they still have the education to fall back on.'"
If you were to sum up Watson and his foundation's message in one word, it would be "involvement." Watson strives to stay involved in the community that raised him to drive children to reach great heights like he did, regardless of whether that's in sports or any other field.
"We have to stay involved, whether that's the parents, whether it's the guardian, whatever the case is," he says. "Stay involved in your child's life because it pays a great dividend. If you show that you don't care, they're going to do anything in their power to try to get attention from you, whether it's good or bad."
Watson's heart is set on expansion, too. He's looking at pushing his foundation's reach north from Aiken and southwest to Augusta, Georgia. And instead of just a weekend, Watson wants to see his foundation have events all week in Aiken.
All this goes toward the education aspect with the yearly awarding of college scholarships to seven deserving high school students.
But he's not looking for the best student from each school; he wants to find the extremely deserving students who fly under the radar and have a great mindset.
"When you go to graduations, they always have the one person who gets all the doggone awards, just every single one," Watson says. "And I was upset with that, because growing up, there were people that busted their behind and worked their butts off, but they may not have got the notoriety or whatever the case is. So I'm looking at those types of people." These are the students who remind Dekoda Watson of himself. The dedication to education is what he wants to give back to Aiken, and that's just what he's doing.