All smiles are good in the life of Top247 athlete Dareian Watkins, and he and his father make eye contact and share another one.
Dareian can't help but think about the abuse and neglect he suffered as a young child, but it also drives him to succeed everyday.
They're on a college recruiting trip and it happened again.
Always by accident, college coaches typically assume that Heath Watkins is Dareian’s coach. Sometimes the Watkins camp takes visits with Galion (Ohio) High teammate Cario Davison, who is also Heath’s godson, and college coaches will think Cario’s father is Dareian’s as well.
“We get it a lot,” Dareian laughed.
Dareian is biracial. Heath is white. They became family six years ago when Heath and his wife Cheryl adopted Dareian when he was 11-years old.
“We got some funny stories with that,” Heath said. “I’ve been to a couple schools where Dareian will introduce me as his dad and coaches will call me coach the whole time. I know they’re not doing it intentionally. They’ve met so many kids and it’s just not registering. Most of them have been respectful of Dareian and respectful of me.”
Unfortunately, people showing respect for Dareian hasn’t always been the case.
Growing Up Fast
Dareian Watkins is the face of Galion football.
Watkins landed his first offer from Illinois at the end of his sophomore year and has been racking them up ever since.
Holding scholarship offers from the likes of Michigan State, Northwestern, Louisville, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland and West Virginia, Watkins will eventually look good on the cover of a college football program or media guide.
Ranked by 247Sports as the nation’s No. 10 athlete and No. 118 prospect overall, perhaps Watkins will eventually make the cover of Sports Illustrated.
However, the first cover Watkins ever made ultimately changed his life forever.
Dareian was the face on the adoption pamphlet that Heath and Cheryl got a hold of in what seems like many years ago. The two elder Watkins had three kids of their own but along the way always talked about adopting a fourth.
“We were kind of procrastinating and one day we got this pamphlet in the mail talking about adoption,” Heath said. “We went to adoption classes and went through the process and once it was complete, we began looking for a child aged three to five to adopt.”
Meanwhile, Dareian spent two-and-a-half years bouncing around three different foster homes, which was a huge upgrade from when child protective services found him and removed him from his biological mom’s care just before he turned nine.
Watkins is a survivor. A neighbor made the first call to child protective services after seeing young Dareian eating out of a trashcan at their house. According to Heath, Dareian had nights when he was seven or eight-years old where he wandered the streets and slept in the ally instead of at home under a roof in a bed. A teacher once called child protective services after finding burn marks from a cigarette on Dareian’s leg. Finally rescued and put into foster care, Dareian was still able to see his mother but she was a no-show for most of their appointments.
“I think about it every day,” Dareian said. “It’s impossible to not think about. There is a lot of stuff that happened but it’s also a motivator to look where I’m at now and what I came from.
“A lot of people haven’t gone through what I’ve gone through and going through those kinds of situations matures you quicker than usual, and as a person you get a respect for life and what can be done.”
It was a done deal nearly the moment Heath and Cheryl first met Dareian.
Heath and Cheryl own a local insurance agency and one of their clients runs the adoption agency and thought Dareian would be the perfect fit for the Watkins family. When told Dareian was 11-years old, Heath and Cheryl disagreed at first, wanting a kid that was aged three to five.
“After a lot of pleading, we told her we’ll meet with him,” Heath said. “Then when we met him, we find the same kid standing in front of us is the same kid we saw on the adoption pamphlet.”
The rest is history.
Heath, Cheryl and Dareian went to Pizza Hut and talked about everything under the sun. Dinner went so well, they invited Dareian back to their house to play with their kids. Heath and Cheryl had originally told each other, that no matter how well it went, they wouldn’t say anything to Dareian about adopting him until a second meeting, but things were developing faster and they knew it was right.
“I pulled my wife away and said I think we should adopt him,” Heath said. “She said she was thinking the same thing but wasn’t going to say anthing to me. We pulled Dareian off to the side and told him who we were and that we were going to adopt someone and we would like to adopt you. Dareian kind of grinned ear to ear and shook his head yes.”
For Dareian there would finally be stability. A place to be safe, a place to keep his possessions, a place that would be home.
“Instantly my answer was yes because I didn’t really like where I was at before,” Dareian said. “It wasn’t the greatest and knowing I was going to get adopted and know I’m not bouncing around anymore and knowing I’m going to stay in one place, it was pretty exciting for me to know that someone wanted me, wanted to adopt me after the first night of meeting me.”
From that night, Dareian was part of the Watkins home and has been living there ever since.
Getting On Track, Watkins Finds The Gridiron
The first time Dareian ever threw a football around was the day he met Heath. At that time, he thought he was a skateboarder and the only organized sport he ever played was baseball one summer back in fourth grade.
Heath runs the local youth football league while Cheryl does the same for cheerleading. Dareian was quickly added to a roster in the football league and he hated it just as fast.
“The first practice I ever went to, after it was over I told my dad I wanted to quit,” Watkins said. “I thought the coaches didn’t like me because they were making me run and do pushups and I thought it was unfair. I didn’t know that’s what they were supposed to do.”
Watkins wasn’t used to everyday discipline as well. The three attended counseling. Watkins blossomed from a student in sixth grade that regularly found trouble, was suspended often and failed to turn in assignments, to an eighth grader that was now an honor-roll student and one of the more likable kids according to teachers at the middle school.
“We had a lot of fights in the beginning,” Heath said. “Because of the abuse and neglect he had as a child, he pretty much lacked any discipline. We got him in school the teachers said he was intelligent but he’d get bad grades.
“My wife, his mom, was on him every night about his school work. It was just amazing the turnaround and I give all the credit in the world to my wife because she spent countless hours doing work with him, meeting with his teachers and seeing him get better in school rapidly was a great feeling because it confirmed what we knew.”
Football was also going well.
When Dareian wanted to quit, Heath made a deal with him to stick it out through that first-ever game before allowing him the opportunity to give it up. Dareian struggled through what he said was a month’s time of practice before that first game. Then he went out and scored five touchdowns. The end zone has been Watkins home away from home ever since.
Becoming A Touted Recruit
Born Dareian Mykal Lewis, his name is now Dareian Mykal-Lewis Watkins.
Legally a part of the Watkins family just before he turned 12, Heath, Cheryl and Dareian talked about him taking the Watkins last name.
“He wasn’t sure it was a good idea at first,” Heath said. “I asked him why and he felt by doing that he would be disrespecting his biological parents and siblings. He was real worried how that would come across to them. His mother and I told him that if he didn’t change his name, he’s still our son no matter what.”
A month before everything went official, Dareian elected to take Watkins as his name. After the paperwork was in, he was so fired up about his new name that he literally went and put it onto the back of all of his t-shirts.
“There was like 20 of them,” Heath laughed.
“A new last name to me felt like a new start and I got to start fresh and be somewhat of a different person,” Dareian said.
The jersey the Watkins last name will be printed on in college remains to be seen.
Watkins arrived at Galion as a freshman and instantly made the varsity football team. He earned all-league honors and moved to quarterback as a sophomore where he developed into a touted recruit. Illinois was first to offer back in May of 2012, and the opportunities have poured in since. Watkins played both quarterback and receiver as a junior, and schools are recruiting him at both positions as well as defensive back. He prefers to play receiver on the next level.
Heath says Illinois, Louisville, Northwestern and Michigan State are four schools that he knows Dareian is high on, while the younger Watkins added Indiana, Maryland, Kentucky and Wisconsin were other programs he is currently excited about.
“Any of these schools are going to be tough to say no to,” Dareian said. He’d like to make a decision by May 1. Watkins is scheduled to visit Northwestern this weekend and plans to hit Illinois and Indiana before the end of the month. In April the plan is to get back to Michigan State, Louisville and Wisconsin.
“Indiana and Illinois have recruited me the hardest. Northwestern, the thing that really stands out is how great of a person Coach (Pat) Fitzgerald is. At Michigan State I’m tight with Coach (Mike) Tressel. He’s come to the school to talk to my coaches many times. Coach (Charlie) Strong has turned that Louisville program around and we’ve stayed in contact. Seeing what they did to Florida was impressive. Wisconsin that was a big offer. To say no to one of those schools will be very, very tough.”
Families Coming Together
Watkins has since reconnected with his biological mother Jolita Roberson. Heath and Cheryl were actually the ones that initiated contact and rekindled the relationship. They get together a few times a month and keep in touch.
“It’s unbelievable,” Dareian said. “I love her more than anything and being able to spend time with her now and for her to know that I’m safe and that everything is going good means the world to me.”
Roberson has since moved to the Galion area and attends a few football games a year, sometimes sitting with Heath and Cheryl.
“It’s truly heartwarming to know that they my parents now are okay with her being there and just them sitting together is amazing,” Dareian said. “They have a pretty close relationship as well. It’s cool. Usually when you get adopted you don’t see your biological parents at all.”
Watkins also has three sisters adopted by another nearby family that he gets to see. Spending time with all of his loved ones is a daily reminder of where he’s come from and how lucky he is now.
“When I was back in foster homes, I never ever, ever imagined myself getting good grades let alone playing a sport and excelling at it and having the opportunity to play on the next level,” Watkins explained. “Not many kids get that opportunity. To look back now and see what all I went through and to overcome it totally amazes me. I never in a million years thought my life would turn out the way it has. I always wondered about how it would be when I got older and how I was going to provide myself, and how I ended up here was truly a blessing.”
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