CLEMSON -- It's a quiet ride on Clemson's team bus down I-85 from Greenville and then onto Hwy 153, onto Hwy 81, Hwy 88 and into Pendleton before you finally hit the crowd around Clemson. It's the same slow trip over the rolling hills that make most people fall in love with the place when they visit Clemson. The sound of the bus is only interrupted by the sounds coming from portable CD players.
Justin Watts will be listening to hardcore rap (he's embarrassed about what his mother would think about that) when he makes his final bus ride into Clemson on Saturday. Inside he'll be a wreck, the rap music having little effect on his psyche.
"It hit me a couple of weeks ago," he said. "This is what I've done for the past five years."
That's a lifetime to someone Watts' age. He's been around long enough and has played enough to earn five letters. He's just the second Clemson player to ever do that. His knees will someday wonder if it was worth it. They might have worked fine when he got to Clemson, but he needs the music to get the adrenaline going to make them work now.
He hopes they'll make it just long enough for a win, maybe for a touchdown tomorrow against South Carolina. That would make it all worth it. He's never scored one and would smile thinking about it for the rest of his life.
"Maybe I can sit down and talk to (offensive coordinator Rich) Rodriguez this week and come up with a plan," he said.
This late in his career, Watts needs any help he can get. He knows he'll have constant reminders of the abuse his body has taken. He's planning on getting his knees worked on one more time before he checks out. He isn't the same player he was when he arrived at Clemson in August 1996. After he was injured in the second game of the 1997 season, less than a year after he tore his ACL, he imagined a future without football and his knees felt better.
"I told my parents I wouldn't play anymore after the second surgery," he said.
He looks at tapes now of himself in high school and he notices how fast the young man looks running the ball. Six knee surgeries later he's not thinking about speed. He might have thought after his first surgery that he would regain it would come back, but that was just his ego talking. It never returned. Watts learned how to survive as a dependable receiver, a coach on the field. During a timeout he would walk to the sideline with the quarterback.
That's ironic since he found out quickly that he wouldn't be playing quarterback at Clemson. He saw Nealon Greene, Brandon Streeter and Billy Luckie throw the ball in the first day of practice and moved to wide receiver.
It was the best move he could have made. He'll walk off the field tomorrow with few regrets, even if he doesn't get that touchdown. "I'll just take it in one last time, being in front of 80,000 people," he said. "I fell in love with Clemson during the recruiting process," he said. "I've been infatuated with Death Valley and running down The Hill."