Concussed: How one player took his hits and came back

More news about: Christopher Newport
Ben Watkins has played a small role on the floor in his Christopher Newport career. But in his three years on the sidelines, he's learned a lot about basketball, and life.
Photo by Benjamin Leistensnider

By Evan Thorpe

Ben Watkins picks up the ball without a defender in sight. He crosses half court and everybody gets on their feet. Watkins takes three dribbles before he gathers himself to elevate to the rim. With both hands fully extended, he slams home the fast-break dunk, and the gym he’s called home for four years erupts.

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- He claimed he doesn’t remember what happened, but the expression on his face at the time showed he enjoyed that moment in his career. His career had been full of ups and downs, with various roles on CNU’s basketball team. However, just a month before the dunk, he had thought his playing career was over.

In sports, injuries are just as common as wins and losses. But not all injuries are the same. Some can be fixed with ice and antibiotics, while others require surgery, time and rehabilitation. Then there are injuries that you cannot simply heal and change your life forever.

For Watkins, those injuries were his concussions. After having eight concussions in three years, Watkins was faced with the challenge of risking another injury to his brain by playing on the court he called home or to retire early and become a spectator. Through his journey back to basketball, Watkins finds that life is all about taking risk.

Watkins came to CNU the summer of 2012 at 6-6, 180. The future expectations were high for him, but as a freshman, his role was to be backup center and a defensive anchor with his length and athleticism. During his freshman year, he played limited minutes in 19 games but showed flashes of what he could be in the upcoming years. In his best performance of that year, Watkins scored eight points, grabbed four rebounds and registered one block in just nine minutes of action at Methodist.

This story originally appeared on The Broken Clipboard.

In the following year, it was destined for Watkins to start at the center position for the Captains. Watkins was determined to win the position and become a pivotal part of the team. That summer, Watkins transformed from a defensive anchor to a stretch center as he improved his strength, post moves and shooting distance, as he was now capable of hitting 3-pointers at a consistent rate. He went from a freshman project to the potential starting center for the Captains.

In the second week of practice, Watkins suffered a hit to the head from freshman Tim Daly while trying to take a charge. The result of the hit gave Watkins his eighth concussion within three years and sidelined him for an extended amount of time.

“With it being my eighth concussion, I had to make a tough decision on whether to risk the chance of getting another concussion playing the sport I love,” Watkins says, “or giving up my No. 1 passion.” After consulting with his family, he decided to end his relationship with basketball, to avoid the chance of getting another concussion. He states, “With the ease of how the concussion happened, the wise decision for me was to stop playing.”

Being dismissed from competitive play, Watkins could not simply be away from the game of basketball. “I did not want to abandon my teammates by not giving every possible effort of contributing to my brothers,” as he describes it.

After talks with coach John Kirkorian about potential roles he could fulfill, it was decided that Watkins would serve best as a student assistant. The duties of the role would be to set up equipment for practice, partake in non-contact drills and breakdown film. He says, “even though I cannot play, I find enjoyment learning a new aspect of basketball.” Coaching is something Watkins wants to pursue when he gets older so learning from Krikorian helps him with the transition of not playing.

Even though the process of turning from a player to a coach was beneficial to Watkins’ contributions to the team, there was still a void from not playing. When watching games and practices, Watkins says: “every game it feels like I’m tied down and I wish was out there playing. But it’s a new role I’m in and I have to accept it and fulfill my duties.”

As the season ended, his role changed from student assistant to take on more responsibilities as an assistant coach. Krikorian said that with Watkins’ new role, he has more expectations. His new job required him to run the team’s summer camp, talk with potential recruits and their parents, and be involved with more behind-the-scenes work with the team. He went from helping out on scout team, to developing the scout plans for teams. His workload increased with purposeful meaning but the void of not playing was still there.

In his senior year, Watkins started the season with the same position and expectations. He helped the Captains start off to an 8-0 record but started joking about a potential return from coaching. The joking led to the serious question of playing again. He states, “I started asking assistant coaches on their opinions if they think I should try to make a return to the court and retire the position of Coach Watkins.”

To his shock, the assistant coaches agreed with him returning.

Before winter break, Watkins went to Krikorian’s office with the plans of telling him he wants to rejoin the team, but Krikorian was hesitant about having Watkins come back, knowing his medical history. HE tells Watkins to go home, talk it over with his parents and his doctors, and for the doctor to approve the idea of him playing basketball competitively again.

During winter break, Watkins visited a doctor in Richmond at VCU Medical Center where they discussed his feelings since the concussion and his chances on potentially playing. He said he was told by the doctor, “everything in life is a risk, and you have to decide for yourself if it is worth it.” He says his parents told him, “You are an adult and that you only live once.”

After hearing the news from the doctor and his parents, Watkins made the decision to come back. On Dec. 31, Watkins addressed the team with the news after a meeting and the team welcomed him back to the roster with open arms.

While Watkins got the clearance to play from the doctor, Krikorian only allowed him to play if he wore some type of protective brace. They looked for options and found the Storelli ExoShield Head Guard, a headband worn by soccer players who’ve experienced head injuries.

The brace allows Watkins to take potential hits, however it is not guaranteed to prevent another concussion.

After the team’s first loss of the year to Scranton, Watkins was fully cleared to practice and to play in games. The following week, Jan. 2, the team hosted a conference matchup against Southern Virginia and Watkins was visibly seen for the first time in two years participating with his teammates.

Equipped with his protective headband and No. 52 jersey, Watkins was participating in warmups but there was no plan for him to actually play. But with four minutes left in the game, the unexpected happened. Krikorian looked to his bench and called Watkins’ number. This was his first game since March 9, 2013. In his three minutes of play, Watkins scored two points and grabbed two rebounds.

While the stats aren’t impressive, the most important thing was that Watkins was finally back on the basketball court. After two years of putting his first love aside, he was able to enjoy it by playing in it and not watching it.

Watkins calls the return back to the court “a dream come true,” adding that, “I no longer had to imagine myself playing on the court.” At the end of the year, Watkins was awarded his first ever start for the Captains after being honored on senior night with his mother and father right by his side.

While the Methodist game his freshman year might have been his most productive game as a Captain, senior night against Marymount will be his most cherished game so far.

Watkins started the game off hot scoring the first two baskets for the Captains but was taken out shortly due to fatigue. The game was over by halftime, with the Captains leading 46-24 but the play of the game had yet to happen.

With 9:38 remaining in the second half, a Marymount guard had the ball and tried to squeeze in between Watkins and another Captain. The ball popped loose in front of Watkins. From his perspective, he says, “all I could remember was my hand pushing the ball in front of me before I blacked out. I had tunnel vision with the ball in my hand and the basket in front of me.” He slammed the ball home, cementing his belief that he was meant to come back to basketball.

With his senior year coming to a close and his career short lived due to injury, Watkins says that everything he’s gone through has been worth it. He preaches, “To end with the jersey on is an honor and I thank God for the chance to be able to do so.”

Krikorian uses two words to describe Watkins’ legacy: resilience and service. For service, even though Watkins was never a starter or played a lot of minutes, when he played he gave maximum effort, and as an assistant, he continued to make contributions no matter how he was feeling or what he was going through. Even after a scare with concussions and the thought of never playing again, he showed resilience to return to the court. Watkins is taking the risk and back playing the game he loves.