Xavier Watts' persevering journey through life, Notre Dame football and beyond graduation
SOUTH BEND — Fallon and Jeff Watts took time to reflect as their son, Xavier, prepares to graduate from the University of Notre Dame.
On Sunday, their only child will receive a Bachelor of Arts in design with a concentration in visual communication — his passion is graphic design — and a minor in computing and digital technologies. With two years of eligibility remaining, however, the Irish safety will not be leaving South Bend.
Xavier arrived as a wide receiver when he enrolled early as a freshman in Jan. 2020. After struggling to get a good look on offense, he experimented briefly as a rover linebacker, found a role at safety and again took reps with the wideouts last season before cementing his spot in the secondary.
Following a strong end to 2022, Xavier is expected to start in Notre Dame’s season opener against Navy in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 26. By that time, he’ll be working toward his master’s in sports analytics.
Before his circuitous path at Notre Dame, Xavier earned plaudits for both his game and character while playing for Paul Limongi at Burke High School in Omaha, Nebraska. Limongi gushes about how Xavier would take over a state championship game. Would peer tutor. Would attend every study hall with his teammates, even if he had a 4.0 GPA. Would show up whenever Limongi needed players for community events.
What did Fallon and Jeff get so right?
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With Xavier’s graduation approaching, they have only just started thinking hard about the answer. They have been receiving compliments about Xavier for a long time. About his kindness. About his toughness.
“I often say," Fallon said, "Xavier saw things that probably another kid is never going to see based off of what happened to his dad."
'No excuse zone'
In 2003, the Watts lived in Fallon’s hometown of Minneapolis. Jeff, then 21, was caught in a shooting incident, taking a bullet in the back near his spine. About 24 hours later, he learned he was paralyzed from the waist down. Xavier was about 18 months old.
After three months in the hospital, Jeff lived in a rehab center for a year and a half. Fallon and Xavier visited every night for dinner. Xavier had already started talking and pushing his father’s wheelchair around the center. Soon, he’d be helping his mom bring in the groceries.
“As a kid, I just kind of saw him do certain things where I'm like, ‘God, he's just so kind and so compassionate,’ Fallon said of Xavier. “I think, again, him seeing some of the struggles that his dad has gone through, it's just automatically built in him. It's a part of who he is because of what he saw growing up.”
Once Jeff completed his rehab, he and Fallon moved back near Jeff’s family in Omaha.
“I'm probably still going to be getting in trouble here (in Minneapolis),” Jeff said of his rationale. “I want to be around my son.”
Fallon noted she and Jeff raised Xavier in a “no-excuse zone.” In April, Xavier said that living in a wheelchair did not hold his father back.
“He still provided for me and my mom,” Xavier said when asked about a tribute to his parents he authored in honor of Black History Month. “He helped out around the house. He just got up every day like a normal person. He didn’t let not walking hinder him. I just kind of took that to heart and let it inspire me for the rest of my life.”
Jeff worked in the hotel industry for 11 years before taking a role in his father’s screen-printing business. Fallon, meanwhile, obtained three college degrees, including a bachelor’s in human and social service administration from Bellevue University and a master’s from Creighton. Xavier saw her work full time, go to class and show up at his games, all while trading household tasks with Jeff.
Due to his injury, Jeff couldn’t use a screwdriver around the house or pull the trash cans to the curb. Xavier would shovel the driveway with Fallon, making a path for his father’s wheelchair. Jeff would compensate by folding all the clothes.
“Those are things that people don't think about,” Fallon said, “but we just did it and just didn't think about it, right, because it has to get done.”
Today, Fallon is the associate registrar at Metropolitan Community College. For the past four years, she has also taught as an adjunct instructor in the community health program at nearby Clarkson College.
“There’s no one that could ever come take any of my degrees away from me,” Fallon said. That will soon apply to her son, too.
Marcus Freeman’s offer
The Watts pride themselves on "keeping it real." Jeff doesn’t hide the life he left behind, “ripping and running the streets, being bad.” He regularly sends Xavier news clips when local or famous athletes are in the news for the wrong reasons.
“He's seen it himself,” Jeff added. “He's had friends that have lost their lives or been incarcerated that have been hanging around here since he graduated high school.”
They also didn’t sugarcoat things when Xavier spent most of his freshman season at Notre Dame on the bench, urging him to stay the course after only seeing the field twice in 2020. Injuries stifled his progression in the receiver room during his first three semesters.
Xavier made progress at safety his sophomore season, making 15 tackles in 11 games. He believed he had found a home, but last fall, a season-ending ACL injury to Avery Davis left Notre Dame desperately thin at wide receiver. Head coach Marcus Freeman approached Xavier with an intriguing offer.
How about playing both ways?
Xavier agreed, confident he would work with the wide receivers again for a reason. For the second time, however, he didn’t stick on offense.
“I don't know why it didn't work out," Xavier said, "but it is what it is."
He focused on what he’s always tried to do. Have fun, help the team win.
“I don't necessarily regret it,” he said, “but obviously it kind of took away some time at safety where I could have excelled even more at that point in time.”
dJeff wasn’t surprised that his son was chosen to fill a gap. During his junior year of high school, Xavier’s AAU’s basketball team lacked height at elite tournaments. At 5-foot-11¾, Xavier guarded another team’s 7-footer.
“We had kids that were 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5 that we could have put on the 7-foot kid,” Jeff said. “But we knew they weren’t tough enough.”
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Jeff noted Xavier’s played almost every position on the football field. His first?
Jeff and his family showed up to 5-year-old Xavier’s first flag football game excited to see him showcase his athleticism. Instead, he was the only kid on the team who could snap the ball.
“He’s been doing this his whole career,” Jeff said of Xavier shifting positions. “He’s a football player.”
Xavier’s winding path at Notre Dame is charted by the numbers he’s worn. He entered as No. 82, a typical wideout’s number. Then he was No. 2. Then No. 26, the number he wore as a safety in 2021.
Briefly, he was No. 4. Then back to No. 26, his number again during games last season. Finally, his identity as a safety established, Xavier has settled on No. 0.
Jeff knows Xavier could have transferred and received NIL offers somewhere else, but he and Fallon are glad Xavier stuck it out in South Bend.
“You’ve made a lot of deposits,” Jeff said of his advice to Xavier, “and (the coaches) are going to let you start making some withdrawals.”
They did. Xavier played in all 13 games at safety in 2022, totaling 39 tackles. He started the last four games of the season and had an impressive pass break-up to prevent a South Carolina touchdown in the Gator Bowl (though the Gamecocks scored with a fake field goal on the next play.)
Safeties Coach Chris O’Leary said Xavier fully grasps what the Irish are trying to execute on defense and is ready to be a “big-time safety.”
“We saw flashes through fall camp (in 2022),” O’Leary said. “He had to switch back to receiver, back to safety. All those things, it took its time. When it finally came on late in the season, I don’t think there’s any looking back now.”
Former Irish safety Brandon Joseph, who recently signed with the NFL's Detroit Lions as an undrafted free agent, told reporters at his pro day that Xavier will be one of Notre Dame’s “big stars” this season. The 2020 All-American said Xavier, who has built a reputation for making pads pop in the secondary, is hitting his stride.
“I’ve seen him grow tremendously, whether it’s in the meeting rooms or how he learns and how he takes (O’Leary’s) coaching,” Joseph said of Xavier.
Xavier’s roommate, fellow safety Ramon Henderson, also thinks there are big things ahead for Notre Dame’s new “Agent Zero.”
“He's a really fast player, good competitor,” Henderson said. “He tackles really well. He can guard really well. He's growing. I think I'll see him in the draft pretty soon going pretty high.”
Before the NFL, however, there’s at least one more season at Notre Dame. And before that?
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A degree in design is fitting. Jeff’s uncle is a high school art teacher, as was his grandfather. Xavier would attend some of his great uncle’s summer classes, but his parents didn’t know he had a related academic interest until he sent them some of his graphic designs.
“You didn’t do that,” Jeff said of his initial reaction, laughing.
Last fall, some of Xavier’s pieces were among the student work displayed in the Duncan Student Center adjacent to Notre Dame Stadium.
It’s another bit of long-awaited recognition coming Xavier’s way. He could have left South Bend, but his instinct was to stay the course.
“We have been through it all,” Fallon said of her family. “So, there's really nothing that you can throw at us where we're going to break.”