by: Evan Thorpe
Ben Watkins picks up the ball without a defender in sight. He crosses half court and everybody gets on their feet. Ben takes three dribbles before he gathers himself to elevate to the rim. With both hand fully extended, Ben slams home the fast break dunk, and the gym he’s called home for four years erupts.
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 Ben, those injuries were his concussions. After having eight concussions in three years, Ben was faced with the challenge of risking another injury to his brain by playing on the court he called home with his brothers or to retire early and become a spectator. Through his journey back to basketball, Ben finds that life is all about taking risk.
Ben came to CNU the summer of 2012 at 6’6 and 180 lbs. 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, Ben scored eight points, grabbed four rebounds and registered one block in just nine minutes of action at Methodist University.
In the following year, it was destined for Ben to start at the center position for the Captains. Ben was determined to win the position and become a pivotal part of the team. That summer, Ben 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 three-pointer at a consistent rate. Ben went from a freshman project to the potential starting center for the Captain’s Basketball Team.
In the 2nd week of practice, Ben would suffer a hit to the head from freshman Tim Daly while trying to take a charge. The result of the hit gave Ben 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,” Ben says, “or giving up my number one passion.” After consulting with his family, Ben 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, Ben 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” he says. After talks with Head Coach John Kirkorian, called Coach K by the team, about potential roles he could fulfill, it was decided that Ben would serve best as a Student Assistant on the team. 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 he wants to pursue when he gets older so learning from Coach K helps him with the transition of not playing.
Even though the process of turning from a player to a coach was beneficial to Ben’s contributions to the team, there was still a void from playing. When watching games and practices, Ben’s 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, Ben’s role from a Student Assistant changed to a full-time Assistant Coach. Coach K discusses that with Ben’s 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 even purposeful meaning but the void of playing was still there.
In his senior year, Ben started the season off 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, Ben went to Coach K’s office with the plans of telling him he wants to rejoin the team, but Coach K was hesitant on having Ben come back, knowing Ben’s medical history. Coach K tells Ben 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, Ben visited a doctor in Richmond at VCU Medical Center where they discussed his feelings since the concussion and his chances on potentially playing. He was told by the doctor, “everything in life is a risk, and you have to decide for yourself if it is worth it.” His parents, they told him, “You are an adult and that you only live once.” After hearing the news from the doctor and his parents, Ben made the decision to come back. On the 31st of December, Ben addressed the team of the news after a meeting and the team welcomed him back with open arms.
When Ben got the clearance to play from the doctor, Coach K only allowed Ben 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 Ben to take potential hits, however it is not guaranteed to prevent another concussion.
After the team’s first lost of the year to the University of Scranton, Ben was fully cleared to practice and to play in games. The following week, January 2, 2016, the team hosted a conference matchup against Southern Virginia University and Ben was visibly seen for the first time in two year participating with his brothers.
Equipped with his protective headband and number 52 jersey, Ben was participating in warm-ups but there was no plan for him to actually play. 4 minutes left in the game, the unexpected happened. Coach K looked to his bench and called Ben’s number. This was his first game since March 9th, 2013. In his 3 minutes of play, Ben scored 2 points and grabbed 2 rebounds.
While the stats aren’t impressive, the most important thing was that Ben 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.
Ben 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, Ben 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.
Ben started the game off hot scoring the first 2 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 Ben and another Captain. The ball popped loose in front of Ben. From Ben’s 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, Ben 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.” Coach K uses two words to describe Ben’s legacy, resilience and service. For service, even though Ben 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. Ben is taking the risk and back playing the game he loves.