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The Long Road Back: Watts Overcomes ACL Injury and Returns to the U.S. Defense

On March 5, 2008, the U.S. U-17 MNT played in a scrimmage against the University of Notre Dame in Bradenton, Fla. A seemingly ordinary friendly turned into one that Jared Watts will never forget.

“I remember it was just like any other play I’ve made thousands of times,” said Watts. “I went up to head the ball and the other guy gave me a little bit of contact, nothing major, but enough that I landed funny. As soon as I came down I knew what happened.”

An MRI that afternoon confirmed Watts’ fear – he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament, the dreaded ACL injury. The most important U-17 events, the CONCACAF Championship and the FIFA U-17 World Cup, were the following year and the thought of possibly missing the tournaments was scary for the North Carolina native. However, he used the knowledge of the upcoming schedule to his advantage.

“Knowing that qualifying was just over a year after my injury was a good way for me to stay focused and motivated every day,” said Watts. “(My trainers and doctor) laid out my recovery timeframe and I was able to stay positive and set small goals.”

That timeframe for his rehabilitation plan included set benchmarks at four months, six months and one year. At four months, he’d be able to run in a straight line. Six months and he could be back on the field for training. One year, and he was expected to be at 100 percent physically.

“There are certain things that I’m still working on,” Watts admits, “but at six months I was back on the field. At first I was a little hesitant about certain things – going in hard to tackles and stuff like that – but I think that’s natural. And I remember the day I hit my one year mark. I walked around campus with a big smile on my face that day because I was where I wanted to be.”

He leaned on his teammates as much as the athletic trainers and doctors available to him in his recovery process.

“There are times when things don’t go your way, but having my teammates there has always helped me. In fact, two of my teammates, Donovan (Henry) and Charles (Renken) had the same injury at the same time.”

Watts has made a full recovery, and has regained his starting center back position for the U-17s. In 2009, he has started 10 international games – tied for the team lead. Watts was in his customary position for the full 90 minutes in each of the team’s first two games of the CONCACAF U-17 Championship and was a key part of the team that qualified for its 13th consecutive FIFA U-17 World Cup.

“It’s great to play games that actually mean something,” he said. “I think I play better under pressure and respond well to it. It’s exciting to have helped the team qualify for the World Cup.”

Watts, like many of his teammates, credits his time in Residency for helping him grow as a person, as well as a player, and to overcome what could have been a devastating injury. He also attributes the environment in Bradenton when talking about the team’s chemistry and camaraderie.

“It’s not for everybody,” he says. “It’s not easy to be away from home and in this intense environment all the time. But it has taught me a lot about being on my own and definitely helped me become a better player. I think we are all really lucky to have the opportunities that we have because of the program.”