Written by SportsDayDFW.com
Talented North Mesquite runner was falling short until he made a commitment to cross country
MESQUITE - For so long the stories outweighed the accomplishments. Johnny Watson once stopped to tie his shoe during a middle school track race and still won. He once paced his teammates in a hard workout while talking to his mother on a cell phone.
Ester Casco, his friend and fellow runner, verifies these yarns. Watson was that good.
Yet in high school, at North Mesquite, he did little to back up the tales of the past, and honestly, he didn't care. It seemed the legend of Watson would suffer an anticlimax until the plot twisted in the last several months. Now he's headed for the state meet as a senior, the first North Mesquite runner to make it in about 30 years.
"Even now," Casco says, "I'm like, 'Are you serious? Is that Johnny, really?' "
Nobody ran in Watson's Mesquite neighborhood, unless you count the distance a kid sprinted from the top of the key to the hoop. Yes, they played basketball. They played in the park. They played on driveways. They played on the hottest afternoons of summer.
"Almost every day," Watson says.
In seventh grade, his basketball coach made the team run a mile and a half at practices. Watson always finished before everyone else and hardly looked tired. The coach told him to go out for track and put him in the mile and two-mile.
Every race was an adventure, and every race was a victory, often by more than a lap. But every race meant little to Watson.
"I just wanted to play basketball," he says.
That's how Watson viewed his athletic life back then. Watson's first year in high school, Coach Richard Naylor received a list of the school's top running prospects. It included Watson's name at the top, but Watson told him he wasn't interested.
He relented as a sophomore, coming out for the team after friends convinced him. He won district and finished in 20th at the regional, leaving Naylor wondering how good Watson could be if dedication merged with talent.
"I knew good and well when we had workouts planned there would be days that he would go off," says Naylor, "and as soon as he got out of eyesight probably wouldn't work very hard."
Last spring, Watson ran the 800 at regional and finished 14th, 12 spots from qualifying. The loss stung. Everybody had been telling him for the past two years that running was his gift, and he had disappointed them and himself.
He finally put running first.
"This summer," he says, "I just realized that."
Watson ran summer track, making a national race. He began training regularly rather than on the days he chose. He won district again, and last week at regional, he had his last opportunity to make state. He stayed with the lead pack the entire way, counting the runners in front of him and the shadows behind him. Watson finished fifth with his best three-mile time yet and qualified for today's race.
Between races and practices and classes, he's spent his fall corresponding with colleges about running. The pesky diversion has become a focal point. The runner who tried his hardest not to care for the sport has willfully succumbed to its call, and that is the best story any of Watson's friends can tell.