Battle tested, battle ready: Boise State forward overcame hurdles at early age

The senior's adversity lays foundation for serious work ethic

dsouthorn@idahostatesman.comNovember 10, 2013 

Boise State’s Ryan Watkins, shown driving to the basket during an exhibition game against Lewis-Clark State on Nov. 1, has led the Broncos in rebounding in both of their games this year. He had seven against LCSC, then grabbed 10 boards to go with 14 points against UT Arlington on Friday night.

JOE JASZEWSKI — jjaszewski@idahostatesman.com

If Ryan Watkins ever needs a bit of inspiration, he can look right in the mirror.

When Boise State’s senior forward was 2 years old, he underwent multiple surgeries to remove an aggressive tumor attached to the right side of his jaw. The procedures left a large scar and took a chunk of tissue from his neck.

Twenty years later, he’s a 6-foot-9 team leader and a rebounding whiz on a Bronco squad with eyes on another NCAA Tournament berth.

“It’s a part of me,” Watkins said. “I know people who go through worse, but it’s always kind of there to remind me to keep fighting.”

Myron Watkins clearly recalls the immediate fear he felt when he realized there was a hard lump on his oldest son’s jaw.

Maybe it was something a dentist could take care of, he thought.

No, the dentist knew it was something more. So, after a visit to a Los Angeles doctor, Watkins was diagnosed with juvenile fibromitosis. Though benign, it grows quickly and has a high chance of returning if all is not removed.

“We were devastated. He’d started to have some trouble breathing, and you never know what an operation like that will be like on a 2-year-old,” Myron said.

By the time the first operation took place, the tumor had grown to the size of a golf ball. The primary options were to cut out the tumor or take off a portion of the jaw with it to ensure it wouldn’t come back.

“We just couldn’t take his jaw,” Myron said.

Surgeons found the tumor had wrapped around Watkins’ jaw and attached to some nerves. After the initial surgery, Ryan spent nearly three weeks in the hospital.

A week later, it grew back and was even larger.

The likelihood of taking out a good part of Watkins’ jaw was increasing, and doctors suggested the possibility of replacing it with a bone from his ribs or from a leg. Myron did as much research as he could with the hopes of preserving his son’s jaw, so he flew to visit a doctor in St. Louis. Doctors there said it could still be possible to cut around it, but they would need to scrape the jaw, possibly severing some nerves.

“He was young, and we knew they’d be able to grow back, so we went forward with that — they took all but 2 percent of it,” Myron said. “Seeing all those wires and tubes connected to a kid that young, it’s incredibly difficult, but they got it.”

MRIs in the years since have shown what little was left of the tumor has all but disappeared. When he was 15, Watkins had the opportunity to have reconstructive surgery.

“I could’ve had it filled in, but I was like, ‘No, this is who I am,’” he said.

Watkins’ experience has led to a bond with 15-year-old Connor Martin of Boise. Connor has non-Hodgkin lymphoma and recently had a softball-sized tumor removed from his intestine. The lifelong Broncos fan has been taken under the team’s wing this season, getting to know his favorite team, and has even been named an honorary captain.

Last week, Watkins and fellow senior Jeff Elorriaga paid Connor a visit.

“If he comes by practice, whatever, Ryan always makes an effort to talk with him,” said Jim Martin, Connor’s father. “He’s mentioned it a few times — ‘Didn’t Ryan have a tumor taken out, too?’ Then he sees what Ryan can do, and he needs examples like that.”

Watkins said, “I wish I could help him more, since I was so young, but I just tell him what my parents told me — ‘It doesn’t end here, keep fighting.’”

The will to help and the will to fight — that’s Watkins’ calling card, and it gives Connor plenty to cheer.

Watkins has proven to be among the nation’s best in keeping possessions alive for the Broncos’ potent scorers, boxing out bigger bodies to crash the boards. He pulled down 18.5 percent of available offensive rebounds last season, No. 1 in the country among players averaging at least 20 minutes.

Including the Nov. 1 exhibition and Friday’s season opener, Watkins has 29 points on 13-of-17 shooting as a senior. He also has 17 rebounds, 10 of them on the offensive end.

“He has the exact attitude we want in this program — the way he’s come out to work hard and get better every single day the last few years,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said. “It’s paying off now. He’s a weapon in the post.”

Last fall, Watkins told local media he spent the prior summer focusing on his rebounding. Then he went out and averaged 6.8 rebounds per game after pulling down 4.0 per game as a sophomore.

This year? He’s looking to get even better on the glass.

“The rebounds I didn’t get last year, I’m trying to get them this year,” Watkins said.

The drive that Rice praised and is quickly evident in Watkins seemed improbable, even when he was in high school. Rice at first glance said he didn’t want to recruit Watkins, who was about 270 pounds as a senior. With a focus on getting to the right weight, Watkins now plays at about 240 — pretty impressive for a kid who while in high school once ate a whole cake that his father had made and left with him home alone.

“When he comes home now, he’s always like, ‘Let’s go to the gym.’ He works and works and works,” Myron said. “Seeing that now from what I know he was like, it’s like, ‘What?’”

Watkins has worked hard enough and built himself up enough that he’ll even face down one of the NBA’s most notorious tough guys.

While playing in Los Angeles’ famed Drew League this summer, Watkins took a stray elbow from the New York Knicks’ Metta World Peace. His initial reaction was to get into the veteran’s face. Though he jokes if he wasn’t in the heat of the moment, he may have backed off, Watkins’ toughness was captured by photographers, a shot that makes his father proud.

“I was so proud of him in that moment,” Myron said. “He didn’t back down — he never does.”

For all the fight and sweat Watkins put in to get himself to this place, he is relishing his role on a team loaded and ready for a big season.

“It’s a blessing,” Watkins said. “Being a senior, seeing how far we’ve come, I take a lot of pride in that. Gotta make this last one special.”

Dave Southorn: 377-6420, Twitter: @IDS_southorn

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