Oct. 29, 2009
BY DREW EDWARDS
For Rokevious Watkins to spend this weekend in South Carolina, it just might take an act of God.
Apparently one bigger than the rock slide that closed down a stretch of Interstate 40 and blocked Watkins' easiest path to Knoxville.
That's how much he loves Tennessee safety Eric Berry.
"I would say nine times out of 10, if you saw us together, you'd think we came out of the same womb," Watkins said. "I'm still trying to make my way down to Knoxville to see him."
Watkins, a 6-foot-4, 340-pound junior offensive lineman at South Carolina, won't be on the travel roster this weekend. He's redshirting this season, his first with the Gamecocks since transferring from Georgia Military College.
But the fact that he even made it to South Carolina is testament to how much Eric Berry loves him.
"We've been through a lot together," says Berry.
Ever since they collided in a middle school football game, the two have been inseparable. That story's a funny one.
"One of my teammates got an interception, and for some reason, I felt like I could block Kevious," Berry said. "He threw me back like 10 yards when we were running down the field."
Says Watkins: "Eric tried to crack-back me. I hate to say it, but I knocked him off his feet."
After that game, Berry and Watkins got closer and closer. They became teammates and workout partners at Creekside High School. Berry was the star quarterback and defensive back. Watkins was the punishing offensive lineman who guarded his back.
On the field and off.
As Berry became one of the most sought after players in the Class of 2007, Watkins used his bulk to make sure anyone who wanted to mess with Berry had to go through him first.
"I was like his bodyguard, and he was like my little superstar," Watkins said. "They'll talk smack, but when they see somebody 6-foot-5, 340 pounds in high school show up, a lot of guys are going to back down."
But Watkins was more than just protection. He was Berry's running mate.
"Eric is a very private person," says Berry's mother, Carol. "Sometimes if I don't come out and ask him something (directly), I'll never know it."
Usually, it's Watkins who does.
If not daily, the two speak on the phone several times a week. When Creekside retired Berry's jersey two weeks ago during the Vols' open date, Watkins made the trip down from Columbia to be there.
You could call it returning the favor, but Watkins and Berry don't keep score. Their bond is too deep for that.
As the friendship between Berry and Watkins blossomed in high school, Watkins' life was in disarray. His mother wasn't around as his father battled throat cancer. Money was tough to come by, and Watkins recalls being evicted from apartments and, eventually, bouncing from couch to couch.
To make ends meet, Watkins caved for a short time to what he called "the street life" and everything that entails.
Eventually he moved in with his older brother, Montreal, who lived less than a mile from Berry. Watkins committed to play football at UAB, but even that had its complications.
First, the Blazers wanted to grayshirt Watkins. Then his father took a turn for the worse before passing away just five days after Watkins graduated high school.
As he tells it, Watkins could have chosen the street life for good. Part of him even wanted to. But he did what he'd always done and turned to his best friend.
"I called Eric and I was like, `I want to take that road. I want to do the right thing,'" Watkins said. "Ever since then, he's backed me up on anything."
There was no other choice for Berry. The two friends had made a pact with each other long ago.
"We're actually blood brothers. We both cut our hand and shook hands," Berry said. "We pretty much just tried to take care of each other, no matter the situation. That was just a part of the pact that we made that we'll never leave each other behind. There was no way I would feel right about letting him slip by the wayside. And I know he wouldn't let me do the same thing."
That's hardly been an issue - for either Watkins or Berry.
Berry is a full-fledged star in college, and he's a consensus first-round pick in next year's NFL Draft if he chooses to turn pro. And although he's redshirting this season, Watkins made an SEC roster after a long haul to become eligible.
"He's going to shock the SEC as soon as he gets his chance," Berry said. "I feel like we couldn't let that talent go to waste, and he needed to realize that."
Listening to Watkins and Berry talk about each other, it doesn't take long to figure out how close they are. Or that it would take way more than an interstate detour to keep them apart.
"He's my brother, man," Watkins said. "I can say it a million times a day. Eric Berry is my brother."
Yup, those boulders might as well be pebbles.