KIRKLAND – Ben Watson was given fair warning going into Hiawatha’s first game of the season against Ottawa.
Before making his first career varsity start at center, Watson heard the story of his dad’s first game at center when he was in high school.
“[My dad] said multiple times when I was learning how to do shotgun snaps, ‘You have to start practicing these.’ ” Ben said. “ ‘When I did it, the first game, the first shotgun snap I did went clear over the quarterback’s head.’ ”
Ben’s first shotgun snap was smooth, finding the hands of junior quarterback Mike Mercado. A good start for a player who has quite the legacy to live up to.
Ben is a third-generation starting center for Hiawatha, following in the footsteps of his dad and grandfather. Ben’s grandfather, Larry Myelle, played center for the Hawks in the mid-1960s while Ben’s father, Nate, started for the Hawks in the 1980s. Nate was part of Hiawatha’s last playoff team in 1987. That year, Hiawatha beat Durand at home before losing to Aquin in the second round.
“It was a lot of fun. It was nice to see that when we started putting together the wins how the community came out,” Nate said. “Back then, your first-round games were played on a Wednesday. ... The whole place was just packed even on a Wednesday. That’s one of my biggest memories.”
Now Nate is an assistant coach at Hiawatha, helping out with the special teams and watching his son man the same position he did 25 years earlier.
“There’s a lot of pride in seeing him participate,” Nate said. “The pride is more in the fact that he came out and comes out to play. That’s where I take the most pride in, is he wants to be out here to play.”
It started with a miniature Chicago Bears football that Nate and Ben threw around at their house when Ben was a toddler. The family watched Bears games on Sundays and Ben’s passion for football soon developed.
When Ben started elementary school, Nate was coaching junior high football at Hiawatha.
“I remember right over there by the side of the school,” Ben said. “I’d get out of school go down and sit by the tree ... and watch until practice was done.”
By the time Ben was 12 and participating in organized football, Nate started coaching at the high school level. Although undersized, Ben always knew he was going to be a lineman.
As a sophomore at Hiawatha in 2011, he started at center for the junior varsity. This year he took over the starting role on the varsity level, replacing Grant Nelson, who graduated.
Hiawatha coach Sean Donnelly said center has been one of the more consistent positions for Hiawatha in recent years. But Ben is being asked to do a little more than previous centers in Hiawatha’s offense. The Hawks are operating out of the shotgun more often and even have gone to a no-huddle offense at times. He also is the long-snapper on special teams.
“Ben’s been doing a pretty solid job with it this year,” Donnelly said. “Considering it’s his first year as a starter, the fact that he’s playing against guys who are bigger than him on the D-line ... I think he’s doing a pretty good job.”
Listed at only 5-foot-7, 170 pounds, Ben often gives up 30 pounds to opposing defensive linemen. Playing undersized was something Nate also had experience with when he was competing at Hiawatha.
“I’m not a very large stature person and neither is Ben; it’s very important that you have good footwork and good technique,” Nate said. “You don’t have the size that a lot of other people do.”
Ben admits it can be tough having two family members critique his Friday night performances. He says his grandpa doesn’t say much, but Nate works with him to improve on situations from the previous game.
Yet he still wouldn’t trade his family legacy.
“It feels nice. To be able to be part of something that has been going on for three generations is really cool,” Ben said. “Its just cool to actually be known, and the people that know you knew you pretty much before you were born.”
At 2-4, Hiawatha faces three must-win games if the Hawks want a shot to qualify for the playoffs. And just like the story of his dad’s first game, Ben has heard everything about Hiawatha’s two postseason games in 1987.
“We definitely still cling on to making it to the playoffs,” Ben said. “That is by far one of the biggest things we actually think about. That’d be something really tremendous to actually get to do.”