Heart issues don't slow Pack’s determined tight end

Tight end eager to return following pair of surgical procedures

jgiglio@newsobserver.comMay 21, 2012 

N.C. State tight end Asa Watson’s number of career receptions equals the number of heart procedures he has undergone.

He redshirted the 2011 football season after undergoing the first operation, to deal with rhythm problems with his heart. He had a second procedure performed in March.

“It could be worse,” Watson said.

To the people who know Watson best, that’s the type of attention-deflecting response they expected from the junior from Rock Hill, S.C. Humble and unassuming, Watson defies some of football’s oldest stereotypes.

“That’s just the way Asa is,” said Zach Powell, Watson’s best friend and Wolfpack teammate the last three years.

“He takes everything in stride,” said Ken Watson, his father. “He’s grateful for whatever he has, and he has always been that way.”

Watson is built like a football player at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, and the sport is in his genes. His father, now a pastor of a Christian ministry based in Norfolk, Va., Watson’s father played football at Maryland in the mid-1970s. His older brother, eight-year NFL veteran Benjamin Watson, plays tight end with the Cleveland Browns. However, Asa Watson is wired with the patience of a kindergarten teacher.

Earlier this month, Watson went on a church mission to Jamaica with the ministry his father helped start almost 20 years ago. For part of the mission, Watson was expected to preach to a community in Buff Bay.

He prepared a sermon on identity, at a time when Watson’s still looking for his own. He doesn’t want to be known for his heart issues, and he doesn’t want to be known as the little brother of Benjamin Watson.

“I was always trying to make a name for myself,” Watson said. “I’ve learned that I’ve got to do the best that I can do and not compare myself to anyone.

“I have an opportunity to do the best I can here at N.C. State, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

After his sophomore season in 2010, Watson noticed he was tiring easily during summer workouts, experiencing dizziness and “weird” palpitations.

Pride kept him from complaining, Watson said, but he kept getting light-headed and noticing that his heart would race. Finally, he told Phil Hedrick, N.C. State’s head athletic trainer.

Watson was diagnosed with an accelerated heart beat. A normal heart beats between 60 to 80 times per minute; during Watson’s episodes, his would race up to 200 beats per minute.

“It was pretty scary, because nobody knew what it was,” Watson said. “It kind of felt like an adrenaline rush, but it didn’t stop for like 15 minutes.”

Watson has since been diagnosed and treated for two different rhythm problems with his heart, according to his cardiologist, Dr. Patrick Hranitzky of Duke. Both issues – AV nodal reentrant tachycardia (also known as AVNRT) and Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome (WPW) – are related to an abnormality of the heart’s electrical system and can cause a lot of anxiety, Hranitzky said.

However, they are more of a nuisance and are not life-threatening, said Hranitzky, like complications related to an enlarged heart.

WPW affects perhaps one person in every 2,000, Hranitzky said.

LaMarcus Aldridge, a veteran NBA player for the Portland Trail Blazers, has WPW. N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien had a player at Boston College, Doug Baldwin Jr., with the same condition.

Watson underwent two outpatient procedures, the first in May 2011, and the second this past March, to deal with the congenital problem. He underwent a radiofrequency catheter ablation to eradicate an extra node in his heart.

In layman’s terms, he had an extra electrical connection between the top and bottom of his heart. Actually, he had two extra connections — the second wasn’t discovered during the first procedure at a Raleigh hospital in 2011. Watson practiced during the 2011 season but was still experiencing issues, so he was referred to Hranitzky at Duke, where he had the second procedure done in March.

Watson, who has been fully cleared to play, still has episodes where his heartrate reaches the high 100s, but it settles with rest. He also takes medication.

“If he wants to play in the NFL like his brother, he’s going to be able to just fine,” said Hranitzky, an assistant professor of medicine at Duke.

An opening in the lineup

After the second procedure, on March 7, Watson played in the Kay Yow Spring Game on April 21. He made the play of the game for N.C. State’s offense, turning a two-yard pass from quarterback Mike Glennon in the second quarter into a 74-yard gain to set up the first-team offense’s only touchdown.

After running for 60 yards, he was tripped up by defensive tackle T.Y. McGill and taken down at the 1-yard line by cornerback David Amerson. His teammates got on him in the film review for getting caught by McGill and for getting stopped at the 1.

But the play displayed the speed that allowed Watson to outrun six defenders, as well as the moves that made the first two defenders miss, revealing how Watson could be an asset in the Wolfpack’s offense. And with George Bryan, the school’s career leader in receptions and touchdowns by a tight end, now competing for a spot on the Dallas Cowboys’ roster, N.C. State needs a new tight end. Watson, Mario Carter and Anthony Talbert will get a chance to play in the fall.

With smaller, outside receivers, Watson might be Glennon’s best option over the middle of the field and in the seams of the defense.

“Nobody was surprised by how he played in the spring game, because that’s the he plays in practice,” O’Brien said. “We’re looking for different ways to make him an option.”

In his first two seasons, Watson had just two catches for 28 yards. His biggest play was a blocked punt, which was returned for touchdown in a road win over Georgia Tech early in the 2010 season.

The redshirt year, even with all of the medical distractions, might have been a blessing in disguise for Watson.

“I knew if anybody could handle it, it was him,” said Powell, the former N.C. State defensive back. “I feel like it happened for a reason, because he’s stronger than he was both mentally and physically.”

Watson said the year in practice on the scout team was a welcomed respite from the pressure of his first two seasons. He got a chance to be a different tight end each week, with his scout-team turn as Clemson All-American Dwayne Allen as his favorite, and just enjoy football.

“Really, it was a lot of fun,” Watson said. “That was the best time I’ve had playing football. The biggest thing for me was gaining confidence.”

Faith and determination

Watson needed more confidence, but he has kept a rare perspective throughout the ordeal. His Christian faith has played a central role in his life.

In addition to his recent trip to Jamaica with his father’s Urban Discovery Ministries, Watson went with Athletes in Action to Los Angeles last summer It wasn’t a tour of Hollywood, but rather a three-week community service trip to impoverished sections of Los Angeles’ Watts, Compton and Skid Row areas.

The trip was an eye-opener for Watson, who mostly worked with younger kids surrounded by crime, drugs and squalor.

“There’s nothing you can compare it to, unless you’ve actually been there,” Watson said. “It gives you a better appreciation of what you have back home and the opportunities that I’ve had.”

And Watson is determined to make the most of his situation, and in the process, and a name for himself.

“This whole thing has taught me that I’m not really in control of my life,” Watson said. “If God wants to use my life as an example, I’m willing to learn.”

Giglio: 919-829-8938

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