• Althaus: Feeling golden

  • Zach Watkins is a champion.

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  • Zach Watkins is a champion.
    Anyone who saw him play at Truman High School or Washburn University would agree that the undersized linebacker had the heart of a lion and an unparalleled love of the game.
    He didn’t need a medal hanging around his neck to prove he was the best – but now that he is a member of Team USA, which captured the gold medal in the International Federation of American Football Senior World Championship July 16 in Vienna, Austria – there can be no doubts or arguments.
    Watkins had two tackles and one pass defense in Team USA’s 50-7 rout of Canada to claim the world championship gold last Saturday.
    The Independence native’s finest international moment came in a 48-7 victory over Germany, where he recorded five tackles, including three behind the line of scrimmage.
    Watkins was one of a handful of Division II players on a team that featured standouts from Division I programs across the nation.
    Was he intimidated?
    “I knew I had to prove I belonged on the team,” said Watkins, who must have made a big impression because his new teammates made him one of the six team captains on the Team USA squad.
    “That was pretty special,” said Watkins, who read about the Team USA tryouts while serving as a graduate assistant at Northwest Missouri State University.
    Mel Tjeerdsma, who led the Northwest Missouri State Bearcats to three national championships but has since retired, was going to be the coach of the international team, and he encouraged Watkins to send in a tape and resumé.
    “The new head coach at Northwest Missouri State is Adam Dorrel, and he was the last Team USA coach, so we talked, and I thought, ‘Why not?’ It was the one of the best decisions I ever made.”
    The team practiced for three weeks in Indiana before heading for Austria, where they played four games against international competition and came away with the gold medal. They defeated Australia, Germany and Mexico in Group A play to claim a spot in the championship game against Canada.
    “It was the most amazing football experiences of my life, and one of the greatest overall experiences,” said Watkins, who was named to the IFAF first team all-tournament squad for his play in helping the U.S. go undefeated in four games.
    “Coach T did a great job of making sure we got in our practices, but that we also had time to see all the attractions in Austria.”
    He and some teammates took three different trams to one of the highest points in the Alps.
    “I’d read about the Alps, but I never thought I would see them,” said Watkins, a three-time All-American linebacker at Washburn who led the MIAA in tackles (143) his senior year (2009). “We took one tram, then transitioned to another and then took a third tram and we were 12,000 feet up in the Alps. The view was incredible.”
    Page 2 of 2 - And so are his memories.
    “In just over a week – while practicing with our team over there and playing four games – I have enough memories to last a lifetime,” he said. “I thought my playing days were over. I wish I could tell you just how special it was, but it’s hard to put into words.”
    Maybe the words of IFAF spokesman Steve Alic put it into perspective.
    “I had the pleasure to sit with Zach during our training camp,” Alic wrote in an email. “He is a terrific young man with a great future ahead of him. His knowledge of and passion for football are too big for carry-on bags. Aside from being a rock-solid linebacker, he’s the kind of guy you want to have represent your country.”
    Watkins will take that passion to Hays, Kan., where he was just named the linebackers coach at Fort Hays State.

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