When Xavier Watts came into Omaha Burke High School as a freshman in the fall of 2016, football was just an afterthought.
“I was all basketball my whole life up to that point,” said Watts, the Lincoln Journal Star boys high school athlete of the year. “I played football for fun. I wasn’t too serious about it.”
Oh, how things have changed in three years. Now the 6-foot-1, 195-pound senior-to-be is being recruited by Power Five conference football programs from across the country as a wide receiver. He narrowed his choices to six — Nebraska, Notre Dame, Michigan, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Iowa State — in late May.
The Super-Stater now plays basketball for fun.
“When the coaches put me on varsity as a freshman, they told me I was a special talent,” said Watts, who played AAU basketball in the summer with the Omaha Sports Academy Crusaders through 2018. “They put that in my head and that’s when I decided to take it more serious.”
Watts has been a three-year starter for the Burke basketball team, but hoops coach Kevin Kobs could see the handwriting on the wall when Watts was in middle school which sport the multi-talented star would choose.
“It was just a matter of time before he went football,” Kobs said. “I started noticing him at middle school football games, and you could see his potential then. He started as a freshman in basketball because of anticipation, his knack to get to plays and react in the open floor. You could see how that would carry over on a football field.”
Watts was a major reason why Burke went 13-0 last season and won its first Class A state title. He caught 67 passes for 1,093 yards and 14 touchdowns, but was also a factor defensively with 58 tackles (five for loss) and five interceptions from his safety position.
He was at his best when the game was on the line in the state championship game. Watts helped Burke overcome an 11-point halftime deficit against Grand Island with TD receptions of 62 and 37 yards in the third quarter, then helped seal the Bulldogs’ 24-20 win with a 12-yard reception from Tyler Chadwick on fourth-and-5 from the Grand Island 29-yard line with just more than a minute left.
Watts appeared to score on a 45-yard TD pass as time ran out in the first half. He snagged a ball batted by an Islander defender off a deep pass from Chadwick and scampered into the end zone as time expired.
Burke, however, was flagged for having an ineligible receiver downfield to wipe out the score.
“That made me want to get back out there in the third quarter and score a touchdown, since I had one taken away,” said Watts, who had 11 receptions for 159 yards in the state final to go with eight tackles and three pass break-ups on defense. “Grand Island came out and stopped us in the first half, and we went in at halftime and said ‘We’re not going to lose this game.’’’
Burke coach Paul Limongi said Watts’ performance in the state championship game was just a continuation of what he had done in the first three playoff contests.
“How he played in the state finals, that’s Xavier,” Limongi said. “When we need him the most, that’s when he plays his best. He loves to compete, he loves it when the lights are on and it’s a big game.”
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Although Watts has a quiet and reserved personality, he also loves to prove people wrong when they underestimate him. He uses that as motivation in the weight room.
He tested poorly in the 40-yard dash at Nebraska football's Friday Night Lights camp last June. “I have no idea what it (the time) was, but I heard it was pretty slow,” Watts said, laughing. “I know I was way faster than that. I don’t like that people think I’m slow.”
The Grand Island secondary certainly doesn’t feel that way after the state final last November.
“I’m way faster in games,” Watts said. “I don’t know what the difference is, but I get in a game, I just move way faster. I don’t feel like I have pads on when I’m out there running on a football field.”
Watts’ speed turned out to be gold-medal quality in track, as he ran the third leg of Burke’s state championship 400-meter relay team last month. Watts missed most of the middle part of the track season because of a quad injury.
“It was pretty exciting to win a second gold medal,” he said. “To hand off to a freshman (Devon Jackson) and see him finish it off like that was awesome.”
Watts followed his football season by averaging 12.3 points and four rebounds as a guard on Burke’s basketball team. He scored 30 points in a 74-69 upset of Omaha Westside in the Metro Conference Tournament and added a 28-point performance against Omaha Benson in early January.
“Coming off the football season, it took him a while to get into the flow of basketball,” Kobs said. “But once he did, he carried us for a while.
“Xavier is a strong, very smart and very explosive basketball player who shoots the ball very well,” Kobs added. “Defensively, he always guarded the other team’s best player, regardless if he was 6-2 or 6-8. That’s how athletic he is.”
Watts plans to graduate from Burke after the first semester and begin his college football career in January 2020, “and he’ll be missed tremendously,” Kobs said.
“But if he wants to play (basketball) in December, he’s certainly welcome to, that door is open,” the Burke coach added. “He’s a phenomenal kid and a great ambassador for Burke. It would really benefit our young kids to have him around at the beginning of the season.”
Watts is an honor student in the classroom who intends to major in computer science or engineering in college. He enjoys a challenge in the classroom just as much as one on a football field.
“I don’t like getting bad grades and my parents (Jeff and Fallon Watts) make me stay on top of that,” Watts said. “I want to get a degree that can lead to a good job in case football doesn’t work out.”
Watts isn’t the only member of his family who is a high-level NCAA Division I college recruit in the class of 2020. His cousin, Dain Dainja, is a 6-8 power forward from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, who is the No. 45 player in the Rivals national rankings and the No. 6 power forward.
Another cousin, Jeff Jones, played football at Minnesota.
Watts’ father was a three-sport athlete at Bellevue East (football, basketball and track). His aunt, Ja’Quawna Watts, played on Bellevue East’s state championship girls basketball team in 2006 with close family friend Yvonne Turner, the former Nebraska standout who is currently playing in the WNBA for the Phoenix Mercury.