Dantzler honors father through football

For the longest time, Watts Dantzler had a plan, but the big boy from north Georgia has painfully learned that plans have a way of changing -- sometimes by way of unseen influence.

Dantzler's dream of announcing his college decision on his Nov. 16 birthday gave way. Instead, he decided recently that this Sunday, on Father's Day, the 6-foot-7, 320-pound offensive tackle extraordinaire will tab Auburn or Georgia as his next stop.

Dad won't be there in the flesh. Danny Dantzler, himself a Dalton (Ga.) High football legend and former Georgia player who nearly 40 years earlier narrowed his choices to the very same Bulldogs and Tigers, died of Lou Gehrig's disease in February 2009.

Still, Danny swings the emotions of the fourth and final child whom he and wife Jean reared.

"Some things changed [recently] with recruiting, and I was going to do it on my birthday but it just seemed like a good idea, to honor my father," the youngest Dantzler said. "It's been in the back of my mind the last month or so."

Dantzler, ESPN Recruiting's No. 12-ranked offensive tackle, is quick on his feet. That goes for his athletic feats and in conversation. Sharp beyond his years, there is obvious residue left by his local legend of a father.

Danny Dantzler played football at the University of Georgia from 1971-73 under coach Vince Dooley. He returned to settle in Dalton, where he had earlier carved a reputation that would one day be memorialized as the school named one of its top annual football honors after him.

Watts has honored thy father, which first-year Dalton head coach Matt Land suggested can be difficult.

"His dad was a very storied player at Dalton. He had a tenacity that you hear old coaches talk about. I see that same tenacity in Watts," Land said. "I think the second thing is probably the greatest trait a father can hand his son: leadership. If you watch practice, Watts is not just comprehending for himself. He's spending time with that guy that's maybe second string.

"Watts has done a very good job of being able to reconcile that his Dad can be memorialized, but not be somebody Watts has to be compared to. Sometimes, when a parent or sibling has passed away, that can be a measuring stick that a kid will never reach. Then again, in Watts' case, and I think his dad would say this, too, I think people will end up comparing his dad to Watts."

Should that be the case, Watts will likely have his athleticism to thank more than his sheer size. He's not necessarily over agile for his height; he has been an all-region basketball player, and said he has an offer to play Div. I hoops at College of Charleston. But for his weight, he moves like a Catamount. That's a cat by the way.

"One night last year we had about eight Division I coaches, and he ran from the baseline to the other end when a kid [on the opposing team] took off for a layup, and Watts caught up and slapped it off the backboard and knocked it to halfcourt," Land said. "Every one of those coaches looked at us like, 'Are you kidding?' "

There's tenacity in there. And plenty more of Dad, too.

"He was my coach in every sport, whether football, baseball, soccer … up to fifth grade," Dantzler said. "After that, he'd be at about every other practice and he'd always give me pointers."

Even as Danny's slow, relentless and losing war against Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis began and his muscle functions deteriorated, he saw the beginning of his son's recruiting travels, a road that has seen him narrow a giant list of possible choices down to five SEC schools -- including Alabama, Tennessee and Vanderbilt -- all within driving distance for his mother, brother and two sisters.

"Notre Dame was probably one of my favorite schools," he said, "but it was about 11 hours away."

Now that he's down to a pair of schools, the same two once pondered by his father, Watts doesn't sound like a young man overly influenced by either the fact that his parents are UGA graduates, nor that his coach played football for the Tigers. Land was on the SEC championship teams of '88 and '89.

"Basically, it's just where I'll feel comfortable," he said. "If I got injured two days after I got to campus and couldn't play, where would I be most comfortable? I know about 10 guys at Auburn that I've played football with, and I have a lot of friends at Georgia, too."

Danny's inner circle of life is closed, yet he's left behind larger open circles in Dalton, Ga., not far from the Tennessee line.

"Watts' dad was my first recreation football coach, when I was about 10," Land said. "It is such a neat deal that the influence that his father had on me 30 years ago I get to reciprocate by hopefully by being an influence on his son. Danny Dantzler was a phenomenal man, a man of faith who loved everything he did.

"He was very passionate, with tremendous energy, a tremendous way of communicating. He always simplified, and in his last days, his life exemplified that. Before taking his last breaths he was doing what he thought was most important, and that was sharing the Gospel. Danny was doing a lot of speaking in his last days at high school and golf tournaments and the like.

"Even up to the end, as he began to lose some of his facilities, his motor skills, he kept a blog [http://dannydantzler.wordpress.com/] going and it really influenced our community."

It is folly to try to detail the Danny Dantzler effect on Dalton, but they try. "We have a spring award called, 'The Heart of the Catamount,' and it's named for Danny Dantzler," Land said. "It's for our player who best represents all the things Danny did."

Perhaps it is easier, if ever-so slightly, to relate the impact of a faithful father.

Watts Dantzler made the next-to-last entry in his father's blog, on Feb. 21, 2009:

"Today my dad finally heard the trumpet. I try to think of the good times that my dad and I spent together for my 17 years he was with me. Last night I was with my dad; we were watching a basketball game on ESPN. As he usually does, he asked me if I had practiced basketball or lifted weights that day. I told him I lifted some weights. He was pretty excited about that.

I try to rejoice in the fact that my dad is finally home. I've spent 3 years knowing that he was going to die. Although he is dead, he is now truly living. After the game was over I turned to the Golf network. I asked my dad who he thought would win the Masters; he got his board and wrote, 'Tiger.' We both laughed. I left and told my dad I would see him tomorrow and I loved him. He gave me a thumbs up. I think my dad is on the golf course right now in heaven. I'm very thankful for all the wonderful times I got to spend with my dad: playing basketball, lifting weights, and watching football. I can't describe how much I will miss my dad. I want to thank everyone who has put in so much time, prayer, and love."

There may be no sufficient words, but Watts' sister, DeLancey, tried a couple days later in the final blog entry. An excerpt:

"At the funeral yesterday, I was floored by the amount of people that had turned out to show their support and love for all that Dad did in his lifetime. I always thought Dad was amazing but I admit that I am slightly biased. The service was just what Dad would have wanted -- a homecoming celebration. We will miss him terribly here but we are rejoicing greatly because we know that he is no longer suffering."

The bigger Danny Dantzler circles remain open in Dalton and in his son.

Regardless of whether Watts becomes a Tiger or a Bulldog, he will soon close a circle that opened when his father played college football many years ago.

"He pretty much knew a few years ago that I'd be a big-time prospect," Watts said. "He just told me to enjoy all my visits, and spend time with my recruiters. It was important he said to make it my decision, to be comfortable in it."

Matt Winkeljohn left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after spending 21 years there. He can be reached at mattwinkeljohn@yahoo.com.