Carlos Watkins and D.J. Reader spent their college football careers at Clemson living a few steps away from each other's rooms. Now, as members of the Houston Texans, things haven't changed all that much for the duo from different cities in North Carolina.
When both defensive tackles moved into their on-campus apartments the summer before the 2012 college football season, Watkins was originally placed in the unit across the hall from Reader with three members of the offense. However, Reader's apartment had an empty room. Watkins jumped over to the empty bed, right across from Reader. In that instant, a friendship was forged.
Fast forward to 2017: Both players find themselves more than 900 miles from that first apartment and former campus, but they're now just three doors down from one another in Houston.
"I asked could I move in with him. I kind of begged him a little bit. I even told him it would be cheaper if I moved in," Watkins said when he first heard he would be moving to Texas.
"He's got to be his own man right now," Reader joked, adding that their current town homes are just a stone's throw away from one another in the same neighborhood. "When he was here for OTAs, he stayed on my couch every single day anyway."
The extra distance between each other's couches hasn't stopped the pair from spending every day together. When they aren't hooked on a competitive game of Madden -- Watkins used to win, but Reader claims the former has been "trash" lately -- binge-watching "Orange is the New Black," following hard training regimens or catching up on life, they're both intently studying the Texans' playbook.
"I hope he's focusing on the playbook because he ain't focusing on that Madden or 2K playbook," Reader joked.
The two players were competing well before they first arrived on Clemson's campus. They played on the same team in the Shrine Bowl in 2011 -- an annual all-star game between the top players of North Carolina and South Carolina.
But Watkins and Reader aren't just bonded by Madden or Netflix, or even football -- they're bonded by tragedy as well.
In September of 2013, a few days after a Thursday night victory over NC State, Watkins was left trapped in car with a telephone pole across his lap, crushing his legs. The car he was in had hydroplaned, and the crash took the life of one of his closest childhood friends -- a friend Watkins considered family.
Watkins was forced to sit out of the remainder of the 2013 season because of the hematomas that had developed in his legs. The internal bleeding was severe and kept Watkins in the hospital for three days. When he was finally cleared to go home, he had to return to the facility multiple times to drain all the blood that had built up in his legs.
The bruising made it difficult to walk, so Reader would selflessly drive Watkins to class. Watkins returned to the team less than a year later.
In 2014, Reader was the one in need of a selfless friend. His father died from kidney failure. The loss took a serious toll on Reader; he put football aside to focus on his mental health and to process his grief prior to the start of the 2014 season.
In the midst of his hiatus from football, Reader would find himself watching game film in the apartment he shared with Watkins so he could offer the latter feedback on his game.
And Watkins returned the favor. When he wasn't at class or at workouts, he kept Reader laughing, asking him every week, "Are you coming back yet?" Reader returned to the team six games into the 2014 season.
"He never left me alone. He was always there to keep me occupied and keep my mind off of things. It was the same thing for him," Watkins said. "We sit back and reminisce on those things now, but that is truly what made us closer, and that is why we are like brothers now."
The friends would eventually be separated for a short time. The Texans drafted Reader in 2016 with the No. 166 overall pick. Even after a season apart, Reader continued to look out for his teammate who remained back at Clemson. In the spring of 2017, Reader talked up Watkins' talent during the draft process, hoping his praise would carry enough weight to bring his brother to Houston.
As the fourth round of the 2017 NFL draft approached, Reader was still holding out hope that Watkins to land on his team. When the Texans made the No. 142 overall pick, congratulatory calls flooded Watkins' phone. Chief among those callers was Reader, who phoned in along with all of his relatives.
"When I found out that Houston was drafting me, everybody was really excited. D.J.'s mom called me, his aunts called me. It is going to be the same way it was in college," Watkins said.
Prior to the start of training camp, the 300-pounders were pegged as the potential two-deep options at nose tackle. When the Texans released their unofficial depth chart on Aug. 4, Reader was named the front-runner for the No. 1 spot at nose tackle after playing in 16 games for the Texans last season, while Watkins was listed as working behind two guys at right defensive end.
Watkins' goal is to be the Texans' go-to guy, but that means beating out teammates with more experience playing under coach Bill O'Brien.
The rookie knows he's not going through the grueling days of training camp alone.
In 2016 camp, Reader had former Clemson teammate DeAndre Hopkins to lean on when acclimating to the team's culture, but he couldn't very well ask the receiver for help learning the intricacies of the defense.
Now Reader is ecstatic to play that guiding role for Watkins, who has always been there to support him -- even when the support he required had nothing to do with football.
"I ain't going to give [the job] to him, that's for sure," Reader said with a smile, and then reiterated he'll do everything he can to help Watkins succeed at the next level.
After all, from North Carolina to Clemson and now to Texas, they're brothers before football players.