Rowan University senior defensive tackle Tim Watson and senior defensive end Cornelius White have a lot in common. They share the team lead in sacks with 10 apiece. Each is 6 feet 4, 285 pounds. They have a close personal relationship and room together on road trips. And both, after leaving Maryland because of academic difficulties, have excelled at Rowan, a Division III university in Glassboro, N.J.
White and Watson will anchor the team's defense this afternoon in the 27th Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, the Division III national championship in Salem, Va. Rowan (12-1), which ended Mount Union's NCAA-record 54-game winning streak last week, 24-17 in overtime, will play Pacific Lutheran (Wash.) University (12-1) at 1 p.m.
Watson, 24, played at Maryland in 1993, 1995 and 1996, compiling 138 tackles and five sacks. He was academically ineligible in 1994 and spent 1997 attending Atlantic Community College (N.J.) to improve his grades. He was accepted to Rowan in the fall of 1999, after working in construction for a year.
"At Maryland, I was immature as far as my priorities and my responsibilities," said Watson, a Division III all-American honorable mention selection this season. "I needed to do a lot of growing up."
White, 25, lettered at Maryland in 1994 and 1995, before taking two years off from football to get his grades up. He spent three semesters at Montgomery College-Takoma Park and was admitted to Rowan for the fall 1998 semester.
"I really do feel fortunate," said White, an Eastern College Athletic Conference all-star selection this season. "Rowan has given me another opportunity to play a sport I love."
Both have taken advantage of the Division III rule that allows athletes 10 full-time semesters to complete their four years of collegiate eligibility. Theoretically, those semesters can take place over a span of 25 years or more. Division I rules require athletes to use their four seasons of eligibility within five years, meaning Watson and White could not have played this season.
On this season's roster, Rowan has seven players who, like Watson and White, transferred from Division I programs. Except for White, all are New Jersey natives. Watson is from Somers Point, N.J. White is a native of Newburgh, N.Y.
"I don't know if you call us a sanctuary," Rowan Coach K.C. Keeler said. "We get a lot of phone calls and don't accept a lot of kids. If you had trouble, you have to go to community college and improve your grade-point average. We get phone calls from kids at Florida State, Nebraska, Penn State and Notre Dame and have to turn a lot of them down. In New Jersey, a lot of kids go away to school. Many want to come home, and we've become a good avenue for them."
White and Watson have found life at Rowan different from their experiences in College Park. The biggest difference between Divisions I and III involves athletic scholarships--Division III schools do not offer them. White and Watson receive need-based student loans and grants, and before their arrival at Rowan, each worked to earn money for school.
"In that situation, when you lose a scholarship and have to work and pay for school, it gives you a lot of time to reflect," said Watson, who is fourth on the team with 50 tackles. "You start to think about real-life things instead of parties and who you're going to hang out with. You start thinking about your future."
At Maryland, the football team had a meeting room big enough to hold the entire team. At Rowan, the team finds any spot available to talk after practice and sits outside at halftime of home games.
"You may have your defensive backs in the shower areas, and the linemen in the secretary area, and she's talking on the phone while you're meeting," said White, who is fifth on the team with 49 tackles.
Football players also are perceived differently at Rowan, White said, than in College Park.
"At Maryland, sports are really big, and everyone saw you as a football player and looked up to you," White said. "Here, you're just like anyone else."
One thing is certain: Today will be the final collegiate football game for White and Watson. Both said they are on pace to graduate by the end of the school year and are thankful for the opportunity to play for a championship. Neither wanted his struggle at Maryland to be the final statement on a collegiate football career.
Said Watson: "That wasn't the way the way I wanted to go out [at Maryland]. That's not the way it was supposed to be. Now I'm getting a second chance, and it's turned out great. If we win the championship, it'll be a perfect end."