James Longfellow Watson was a key–though underrated–defensive tackle in East Orange High School’s 1963 state champion football team.
My enduring memory of him in that role is the game against one of the toughest teams on the schedule, Phillipsburg High from near the Pennsylvania state line. Jim seemed to live in the Phillipsburg backfield that day sacking the quarterback and stymying runs.
As a senior Jim took up ice hockey, and that’s when we became friends. EO was nobody’s hockey powerhouse. In fact we were perenially one of the leagues’ doormat teams.
But Watson was a gifted athlete and an imposing–6’4, 210 –physical presence.
Our high school yearbook noted, “Fuchs was joined on defense by newcomer Jim Watson who developed rapidly as the season progressed. The two often skated the entire game, a rarity in hockey.”
And we became friends. I called him by his middle name, Longfellow, and he referred to me as “Tuffy Fuchs.”
That winter of ’63 was the year the Beatles invaded America and changed popular music forever. It is hard to imagine this today but their mop haircuts were a complete novelty then.
One Saturday morning after hockey practice, Longfellow and I were hanging out in his basement. “OK, Tuffy,” he said, “close your eyes.”
Standing before me, when he told me to open them thirty seconds later, was this very tall, very Black young man wearing a hilarious Beatles wig. And then he started to laugh, one of the most infectious laughs I have ever encountered, and I started to laugh too. And it seemed like we laughed for an hour.
I will always treasure the memory of that day, but not as much as I treasure the memory of our game against Montclair.
As I wrote, we were not a good hockey team, but due largely to great work in the goal by Jim Ross, and Watson’s improved play, we won our last three games.
But the one I will never forget was Montclair. Montclair and East Orange had a historic rivalry in football and that carried over to all sports. Earlier in the season Montclair defeated us handily at South Mountain arena, and there was no reason to think they would not do so again on the cold evening that we met at the outdoor rink in Branch Brook Park.
Late in the second period, a light snow had begun to fall, and the scene is flash frozen in my mind. The score was 2-2, and The Montclair Goalie kicked out a hard shot by our star forward, Joe Mirabella. The rebound dribbled toward Watson as he skated in from the blue line. Skating full steam toward the puck, Watson hit a slap shot so hard that the Montclair goalie did not see the puck until he fished it out from the back of his net.
We desperately tried to hold onto our lead as the snow that made us feel like we were skating through mud continued to fall.
As the final period wound down Montclair was pressing when I intercepted a pass and scored on a breakaway to give us an insurance goal and a 4-2 victory. Watson and I had skated the entire game. When we embraced at the final horn, we were exhausted but overjoyed.
We beat Montclair!
After graduation we lost touch. Last time we spoke he was accepting a football scholarship to the soon to be open and not long thereafter to close Parsons College in Iowa. His vision was to become, “Jim Lon Watson, all American Tight End from Parsons.”
After that to my regret, all I know about Jim is that he was listed among our classmates who had died when we planned our fiftieth reunion in 2014.
I wish we had kept in touch because I smile each time I think of the joys we shared.