Hundreds of friends and relatives decked out in baseball attire gathered Saturday afternoon at Liberty County High School’s baseball field to celebrate the life of Joe Watkins.
Watkins, 18, of Midway, died Nov. 26 from injuries he sustained in a car accident Nov. 18 on Isle of Wight Road.
Watkins, who had played baseball since he was 4 years old, was a standout pitcher for the Liberty County Panthers all four years of his high school career.
The Panthers’ baseball diamond, adorned with photos, jerseys and baseball memorabilia, served as a visual tribute to the young man. At home plate, Watkins’ name and No. 14 had been painted in the batter’s box, and a lone bat stood tall, casting a shadow toward the pitcher’s mound, where Watkins retired many batters.
Baseball players from Richmond Hill and Watkins’ travel team, Chain Baseball, stood next to former Panther players and some of Watkins’ relatives and closest friends.
Watkins, the son of Coastal Courier web editor Pat Watkins, was fondly remembered by family members and loved ones while his father; mother, Jan Williams; older brother, Richard Watkins; and members of the audience laughed at some of the memories that were shared and brushed away tears during other stories.
Family friend Jeri Lynn Whitmore read an entry from Watkins’ classroom journal, dated Sept. 15, 2004.
“‘The question was, if I could change something about myself, what would I change and why?’” Watkins had written. “‘I think I wouldn’t want to change anything about myself. I’m very healthy, athletic and handsome … If I had anything to change about myself that would be weird because God put us on this earth to be like this. He or she just wants us to be the way we are and be the way we would grow up. I just don’t think I need to change.”’
“Joe loved everybody, and he had it right,” Whitmore said. “He was a sweet soul … smile when you think about Joe because he is smiling at us.”
Former Panther teammate Cody French read a letter on behalf of former Panther coach Steve Cotrell. It was Cotrell who recognized Watkins’ talent when he was an eighth-grader and eventually gave him varsity time as a freshman. In the letter, Cotrell said he still talks about Watkins and his abilities to younger players and he hopes one day, when his son first steps onto the pitcher’s mound, to tell him about Watkins.
Williams wiped away tears as Suzie Scherz read a poem Watkins’ had written to his mother when he was a little boy.
Another former Panther teammate, Austin Schultz, read a journal entry about Watkins’ thoughts on being a good friend.
“Even at a young age, Joe cared about friends … didn’t matter who you were, what you looked like or what you did, and he carried that message even when he was young. We all loved Joe … we are going to miss him, but he is going to live on through all of us.”
Craig Ward, who coached Watkins for many years, made the crowd laugh as he re-created a dance Watkins once performed for Ward’s son, Nathan Ward, after he hit a homerun.
“I’m going to do my best to act this out but mind you, I’m 49 years old,” he said. “Joe liked to celebrate what other teammates did on the field. On one occasion, my son hit a homerun and was rounding third base … all of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye … Joe runs to the batter’s box — and he is not demeaning the other team; he is celebrating Nathan’s homerun and sharing in the moment — well, he ran to the batter’s box and started doing something like this.” Ward jumped up and down, waved his hands in the air and spun around. “And, of course, the umpire wanted to get on my case about it.”
Watkins’ aunt, Lauri Watkins, led the group in prayer.
“Joe and Richard used to tease me about being strict and religious, and he may not have known it then, but he knows it now … Joe is full of Christ’s love and is smiling down on all of us.”
The service ended with a reception at Midway Methodist Church.