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High school football: Home is where the heart is for Gainesville's Travien Watson
Junior wide receiver finding great success after cross-country journey back to Georgia
Gainesville's Travien Watson (14) runs after the catch against Lanier on Sept. 30, 2022 in Gainesville. - photo by Bill Murphy

It’s not known whether Travien Watson has ever read the book or seen the movie version of “The Wizard of Oz,” but there is one overriding theme of each is something he definitely understands.

There’s no place like home.

After spending the past seven years when his family moved to California, the Gainesville native is back in his hometown this fall and thriving as a key member of fifth-ranked Gainesville (6-0, 2-0 Region 8-6A).

Not that he was particularly unhappy while his immediate family was living in California and he was attending and playing football and basketball at Alameda High School, which is near Oakland.

It’s just that as far as Watson is concerned, home truly is where the heart is.

“Yeah, it’s been great, so far, just working with the guys on our team,” the 5-foot-11, 167-pound junior said. “It’s just been great, and (the coaches) hold us to a higher standard of being better. … I think it’s helped me a lot just to be around people that I’m familiar with and just having fun.

“A lot of it (camaraderie) in California was that it’s more serious. It’s still serious here, but there’s a fun aspect where we can joke and click a little bit. And it’s so nice being with some of the guys I started off (playing) with.”

Indeed, Watson’s comfort zone has definitely widened this season for a variety of reasons, including how the unique challenge of playing in the state of Georgia has re-energized his competitive instincts.

While California is also known as one of the most competitive states in the nation when it comes to football, and Watson was able to develop playing youth football with the Oakland Dynamite, 2G, K.T. Prep Elite and East Bay Warriors programs, the Alameda program has struggled the past few years for various reasons.

Some of those were beyond anyone’s control, with the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic moving Watson’s freshman season with the Hornets to a limited schedule in the spring of the following year.

However, Watson was looking for a new challenge, something that played a role in his desire to move back home to Gainesville.

“Just wanting to play more competitive football,” Watson said. “Coming here was the most, or one of the most competitive spots to play football.

“It was something to consider once I first came to high school my freshman year. It wasn’t too serious (at first), but toward the end of my sophomore year, I was like, ‘Something has to change if I wanted to go to the next level.’”

But make no mistake, the main reason Watson, the son of Traven Watson and Ebony Moses, wanted to move back was that he was missing family members and his old friends.

“We moved when Tre was in the fourth grade,” Moses recalled. “My job took us to California. … The good thing with where we lived was he had access to the beach, which was, like, a couple of blocks away from where we lived. So he went down to the beach to work out. The team would do beach workouts because he played football and basketball over there.

“Being out there is totally different from being here, so it helped mold both of my kids. (But) both my kids got homesick. My daughter (Tanai Watson), when she graduated (high school), she came back to the University of Georgia. She graduated as a Bulldog.”

Still, it was going to take a lot of convincing to get his mother to go along with it.

After all, Moses, who has spent the past 20 years working as a radiology supervisor and ultrasound supervisor, had built a career in California.

However, after her daughter Tanai moved back to attend college at the University of Georgia, and being asked a lot by Trevian, she began to at least entertain the idea.

“It took a lot of convincing Mama because I was at the height of my career,” Moses said. “It was a total sacrifice for me (to make) for him. I think he knows that very well, but that’s the thing we do for our kids.”

“But it’s good because we’ve had the conversation several times before (the move). I told him (that) his junior year, he could choose wherever he wanted to play. That was in California, as well, because the school he was at was not competitive. … But I told him he had to do two years there. So we came home (to Gainesville) for Thanksgiving last year. That’s when it was kind of like, ‘OK, Mom. I really want to come home.’  I said, ‘OK, we’ll revisit it after the 7-on-7 season (the following summer).’”

Moses and Watson actually came back to visit Gainesville again during spring break last April and met with Gainesville High administrators, including athletics director Adam Lindsey, to get a lay of the land of the Red Elephants’ program.

“The thing is, it had to be a good fit to make the move,” Moses said. “We’re not going to move if it’s not going to be a good fit. … It was a lot of work to make everything work. … It wasn’t a down the street move.”

The family had already gotten good vibes when they met with Lindsey, but the clincher may have been when they met with Josh Niblett, who had been hired as the Red Elephants’ head coach a few months earlier, and his staff.

“I definitely wanted to come back before I (met Niblett and) the new coaching staff and everything,” Watson said. “I wanted to come back and be closer to the family before I had to go off on my own in college. But him coming made me want to get here sooner.”

And once the move was complete and Watson was able to participate in offseason conditioning and summer 7-on-7 drills, camps and competitions, it didn’t take long for Niblett and his staff to realize how much he could impact the program.

“I didn’t meet him really until summer,” Niblett recalled. “Not being from here, I don’t really know a whole lot of people. To know he was once a Gainesville kid, and then coming back here, it was a pretty cool story. “I think the thing that allows him to be so good at what he does is he can play corner, he can play receiver. But for us, we were looking for depth at corner, but (also) looking for some guys who were going to take that starting role at receiver. I think it was an opportunity that he did a really good job with.

“What makes him such a really good receiver is that he’s such a really good athlete. He’s got great ball control as far as when he’s moving in and out of routes. … He’s smooth, and he understands leverage. He’s got really, really good ball skills. His catch rate is really, really good. And he studies the game. He understands the game.”

Watson has definitely responded as the 2022 season has progressed.

He currently leads all Gainesville receivers with 32 catches, and ranks second on the team with 346 receiving yards, including a touchdown, in helping the Red Elephants get off to a 6-0 start and rising to the top of the Region 8-6A standings at 2-0.

Last Friday’s 42-14 win at Lanier was perhaps his best game of the season, with Watson hauling in 10 passes for 114 yards from quarterback Baxter Wright.

And while he has worked hard to develop his game over the past several years, he also acknowledges that getting to play again with some old friends, whom he played youth ball with before his family moved away seven years ago, and feeling more at home has definitely played roles in his success thus far.

“Probably all of them,” Watson said about how many of his old friends from Gainesville Youth Football now play for the Red Elephants. “Most of them still play football, and a lot of them are helping the team this year. … When I left, I knew who (Wright) was, but we really didn’t play together. So, I really didn’t build a bond or chemistry with him, but it’s very important to me just to bond with the team and having everybody jell together. It’s not just me and (Wright). Everybody has to do their jobs.”

Still, there’s no denying how good returning to Gainesville has been for Watson and his family.

His mother, whose employer has facilities in north Georgia, which allowed her to transfer and stay with the company, also has no doubts that bringing her son back home was the right thing to do.

If there were any doubts, they were erased after Gainesville’s first few games of the 2022 campaign this fall.

“The biggest reason he wanted to come back was to be around friends and family,” Moses said. “The last couple of years, that’s what he didn’t have because it was just me and him. So, everybody has their cheering squad and everybody has family there. My family would fly out one or two games a season, but that’s not like what he has here.

“He has a huge cheering section every single night (now). If you’ve been to any of the games, you’d see the whole clan down there watching the games and we have to pull Tre away (after the games). ‘Come on, Tre. We’ve got to go.’ So that, I’ve seen, has been a push for him. He’s much happier playing because he knows he has everybody in the stand rooting for him. At the end of the day, when I see that, it makes it all worth it, even with the sacrifice I had to make.”

Friday's games

Cherokee Bluff at East Forsyth

East Hall at Walnut Grove

Flowery Branch at Winder-Barrow

Lakeview Academy vs. North Georgia Christian

North Hall vs. Madison County

Riverside Military vs. George Walton Academy

Lanier Christian at King’s Academy

BYE: Chestatee, Gainesville, Johnson, West Hall

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