Watts Stands Ground in Different Arena

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON _ On Jan. 1, 1980, J.C. Watts was leading the University of Oklahoma on a comeback drive against Florida State as the final seconds ticked away in the Orange Bowl game.

With less than two minutes left, the quarterback found a receiver in the end zone to put the Sooners within a point, 17-16. Seconds later he connected again on a two-point conversion, winning the game and earning most valuable player honors.

Today, Julius Caesar Watts seeks glory in a different arena.

A Republican from Norman, Watts is perhaps the most controversial of the 73 GOP rookies in the House of Representatives.

He is a black man with deeply conservative ideas that fit well in the new Capitol Hill power structure, but are decidedly different from those of most black lawmakers preceding him.

Watts wants to reshape the welfare system and limit its use, build more prisons and hold offenders longer, force Congress to balance the budget and spend more money on national defense.

He has said he believes that the social programs that many blacks see as a safety net for minorities are part of a "decaying system" that is "anti-opportunity, anti-family and anti-property, and encourages irresponsibility."

He has said he thinks that Congress needs to eliminate funding for inner-city midnight basketball, which advocates say has kept kids off the streets at night in dangerous, crime-plagued neighborhoods.

"The real question we need to ask is why are these kids on the street at midnight at all?" Watts said. "Where are their parents?"

Watts says he won't support funding for those programs at the urging of black leaders in the House.

"I didn't come to Congress to represent black people," he said in an interview as he settled into his Capitol Hill office. "I came here to represent America."

The congenial Watts, with athletic good looks and a disarming demeanor, has found himself at times facing a furious attack from the left. But like the Sooner quarterback who was Orange Bowl MVP, he has stood his ground fearlessly.

At a conference last month in Washington, Watts was expressing his ideas for revamping welfare when he was asked if he had "forgotten his black constituency."

Unfazed, he countered that he would not be "pigeonholed" into accepting the beliefs of others.

"I think she was probably saying that I need to restrict myself to working for black people," he said.

"It's always been my belief that you should do the right thing, but for the right reason. Some would only want you to define the law to favor a certain group of people, define the law to favor blacks or whites or men or women or Hispanics.

"Dr. King said a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," Watts said, referring to slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. "We need to fight injustice in whatever community it is in."

Watts grew up a Southern Baptist in Eufaula. A star on the local high school football team, he was recruited and signed by Barry Switzer, then coaching a Sooner football program that was as good as any in the nation.

He was raised by J.C. Watts Sr., a Baptist minister, now 71, and his mother, Helen, who died last year. The fifth of six children, J.C. was a likable, quiet youngster with a penchant for hard work, his father said.

J.C. Watts Sr., who still lives in Eufaula on J.C. Watts Jr. Avenue, said that he never expected his son to walk the halls of Congress, but that he's not surprised.

"If you raise your children right _ to be good, honest, hard-working people _ they'll surprise you with how far they can go," he said, adding that he agrees with most of his son's conservative views.

The younger J.C. started two years at quarterback for the Sooners and Switzer, now head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, and led the team to Orange Bowl wins in 1979 and 1980. …