At just past 2 p.m. on May 17, 2008, El Segundo, Calif., police officer Cory McEnroe arrived at the scene of an auto accident on the Pacific Coast Highway and found a Jeep Commander buried in the rear end of a Volkswagen Passat. When McEnroe approached the SUV and asked the driver to turn it off, the Jeep instead surged forward into the Passat again. McEnroe quickly deduced that the driver, later identified as USC assistant football coach Dave Watson, was dangerously impaired. The 31-year-old Watson "seemed very confused," McEnroe wrote in his report. "[His] speech was so slurred I had a difficult time understanding him."
After McEnroe helped him from the SUV, the 255-pound Watson, who was uninjured, "staggered towards the curb while I supported him by holding onto his arm," according to the accident report. McEnroe tried to give Watson a field sobriety test, but had to stop "because Watson was so impaired I was concerned he was going to fall down and hurt himself."
Another officer searched Watson's vehicle and found four bottles of prescription pills, including one written for 90 tablets of a Vicodin-like painkiller called Norco that had been filled that morning. Except now there were only 83 pills left. Watson would later admit having taken three Soma pills (a prescription muscle relaxer) prior to the crash.
Meanwhile, inside the Passat, which had been struck by Watson's USC-provided Jeep a total of three times, 54-year-old Alaric Valentin was holding his back. Valentin declined medical treatment at the scene, but has since has sued both Watson and USC due to "numbness in his left foot ... persistent pain in his lower back [and] limitations with sitting, standing and walking [caused by] disk protrusion with annular tear at L4-L5 [vertebrae]," according to documents obtained by SI.com.
Eight months after the accident, following which Watson was charged with DUI and pleaded no contest in exchange for three years' probation, Watson was fired by USC coach Pete Carroll. The reason cited by Carroll: Watson was too hard on his players. Neither the accident nor the fact that Watson had been addicted to pain medication was mentioned. At a deposition for the civil suit in November, Watson indicated that he didn't accept the explanation Carroll had given him as the truth.
Watson also confirmed under oath what those closest to him already knew: that he had developed a significant addiction to painkillers since his college playing career in the 1990s. When asked where he had received his prescriptions while coaching at USC, Watson gave the names of 12 doctors associated with the university, six of whom were team doctors for USC football. Watson had already provided the court extensive documentation of these prescriptions, including dates, drug names and pill amounts.
When asked separately if he had ever notified a supervisor of his addiction, Watson said yes, he had told his boss and mentor, Carroll, in February 2008, three months before the car accident.
This latest revelation moved Valentin's attorneys to argue that Carroll is partly responsible for his injuries, pointing out in a letter to USC's counsel that Carroll "is the direct supervisor of Mr. Watson ... had actual notice of Mr. Watson's prescription pill addiction, actual notice that Mr. Watson was using a car provided for work use by USC, [and] actual notice of the fact that USC team doctors were writing the prescriptions for the drugs to which Mr. Watson was addicted, and nonetheless continued to allow Mr. Watson to use the company car."
Carroll hasn't shown up for scheduled depositions in the case, but on Monday afternoon a source close to the situation says that Carroll was served with a subpoena compelling him to testify in a deposition.
The civil suit seeks compensatory damages from Watson and USC believed to be in the seven-figure range to cover medical bills, future medical bills, pain and suffering, and legal costs incurred by Valentin, who was scheduled to undergo a pre-surgery MRI on Jan. 18.
The lawsuit is just one of the problems now besetting Carroll, once the darling of college football. A home loss to Arizona, followed by a victory over Boston College in the Emerald Bowl ended the Trojans' worst season (9-4) since Carroll took over at USC in 2001, and was followed by allegations that his star running back, Joe McKnight, had been driving a Land Rover owned by a local businessman (McKnight and USC have denied any wrongdoing). This on top of the lingering NCAA investigation into improper benefits allegedly given to former Trojans star Reggie Bush, which, along with several disciplinary matters during Carroll's reign, has contributed to the belief among some that Carroll has had as much control of his program as Watson had of his SUV. Carroll has been annually courted by the NFL, but the recent problems at USC, on and off the field, are believed to be a major reason he left USC on Monday to become the Seattle Seahawks' head coach.
The circumstances of the Watson case do not suggest that USC broke laws or NCAA rules. Rather, they have brought attention to a troubling blind spot within college athletics. As a recent investigative series by the Charleston [S.C.] Post and Courier revealed, the NCAA does not monitor the use of prescription drugs within college athletic programs, not even with players. "Just way too much to try and get a handle on. Simple as that," an NCAA official who requested anonymity told the Post and Courier. "We just don't have the staff as it is."
Oversight of the prescribing of medications to athletes is left up to the individual schools. USC uses a software system that tracks medications according to an identification number assigned to each athlete, which allows the school to produce detailed reports if and when needed. According to court documents, this oversight system either did not apply to USC coaches or was not used to monitor Dave Watson.
The list of drugs prescribed to Watson by his various doctors during his four-year employment at USC includes often-abused, potentially addictive medications such as Vicodin, Xanax, Valium, Darvocet, Percocet, Lorazepam (known by its trade name, Ativan) and Dilaudid, in addition to the Norco and Soma found in Watson's Jeep after the collision. Watson was also prescribed potent but lesser-known medications such as Oxymorphone hydrochloride (trade name Opana, a powerful opioid painkiller), Clonazepam (trade name Klonopin, which Watson said he took for "anxiety due to pain"), and the painkiller Tramadol.
Pain management is an inexact, evolving branch of medicine that tries to address a difficult challenge: qualifying someone's pain and prescribing the correct type, potency and quantity of any number of volatile medications to ease suffering. Among the complications in Watson's case is that his medications were prescribed by at least 31 doctors during his employment at USC. According to a panel of pharmacists and pain management specialists consulted for this story, that's an egregiously high number. "It certainly appears the team doctors weren't communicating with one another as to what he was taking," said the director of a pharmaceutical company that supplies drugs to numerous college teams.
Dr. Francis Palumbo -- a pharmacy professor and lawyer, and the executive director of the Center on Drugs and Public Policy at the University of Maryland-Baltimore -- declined to comment specifically on the ongoing Watson litigation, but said that any time there are a large number of doctors involved experts suspect what they call "doctor shopping."
"These patients often spread their prescriptions over multiple doctors and pharmacies to prevent individual doctors from knowing how much of these drugs they're taking," Palumbo said. "I can't say that that's what happened here, but it happens a lot."
Watson offered his own explanation at his deposition, describing the somewhat haphazard way in which he said USC team doctors provided service to players and coaches. "[E]very day, Monday through Friday, a team doctor will come in from, say, 4:30 to 6:00 -- it's a different doctor [each time] -- to meet with the athletes, discuss, 'Hey, do you have the flu? Do you have this, do you have that?' And that's why in my profession, [it was] the only window I had ... to meet with a doctor. And why there were several doctors involved ..."
Whatever the reason, the relationship between doctor and patient was so tenuous that Watson said he did not recall the names of two USC doctors who had prescribed him Vicodin, along with its potent cousin, Norco. The evidence suggests that Watson used several pharmacies as well, filling prescriptions at a drug store in his recruiting territory, for example, after making the hour-plus drive.
(After two brief phone conversations with SI.com, Watson did not respond to follow-up requests via phone and e-mail. Watson's attorney, Bruce Schechter, declined to comment to SI.com, before adding: "I have advised my client not to speak with you.")
The quantities of medications prescribed to Watson by his doctors are stunning. Watson was prescribed 3,830 pills of Soma between March 2005 and May 2008, which, if he consumed the contents of each bottle, means he took an average of 3.5 Soma pills per day for more than three years. (The recommended maximum duration of Soma use, according to its manufacturer, is two to three weeks.)
Hydrocodone-based painkillers like Vicodin and Norco were also prescribed freely. At one point Watson received such prescriptions from two USC team doctors concurrently. During the period between May and October 2007, USC team doctors wrote him prescriptions for more than 400 hydrocodone-based pills, or roughly 2.3 pills per day. While this falls within the recommended daily dosage, the drug use should have been rigidly monitored. The available evidence suggests that this did not happen, or that attempts at such monitoring were ignored by Watson. (USC's head team doctor, James Tibone, did not return a call seeking comment.)
The prescriptions Watson received from one team doctor in particular, Dr. Francis Te, tell the story of a physician giving medications of increasing potency to a patient who claimed to be feeling less and less relief. Te, who did not respond to a call seeking comment, began by prescribing painkillers and anti-anxiety medications like Clonazepam and Lexapro to Watson, and then introduced higher quantities of Soma. In May 2007, Te began prescribing a hydrocodone-based painkiller called Anexsia, and in October of that year increased the hydrocodone content of this medication by 33 percent. Finally, and most important with regard to Watson's car wreck, Te prescribed 90 Soma pills to Watson the week before the collision, then eight days later -- the day before the crash -- prescribed 90 more.
"I'm surprised Watson is not dead," said Marcus Amos, a Georgia-based, NCAA-approved counselor who specializes in prescription drug abuse. "I'm not at all surprised by the quantities of drugs -- stuff like this goes on a lot [in society], unfortunately -- but when you take these drugs for that length of time, depression becomes an issue, and depression can lead to overdosing."
"With former athletes like [Watson]," Amos added, "what we usually see are guys whose careers end when they're young, and they're all beat up, and we just tell them, 'You're done. Go address your pain on your own.'
"We shouldn't be surprised by anything that happens next."
Dave Watson met Lane Kiffin, now the head coach at the University of Tennessee, when they were 8-year-old Pop Warner players in suburban Minneapolis. Watson went on to become a star lineman at Jefferson High in Bloomington, where Kiffin was the starting quarterback.
After being named Minnesota's Gatorade Player of the Year in 1993, Watson signed to play with the University of Minnesota, where he suffered a serious knee injury his sophomore year. That injury and a coaching change led him to transfer to Western Illinois, where he willed himself into becoming a Division I-AA honorable mention All-America in 1997 while playing on a broken foot. That was when his addiction to painkillers began, Watson said at his deposition. He was 21.
Three years later (while "waiting to start my college coaching career") Watson was hanging rain gutters for a living in Minnesota when he fell 25 feet off a ladder. The permanent damage to his spine, however, did not prevent Watson from pursuing the physical demands of college coaching, mainly because of his use of painkillers. His abuse of them led to a rehab stint in 2000, after which he took a coaching job at Southwest Minnesota State, then Michigan State, before his boyhood friend Kiffin -- USC's offensive play-caller at the time -- put him in touch with Pete Carroll.
It was February 2005. Carroll's Trojans had defeated Oklahoma two weeks earlier to win their second BCS title. Carroll needed only one interview to see that Watson was his kind of guy. Watson later described their first encounter in two words: "Loved me."
USC's newest graduate assistant endeared himself to the players, who called him Coach Sweaty because his shirt was always soaked. That nickname endured through Watson's promotion to full-time defensive line coach in 2006, along with his habit of bounding around the practice field with an energy that defied his bum knee, foot, and ailing back. Watson proved adept at selling Carroll's "always compete" philosophy to recruits because he embodied it so thoroughly himself.
No evidence has been produced in the civil suit to indicate that the university knew of Watson's drug problem when he was hired, or at any time before his alleged conversation with Carroll in February 2008. Evidence has surfaced, however, that in the three months between February '08 and his car crash three months later, Watson was prescribed a total of 1,680 tablets of pain medication.
The civil suit has become increasingly contentious. USC's lawyers have tried to delay the case and minimize the fallout since it was filed, first by rescheduling Carroll's deposition, then by asking to wait until after Watson was deposed before scheduling Carroll's testimony, and finally -- three months after Carroll was first called to be deposed -- by asking the court to protect Carroll from the deposition altogether.
The plaintiff's lead attorney, Ira Fierberg of Manhattan Beach, Calif., recalled that during Watson's deposition Watson "came up to me during a break and barked at me, 'You have no idea how many people you're hurting with this.' Meanwhile my client, who's facing a series of spinal surgeries, is sitting right there. And I'm being told that I'm hurting someone. It's amazing."
USC's counsel, meanwhile, has tried to portray Carroll as the victim -- the recipient of "burdensome and harassing" deposition notices that, if they're allowed to continue, would inflict "unwanted annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue expense." In addition to their efforts to shield Carroll from questioning, USC's lawyers have asked the court to fine the plaintiff and his lawyers "$1,540 as a result of their intentional misuse of the deposition process to harass and inconvenience a private citizen and well known USC football coach ..."
One former USC coach who knows Watson and worked under Carroll (and asked to remain anonymous because of the ongoing litigation) said, "Dave's a good coach, a good guy. He made a mistake, obviously, but he and his family have been negatively impacted by this thing, too. USC will power through this. They've got all the money in the world, but [Watson] and his wife and his boys, how they come out of it is one of the most important parts of this."
Former USC linebacker Collin Ashton said neither he nor any other player knew about Watson's drug problem. Ashton, who said he did not have a good relationship with Watson, said the players would have been the last to find out. "All those types of things were kept from the players," Ashton said. "If players found out [Watson] had a drug problem, they wouldn't give him respect."
Carroll fired Watson a year ago this week after the Trojans capped a 12-1 season with a Rose Bowl win over Penn State. Watson, who had taken a brief leave of absence after the car accident and returned to coach the Trojans' defensive line throughout the season, was told by Carroll that he was "too hard on the players, too demanding," according to Watson.
Watson did not accept that as the real reason for his dismissal -- then, or today. The Los Angeles Times published a feel-good story in September 2008 about his road to recovery in which Carroll said of Watson, "He's operating at his very best. It's great to see him feeling good." Watson's quiet, mid-January dismissal gave the impression of a program who wanted his drug problem and his messy car wreck to go away. (Last week, USC sports information director Tim Tessalone declined an e-mail request to interview Carroll and six team doctors, stating "the people you list cannot comment" before directing SI.com to the university's legal counsel, who declined to comment based on health care confidentiality laws.)
Watson told the Times 16 months ago that he never informed his fellow coaches of his addiction. "I never told anyone anything because you don't want to be a high-maintenance guy in the football industry," he said. At his recent deposition, however, Watson knew he faced the penalty of perjury if he didn't tell the truth and gave a different story:
"Prior to the accident, did you ever discuss with Coach Carroll the fact that you believed you had a problem with pain medication?" Watson was asked.
"Did Coach Carroll offer to do anything for you to help you?"
"And what was that?"
"Work with the best specialists on knees and on backs to find -- find a solution to wean off some of the medication ..."
"Did you ever inform Coach Carroll which medications you were taking?"
"Did you feel like your ability to operate a motor vehicle was impaired by the use of the muscle relaxer (Soma)?"
"Not generally, no."
"... Did you ever discuss with Pete Carroll the fact that you were getting medications or prescriptions from USC team doctors?"
Later, when asked whether Carroll told him he was firing him "because of this accident," Watson smirked and said: "Of course he didn't."
"He didn't -- he did not tell you that?"
"But it's your belief that he did?"
Watson's counsel instructed him not to answer.
"Has anyone ever provided you with information that you were terminated as the result of this accident from your position at USC?"
Watson's counsel instructed him not to answer.
"Has anyone other than an attorney of yours informed you that you were terminated from your position at USC as the result of this accident?"
"No. It's all speculation. No."
Moments later, Fierberg asked: "Following the [crash] in May of 2008, is it true that Mr. Carroll was instrumental in getting you into a rehabilitation program?"
"Did he offer to get you into a rehabilitation program prior to the incident?"
Only Carroll knows whether the Watson case played a role in his decision to accept the Seattle Seahawks job, but according to one USC source, "it sure isn't making him stick around."
One BCS-conference head coach who said he heard about the Watson matter "through the grapevine" offered a poignant reminder that the issue of prescription drug abuse "is bigger than just USC. Our society at large has a problem with this stuff. Look around." Watson agreed with this point during his interview with the Times last fall. "I know it's more widespread in society than people would like to admit," Watson said. "Because it's in society, it's in football."
It hasn't been easy for Watson to testify about Carroll, whom he still reveres. (Watson said he hasn't spoken with Carroll since January 2009, yet he got choked up when asked about their relationship, calling Carroll "my mentor, a great man.") Although Carroll fired him, and despite USC's efforts to place all blame for the crash on Watson, Watson recently expressed his need to "protect the team" -- the first of Carroll's three cardinal team rules.
When he was fired, Watson told reporters that Carroll's decision was a blessing in that it would allow him to pursue other coaching opportunities. A year later, he is still pursuing them, but he almost certainly won't land a job until the USC situation is resolved and its aftermath blown over. "SC is a special place," Watson told reporters the day Carroll fired him. "As close [of a] relationship as I have with these kids, SC is bigger than one guy or one coach. It always will be."
These days Watson is working at a freight company in Carson, Calif. He wants desperately to return to coaching. When someone suggested a lunch break during his grueling, day-long deposition, Watson snapped, "I don't want to eat lunch. I don't sleep, O.K.? I want this to get worked out."
A jury trial is scheduled for late July, around the same time as Carroll's first training camp with the Seahawks. The next several months will determine the condition of the college football program Carroll left behind, and whether Dave Watson will stand alone -- or alongside his former boss -- on the plaintiff's list of witnesses.