A Black Republican running for a congressional scat in an Oklahoma district that's 90% white and predominantly Democratic is like a quarterback running the wishbone offense with a weak line, a fullback who fumbles and halfbacks with no speed. To win, the candidate/quarterback must be a leader who's tough, smart, agile and fearless.
That's J.C. Watts. Few ran the wishbone better than he did at the University of Oklahoma between 1978 and '80, and come January he'll be one of the Sooner State's freshmen pitchmen in the United States House of Representatives. By decisively beating Democrat David Perryman on Nov. 8, Watts became the first black Republican from a Southern state to win a seat in Congress since Reconstruction.
"They're both important to Oklahoma," Watts says, comparing his wins in politics and football." The offensive MVP of the 1980 and '81 Orange Bowl games laughs and adds, "The election probably means more, but I don't know in this state, not after having played against Nebraska and Texas."
While growing up in tiny Eufaula, Okla., Julius Ceasar Watts was as interested in social issues as he was in the triple option. His uncle Wade Watts was a president of the Oklahoma chapter of the NAACP. His father, J.C. Watts Sr., a minister and a former police officer, serves on the Eufaula City Council. "It's hard for me to imagine, at 37, being the first to do anything," Watts says. "You always hear 'black Republican,' but you never hear "white Democrat.' We've got to get beyond the labels and stereotypes. Other people have hang-ups about it. I don't."
During off-seasons at Oklahoma, where he earned a journalism degree in 1981, he often delivered motivational speeches to business, youth and church groups. After six years in the CFL, the 1981 Grey Cup MVP for the Ottawa Rough Riders retired and returned with his wife, Frankie, and their children to his home state to enter politics. Disillusioned with the Democratic Party, he switched sides in 1989. A year later he was elected chairman of the state Corporation Commission, the first black person to win a statewide election in Oklahoma. At the 1992 Republican Convention, he seconded George Bush's nomination for president. Now the engaging and charismatic Watts, an ordained Baptist minister, is a popular speaker on behalf of the G.O.P. nationally. "He's already a pathfinder," says Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
No, Watts says, he didn't win his race because he was a star quarterback. He believes he won because he understands people and issues—he favors broad welfare reform and a balanced budget amendment and opposes abortion rights and cuts in defense spending—and because voters "know I have a mind."
Indeed, Watts says, at times during the campaign his gridiron achievements were a drawback. In one TV ad Perryman posed with a pig to demonstrate his support of farmers and then held up a football and said of Watts, "This is the only pigskin he ever carried."
In the long run, Watts believes his football experiences will be beneficial. "As an Oklahoma quarterback, you learn to perform under pressure," he says. "That will help in this crazy arena."