Elkino Watson was known to his USF coaches and teammates for a wide smile and a never-quit attitude on the field.
In lighter moments, Watson was “a jokester” in the locker room, as fellow defensive lineman Todd Chandler described Sunday, and someone who really could bust a dance move every now and then, despite being 6-foot-2 and 292 pounds.
“(He was) someone who you knew always had your back,” Chandler said in a direct message to The Oracle. “No matter what.”
That’s why the events of Sunday morning are as puzzling as they are heartbreaking. Watson was stabbed to death outside The Orpheum nightclub in Ybor City. He was 23.
According to police, Watson and Desmond Horne, 22, were both stabbed in a parking lot near the building at 1915 East Seventh Ave., around 3 a.m. in an event that reportedly stemmed from an altercation inside.
Watson and Horne were transported to Tampa General Hospital, where Watson later died. Horne, who unsuccessfully tried out for the team as a walk-on in the spring, was treated for non-life threatening injuries and is listed in stable condition.
“Elkino was a great young man — a friendly young man,” coach Willie Taggart said Monday. “I don’t know anybody that disliked the young man. He always had a great smile and always cared about his teammates.”
In an interview with WFTS-TV on Sunday, Watson’s girlfriend, Diamond Hall, said a man approached her inside the club and asked for her phone number. When she refused, the unknown individual punched her in the face, sparking a large scuffle as the club was shutting down.
“It was a big brawl,” Hall told the station. “It ended up being the guy’s friends and Elkino’s old teammates, as well as his friend (Horne).”
Detectives are still working to identify a suspect. A $3,000 reward has been posted by Crime Stoppers at 1-800-873-TIPS for any information leading to an arrest.
At the time of the incident, the club was hosting what was promoted as an “official” after party event for USF’s 51-3 victory over Florida A&M on Saturday. A team spokesman said it was “in no way” sanctioned by the university.
In the wake of Watson’s death, Taggart initially instituted a team-wide ban on activities in Ybor City, saying his players would "have to go find other places to go have fun. Ybor will not be one of them."
However, athletic director Mark Harlan overruled the decision Monday evening.
“I would like to make clear USF Athletics high regard for Ybor City and its cherished and historical place in our Bay Area community and culture,” Harlan said in a news release. “Earlier (Monday), our football coach spoke out of emotion and in reaction to the tragic loss of Elkino Watson.
“USF Athletics will continue to focus on reinforcing its policy of student athletes making smart decisions where ever they may be, looking out for one another, and walking away from any situation that appears threatening. They will not be banned from visiting any areas of our beautiful city.”
Watson was the first member of his family to attend college. A former four-star recruit out of Miami’s Booker T. Washington High, he appeared in 45 games for the Bulls and concluded his career last season.
As a senior, Watson had 36 total tackles and two sacks. He ranks ninth all-time in program history for tackles for loss (32.5) and was invited to mini-camp with the Chicago Bears as an undrafted rookie in May.
When he signed with USF in 2011, he was one of the top players in Skip Holtz’s second recruiting class, choosing the Bulls over offers from Florida and Miami.
His mother, LaTarsha, once told a Tampa Bay Times reporter that his name meant “African King.” He was also known to his family as “Bubba” because his older sister couldn’t pronounce “brother” as a child.
During the recruiting process, he once had an estimated 45 relatives piled inside his home when former USF assistant Larry Scott and two others visited him in Miami.
“To me, family is the most important thing,” Watson said at the time. “Family’s like everything.”
Several of Watson’s former teammates expressed shock over his passing Sunday on Twitter. Taggart said Watson attended Saturday’s game and spoke to several of them afterward.
“Kino was my first roommate for camp here at USF. Kinda showed me the ropes,” quarterback Steven Bench tweeted. “My heart is heavy with everyone else’s. It makes no sense #RIP53”
“I’m flipping out over here,” linebacker Jimmy Bayes wrote on Twitter. “I just talked to (Watson) right after the game … and now he’s gone!!!”
“Just talked to my boy (Watson) last night after the game,” defensive back Johnny Ward posted. “Our last conversation he said it’s ‘our time’ but God needed another angel.”
Harlan said in a statement Sunday the school will work to provide support to all student athletes affected by Watson’s passing. A GoFundMe account has also been opened for Watson with all proceeds going toward supporting his two daughters and a funeral. Nearly $3,000 had already been donated by Monday afternoon.
Taggart said a ceremony celebrating Watson’s life will be held on campus Tuesday for current and former players and other student-athletes who knew him. The team will also wear a sticker to honor him beginning with Saturday’s game at Florida State.
“Every time we took the field, we said the same thing to each other: ‘Let’s do this for the crib,’ meaning let’s go out here and ball out for those people back home,” said Chandler, also a Miami native. “Every time I looked over and saw him, I knew he was going to do his job.”