By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Crabber and the Phantom walk into the McCue Center meeting room and settle easily into chairs next to each other. If David Watford and Daquan “Da-Da” Romero look like longtime friends, that’s understandable. They are.
Which begs the question: Aren’t football players from Hampton and Phoebus high schools, which form the Peninsula District’s fiercest rivalry, supposed to dislike each other?
“That’s just an on-the-field thing,” Romero said. “Actually, most of us are more friends than enemies off the field.”
Watford and Romero are now teammates as well as friends. They started classes at UVa on Jan. 19, two days after moving into Gooch dormitory, where each has a single room.
“It was crazy,” Watford said last Monday. “Just to think that last week I was walking around my high school, and now I’m walking around a college campus.”
National signing day is not until Wednesday, but Watford and Romero are already part of second-year coach Mike London’s program, the first players to officially join a recruiting class whose other members will arrive at UVa after the 2010-11 academic year ends.
Each had high school requirements to complete last month before enrolling at UVa — Watford at Hampton, where he played quarterback in the Crabbers’ storied program, and Romero at Phoebus, where as a two-way standout he helped the Phantoms win three consecutive Group AAA, Division 5 state titles.
In January 2009, not long after he graduated from Lafayette High in Williamsburg, defensive lineman Will Hill enrolled at UVa. That made him the first football recruit to start classes midyear at the University since Ahmad Brooks in 2003. Quarterback Michael Strauss followed the path blazed by Hill and enrolled at UVa in January 2010.
“And now these two guys have an opportunity to do it themselves,” said London, who played football in the Peninsula District himself, at Bethel High.
“It’s a transition right now. I think they’re handling it as well as can be. David’s showing early signs of just being very conscientious about everything he does. Da-Da’s kind of overwhelmed a little bit. At least when you come in the summer you get the [first-year transition program]. Now it’s like, ‘Welcome to class. Sit over there and read some Othello.’ “
London’s goals for Watford and Romero this semester?
“You hope guys have a chance to come in and get acclimated to the school environment, to their new teammates, to the academic expectations of them,” London said. “And so you try to surround them with as many people as you can to help meet all those needs. You watch them to make sure that the transition is not too overwhelming for them. One minute he’s making his bed at home, and the next minute he’s in a college setting where he’s on his own, setting his alarm clark to get up on time … One day you’re going from third-bell lunch to all of the sudden, ‘Hey, where’s O-Hill?’ “
Romero said: “It’s not high school anymore.”
He was reminded of that on his first day at UVa. His alarm clock rang. Romero shut it off and went back to sleep. Bad move. He was late for a meeting.
“Being on time here is huge,” Romero said.
The clock showed 4:50 p.m. when Romero and Watford sat down to talk with VirginiaSports.com. The team’s winter strength-and-conditioning program had started that day, and they had risen at 5 a.m. They were assigned to the 6 a.m. group, and the newcomers knew better than to be late for their first session with Evan Marcus, the Cavaliers’ new director of football training and player development.
It wasn’t fun “waking up at 5 a.m. and running in 8-degree weather, drinking water with the water freezing on my face,” the 6-0, 212-pound Romero admitted. During the running drills, he recalled with a smile, “I thought I was going to die.”
Still, he wasn’t complaining. This was the path he chose.
“I always wanted to graduate early [from high school],” said Romero, a three-time all-Group AAA selection who’s projected to play outside linebacker at UVa. “I just wanted to get a head start on college life. I’ll be used to classes and getting up early and working out and all that.”
Watford echoed his friend’s comments. Entering at midyear “was important to me, because I wanted to get a head start,” Watford said. “Since I had the ability to, why not take that opportunity and get a head start on what I’m going to be doing the next four years? I’d rather come in now and be around the older guys and see how they do it.”
The 6-1, 180-pound Watford’s mentors include his cousin Marques Hagans, a former Hampton High star who was UVa’s starting quarterback in 2004 and ’05.
“He told me, like everybody else told me, that it’s a hard school, a school with a high academic standards,” said Watford, who was in the International Baccalaureate program at Hampton.
“I’m ready for it. Of course, being here and talking about it are two different things.”
Romero and Watford have known each other since middle school, and they occasionally hung out together in their hometown of Hampton. Now they see each other every day, and that’s making their transition to college life easier.
“It’s good to have a person who’s also going through the same process as you,” Watford said. “We’re learning together.”
Romero said: “It’s cool, because if we’re going to go somewhere or do something, we call each other.”
Each was a four-year varsity player in high school. Watford’s prep career ended in late November with a 12-7 loss to Phoebus in the Eastern Region, Division 5 championship game.
Romero exited on a happier note, on a bigger stage. In the Division 5 state final, Phoebus extended its winning streak to 45 games by pummeling Stone Bridge 36-17. That the championship game was played at Scott Stadium made the occasion more special for Romero.
“It was crazy,” Romero recalled. “The whole first half, I was looking around and thinking, ‘This is going to be my college stadium.’ “
Back in Hampton, other members of the Class of 2011 are enjoying their final semesters of high school. Romero and Watford hope to be able to attend their respective senior proms, but even if that doesn’t work out, they’re convinced their decisions to enroll early at UVa were wise ones.
“At the end of the day, I know this is going to help me,” Romero said.
Watford said: “This is about to shape our future right here. Gotta get it started early. We’ll be adjusted to everything by the time [the other recruits arrive this summer].”
The coaching staff is watching the rookies closely, London said, to “make sure the transition is running smoothly for them and their teammates start becoming their best friends and they start becoming accountable to one another.”
Players who enrolled at UVa last year, including Morgan Moses, Rijo Walker (Bethel High) and Chris Brathwaite, have “taken us under their wings,” Watford said.
That’s part of being a good teammate, London said. He expects the players who were on the team in 2010 to tell the newcomers, ‘Hey, listen, this is what you gotta do. This is where you gotta do it.’ I see a lot of that happening, and that’s good.”