CARTERVILLE — Although they only shared the backfield one season, the running back duo of Shawn Watson and Bill Lantagne proved quite formidable for the Carterville Lions in the late 1970s.
A class behind Lantagne, Watson was the more decorated back. As a senior in 1977, he was selected First Team All-State by the Illinois Coaches Association and Champaign Urbana News-Gazette. Not surprisingly, he was also All-South and MVP of the Black Diamond Conference. The 1978 grad also led the south in scoring with 136 points and rushed for over 1,000 yards. Defensively, he stood out as a safety in the secondary.
From a team standpoint, the Lions were rock solid, as well, posting an undefeated regular season at 9-0 and captured yet another BDC title. Unfortunately for Carterville, a strong Dupo ballclub knocked off the Lions in the opening round of the state playoffs.
"It was a weird match-up," said Watson, who is now 61 and serving as offensive assistant and quarterbacks coach at the University of Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley Conference. "We were two of the best teams in the state in our class, but got thrown together in the first round. It was a good battle, but they won a heart-breaker against us."
Watson said he occasionally reflects back to his playing days.
"The first thing that comes to mind is all the tradition," he said. "Carterville had a winning football program. A lot of credit goes to Coach Junie Decker, who got it all started and then Mike Deck and Phil Janes who took it to a whole other level. Those three guys were unique in that they changed the culture at our school. It helped that we also had Tommie Armstrong and Jim Stalker at the junior high. All were knowledgeable and all were very competitive."
A now retired educator, Stalker worked on the chain gang when Watson played. He later spent several years as the program's field announcer.
As a junior, Watson shared the backfield with the senior, Lantagne (Class of '77). The two combined for over 1,500 yards on the ground. The team put together a respectable record, going 7-2 during the regular season, but fell to Gillespie in the opening round.
"I didn't get to play in that playoff game because I had torn ligaments in my ankle the week before against Christopher," Lantagne recalled. "It was so tough to sit that one out. You never want to miss your last game in your senior season."
Despite that setback, Lantagne enjoyed plenty of personal accolades as he was named MVP of the conference. He was All-Conference and All-South both his junior and senior seasons.
"Shawn was the faster back," Lantagne admitted. "He was not only a good runner, but a good blocker. He made some key blocks for me to get me an opening, along with our offensive line, of course."
Lantagne said his biggest individual achievement came in a road game at Sesser-Valier when he rushed for 204 yards.
"Everything just kind of clicked that night, I guess," he said.
"It's not the individual awards I remember the most. It's the team accomplishments," Lantagne said. "Winning conference both my junior and senior year and going to the state semifinals my junior year. Those were the best memories."
Although they live far apart, Lantagne and Watson remain good friends and stay in regular contact.
"Shawn was the best man at my wedding. We have hunted together a lot over the years. He's a great friend and I'm proud of the coaching career he has put together. I couldn't be happier for him."
POST CHS: Watson accepted a scholarship offer from the University of Illinois, but left after his freshman year. He enrolled at SIUC, where he played defensive back for Coach Rey Dempsey and graduated with a degree in health education.
"Coach Dempsey was like a father figure to me," Watson said. "He said, 'You need to get into coaching' and invited me to come work with him as a graduate assistant in 1982. He said I had the temperament work on the offensive side of the ball, so I did. Coach was a big influence on my life."
Watson was then lured back to the U of I a year later where he transitioned from grad assistant to offensive tackles, tight ends and wide receivers coach. The Illini participated in two bowl games during his time there, including the 1984 Rose Bowl.
Watson next coached tight ends and wide receivers at Miami University and was eventually promoted to recruiting coordinator before leaving in 1994 for his alma mater, where he was named head coach of the Salukis. Watson's Dawgs went 1-10 his first year at the helm and improved to 5-6 the next two seasons, but did have the privilege of coaching 20 All-Conference players, including Damon Jones, who played tight end in the NFL.
Watson moved on to Northwestern where he assisted head coach Gary Barnett. Other stops along the way came Colorado, Nebraska, Louisville, Texas, Indiana, Pittsburgh, Georgia and now Northern Iowa.
"I'm not done yet," Watson said. "I feel I am a better coach now than any other time. The key is that I am at peace with God's plan. This journey is not about me."
Watson has a wife, Anita, one daughter, Amber, and two sons, Aaron, and Adam. There are also two grandchildren.
Lantagne worked for the Williamson County Housing Authority for 29 years before accepting a job as custodian at the Carterville Intermediate School in 2008. His life took a drastic turn on Aug. 21, 2016 when he suffered a serious jet ski accident on Crab Orchard Lake.
In fact, it was his son, Shawn, who saved him from drowning. The accident, however, left Lantagne partially paralyzed.
"Fortunately, I still have some upper body strength and can move my left leg, but I am living my life in a wheelchair," he said. "God has blessed me with a great life and He continues to do that. For that, I am very grateful."
He and his wife, Eunice, have a daughter, Dawn, in addition to their son, Shawn. They also have four grandchildren.