Arsenal Coach Jacob Watts got engaged at a CrossFit gym in Lafayette. That fact alone would make you think that Jacob is one of those CrossFit junkies who thinks all things are possible through CrossFit.
You know the type. Suffering from erectile dysfunction, irritable bowel syndrome, black hairy tongue (it’s a thing…don’t Google it!) or carpal tunnel syndrome? You can be healed through CrossFit! As if happiness and contentment are simply a few sets of back squats away.
But when I sat down to chat with Jacob, I found that his experiences as an athlete and as a coach have brought balance to his life.
Tall kids play basketball
Jacob was a coach’s kid growing up in Demotte, Indiana, that’s in that weird part of the state that thinks it’s Chicago. Jacob wasn’t like the other kids.
“I was easy to pick on. I was goofy,” Jacob said. “Ever since I’ve been in elementary, I have always been tall with big feet, big hands and head; I have big ears. I thought flat-tops were cool when I was young. My flat-top made my ears stick out even more. I think that has shaped how I am as a person. A lot of people have probably noticed I am super laid back. Part of that could easily be innate for me, but a lot of it likely has to do with getting made fun of quite a bit. I was embarrassed a lot, but I was like, ‘I can just deal with it and move on or let it ruin my day.’”
Until high school, Jacob’s dad was his baseball coach.
“As a kid, I loved baseball. My dad was always a coach, so I was pretty good. He always had me outside practicing on the weekends . . . and I hated it.”
But it was basketball the tall kid excelled at. He played varsity as a sophomore. In fact, most of his teammates were sophomores as well, thrust onto the varsity level after following the senior-laden team ahead of them.
“We got annihilated my sophomore year. We had 100 points scored on us a couple times.”
He was the tallest player on a short team, which meant he always guarded the opposing team’s best post player. Once he even “guarded” Luke Harangody, the future Notre Dame standout who would ultimately play in the NBA.
Jacob’s defensive strategy against him: “I stood there and he did what he wanted; I didn’t really guard him. They were up by 30 points at halftime.”
Part of Jacob didn’t want to continue to play basketball. He felt it was expected of him to play.
“I knew I’d let a lot of people down if I quit. I liked basketball, but I spent thousands of hours practicing and shooting, summer camps, fall open gyms. I got kind of burnt out on it.”
Jacob’s senior year, his team won the sectionals for the first time in nearly twenty years.
“We went to regionals and lost, but it was only by five points. We actually hung in there, but I remember thinking after the game, I wasn’t that upset. I think I just stopped taking it so seriously.”
Here’s the thing about sports, once you step off the competitive stage of organized sports, the game changes. There are no more crowds or coaches or off-seasons. You can choose to play recreationally or you can choose not to play. No one is paying attention to records or newspaper reports; you play to have fun. Fun–that’s what recreational means. And it turns out Jacob loves sports.
Love & CrossFit
Jacob went to Purdue to study exercise science. At Purdue he played recreational basketball and tried several different workouts.
“I was doing P90X and Insanity. There’s a spot on Purdue’s campus that has a hill, I’d run there from my apartment and do sprints and stuff. I would kind of do a weight lifting routine, but I wasn’t real consistent, and I didn’t really have any structure.”
A friend invited Jacob to work out with him in the ROTC drill room.
“They had a bunch of bar bells and plyo-boxes, kettlebells, pull up rig, and they would do CrossFit workouts. It was the constant varying of movement that really drew me to it. At that point, I wasn’t necessarily concerned with getting stronger, I just wanted to stay in shape and keep it interesting.”
The coach at the drill room opened his own CrossFit box. Jacob was interested, but thought it was too expensive on a student’s budget, so he patched together his own workouts.
“I found a website that would generate different crossfit workouts I could do at the Purdue Rec Center. At a certain point, Leasa [his then-girlfriend, now-wife] and I decided that we wanted to commit the money towards CrossFit. We both stuck with it for two years before I had to go to grad school. We just went consistently, became good friends with a lot of people there.”
CrossFit became such a part of his life and social life that he decided to stage his proposal to Leasa at the gym. Of course, this was after the Purdue Glee Club and Mackey arena turned down his separate requests to participate in the proposal. He even had one idea that might have been illegal.
“My next idea was to have my uncle, who’s a Lafayette police officer, pull her over with me in the car, but he said he couldn’t. I’m really glad it ended up at the CrossFit gym because all our friends were there. Leasa’s sister and some of her friends happened to be in town that weekend, too. It was on a Saturday so there were tons of people there. The owner set up a workout so it ended with a 400m run. Everyone left for the run, and I stayed back with a few people. When Leasa got back, our song was playing [You and Me by the Dave Matthews Band]. She was all out of breath, and I was kind of worried that she was going to pass out. She walks up to me, and I start to kneel down and grab her hand. I pulled the ring out and she just lost it. She started bawling like crazy when she realized what I was doing. It went just how I hoped it would.”
Coming to Muncie
CrossFit fueled Jacob’s interest in exercise and nutrition, which led him to grad school at IU. After graduation his path led to Muncie.
(A brief moment to acknowledge how awesome Leasa, Jacob’s wife, is:
Leasa rescued Poco, not in the “she went to a shelter” sense of rescue, but in the hero sense of the word. She heard about a house in Richmond where puppies had been abandoned so she went there and rescued them. She kept Poco, and now Poco is “her big baby” and, of course, one of our dogs at The Arsenal.)
So when Awesome Leasa got a job in Muncie, Jacob followed her here, and got a job at The Arsenal.
“Coming to The Arsenal…I really just got lucky, honestly. I wanted to find a gym close to where we live.”
Jacob was pleasantly surprised that not only did The Arsenal need another coach, but that they paid coaches. Many gyms don’t have professional, paid coaches. Jacob could do what he loved and get paid to do it.
“My favorite part of coaching is when people do things they previously thought impossible.”
Like the day he saw Sarah Cook heading to the rings instead of the rig, and he suggested she try a pull up. She got her first pullup. They celebrated.
“The olympic lifts are my favorite things to coach, and when you get people who are trying, but they just keep making the same mistakes over and over again, and if I can help them change one little thing, and you just see them get it in their head, that’s pretty exciting.”
“For me I’ve carried with me that mindset I adopted after high school: sports aren’t that serious. I will never train instead of hanging out with Leasa. I’ll never miss a birthday to do a competition, if it’s someone I really care about. You have to find that line, ‘Am I taking this too seriously?’ But you have to take it somewhat seriously because if you don’t, you won’t push yourself and get as much out of it as you can. CrossFit allows me to be healthy and happy.”
Jacob has come a long way since his days practicing baseball and basketball. Training has a completely different goal and reward now. Jacob recounted his first run as a kid back when running meant training to compete and perform in a sport.
“My dad took me for a one-mile run. I remember crying. I was gasping, telling him I couldn’t breathe. At that point, it was just to get in shape. I remember my dad saying, ‘You are just skinny because you are naturally skinny. We need to get you doing something to actually get you in shape.’ But now, I’m ready for almost any physical challenge that might come my way. I push myself to see what my body is capable of, and I want to help others do the same.’”
Jacob doesn’t CrossFit for someone else. Jacob CrossFits for himself.