USC offensive tackle Rokevious Watkins has six older half-brothers - and a former high school teammate he considers a brother.
Watkins and Tennessee junior Eric Berry, the Vols' All-American safety, were so close at Creekside High outside of Atlanta that the two went through the painful ritual of cutting open their hands and becoming blood brothers.
Following the death of his father, Watkins said Berry helped save him from the streets of south Fulton County, where Watkins said he was using and dealing drugs, getting in fights and in danger of throwing away his half of their dream to play in the NFL together.
"We connected like brothers did. He just kept me out of trouble because I was on the streets. I was a whole 'nother, different guy," Watkins said this week. "With the help of him and my brother, he showed me what was important and basically helped me get to this point where I'm at."
During a teleconference Wednesday, Berry said it would be impossible to discuss everything he and Watkins had been through.
"He's always had my back, no matter what the situation. ... I think that's really what brought us closer as friends and brothers - we call each other brothers," Berry said. "We just always promised each other we was going to stick together."
But blood only runs so deep.
The 21st-ranked Gamecocks are headed to Tennessee this week for a big SEC East game. And though Watkins is redshirting and will not travel with the team to Knoxville, his loyalties to his new school will outweigh his friendship with Berry for three hours Saturday.
"We're rivals this week," Watkins said. "I don't like those guys right now."
Watkins took a circuitous route to USC. He twice signed with UAB, but was held up by an academic issue. Instead, he played one season at a pair of two-year schools - Grossmont College in southern California and Georgia Military College - before transferring to USC this summer.
He might never have made it if not for Berry and his older brother Montreal Watkins.
Watkins said he was always "jumping from house to house" growing up in the Atlanta area. He lived with his mom through most of middle school, but did not get along with her boyfriend.
When the couple relocated to Florida, Watkins stayed in Atlanta and lived with his father, Steve Watkins, an auto detailer who worked for several car dealers. When his father developed throat cancer and had to quit working, Watkins took a series of part-time positions at fast-food restaurants.
But he also found time for drugs and "all kind of stuff."
"I was just in the streets, point-blank period," he said. "And Eric saved me from that."
During his junior year of high school, a classmate started jawing with Watkins and challenged him to a fight. The two went into the hallway, where the 6-foot-4, 340-pound Watkins made quick work of the other combatant.
"I was a real bad guy then," Watkins said. "Before he could unfold his arms he was across the hall on his back."
Watkins kept swinging his firsts while a teacher tried to pull him off - until Berry arrived and started yelling at his friend.
"It was like Eric came and that was the only person I heard. He basically got me straight: 'Man, come on, you gotta think. You got too much going on, man,'" Berry said. "He got me off of him, talked to me. I took the consequences for it and ever since that day ..."
Berry said he always believed Watkins was "a good guy stuck in a bad situation."
As his father's health deteriorated, Watkins moved in with Montreal, who lived in an apartment in Fairburn, Ga., with his wife and young daughter. Montreal said Watkins used to come home late smelling of marijuana.
"I got tired of it one night," Montreal said. "He came to the door, he was knocking on the door and I left him out there all night long. I left him out there 'til the next morning. After that, that broke it."
Watkins had a good senior year. He lost weight, pulled his grades up and was one of the leaders on a Creekside team that finished 12-1 and advanced to third round of the state playoffs.
Berry, who also played quarterback in high school, said Watkins helped him make the Parade All-American team and earn a scholarship to Tennessee.
"A lot of times I would score and I wouldn't be touched. I always checked run plays to his side because I knew he was going to take care of his assignment," Berry said. "He had my back, and he wasn't going to let anybody touch me."
Steve Watkins succumbed to cancer on June 1, 2007, six days after Watkins graduated. Around that time, Watkins, who had a 2.8 grade point average and the necessary test score, learned he would not be eligible at UAB because a math class he took in ninth grade was not an NCAA core course.
UAB wanted Watkins to grayshirt and enroll the next semester. But he opted to follow a couple of his cousins to Grossmont, where he lasted a semester before returning to Georgia.
He came to USC from Georgia Military expecting to play immediately, but thinks he will benefit from the redshirt year.
"I could have either wasted a year playing 15, 20 plays a game or I could just get my weight down and come in and try to run things next year," said Watkins, who has two years of eligibility remaining.
Watkins said he ran the 40-yard dash in 5.27 seconds when he weighed 340, and believes he will be "ridiculous" if he gets down to 315. Berry gave a ringing endorsement of Watkins' athleticism.
"I think he's going to shock a lot of people in this conference just because of his size and how athletic he really is. His strength is amazing, also," Berry said. "I think he's going to pretty much be one of the best offensive linemen to come through the SEC. As soon as he gets the opportunity, I feel he'll just take it and run with it."
If so, Watkins might join Berry in the NFL in a couple years. Though an underclassman, Berry is ranked as a top-five overall pick by ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper.
But before Berry was a Heisman Trophy candidate and top-five prospect, he was a blood brother to Watkins, guiding his friends off the streets on to a more productive road.
"I just stopped everything I was doing. Me and Eric sat down, had a talk. Started over," Watkins said. "And ever since then, we've just been (close) like that. We're on the same path. We're trying to take the same route."
Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.