STEARNS — Sometimes, late in the night, Aaron Watts would go in the bathroom of his McCreary County home, close the door and turn on the fan.
The fifth grader wanted to be sure that no one else in the household could hear what he was doing.
Then he would cry.
It's never easy for any child in foster care. Watts and his older brother, Jacoby, had abruptly been thrust from the city of Lexington into a life in rural southeastern Kentucky.
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Watts was a young African-American male introduced into a community where almost no one — roughly 200 people in a county of some 18,000 — looked like him.
Darned right he was scared.
"I'd go in that bathroom and turn on the fan so my brother couldn't hear me cry," Watts said. "Then I'd really pray, pray that things would turn out good."
Today, Aaron Watts is one of the most accomplished high school athletes in the commonwealth. An old-fashioned, three-sport star — football, basketball, baseball — in an age of specialization, the McCreary Central standout was named our state's 2010 High School Male Athlete of the Year by the Kentucky Farm Bureau.
What isn't well known is that few star athletes in state history have traveled a path to success filled with as many challenges as that of Aaron Watts.
Watts has been in the state's custody for much of his life.
On the final day of his fourth-grade school year in Lexington, he came home to find a strange car in the driveway.
At the time, Watts and his brother were living with a woman they called Granny. That day, she told the brothers she had health problems and they were going to have to leave.
"I'd been with her since I was like 2 or 3," Watts said. "Talk about your heart dropping into your stomach. It was devastating."
He dropped to the ground, curled up in a ball, cried and begged not to have to go.
"I remember my brother picking me up," Watts said. "The social worker was packing our stuff. My brother put me in the car."
The Watts brothers were bound for a world far different than they had known.
Paula Jones' sister, Mitzi Stephens, had long been involved with foster care.
After Paula and Randy Jones had a baby boy they named Caleb, one of Mitzi's foster daughters would come and sit with the new mom.
"I loved that experience," Paula Jones said. "And I thought, 'I could do this.'"
As with many who agree to try foster care, Jones said she initially wanted a really young child. The child welfare agency she was dealing with instead told her about Jacoby, then 14, and Aaron, then 10.
"I just fell in love with them," Jones said.
Like almost everyone in McCreary County — which is 107 miles south of Lexington and borders the Tennessee state line — Jones is white.
She said that not even everyone in her own family was initially enthusiastic about bringing two black youths from the city into her home.
"My own dad was worried that it would change the way people looked at me," Jones said. "... But the first time he spent time with Aaron, he was totally charmed. From that time, he was totally accepting of both Aaron and Jacoby."
Jeff Culver, a social service clinician with Fayette County Juvenile Services, said a variety of factors are weighed in matching foster families and children.
Normally, keeping children in their own communities and with families who are as much like the kids as possible takes precedence, Culver said. "However, if you can keep siblings together, that factor would trump everything else," Culver said.
For a child used to living in downtown Lexington, rural Kentucky was a complete culture shock.
When Watts turned on his radio "there really weren't any rap stations," he said. "I was like 'Man, where is the R&B music? Where is the rap?'"
On his first day of school in McCreary County, Watts felt like every eyeball was on him.
"People were over there cutting up and as soon as I walk in the door, they're staring at me," he said. "That was a little bit uncomfortable. I didn't see any black people here. I got kind of nervous about it."
Whether because he was black, or a foster child, or just because he was the new kid, Watts said he felt challenged when he first moved to McCreary County.
"I did have to fight," he said. "It was almost like a prison — you had to go in and show them how tough you were so you wouldn't get picked on.
"After we really shut some people up, proved we're not going to be pushed around, we're not going to cause problems but we're not going to take anything, then a bunch of people started being cool after that. We made a bunch of friends after that."
In gaining acceptance, it probably didn't hurt that it quickly became apparent that Aaron Watts could be the best all-around athlete McCreary County had ever seen.
Getting his footing
Sports allowed the new kid in town who didn't look like most of the other residents to gain his footing.
The first time she dropped Aaron and Jacoby off at the local gym to play pick-up basketball, Jones said no one seemed to want to let them play.
When she returned to the gym after about an hour, "the other kids didn't want them to leave," Jones said. "They'd seen how good Aaron and Jacoby were."
For whatever reason, Watts said he grew up a bit of a hot head.
"I've always had a temper," he said. "I don't know what it was, what triggered me. But ever since I can remember, I've had a real bad temper. I can flip out."
Early in his days in McCreary County, he said a middle school assistant football coach yelled at him.
"The coach, this was an assistant coach, told me to get off the field, said I was done playing for the team," Watts said.
He still remembers what happened that night at home when he told Jones what had happened.
"Paula, she came over to the school the next day," he said. "She talked to the head coach, she was like, 'First off, you don't know how to handle him. You can't yell at him and expect him not to blow up.'"
Jones asked — emphatically, Watts said — that he be allowed back on the team.
When he went on to play a big part in an undefeated football season at the Pine Knot Middle School, Watts said he first felt like he was fitting in.
Years later, when both Jones and Watts saw a remarkably similar moment in the Sandra Bullock movie The Blind Side, each thought the same thing: That was us.
Sports allowed Watts to get to know McCreary County and McCreary County to get to know him.
Watts' Little League baseball coach, Tank Lawson, and his family, "treated me like I was their own child," he said.
Roger Daugherty, a middle school assistant principal, "was really patient with me," Watts said. "I'd go off and get sent to his office, and we'd have a long talk and he would tell me 'Aaron, you've got to calm down. We care about you. This is for your future.' He really settled me."
By the time he reached high school, Watts said, "This whole community, they just became very supportive of me."
How much of that does Watts attribute to his status as the county's star athlete?
"That helped," he said, "but even before my success, I found I had a lot of people here willing to do things for me. There's a lot of people who will love you in this county."
Watts will leave McCreary Central with a sports résumé few Kentucky high school athletes have ever matched.
In football, the 6-foot-2, 170-pounder made The Courier-Journal's All-State first team as a defensive back this past season as a senior. On offense, he ran for more than 1,000 yards, passed for over 500 and, most importantly, helped lead the Raiders to the school's first-ever winning season (7-4).
During hoops, Watts averaged more than 20 points and made the Kentucky All-Star team that will face Indiana's best next month.
His 92-mile an hour fastball as a pitcher and rangy presence in center field have caused some to believe his best sport is baseball.
Watts is talking to Morehead State about playing baseball and Marshall about basketball.
Since he was a little boy in Lexington watching Tayshaun Prince play on TV, his lifelong ambition has been to play for UK.
"I don't even care what sport it is," he said, "as long as I had 'Kentucky' across my chest, I'd be the happiest person in the world."
As impressive as Aaron Watts' sports achievements are, in a sense, they almost obscure the most important part of his story.
"What he's done is incredible," said Carmen Farris, a guidance counselor at McCreary Central. "He's got a personality that allows him to adapt. He's very determined. That's what allowed him to do this."
There are currently 6,800 children in foster care in Kentucky, said Culver, who is Watts' social worker. Because many of them are shuffled among numerous foster homes, they can have a difficult time even graduating from high school, said Culver.
"To have the athletic success Aaron has had is almost unheard of," Culver said. "He's going to graduate and go to college. For a kid in foster care, what he's done is pretty rare and should be pretty inspiring."
Even after his older brother, Jacoby, moved to another home, Aaron stayed with Jones.
"I told both of them when they came, I would try to love them like a mother," Jones said. "I also told them I understood I'm not their mother, that they do have one."
Watts said he maintains contact with his birth parents. "I still visit them," he said. "When we played Lexington Catholic, they came."
For a long time, Watts did not want to discuss publicly the fact that he is a foster child.
"I was kind of embarrassed," he said. "I felt like people were going to say 'Oh, he's a foster kid; he's nothing.'"
He changed his mind, Watts said, because he wants other children who grow up in such situations to know they can succeed, too.
"I know kids in foster care, they'll be hateful to their foster parents and not give them a chance," he said. "I want to say, 'Let them have a chance to love you. It's not always bad. I know it's hard accepting a new parent in your life, but give them a chance.'"
On April 28 in Louisville, Watts received his High School Male Athlete of the Year Award in front of an overflow crowd of 650 at the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame Banquet.
When he got back to McCreary County, back to the home in which he used to sneak into the bathroom to cry, Watts once again sought to be by himself to deal with his emotion.
A very different kind of emotion.
"I thought to myself, 'Aaron, you've really done something,'" he said.
For Aaron Watts, that is true in so many meaningful ways.