It was a special night at South Aiken High School. The school and the community had the chance to honor one of its finest products Friday, when it retired the high school jersey of football star Dekoda Watson.


A linebacker for the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Watson was honored at halftime of the boys' basketball game between South Aiken and crosstown rival Aiken. Watson was recognized for what he's achieved as well as what he's helping others to do. Through his foundation, Koda's Kids, Watson's trying to provide youngsters a better life with opportunities in athletics, academics and more.


“It's not about the retirement of my jersey, it's about setting a positive example,” Watson said to the capacity crowd on hand – many former students and South Aiken employees on hand to celebrate Watson, who was very appreciative of the distinction.


“It's a phenomenal feeling,” Watson said later, away from the crowd. “I don't have the words to express how I feel, but it's definitely an honor. I want to continue to move people with what I do in the community.”


Watson was surrounded by family, friends and former coaches among other well-wishers. North Augusta football coach Dan Pippin, who was Watson's head coach at South Aiken, was on hand for the ceremony that included a short but detailed introduction of Watson's achievements while a banner bearing Watson's name and high school No. 34 already hung in a place of distinction in the rafters. Watson then gave a brief speech after current Thoroughbred football coach Jeremy West presented him with a framed version of his jersey. “It was a real nice ceremony,” said West, who was an assistant at South Aiken when Watson played. “It was like a little reunion. … It shows how much everybody respects him and thinks of him.”


The feeling was clearly mutual, as Watson spoke highly of his former coaches.


“They've had a tremendous influence on me and been with me since day one,” Watson said. “Through the ups and downs, in college and even now they come to games. They're always there to support me. That bond is still there.”


That connection remains and there was a strong outpouring of support from others because Watson remains a positive and productive figure in the community. He's made charitable donations through his foundation, held camps to teach the fundamentals of football and is planning on doing more to raise money – including a golf tournament.


“I want to give back every month,” Watson said, of the idea of having multiple events throughout the year. “I want to continue to move people, and I'm going to use every resource I can get.”


It's possible those resources could grow. Watson is a free agent and coming off his best season out of four years in the NFL. He said he wants to remain in Tampa Bay, where he's an active member of that community, but will make a sound business decision. He said he'll have the chance to test the free agent waters when the period opens on March 11.


Despite his high profile, he remains friendly and generous. West said those are keys to his enduring popularity.


“He's never gotten too big and remains down to Earth,” West said. “He's the same guy he was in high school and would give you the shirt off his back to help someone.”


Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.