Artist Ben Watts sculpts many subjects, but few of them capture the hearts of sports fans as do his depictions of sports legends. Some of them are national figures, others are local heroes, but Watts brings them to 3-dimensional reality in bronze. His works grace campuses and athletic fields, allowing the next generation to appreciate the larger than life icons of the past that he recreates. The Columbia, Miss. native’s art merges sophisticated skill and emotional heart in an enduring form.
Coach Dobie Holden
Between 1948 and 1966, Coach Thomas D. “Dobie” Holden led the Pearl River Community College Wildcats to a 140-43-7 record and a consistent appearance in the national top ten rankings. More than his winning record, Holden is remembered at PRCC as a mentor, supportive influence and builder of young men who would go on to succeed at life, as well as football. He was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1970.
Holden surveys the field
The Poplarville, Miss. stadium where Holden celebrated his victories has been torn down. The new stadium bears his name. Visitors can mark his presence with a bronze sculpture that greets them as they enter through the home gate. He gazes toward the field, still watching over the players of PRCC. The statue was dedicated to “Legendary Coach, Mentor & Maker of Men Who Became ‘Winners in Life’” in 2008, as part of PRCC’s centennial year. Watts captures the paternal aspect of Holden, as he stands with one hand in his pocket and the other holding a rolled-up paper, watching his team work.
Legendary Walter “Sweetness” Payton
Walter Jerry Payton became a superstar on the gridiron as a member of the Chicago Bears. The late running back earned numerous records and accolades. His hometown of Columbia, Miss. honors Number 34 with a street named after him as well as Payton Field at Gardner Stadium and a statue of Sweetness in motion on a big play within the running track. Columbia considers Payton to be America’s Greatest All-Time Running Back, and proudly proclaims it on the statue on the high school campus. Payton was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1993.
Sweetness makes his move
Watts shows Payton in mid-stride, the football firmly grasped in his right hand. He seems to be checking for pursuit as he plots his course to the goal, ready to scramble and prepared to score again.
Robert Victor “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan led the Lions of East Mississippi Junior College in Scooba during most of the 1950s and ‘60s. Celebrated as “The Toughest Coach There Ever Was” by Sports Illustrated, Sullivan has been inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1984, but had long before been inducted into the hearts of the players who learned from the big man.
In Watts’ sculpture, the coach turns out in uniform, a football helmet on the ground between his feet, as he reviews the paper in his hands.
High school coach Howard Chappell left an enduring mark on those fortunate enough to play football under his leadership at Deshler High School in Tuscumbia, Ala. He was a teammate of the late Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama and the 1932 yearbook labels him the “Sylacauga Flash.” From coaching, Chappell became principal and served with distinction there, as well.
Chappell attended the unveiling in 2004 when the bust created by Watts was dedicated along with Deshler’s Alumni Plaza. He joked that his statue was in a more beautiful location than Bear Bryant’s. The bust depicts him with hands at rest on a football, gazing out across the plaza filled with bricks bearing the names of his players.
To the Top! with USM
Watts shows the spirit of USM with a sculpture commissioned by the alumni association and depicting the school slogan, To the Top! Watts executed the piece as a golden eagle with wings spread, beak open in full cry. The eagle took its place atop a hill of stones as part of the Waites Fountain in the Phalen Courtyard of Ogletree Alumni House in 2009.
Waites Fountain at Ogletree Alumni House
The building, currently under repair because of tornado damage suffered in February, 2013, originally housed the first president of Mississippi Normal College. As one of five original buildings left on USM’s Hattiesburg campus, the structure holds a treasured place in school history. The Watts sculpture was spared damage in the tornado and awaits the reopening of the facility to delight viewers once again.
Archery icon Fred Bear
Archery legend Fred Bear stands in full gear at Bass Pro Fishing’s Wonders of Wildlife Museum in Springfield, MO. Watts shows Bear carrying a bow and quiver, wearing binoculars, and packing out trophy antlers. Bear founded Bear Archery Company during the Depression, bringing the sport into a prominence not previously enjoyed. His contributions to the sport and the science of archery earned him the place in the WOW museum.