Skip redundant pieces
KU Home  :  KU News

KU News Release

April 27, 2005
Contact: Mary Jane Dunlap, University Relations, (785) 864-8853.

Award-winning poet football player to host poetry slam finale May 4 at KU

LAWRENCE -- At 6 feet, 4 inches, University of Kansas defensive tackle Travis Watkins stands out in most crowds. It is Watkins' poetry -- and his passion for his topics -- that can make this graduating honors scholar appear larger than life.

When he takes the microphone at the Student Union Activities-sponsored poetry slam in the Kansas Union each month, football stereotypes take a hit and Watkins takes a bow. He won the SUA monthly poetry slams so often last fall that he became an honorary host for the slams in January 2005 -- to give other competitors a fighting chance.

At 7 p.m. May 4, Watkins will make his final appearance as a KU senior hosting the SUA poetry slam in the Kansas Union Hawk's Nest. SUA also is sponsoring a special poetry event featuring Watkins at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 7, in the Kansas Union Hawk's Nest.

This spring the poet-athlete has won two prizes: a national first place in poetry at the 2005 College Language Association annual meeting in Athens, Ga., and second place at the Smokin' Word Slam Poetry competition at the Bruce Watkins Center in Kansas City, Mo. He has also made a CD of his poems, which, with NCAA regulations out of the picture, he hopes to market. Watkins is creating his own publishing company, Layman Lyric Productions, and will post a Web site in May at

Watkins is graduating with honors May 22, majoring in U.S. history and in African-American studies. In addition to being a co-captain for the football team at KU, he has been a McNair scholar and a Multicultural Africana scholar. In June, Watkins heads to Houston, where he will teach third-grade youngsters in a Teach for America program. His long-range goal: to earn a Ph.D. and work in secondary school administration.

Kansas City Star entertainment columnist Jenee Osterheldt, who heard Watkins recite his poetry at a Kansas City club earlier this year, wrote: "Upon first glance, you might write him off as another hot sports jock. But once you hear him speak, you realize he's an intellectual poet." She advised readers to "check for his works 'This Poem' or 'Tsunami Economy,' which make you want to listen to Gil Scott-Heron and pump your fist in the air. Then there's 'Your Village,' a poem that nestled itself particularly close to my heart because it touches on what life is like growing up with a white mother and a black father."

One of his instructors, Chico Herbison, lecturer in African and African-American studies, describes Watkins as "the consummate student-athlete." For the past year, Watkins has worked as a teaching assistant in Herbison's history classes: the Black Experience in the Americas and Studies in America Beyond the Binary, which focuses on African-American humor and comedy.

"Travis is committed to social change," Herbison said. "He wants to spend a few years working in the community and then come back to education. It's rare you find a true student-athlete, even more rarely find one who is committed to pressing concerns."

Watkins commands attention -- in part simply by being tall and largely because of his passion for his topics, Herbison added. As a McNair scholar, Watkins researched experiences of black Vietnam veterans, including his father, for an oral history that includes a critical analysis of Yusef Komunyakaa's poetry collection "Dien Cai Dau." When Herbison asked Watkins to teach a session of the Black Experience in the Americas course last fall, the scholar-athlete presented his oral history project.

Although he had completed course requirements for his double major in December, Watkins enrolled in honors courses this spring, writing a thesis for each. For his history course, Watkins has traced the family of the first black athletes at KU, the Harvey brothers. For an independent study African-American studies course, Watkins is editing a manuscript of his poetry. Maryemma Graham, KU English professor, and John Edgar Tidwell, associate professor in English, sponsored Watkins in the College Language Association poetry contest.

"If poets are born and not made, then Travis Watkins is among them," Graham said. "His voice is deliberate, definitive and fearless … he wants to make waves. But most of all, he confirms what it means to be a generation born in the aftermath of civil rights, who must find their way to a new kind of social commitment in their own language; this means necessarily breaking the rules, taking real poetic license."

Michelle Rissky, Student Union Activities' cultural arts committee member handling the 2004-05 poetry slams, describes Watkins' voice as commanding. "Travis memorizes his pieces, which are often quite long, so that it's just him and his voice up there. His … rhymes are catchy, and he has a strong rhythm. The content of his pieces are what impresses me the most; Travis has some very powerful activist/political pieces but he also has wonderful personal-story pieces. Essentially, he is just a package deal and most people can't help but vote for him."

Football Coach Mark Mangino added: "I am not sure we ever really announced to the team that Travis was a poet, but the players know him as a very articulate and intelligent young man. He worked hard in academics. So it would not be a surprise to the team that he has done so well as a poet."

Watkins' early childhood memories are of McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita where his parents, Sam and Krista Watkins, were based. He graduated from Derby High School. His parents have retired from the military and live in Leavenworth. He and Brandi Nicole Taylor, former KU track athlete, were married in May 2004.


The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU's Lawrence campus. | (785) 864-3256 | 1314 Jayhawk Blvd., Lawrence, KS 66045