Photo by Chris McCarthy/Messenger
By Josh Bean/For AHSAA
Bryant-Jordan 2021 Class 2A, Region 6 Student Achievement Regional recipient ReAnna Watson’s story starts with tragedy and is filled with heartbreak and confusion. There is also hope, faith, achievement and success.
More important, this remarkable young lady is a real-life achiever who is overcoming some very tragic obstacles with a drive and determination that is making a difference.
Watson was one of 104 seniors, 52 achievement and 52 scholar student-athlete recipients honored last Monday (April 12) at the 36th annual Bryant-Jordan Foundation Awards Banquet held at the Birmingham Sheraton Hotel ballroom.
Watson’s perseverance and tenacity are major reasons she’s a regional winner in the Bryant-Jordan Scholarship Program’s Achievement category, which honors senior athletes who have overcome personal adversity to excel. All regional winners receive a $3,000 scholarship.
In addition to her regional scholarships, Watson learned at the banquet that she was one of two recipients of the United Methodist Children’s Home ‘Embrace Alabama Kids’ Scholarship, which will help her finance her education at the University of North Alabama in Florence, where she plans on competing on the school’s track and field team.
“[The banquet] was a lot of fun, but it was really nerve-wracking when I had to give my speech,” she said. “But I think I did okay.”
Some of her Gaston classmates do not know or understand all the wretched details and twists of fate Watson has endured.
“It’s not something you really lead a conversation with,” said Watson.
Watson’s remarkable story beings with a monstrous tragedy in September of 2013.Watson, then a fourth grader, awoke to screams in the middle of the night. The chaotic scene revealed a medical emergency for her 18-day-old brother, Micah Lorenzo Rivera, who later died. Authorities later charged Watson’s mother and stepfather, Cassie Cranford Rivera and Alberto Rivera Jr., with capital murder. An autopsy report showed that Micah Lorenzo suffered at least four skull fractures, making the cause of death to be blunt force trauma. Watson and her older sister immediately moved in with her pastor’s family, whom she now refers to as her godparents.
Watson never returned to her home to retrieve her clothes or personal belongings.
The criminal case dragged on for years, making it impossible to avoid all the headline fodder that followed in the media outlets throughout the state. Watson’s mother and stepfather remained in jail for years awaiting trial. Saying she was naïve at the time, Watson now understands her father, mother and stepfather battled drug and alcohol addiction for a long time. Watson admitted she endured bullying during elementary school because of the case’s high profile. She credits teachers and administrators at Gaston and her godparents with helping her cope.
Watson’s mother pleaded guilty to manslaughter in July 2019 and was released from the Etowah County Jail under terms of her plea deal. Charges against Watson’s stepfather were later dismissed. She continues to have no relationship with her parents. Watson lost her maternal grandmother to cancer in 2020.
Somehow, Watson has thrived at Gaston High. She is on track to be the school’s 2021 valedictorian, a year after her older sister, Montana, was salutatorian. Watson played basketball and ran track, despite a heart ailment that caused her to miss her junior basketball season. She is active in her church, North Gadsden Church of God, which is pastored by her godparents. Watson is involved in an alphabet soup of school clubs, including the FFA, FBLA and FCA. She serves as SGA secretary and Beta Club treasurer and volunteers in the school’s peer helper program and with Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Watson has shown an interest in the arts as well, taking up painting last summer. She recently placed in an art competition sponsored by the Gadsden Museum of Art. She works an after-school job at a local clothing store in Gadsden.
“ReAnna is one of those kids that just don’t come around very often,” said Gaston girls’ basketball coach Brittany Brewer. “When they do, it’s something special. She’s just so inspiring to be able to overcome all that and be the student that she is, the person that she is, the teammate that she is, the athlete that she is.”
Added Christy Smith, Watson’s godmother and legal guardian: “ReAnna is a hard worker, and she’s determined with everything she does. I think she’s going to make something good of herself.”
How does Watson view her success?
“I use my background as an opportunity and reason for me to do more with my life,” she said. “I will be a first-generation college student, and I think that will be a big honor because none of my family have ever accomplished anything big. My sister and I will be the first. I think that’s really cool, and I use that to keep chasing my dreams. No matter what your background is, you can still overcome and accomplish anything. Like I say, your past doesn’t define you.
“The teachers at Gaston really taught me and lot and helped to prepare me for college,” she added. “It’s opened up a lot of doors for my future, and the adversity I went through taught me to keep pushing, no matter what happens.”
Watson’s favorite subject is math. She believes combining it with her artistic talent makes architecture a promising career path. After all, she’s been able to build a life of promise from the tragic circumstances of her childhood.
“ReAnna is just an amazing person,” said GHS teacher Jennifer Knighten McGriff, one of Watson’s mentors. “The tenacity and grit and determination she has, I don’t know many adults with that same level. We let a bad hair day get to us. She just presses on. She just continues to press on, no matter what happens … She’s like a perfect person. I hate to say that, but she is.”
Chris McCarthy contributed to this article