David Watson was 20 years from being born — his father was 5 — when Vern Friedli guided Amphitheater to a state football championship in 1979. Watson wasn’t alive the last time the Panthers played for a state title, in 1997.

Watson never played for Friedli, but he knew him. Amphi plays on Friedli Field, named after the coach whose 331 career victories rank second in state history.

“You have to respect the tradition that he left,” Watson said. “I was able to meet with him a couple times. I was able to talk to him a little bit, get his philosophy on football, on life. It’s pretty cool living in the tradition he’s left behind.”

Watson fits the mold of a Friedli-era player. The 6-foot-6-inch, 295-pound offensive tackle is a blue-collar workhorse on a team facing long odds. The Panthers open their season Friday at Cholla hoping to exceed expectations; the strapped program lost 16 seniors from a team that won eight games a year ago.

Amphi has at least two things working in its favor, though: One is Watson, who has verbally committed to play for the Arizona Wildcats. The other is Friedli, who will be honored throughout the season.

Friedli, who died in July, famously challenged his team by scheduling the best programs in the state, refusing to settle for a schedule that included opponents with similar-sized enrollment. He craved the competition — and the challenge.

“They probably would’ve won a few more championships if they’d played where they were supposed to,” Amphi coach Jorge Mendivil said. “But he wanted to play the best.”

Similarly, Watson could have transferred to a bigger-name school and competed for state championships. But Watson stayed after the Panthers’ winless 2015 campaign, and again after last season.

“David’s become a man,” Mendivil said. “He’s realized what he wants to do with himself and realized he still has to work his butt off.”

If Watson is a star, he certainly doesn’t act like it. On a team with only six seniors, he’s become a leader.

Watson’s teammates say he’s a coach on the field. He sounds like one, too.

“I just want to see that my guys are giving it everything they’ve got,” he said. “Since we’re a young team, you can’t have super-high standards, but if I see these young guys just giving everything they have, there’s not much more you can ask for.”

Senior quarterback Jose Garcia said Watson “keeps us on track.”

“He keeps us competitive,” Garcia said. “Having him is like having another dad on the field. He’s the crazy Little League dad. He coaches us around as if he was a coach. We all respect him, and we know what he’s capable of.

“Not a lot of teams in Tucson have a David Watson.”

Watson can still improve, his coach says. Just last week, in a scrimmage against Desert View, the lineman had two “pancake” blocks on one play.

Friedlil would’ve loved it.

When Mendivil was hired in 2014, he went out to dinner with Friedli and his wife, Sharon. They talked about Amphi and how to rebuild the program.

“I said, ‘What do I do? What do I have to do to get this program back to where it was?’” Mendivil said. “He just said, ‘Be honest, be there for the kids and put your foot down.’ He was just a good guy. Everybody respects him, and it shows.”

Contact: zrosenblatt@tucson.com or 573-4145. On Twitter: @ZackBlatt