The NFL game in which Benjamin Watson wore a New England Patriots jersey was a wild card playoff contest in January 2010. A lot has changed since then for the club and the player: while the Patriots won three Super Bowl titles, Watson moved around the league, spending time with the Cleveland Browns, the New Orleans Saints (twice), and the Baltimore Ravens. In late May, he found a new home — the one where it all began.
With no position on the Patriots’ roster seeing as much turnover this offseason as the tight end spot — from the departures of Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen and Jacob Hollister, to numerous players being brought on board in free agency — the team called up its former first-round draft pick to bolster the group’s depth and talent. For Watson, the opportunity was an “interesting” but surprising one.
“No, I did not,” the 38-year-old said on Tuesday when asked whether or not he expected to return to the NFL just four months after appearing in what was at the time believed to be his final game as a professional football player. “You never know in this league. Honestly, you never know if one practice is going to be your last day playing football. [...] You’re never know if you’re going to come back, but I’m glad that I am.”
Returning to New England now means that Watson’s career has come full circle. He started as the 32nd overall selection in the 2004 draft and over the next six years appeared in a combined 80 regular season and playoff games for the club. He lived through it all during his first stint with the Patriots: he earned a Super Bowl ring his rookie year, but spent the majority of the season on injured reserve. He was a key player on 2007’s 16-0 squad, but lost the title game.
Above all, however, New England is the place where a career began that is now entering its fifteenth season. “Obviously here is the place where we started, my wife and I,” said Watson when speaking about coming back to the Patriots out of his short-lived retirement. “When I came here, I was a rookie, wasn’t married. Now we have seven kids and been married thirteen years. So this place is always special to us.”
Returning to this ‘special place’ was no tough decision to make for Watson. “My wife and I talked what that would look like for us if we decided to do it, what it would look like for our family. Just kind of weighing the pros and cons of playing again at this point,” the veteran said after the Patriots’ first minicamp practice on Tuesday. “There were two clubs, when I was retired, that I would say: ‘If I were to play again, I would love to go back somewhere where I’ve been before or stay in New Orleans.’”
“And then once I decided to, in the later part of April, early May, having an opportunity to come back here where we started — moving here as a rookie, 22 years old, not married, no kids and now coming back with a whole tribe — that’s something that’s going to be fun for all of us,” he continued. Returning to the Northeast is just the latest chapter in a journey that spanned a combined 207 NFL games and four different cities up to this point.
Watson does see this experience as a positive one, however. “I’ve been a part of a lot of different offenses, so there is an adaptability there. I would have loved to play on one team for my entire career, but that wasn’t my path. But with that moving from place to place, you learn how to adapt, you learn the importance of fundamentals. There are things you take from each place, whether they be Baltimore, New Orleans, or when I was in Cleveland, or here,” he said.
“The things that you take, you can pile them together and they make you the player that you are,” Watson continued when speaking about his career so far and how it made him into the player he is today. “One main thing, I would say: mentally, I would say that I’m more mature, having been through a lot of ups and downs — tough times as well as times to celebrate. And I think that plays well for me moving in just yet another situation.”
Why, at the age of 38, would he go through such a change again, let alone the grind that is preparing for an NFL season? The answer appears to be a simple one for Watson. “There’s still the desire to get better,” he said. “I think whatever we do, no matter what our age is, no matter how many years we’ve done it, we always seek to find ways to get better and to become more consistent with our craft.”
“Also to use whatever platform we’ve been given with our craft to help other people,” the winner of the 2018 Bart Starr Award continued. “One difference is now I’m concentrating on football but I also understand that football allows us to do a lot of great things, allows us to influence a lot of people, allows us to help people in different areas of life. That’s something I’ve enjoyed more and more over the course of my career.”