Two footballs, perhaps, best capture a career of NFL memories for Saints tight end Benjamin Watson, who this weekend is returning to the place where it all started for him 10 years ago.
One ball sits on a shelf in his cubicle waiting to be decorated at an appropriate time. It represents his first touchdown catch as a member of the Saints, a 4-yard pass from Drew Brees in their 38-17 victory in Week 4 against the Miami Dolphins on “Monday Night Football.”
The other memento represents his first NFL touchdown, earned eight years ago during his second season with the New England Patriots. It came on a 33-yard pass from Tom Brady in a 31-28 victory against the Atlanta Falcons.
The balls represent Watson’s first and last touchdowns to date in the NFL, both thrown by future Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
“I’m going to get the Brees ball painted up for my son,’’ Watson said, referring to his 6-month-old, Judah. He was born March 19, the day after Watson signed a three-year, $4.95 million contract with the Saints.
When asked which ball means more to him, Watson replied with a laugh.
“The latest one is the best one,” he said, “because it’s the last one.’’
Watson would like to add to his total Sunday against his old team, which selected him with the 32nd pick in the 2004 draft. In six seasons with the Patriots, he caught 167 passes for 2,104 yards and 20 touchdowns and earned a Super Bowl XXXIX ring, though he spent all but one game of that ’04 season on injured reserve.
The sides parted amicably in March 2010, the Patriots choosing to let him pursue a bigger payday from the Cleveland Browns in free agency. Two months later, the Patriots filled the void in the draft, selecting tight ends Rob Gronkowski in the second round and Aaron Hernandez in the fourth.
The rest is history.
Hernandez sits in a Massachusetts jail after being charged with murder in June. Gronkowski could make his 2013 debut Sunday after multiple arm surgeries and a procedure on his back; he’s listed as questionable.
“It’s a special game,’’ said Watson, who caught 154 passes for 1,674 yards and eight touchdowns in three seasons with the Browns. “The Patriots gave me a chance to play in the NFL. They drafted me, so that place is special, and it’s the first time I’m going back since I left. So there is a little bit added weight but, at the same time, it is another game. It’s a game we have to play very well to win. We’re going against a very good football team.’’
Watson’s contributions in New Orleans cannot be solely measured by his production. Teammates said his value goes beyond the five catches for 59 yards and the one touchdown.
For starters, the 32-year-old has been the perfect complement to tight end Jimmy Graham, who’s leading the NFL in receiving yards with 593 on 37 catches to go with six touchdowns.
“He’s such a pro in the way he prepares, the way he practices,’’ Brees said. “(He is) such a great influence on many of us. He’s a guy who has played at a high level for a long time and has been a contributor everywhere he’s been.
“He’s been part of an organization in New England that truly knows how to win and has a winning formula. He knows what that looks like, what that feels like. There’s a lot that he can add to maybe what we’re doing already. I can’t say enough good things about him and his family and just the addition that he’s been to our locker room and our team. So, (signing him) was a no-brainer.’’
Saints rookie tight end Josh Hill also sings Watson’s praises.
“He’s a great teammate and such a great man outside of football,’’ Hill said. “He takes great pride in what he does and how he handles himself. He’s been in the league for 10 years and he’s still in great shape, so he takes everything very seriously.’’
That includes doing things the right way — the “Patriot Way,’’ as it come to be known under coach Bill Belichick.
“It’s kind of been coined the ‘Patriot Way,’ but there are plenty of good teams, and they’ve all had their way,’’ Watson said. “There is the ‘Saints Way.’ They have some of the same things that I love in this locker room, too — the fact that there are guys here who are ‘we guys,’ not ‘me guys.’ There is a head coach who loves what he does and really wants to win and does everything he can do to help us. He has assistant coaches who would give their right arm to help us win. There is motivation and enthusiasm here.
“All those things are part of the ‘Saints Way,’ and why I really enjoy being here.’’