“I’ve never second-guessed any of my decisions. Cleveland was where God was leading us, and now I’m at a great place to be at this stage of my life.” Benjamin Watson, Saints tight end
Saturday afternoon, there was probably nothing Benjamin Watson wanted to do but go home and rest.
The first two weeks of Saints training camp, which ended with Friday’s 17-13 victory against Kansas City, will make that a top priority, especially when you’re a 10-year veteran tight end coming off offseason surgery and in your first year with your new team.
But Grace, Naomi, Isaiah and maybe even baby Judah Watson, born March 19, the day after Watson signed with the Saints, had other ideas about the Daddy’s day off.
“When he walks through those doors, they don’t know anything about him being a football player or how tired he is,” said Kirsten Watson, Benjamin’s wife of eight years and the mother of their four children. The oldest child, Grace, is only 4. “They’re jumping on him like he’s a jungle gym.
“Benjamin can be exhausted, but he’s always willing to go to the grocery store, cook or just play with the kids. He’s an amazing helper who can do everything but breast-feed.”
Coming to New Orleans, after six seasons with New England followed by three more in Cleveland, is a homecoming for Kirsten Watson.
As Kirsten Vaughn, she grew up in Baton Rouge, where she was a multisport athlete at Episcopal. Her grandfather, Isaac Greggs, was the longtime band director at Southern. Her father, Percy Vaughn, is from New Orleans and a Southern graduate. Her mom, Audree, attended LSU.
Kirsten attended the University of Georgia, where she met Benjamin at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting. They were married after his rookie year with the Patriots.
“Marrying a football player wasn’t on my radar,” she said. “I just wanted to marry a strong man with strong faith in God.
“But our winding up at the same place at the same time shows that God had a plan for us.”
That plan included early on establishing a foundation, One More, a faith-based outreach to assist in food and other aid programs while also spreading the gospel to “just one more person at a time.”
The Watsons have been active in programs in both New England and Cleveland, and Kirsten said the plan is to find local partners in New Orleans as soon as they get settled in.
Meanwhile, Benjamin’s career is entering a new phase.
The first-round draft pick of the then-Super Bowl champion Patriots in 2004, he battled injuries and was a starter in only one of his six seasons there but did play on two Super Bowl teams.
Signing with the Browns in 2010, Watson was the starter for three seasons, totaling 154 receptions, 1,674 yards and eight touchdowns while the franchise went through two owners, two general managers and three coaches, and won only 14 of 48 games.
A free agent again this year, Watson signed with the Saints for a reported $4.95 million over three years, far less than the $12 million he got from his three seasons with the Browns. And instead of starting, he’s Jimmy Graham’s backup.
In that role Friday, he had three receptions for 24 yards.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in Year 1 or Year 10,” Watson said. “It’s all about production and doing what’s asked of you.
“I’ve never second-guessed any of my decisions. Cleveland was where God was leading us, and now I’m at a great place to be at this stage of my life.”
In large part, Watson said, that’s because the Saints represent stability after the chaos of Cleveland.
The Saints have modeled themselves after the Patriots so much that Watson was disappointed that the Sean Payton “Do Your Job” banner that hung in the team’s indoor practice facility had been taken down. He was accustomed to seeing the Bill Belichick duplicate version when he was in New England.
And then there was the Louisiana factor.
The Watsons had already decided that they wanted their next stop to be in the South, preferably with a team that plays in a domed stadium.
That pretty much cut it down to New Orleans or Atlanta, where Kirsten’s parents now live. Rock Hill, S.C., Benjamin’s hometown, is three hours away.
But the Falcons weren’t interested, and so it was the Saints, who were looking to upgrade the backup tight end position after David Thomas had only 16 receptions for 110 yards in the past two seasons.
“We wanted to get back close to home, at least for Kirsten, and to be with a winning team, one with a chance to win a championship,” he said. “The Saints were pretty persuasive.
“For us, it was a perfect situation.”
It is for the Saints, too.
Payton has said he wants to increase the number of two-tight end sets, taking advantage of Watson’s blocking abilities along with his pass catching to create more mismatches.
“Here’s a guy who can block, is a great route runner, a great pass catcher, and who can make plays all over the field,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “He will be a good guy for Jimmy to learn from.”
That’s part of the equation, too.
Although Graham is being touted as the best tight end in the league, he’s still relatively raw and has expressed appreciation for the guidance a veteran like Watson can give him.
“We talk about the fact that I have a wife and four kids and what would that look like for him one day, or maybe not one day?
“When I came into the league, there were guys in New England like Daniel Graham and Christian Fauria who kind of taught me. Obviously Jimmy is a guy who’s athletically gifted and an awesome player, but he wants to know how you take care of your body to stay in the league as long as I have.”
Watson’s leadership extends to more than his fellow tight ends.
He’s a member of the NFLPA executive committee and has represented his team and/or the league on trips to Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan and China.
Saints cornerback Jabari Greer has known Watson as an opponent since the he was at Tennessee and Watson was at Georgia, and then when Greer began his pro career at Buffalo and played the Patriots twice a year.
To Greer, Watson’s becoming a Saint is a major boost.
“Ben is a guy of high moral character,” he said. “We can’t have enough guys like that to provide veteran leadership for our team.
“And then the way he’s performing on the field, having a guy of his ability opposite of Jimmy Graham, it definitely presents a problem for the defenses. We are lucky to have him.”
And while Watson said he considers himself lucky just to still be in the league a decade, he said he’s looking forward to life after football.
This summer, he attended the NFL Broadcast Boot Camp along with 23 other current and former players.
“You learn about how much you have to really prepare,” he said. “It’s just like football — what you see on Sundays is just the tip of the iceberg.
“It’s something I’m definitely interested in down the road.”
But first, Watson wants to extend his playing career as long as possible.
“I remember feeling, like, ‘Man if I can make it five years, I’ll be happy,’” he said. “My first year, I had an (injured) ACL, and I’ve had concussions and ankle injuries and other things.
“But I’ve always believed that where God opens a door, you keep walking through it until it closes and He moves you someplace else. You never know how things are going to work out in the NFL, but our hope is that we’re able to stay here for a long time.”