Growing up, my father would always tell me to give 100 percent in everything I did. He would say that GREAT EFFORT didn’t require a lot of skill or talent; just a large amount of “WANT TO.” As a child, I took those messages to heart. In high school I would train twice a day, before and after practice in hopes of increasing my chances of realizing my dream of becoming a college football player. “Go get ‘em 54th!” (a reference to the courage and bravery of the African American civil war regiment) became a Watson family mantra to cheer each other on as each of my five siblings confronted the unique challenges of their life journeys. After five years of college football at Duke and the University of Georgia the NFL became an all-consuming obsession and in 2004 my name was called.
Though I was excited to realize my dream my first few years were difficult. Injuries and worry led to anxiety and despair and I honestly wanted to walk away on numerous occasions with so many of my own expectations left unmet. My childhood lesson to Never Quit, along with my pride and stubbornness kept me going even though my spirit at times was broken. With a wife who loved me more than I loved myself, and the work of God’s grace, freedom came and the latter years of my career proved more fruitful and enjoyable than the beginning.
It is my belief that every serious athlete whether acclaimed or anonymous must have an internal fire to be the best they can possibly be. Chasing excellence in every arena of life is what makes the voyage worth traveling. Maximizing one’s individual potential is a worthy goal whether it manifests in honors bestowed or rank and file anonymity. Though winning is always the objective, I’ve learned that HOW these battles are fought is as important as the outcomes.
As a football player, I did not achieve every goal I set for myself. I came up short more times than I would like to count. But I can say, in season and out of season, in wins and losses, after a ruptured Achilles, ruptured disc, torn ACL, concussions, cross country relocations and several other setbacks common to our sport I was never outworked and never backed down from each challenge. The prospect of what could be drove me to keep fighting time after time. Ironically, it was through these cycles of perseverance that God repeatedly showed up and worked in ways I would have never expected, imagined or even desired in my limited mind.
My parents tell me that as a young child I would declare that when I grew up I wanted to be “a football player and a missionary.” For the past 16 seasons God has granted me the opportunity to do both. As I walk beyond the field my sincere hope is that I was a trusted brother and friend to the hundreds of teammates and families I was blessed to share my football life with and that I earned their respect as a player and most importantly as a man. We all have a sphere of influence. Though I fall short, my prayer has always been that I be a wise steward of that influence and that I use it responsibly, impacting lives in my community for good. In life seasons change, yet as we navigate the future that sentiment I will continue to hold on to.
Thank you all for your encouraging words, silent prayers and warm embraces throughout my career. Though I may not meet many of you this side of heaven, my heart is filled with gratitude for you. Thank you, to the wonderful people in the Boston, Cleveland, New Orleans and Baltimore communities who embraced us in your own special and unique ways. Though we came as strangers I hope you understand that we left as friends. I will always hold dear the memories tied to the random acts of kindness, smiling faces, local foods and one of kind experiences we had in each place. I always considered it an honor to represent you, your families and your cities on and off the field of play.
There are several people who I would like to thank and while I have already contacted some of them personally and the following lists are not exhaustive, I want to publicly share some of their names. Countless times my body was broken and these people used their bodies, minds and time to repair me so that I could continue to work and strengthen me to keep me working. Thank you for your dedication to healing my mind body and spirit in your own specialized way: Kerry Manter, Alex Guerrero, Dawn Weeks, Jill Tschetter, Kristen Roden-Hicks, Dr. Rob Lizana, Bridgett Deyarmett and American Back Institute, Haydn Thompson, Dr. Hank Sloan , Dr. Josh Sandell, Sam Bell, Erica Mills, Joe Koudelka, Pete Bommarito, Brian McDonough, NEP CLE NOS and BAL strength coaches, training staffs, doctors and chiropractors. I learned very early that the NFL is a business. Thank you IMG, Pat Dye Jr., and my current agent of 10 years Drew Rosenhaus and RSR for helping me navigate that most important side of this industry.
Midway through my career my wife and I created our own foundation to help us spread the love and hope of Christ through charitable work locally nationally and globally. This initiative along with a growing interest for opportunities outside the game led us on a search for experienced, competent assistance in that area. Thank you Denise White and EAG Sports Management for continuing to be that support and catalyst for us for both charity and publicity. Thank you for always being in my corner. Local and National media are an essential part of what creates the unique bond between athlete and spectator. And while I have many times questioned if the locker room is the proper place for these interviews I respect your work and consider many of you to be friends. In a business that is predicated on deadlines, you have taken the time to learn about me as a person and have highlighted the good works of men in uniform instead of feeding the stereotypes. Thank you for caring.
From the first time I put on a sport uniform, I could feel the unwavering support of my parents and siblings. No matter the place or the time they were always there. Thank you for never changing. Mommy and Daddy, thank you for making an effort to be there, no matter the city, the weather or the decade. I know your prayers have sustained me even at times when I was unaware of your intercession.
There are 32 clubs in the NFL. I have been fortunate enough to work with 4 of the very best. Thank you to the club owners (Kraft, Lerner/Haslem, Benson, Bisciotti), front offices, coaches, PR and community relations departments, equipment, chaplains, culinary, custodian and various support staff who brought their best daily to make my teammates and me successful. You did your job so I could do mine. Thank you for trying to make me the best I could possibly be.
Football is the ultimate team sport because of the men who play it. We laughed together between meetings and on plane rides home. We cried together when games, season and even teammates lives were lost. We held hands and prayed, during baptisms, holidays, marriages, funerals, before and after competition. We battled each other knowing that our best would not only make us better but would sharpen the man across from us. We talked about life, death, parenthood, relationships, race, faith, politics, fear, and the future. We complained when the humidity was unbearable and when the fields were frozen. Thank you to all my wonderfully complex and diverse teammates over the years. A true Brotherhood indeed.
I entered the league with a duffel bag and a dream. I exit holding the loving hand of my best friend, my wife of 14 years, and the 7 tender gifts God has graciously given us to lead and love. They have supported me with all the love a husband and father could wish for and been an anchor of joy and perspective when the waves threatened to wash us away. NEVER underestimate the power of hugs, kisses, letters, pictures and prayers from the ones you love! On countless occasions they have given me the fortitude to face any foe and an unexplainable happiness no matter the circumstance. You wept and prayed when I was injured and celebrated with me when I scored Touchdowns. Kirsten, Grace, Naomi, Isaiah, Judah, Eden, Asher and Levi, with you I am blessed beyond measure. Together, wherever this tightrope leads we will continue to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. I love you and I love Us.
The future is bright.