FOXBORO, Mass. — Last Monday, after he cleaned out his locker and exited Gillette Stadium for what might have been the final time, Ben Watson readied himself for the difficult conversation to come.
Months earlier, the 38-year-old tight end had ended his temporary retirement and moved his large family — wife Kirsten and their seven children — across the country to rejoin the New England Patriots, his first NFL employer. He would reunite with superstar quarterback Tom Brady and legendary coach Bill Belichick and, ideally, cap his 16-year career with a Super Bowl title.
Watson knew he’d need to sit out the first four games after testing positive for a banned substance during his brief time away from the game, but he fully expected to rejoin the Patriots in Week 5, bolstering an offense that had gotten little out of its other tight ends in Year 1 of the post-Gronk era.
That now appears to be the Patriots’ plan, as well. It just took a bit longer than Watson had anticipated.
Upon the conclusion of his four-game suspension, Patriots opted not to add Watson to their 53-man roster, making him a free agent and sending feelings of disappointment, frustration and shock through the Watson family. Then, a week later, they reversed course, re-signing the veteran after fullback Jakob Johnson’s move to injured reserve opened a roster spot.
Speaking with reporters Thursday for the first time since his latest return, Watson discussed the emotional roller-coaster he and his family had ridden over the course of that tumultuous week, from breaking the unfortunate news to learning he’d be back with the team after all.
“As players, we go through emotions when we’re hired, fired, we have a great game, we have a poor game,” he said. “We go through all those things. But you also want to protect (your family). So part of the drive home after being fired was, how am I going to talk to my kids about it? How are we going to process this? They had a lot of anticipation, as we all did. And really tell them, ‘Hey, this is a part of pro sports, but it’s also a part of life.’ There’s going to be some disappointment. There’s going to be some victories. There’s going to be some sad times and those happy times. How do you proceed through those things? How do you process that kind of stuff? So we had some tears, and then we had some good conversations that will continue.
“And then, (a week later,) the kids walk into the room. I hadn’t even signed yet. The kids walk into the room, and somebody reported it on TV. And they looked at me like, ‘We’re going back?’ I was like, ‘Well, not yet. It’s not official yet. We’re still working on some things. We’ll see. But it’s a possibility.’ So they’re all excited. But I think the past week was really important for us as a family. I think we grew closer. But we’re excited for what’s to come.”
Among those excited kids is 8-year-old Isaiah, whom Watson said rarely is seen without a football in his hand. His parents are trying to steer him toward a safer sport, like golf, but have had little success thus far.
The subject of Patriots fandom actually was a serious topic of conversation in the Watson household during his week off the roster. Watson said even if New England had not re-signed him, he had no intention of moving his family before the end of the year, which might have made for some conflicted feelings.
“(The kids’ Patriots gear) still fits, because it’s only a week,” Watson joked. “Now, if had been a month before they called me back, they might have needed new sizes. They were happy to pull everything back out. We did put it away for a week. But I told them — and this is part of a father and going through different disappoint and stuff like that — I told them, ‘Look, just because the team fired me or cut Daddy, if you want to be a fan, then that’s fine. I don’t want you all holding whatever feelings me and Mommy have right now. I don’t want that to be your burden, even though you want to defend your father. Look, if a week goes by or a day goes by and the kids at school are talking about the game, I want you to feel OK wearing your (Patriots) stuff.’
“That was a tough moment, but you take whatever’s tough as a father and try to turn it into something teachable and something tangible for them to learn from — and for me to learn from, too.”
From an on-field standpoint, Watson said he feels ready to contribute right away for the Patriots. He’s expected to make his season debut Monday night against the New York Jets.
Thumbnail photo via Zack Cox/NESN.com