Back To The Patriots: Ben Watson's Winding Road In NFL Leads To New England Return

SportsPulse: Minicamps are in full swing and training camps are just over a month away. We can't wait, so Lorenzo Reyes picked the biggest storylines we will sink our teeth into this upcoming NFL season. USA TODAY

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Once you leave, you can never come back.

Ben Watson has heard that before. Then he discovered that calling it quits would be easier said than done.

He can’t walk away from football just yet.

Weeks after declaring he was done after 15 seasons in the NFL, the 38-year-old tight end is unretired, gearing up for what already seems to be shaping up as an eventful campaign with the team that drafted him.

“It really was a 180-degree turn,” Watson said during the New England Patriots' minicamp last week.

The reversal is understandable when considering football is in Watson’s blood, so to speak. Many players over the years have professed that even if they have found success in other endeavors, nothing replaces the NFL thrill.

On another level, though, Watson has long struck me as one of the most thoughtful players in the league, a highly respected locker room leader for all the right reasons.

Yet even with all of his experience, Watson, who played last season with the New Orleans Saints, has learned something over the past few weeks about himself and his attachment to his occupation. Like, never mind that “100 percent” retirement. Interest from a handful of teams – including a Patriots team seeking answers at tight end in the wake of another retirement, this time by former all-pro Rob Gronkowski – was enough to prompt him to rethink his desire to play again. 

“Definitely one of those decisions you pray about and talk to your family about,” Watson said, “because this a group decision.”

And it’s an expanding group. With twins born in late April, Watson and his wife Kirsten are parents to seven children.

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New England Patriots tight end Ben Watson steps on the field before the start of an NFL football training camp, Thursday, June 6, 2019, in Foxborough, Mass. (Photo: Steven Senne, AP)

The decision, though, comes with some cost. Watson will be suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL’s policy for performance-enhancing drugs. In a stand-up move, he announced the suspension himself with a detailed statement on Facebook on May 26.

He revealed that he was tested on March 29, nine days after beginning therapy with a banned substance, Bio Identical Testosterone Cypionate.

“I tried to be as transparent and honest as I could about the entire situation,” Watson said. The Patriots were aware of the pending suspension when they signed him on May 10 to a one-year contract worth $3 million with incentives, days after Watson was notified by the NFL about the failed drug test.

“Obviously, I have great disappointment about not being able to play,” he said. “You come to a new place, with new teammates, wanting to earn their trust and contribute early.”

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The circumstances that led to the suspension, though, also seem to validate that he indeed planned to retire. Watson told USA TODAY Sports that until March he had never used the testosterone replacements. He said he sought to replenish himself physically and mentally as he entered the post-football phase of his life. He complied to take the drug test, he said, and didn’t sweat it because he figured he was through with football, anyway.

The episode was just the latest in a whirlwind. He retired and unretired. His family welcomed twins on April 24, the same day that he was drafted No. 32 overall by the Patriots in 2004. And when three African-American churches in Louisiana were burned down earlier this year, he quickly became active in a fund-raising campaign to support rebuilding efforts.

The Patriots, meanwhile, are banking on Watson to ultimately help fill a need.

Watson maintains he isn’t pressured by any responsibility to make up for Gronkowski’s retirement, “None, whatsoever,” he says. But they surely brought him back for a reason. Consider the other tight ends on the roster: Matt LaCosse, Stephen Anderson, Ryan Izzo and Andrew Beck. Who? No-names.

“One thing I learned when I first got here: We all rent our lockers,” Watson said. “That’s what the NFL is all about. You come in, enjoy the ride, play as well as you can for as many years as God allows you, then after that, somebody else will be there.”

Right now, he’s still renting a locker. Returning to New England is like going full circle with his NFL journey. Watson played his first six seasons with the Patriots, then left a decade ago. It’s taking some re-acclimation, like with so much new terminology with the playbook. Most of the players he played with are long gone, while conversation with one of the holdovers – Tom Brady – has another layer that comes with NFL survival. In catching up last week, Watson and Brady noted they both were fathers of 10-year-olds.

“He’s got one older than mine,” said Brady, 41. “And he’s got 14 years of marriage on me, too.”

During the minicamp, Brady’s rhythm with Watson, particularly in the red zone, seemed on the verge of being re-established. Sure, it’s early and the connection won’t pay dividends during the first month of the season. With Gronk gone, whatever and whenever Watson contributes will be needed to supplement the development of the other tight ends.

“That’s got to be a position of strength, even if it’s not one player but multiple players doing different roles,” Brady said. “There were times in my career before where we had similar approaches. No one’s going to make any excuses for our offense…(but) the tight end position’s a big part of our offense and those guys are going to have to do a great job for us.”

Watson has discovered that you can indeed come back – especially when they need you.

Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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Source : https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/columnist/bell/2019/06/10/new-england-patriots-ben-watson-tight-end-rob-gronkowski/1410210001/

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