Many NFL players have dealt with injuries and the unnerving experience of becoming a free agent, but Benjamin Watson, a veteran tight end who was recently acquired by the New Orleans Saints, says those experiences have helped him understand what it means to have his identity in Christ and to live within the grace of God.
After a successful college career at the University of Georgia, where he met his future wife, Kirsten, Watson became a first-round draft pick for the New England Patriots in 2004. He joined the team hoping to make an immediate impact, he told The Christian Post in an interview, but was quickly sidelined in his first season when he injured his ACL. The Patriots went to the Super Bowl that season while Watson watched from the sidelines, and his frustration with his injury was reflected in his relationships.
"I was a jerk to everybody. I was a jerk to my family, who came to support me. I was a jerk to my girlfriend at the time, who's now my wife. I mean, I wasn't fun to be around ... because I had everything tied into what I could do, and since I couldn't do it anymore, I felt like garbage, really," he said.
"Honestly, I felt unworthy to be on the team, I felt unworthy for people to support me. I felt unworthy, and it's amazing how God kind of showed me that that's how we act as humans, and that's sometimes how we act in our Christian life. We feel like we have to do certain things in order to earn God's approval. We have to do the right things at the right time. And even though we believe that it's through faith, we also try to do things, because in our life that's how we get ahead."
More recently, he says, he learned through football an important lesson about God's faithfulness. Last season, his last under contract with the Cleveland Browns, Watson tore his quadriceps during the preseason. He was concerned that he would be unable to play and prove his worth, and was again faced with doubt and frustration.
But during a meeting one day, Watson says he began to list all of the times he has come back from an injury during his career. Like the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, he says, he has a tendency to forget how faithful God has been to him.
"We all have faults. We all doubt sometimes, and that's okay, but He's always there. He's always faithful even when we're not," said Watson, who appeared in all 16 regular season games in the 2012 season and finished with 49 catches for 501 yards.
Though injuries are tough to deal with, becoming a free agent is worse, he says. When he became a free agent earlier this year, not only was he waiting to find out if he would get a new job in a new city, but his wife was also pregnant with their fourth child at the time. Although he was only a free agent for a short amount of time before he signed a three-year deal with the Saints, he says two days of free agency feel like "an eternity."
Watson grew up in a Christian household in Norfolk, Va., as the oldest of six children. His father, who is now a pastor and played college football at the University of Maryland, often spoke to young people at Fellowship of Christian Athletes camps when he was growing up.
When Watson was 5 years old, his father would sometimes pick up a large teddy bear and pretend it was boxing with Watson.
"I wouldn't go to bed until I beat the teddy bear, and that's when they knew I was ultra-competitive," said Watson.
One night, after boxing with the toy, Watson's father asked him if he knew where he would be spending eternity. Having been involved in church, Watson says he knew the right answers but had not yet applied them to his own life. That night he repented of his sins and received Christ as his savior, he said.
"So most of my life I've been saved, but it's been a journey of growth definitely ... But the great thing about, I think, being saved so young is that I always had that foundation," said Watson. "And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt whose I am. I know that my true identity is in Christ. And especially playing football there's so many ups and downs, and I'm really hard on myself. I deal with perfectionism all the time. I deal with my self-worth being tied into football, how great I did or how poorly I did, but I understand that Christ says that we're important because he made us and he loves us."
In addition to playing football, Watson and his wife established One More, a nonprofit organization designed to "spread the love and hope of Christ to one more soul," in 2008. The charity achieves its goal by first addressing physical needs and offering enrichment opportunities, such as scholarships, youth football camps and support for other charities. Watson says he hopes the organization will be a part of his legacy, and something that will help teach his children the importance of serving others.
During his interview, Watson also addressed some other sports-related topics, such as the criticism free agent quarterback Tim Tebow has received from some people for so openly sharing his faith. Watson says he supports Tebow sharing his faith, and says the negative response the quarterback has received for doing so is "sad but expected."
"I think as athletes we've been given a platform, and we can use it in a lot of different ways. We can use it for negative. We can use it for positive. We can be indifferent. But if you've been given a platform, I think God is pleased when you share ... His truth in love. I think that's the important part, is to definitely share the truth, but you also want to do it in love so that people aren't totally turned off by what you say," said Watson.
NBA center Jason Collins recently became the first active male athlete from any of the four major American professional sports to announce that he is gay. Afterward, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told NFL.com that if a gay player came out in his league that both teams and fans would likely "respond the right way."
"I don't think it will just be tolerated, I think it will be accepted," said Goodell. "These are individuals who play in our league. We're all different in some fashion, and we're accepting of our differences."
Watson says he has never known one of his teammates to be gay, though he does believe there are gay players in the league.
"I definitely think there are gay players in the NFL, just like there are gay players in law offices, and there are gay players in basketball, and there are gay players in schools," said Watson. So how would he respond to finding out one of his teammates is gay?
"Let's say a gay player on my team comes out and says he's gay," said Watson. "Am I going to treat him any differently? No. Just the same way I don't treat anybody differently who's having sex outside of marriage, somebody who is getting drunk every weekend. I don't agree with any of those things, but I, like them, need salvation. I, like them, am lost without Christ. I, like them, need to be saved from my sins."
Christian beliefs, he later added, are becoming "increasingly unpopular" in the United States.
Watson is entering his 10th season in the NFL. When asked what he was most looking forward to about the upcoming season, he exclaimed, "The first game against the Falcons!" His wife has family both in Atlanta, the home of the Falcons, and New Orleans, he says, and "they're already talking trash back and forth." He's also looking forward to playing in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans because it's loud and exciting, like "a big party."