- Mike Reiss, ESPN New England Patriots reporter
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Unwinding in his now-up-for-sale Quincy home on Friday night, Benjamin Watson said he was in a reflective state of mind. He didn't have to look far to count his blessings.
His wife, Kirsten, was sitting next to him, Watson said, and his daughter, Grace, who just started walking, was playing nearby. With Kirsten expecting the couple's second child in seven weeks, and Benjamin having finalized a three-year, $12 million contract with the Cleveland Browns earlier in the day, there was plenty to feel good about at that moment.
There was some sadness, too.
Six years after joining the New England Patriots as a rookie out of the University of Georgia, he was saying goodbye.
"For both Kirsten and I, this time in our lives in Boston has been very important to us," Watson said after a whirlwind week that began with a feel-good conversation with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, followed by a trip to visit the Seattle Seahawks, and then the journey to Cleveland.
"We were married while living here, we had our first child, and we're about to have another. We met a lot of great people through our church, the Patriots organization, and Kirsten's work, so there are a lot of good relationships here.
"Six years is a long time. A lot happens over that time, a lot of bonds are formed, so in a way this is bittersweet. At the same time, this is how football goes, how life goes in general. So while in one sense there is definitely excitement to turn the page and be part of the Cleveland Browns, there is also a little bit of sadness because you're leaving some good people."
Up until the moment he signed his name on his new contract, Watson was open to the possibility of staying with the Patriots. His free-agent plan was to go to the team that wanted him the most while offering the best contract and playing situation.
In the end, the Patriots never offered him a deal. He said there are no hard feelings and no regrets, and that his free-agent process began with a meaningful chat with Belichick.
"On the day free agency started, Coach Belichick called me and told me what he was thinking, that the Patriots would like to have me back but they wanted me to go out and see what was out there. They weren't ready at that time to offer me anything," Watson explained.
"They asked us to keep them in the loop and my agent [Drew Rosenhaus] did that. So when Cleveland and Seattle put offers on the table, we let the Patriots know what was happening. They kind of bowed out at that time. They never really offered me anything."
For Watson, the chat with Belichick at the start of free agency provided him closure on the first part of his NFL career, even though he had yet to sign with the Browns.
"It was a good conversation," he said. "It gave me the opportunity to thank him for drafting me and coaching me hard, and trying to make me a better football player."
The 29-year-old Watson was a class act during his time in New England, even if it didn't begin as smoothly as he hoped.
Of all the prospects drafted by the Patriots over the past 11 years, he probably had the most difficult entry of any player because of a contract holdout, an ACL injury his rookie year, and expectations that seemed impossible to meet as a first-round draft choice (even though he was the last pick of the round).
If Watson had been selected one pick later, at the top of the second round, his tenure with the team might be looked at in a considerably different light. Instead, a handful of Friday night Boston-area newscasts dubbed him a player who was a disappointment and didn't reach his first-round potential.
When all the factors are considered, that doesn't seem completely fair. While Watson didn't become the next Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates, and was plagued by drops at times, it wasn't as if he didn't make contributions on a year-to-year basis.
"Everyone's situation is unique and that was the situation I was brought into -- drafted here, 32nd overall, to a team coming off a Super Bowl that had no real need for a tight end," Watson said. "They were offering a six-year contract and that was tough. That was the whole deal with the holdout because it was unprecedented for a guy drafted in that spot to be in a contract that long.
"I don't want to say that was the low point, but it's a tough pill for a young player to understand because you want to play. You get drafted, you're excited, you're going to a great team, and you've worked so hard through the college season and combine. I wanted to play, but I guess that's why we have agents -- to protect us, because as young players we don't really know.
"Needless to say, I held out, the Patriots didn't budge, and I ended up signing [for six years]. As a rookie, you don't have leverage. The only thing you could do is go back into the draft the next year. Those circumstances were tough, and then coming in, I played the first game and tore my ACL. So those were definitely some tough times, but you learn to persevere. You learn a lot of lessons along the way about yourself, about who is important to you, what is important to you, and who you should listen to."
As for the expectations that seemed to hover over him, Watson learned to deal with them better over time with the help of Kirsten. When a college player promises to redefine a position or become a perennial Pro Bowler in the NFL, he is bringing those expectations on himself. Watson never did that.
"A lot of times you hear rookies coming into the league saying what they hope to do, but the truth is they don't know what is going on. For me, coming in, I was just trying to learn what to do, learn where to go. The expectations I had for myself were to get on the field, when I was injured to fight back, to work hard, to play, and to contribute," he said.
"I think there are always things you wish you could have done better. I might have had a great game, but I was focusing more on the one thing I could have done better. That's what makes a professional a professional. That's what makes players last in the league. You're always trying to get better and you genuinely care about the performance. I can honestly say that I think what has happened in my career to this point was what was supposed to have happened."
Watson's time with the Patriots will probably best be remembered for his all-out hustle play in chasing down Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey on a 100-yard interception return in the 2005 playoffs. That play, along with others, has a special place in his football memory bank.
But when he relived the years 2004-2009 on Friday night, it was less about the plays on the field and more about the relationships he formed.
"One of the things I'll always cherish is talking to my teammates. I think of a guy like Sammy Morris. We'd always sit there and talk before every practice, stretching together," Watson said.
"I also remember coming in and looking up to guys like Tedy [Bruschi] and Tom [Brady], meeting those guys and how they accepted me and taught me how to be a pro. There were so many guys over these six years. Chris Baker, Daniel Graham, right on down the line. You always hear football players talk about memories in the locker room, and those, along with playing, make it great. It's important to remember the plays we make and we are a part of, but it's also hanging out with those guys.
"There have been a lot of good memories, a lot of growing up. Looking back on these six years, I see how far my wife and I have come in our relationship, and how now we're entering parenthood trying to do our best. That's a lot of growing up to do. It all happened here."
Since Watson was born in Virginia, grew up in South Carolina, and played college football at Duke and Georgia, moving away from a familiar region contributed to that growth. He joked that one of his biggest learning experiences was dealing with winter snowstorms and unexpected Nor'easters.
The Watsons started their "One More" Foundation in 2008, with a desire to "be a vehicle to carry the hope and love of Christ" to those in communities who need it most. Because of that investment in the local community, it makes it harder for them to depart. At the same time, the Watsons plan to continue with that work in Cleveland.
"We put down the initial roots of our family here and it's always tough to be uprooted and go to another place. That's not just as a football player, but any job," Watson said. "But you always have those relationships that you formed. Now, you look forward to new relationships."
After six years in N.E., Ben Watson is ready for change but not goodbyes.