How Saints' Benjamin Watson lasted 15 years in the NFL

Throughout his 15-year NFL career, tight end Benjamin Watson has played for four teams, including two stints with the Saints. Chuck Cook/USA TODAY Sports

NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson and his wife, Kirsten, are used to controlled chaos.

If one were to encounter the Watsons and their five children at the airport, one would see a family that operates like a well-oiled machine. The Watsons have made five cross-country moves over the 15 years of Ben's pro football career, so there aren't many things that could throw them for a loop. Ben attributes that to Kirsten, who has been the supportive glue holding the family together.

"Our kids are great when it comes to that and Kirsten is like the queen of organization. We go through the airport faster than a lot of single people. I'm serious," Watson said. "We're like, bam, bam, bam, take your iPad out, do this, do that, keep your shoes on, walk through, and everyone is amazed. It's taken a lot of practice, but I want to say it's a reflection of how we are and just the tone that she sets trying to keep things in order as much as we can with five kids."

Organization and order have been important to the Watsons for the past two decades as they juggled Ben's playing career while raising a family. To be able to make it 15 years in the NFL requires not only a healthy support system, but also a keen attention to detail in a league that demands perfection.

That perfection will be put to the test Sunday when Watson and his Saints teammates host the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game (3:05 p.m. ET, Fox). As Watson prepares to retire at the conclusion of the Saints' playoff run, he had to admit: It's time to let go.

"I'm a perfectionist, I'm a planner, and also a control freak," Watson said. "I love to know what's going to happen and not just fly by the seat of my pants. It is a little exciting, but there's a little bit of anxiety about what's going to happen. ... But I do know that whenever something wasn't for sure, something has popped up, whether it's another city to go play at, or whatever it was. I know there will be something good, I just don't know exactly what it is yet."

The possibilities seem endless for Watson these days. He's already a published author and juggles media appearances and community outreach with family commitments.

"What hasn't he done at this point?" Saints tackle Sheldon Rankins asked. "The only thing that's left is to run for president ... and he'll get my vote."

Watson's natural leadership is evident, which is why a portion of the locker room gravitated toward him in the later years of his career.

"When you look at, obviously the player he's been in this league, for as long as he's been in this league, and then you look at everything he does off the field as far as being a husband, a father, as a leader in the community, a leader of men, you can really go to him about anything, and I think he embraces that," Rankins said. "I think he loves that he's able to impact lives off the field and help grown men become better fathers, better husbands, better leaders in the community. He's been nothing but a blessing to this team."

'I felt like I can't do this anymore'

It wasn't always that way. That Watson made it to a 15th year at a physically grueling position is fairly remarkable.

"Tight ends, they do a lot," Saints left tackle Terron Armstead said. "They have to know so much. ... They're asked to block like linemen and catch like receivers. It's impressive what he's been able to do ... the way he approaches the game, as hard as he prepares. Everything he does for his body, year after year, the injuries he's had."

Watson had his injuries like everyone else, from a torn ACL to a torn Achilles, but it was his own mental struggles that threatened the early part of his career.

"In New England, there were several years that playing there was a struggle," he said. "I remember my fifth year, going to see a psychiatrist because I was struggling. I was borderline, I thought I had some sort of depression. Just mentally, just was having a really, really hard time. I remember going into my last year there, just spending some time getting some mental help, mental counseling, that sort of thing.

"There were times, definitely, I felt like, I can't do this anymore, not just the physical part of it but just dealing with the stresses of performing and all that sort of thing. I would get headaches going to work every day. It was like that sometimes."

Watson, the No. 32 overall pick by the New England Patriots in the 2004 draft, learned quickly things wouldn't come as easily in the NFL as they seemed to at Georgia. That's not only where he met Kirsten, but where he performed well enough over three seasons to cement his first-round draft status.

When Watson was drafted, the Patriots wanted him to sign a six-year deal, unusual for a 32nd pick at the time and not even allowed now because of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement. Watson balked at the demand and held out of a portion of training camp. He eventually caved, feeling he had no other options.

"No 32nd pick had ever had to sign a six-year deal, it was just unheard of, so I hold out for a couple of weeks, they don't budge, I have no leverage, I end up changing agents and signing the deal."

Watsons' teammates openly supported him, but the front office and coach Bill Belichick weren't thrilled with their first-round pick missing 20 practices.

"I remember the first conversation I had with Tom Brady when I got back," Watson said. "I was apologizing for not being there and he was like, 'Dude, you have to do what's best for you, we all understand. We understand what they were trying to do to you.'"

He can't say for certain, but he still thinks the coaches gave him a little old-school retaliation in exchange for the holdout.

"What's funny is I think my first preseason game that I played, was in Cincinnati, and they put me at gunner [on kick coverage]. Now, I was fast, I could run with the little guys for much of my career, before I got old and had all these injuries," Watson said. "But playing gunner is something totally outlandish. ... To this day, I still think it was my punishment for holding out."

The bigger punishment was what happened next. Watson tore his ACL in the Patriots' opener and would have to miss the 2004 season. He watched from the sidelines as the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXIX that season. New England would go to the Super Bowl one more time during his stint there, losing to the Giants after the 2007 season, but he's never had another opportunity to win one as an on-field participant.

An up-and-down time in New England

Watson had a lot on his shoulders as a first-round pick who showed nothing as a rookie. The feelings of inadequacy took hold of him.

"All of this, me trying to prove myself coming back the next year, it just built up and built up and every year, dealing with that atmosphere was just very tough for me to the point where I had to get professional help," Watson said.

Belichick has always been known as a tough coach to play for, and the Patriots' standards were high. Watson's standard for himself might have been even higher.

"It was a combination of my own perfectionism and combining that with a coach in Coach Belichick that is very, very demanding, a guy who will embarrass you if that's what he wants to do," Watson said. "He'll put you on the screen, there's no holds barred no matter who you are, and you combine that with somebody that wants to do everything right all the time, and whenever I do something slightly wrong, I'm very hard on myself. Those two combined, that wasn't a good combination for me to be in a good place mentally."

Little by little, his state of mind eroded over time, and he remembers the tipping point. Watson burned something on the stove and just started yelling, letting his frustrations out. Kirsten told him he needed to get help.

"She was definitely the support and the catalyst for me being willing to even explore speaking to someone just about how I'm feeling. Because again I feel like, I'm a football player, I'm a believer, I'm a Christian, I should just be able to be OK and deal with it," he said. "Part of it was the spiritual side of it, part of it was talking to my dad about some things. ... She definitely supported me and sometimes I would come home and I would be a jerk. I wouldn't be fun to be around because I had a bad day at practice. Or, I had a good day at practice and I was nice to be around. I was just up and down a lot of times during my time there in New England."

Watson slowly began to find the joy in football again. Prior to the 2018 season and through free agency, Watson returned to the Saints -- a team he had played with from 2013 through 2015.

"I had a couple of teams reach out, but I kind of felt like, if I was going to go somewhere, which I knew was going to be another year, year-to-year basically, it would be a one-year deal, I didn't want to go somewhere where I knew no one, where I didn't even know the system. What played into [going back to New Orleans] would be the fact that this was a team I felt would be on the rise and had good prospects of having a good season, which we have had during the regular season. All of that kind of played into deciding to play for one more year," Watson said.

Beyond football and the four teams he played for, Watson's biggest challenge was becoming a father. For the self-admitted perfectionist, fatherhood was the first step to learning to let go of the little things.

Celebrating as a family

Watson still remembers former teammate Tedy Bruschi telling him football couldn't be his whole identity. When he walked through the doors of his house, he had leave football behind for a while. He never forgot that.

"When you walk in the door, you need to be daddy, you need to be a husband. That doesn't mean that the kids don't know your struggles. For example, when I'm going through [physical] rehab, they know I'm going through rehab. They prayed for me every night when I was going through rehab," Watson said.

Watson announced his wife's pregnancy Nov. 4 after catching a touchdown pass in the Saints' regular-season meeting against the Rams. Watson caught a 13-yard score from Drew Brees and put the ball inside his shirt, holding up five fingers on one hand and then two more. He later confirmed twins were on the way, which will grow his family from seven to nine. Ironically, Watson was fined $10,000 for using the ball as a prop after doing the same celebration in 2008 to announce the birth of his eldest child, Grace.

Watson has come a long way from the man who once kept his feelings bottled up. That's why he's happy to try to give advice to his own teammates, even if some are more than a decade younger.

"You've got a brain like that and a body like that, that's been through so many different teams, experiences, life situations, he's like an uncle around here," Armstead said. "People are picking his brain all the time."

When he was a single, 24-year-old rookie, Watson might have wanted to win that first Super Bowl for himself and his own goals. Now, at 38, with the end of his pro career in sight, his perspective has changed.

"I would get so much real joy out of having the family enjoy that experience," he said. "To me, having them enjoy everything that comes with it. Last time I was in it, we didn't have kids. Just hearing them talk about the possibilities and to see their faces if we won the game. To be able to see Kirsten as this whole thing kind of comes to a close and have that moment together, that would be the biggest thing for me.

"I'll be excited to be able to add another Super Bowl and to win another one, like everybody else in the playoffs would be as well, but being able to celebrate that together as a family, that would be the most special part."