Benjamin Watson (BBA ’03) and Kirsten Vaughn Watson (BBA ’03) were college sweethearts whose devotion to a service-based life may outshine even Benjamin’s exemplary football career. He’s written a new book, and the family’s foundation promotes charitable initiatives and educational opportunities.
Thomas Edison’s formula for genius was “one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.”
Q: But what, pray tell, do you get when you combine 99 percent inspiration with 99 percent perspiration?
A: Benjamin Watson.
Having recently signed a two-year contract for a reported $7 million to extend his National Football League career to 14 seasons, Watson is best known for his athletic prowess. But the Terry finance grad and former Bulldog star has also become an outspoken media commentator. His new book, "Under Our Skin," explores the topic of race and how and why we all approach racially charged incidences differently.
Co-founded by his wife and former Terry College classmate, Kirsten Vaughn Watson, the family’s One More Foundation is something that is very important to them. The organization promotes Christian-based values through charitable initiatives and educational opportunities.
In recognition of Watson’s work on behalf of others, Southern Living magazine recently named him a Top Innovator, one of the publication’s “56 Inspiring People Bettering the South.”
To appreciate the true extent of Watson’s inspiration and perspiration, there’s no better illustration than the miraculous touchdown-saving play he made in 2006.
Ironically, the play involves another former Georgia great, Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback whose legend as a shutdown defender has been summed up by the adage, “Two-thirds of the Earth is covered by water, the remaining third by Champ Bailey.”
In the third quarter of the AFC divisional playoffs with Watson’s New England Patriots team facing Bailey’s Denver Broncos, Bailey read quarterback Tom Brady’s eyes, swooped in front of intended receiver Troy Brown, and intercepted a pass a yard deep in his own end zone. Bailey is one of the fastest men in NFL history, and all he saw ahead of him as he headed for the opposite end zone was a wide-open sideline and a convoy of his Bronco teammates providing escort.
Bailey streaked the length of the field and was about to score a touchdown when Watson suddenly appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and tackled Bailey just short of the goal line. Replayed time and time again over the years as one of the most selfless, never-give-up plays of all-time, commentators have noted that the 192-pound Bailey covered 100 yards on the play — recording the longest, non-scoring interception return in NFL playoff history. More remarkable is the fact that Watson — a 255-pound tight end who started the play on offense — stalked Bailey for the length and nearly the entire width of the field, encompassing 131 yards of gridiron real estate and making one of the greatest defensive plays anyone has ever seen to this very day.
Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan, a two-time Super Bowl winner, termed it, “the best play I had ever seen since I’ve been in the National Football League.”
But Watson explained it the way Edison would have.
“My college coach used to tell me stuff like that doesn’t take a whole bunch of talent ... it’s just effort.”
Watson is under contract to play a decade and a half in a violent profession with an average longevity of 3.3 years. In support of his career, he and Kirsten and their kids recently relocated to their fourth NFL city.
Along the way, Watson, the person and agent for social change, has become even larger than Watson, the pro athlete. He’s now a trusted counsel for his peers as part of the NFL Players Association Executive Committee. And his sensitive and resolute voice as an author and blogger have earned acclaim for his unflinching analysis of America’s important social issues.
Benjamin and Kirsten, who majored in marketing at Terry, were college sweethearts who sat together at their UGA commencement. Together, they balance the demands of a family with five children with his career in the public eye, plus a charitable foundation they’re both dedicated to. And they do it all with grace and humility.
“We both come from families where service was important and we want that legacy for our children,” says Watson. “It’s a conduit to link the public with charitable causes where they can serve or donate.”
Helping society is what the Watson family’s One More Foundation is all about. One More’s most recent partnership was with the New Orleans Family Justice Center, an organization that teams with community advocates, civic leaders, and the U.S. Department of Justice to provide comprehensive services to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and child abuse. The Watsons held two fundraisers during the past eight months, bringing in $30,000 of support for the organization. Most important, One More helped raised community awareness of NOFJC.
“The public learned that there’s an organization to help them if they need services for their children, a gift certificate to Wal-Mart for necessities, or if they have to go into hiding,” says Watson, whose concern for families transcends his role as a husband and father of three girls and two boys. “It’s important to stand up for those who are largely silent and don’t have a way out. Every person is created in the image of God and should be respected, treated with care and with love.”
Another difficult social ill where Watson’s spiritual compass shines bright is racism.
His book, "Under Our Skin: Getting Real about Race — And Getting Free from the Fears and Frustrations That Divide Us", was born from a Facebook post written the night of Nov. 24, 2014, when a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing 18-year-old Michael Brown. In that post, Watson expressed his anger, sadness, embarrassment, hope — and also encouragement about the race issues still plaguing our country.
“Ultimately the problem is not a skin problem, but a sin problem,” says Watson, who believes it’s time for an honest and healing conversation about race. “It’s not something to be swept under the rug. It has to be addressed head-on if we want to move forward.”
Watson’s Facebook post went viral. Invitations arrived to speak at online forums, youth conferences, public engagements, churches, and universities. He expanded his thoughts in "Under Our Skin," which was published last November.
“It has earned a great response,” he says. “Not everyone agrees with everything, but I think the great thing about the book is that people can find something that they agree with ... and it makes people think.”
Kirsten says a number of NFL players have sought Benjamin’s advice on various matters because they know they’re going to get a real answer.
“He worries and doesn’t want to offend,” she says. “But he’s going to say it in a way so that you see the truth and feel like, ‘Yeah, I deserved hearing that.’”
Watson is a great fit for the executive committee of the NFL Players Association. From working conditions to free agency to aspects of commissioner discipline, he works on behalf of the players union, fielding weekly calls about a variety of league issues.
“We’re the players’ voice to management and the commissioner,” he says. “There’s an excitement when you enter the NFL. Over time, you learn about the business of football and how a number of our rights came through collective bargaining because men stood up for their rights. It takes more than one person to do this work and create change.”
The eldest of six kids, Watson has always considered service an important part of life. Born in Norfolk, Va., his family instilled a strong sense of spirituality in everything he did.
“My dad used to say, ‘Whatever you start, finish it,’” says Watson. “You are going to give 100 percent because you’re not doing it just for yourself; you’re doing it for the Lord.”
The family moved to Rock Hill, S.C., while Watson was in high school. Interested in engineering, he initially chose Duke University for college. But once it became evident that his talent made a football career a realistic goal, he transferred to UGA so he could earn a top-notch education and compete in an elite football program and conference.
“I’m very analytical. I’m a black-and-white thinker, and I love getting a solid answer,” says Watson, who chose to major in finance after he took an entry level class in the subject.
As valuable as his education has been, Watson says the most rewarding part of his college experience was meeting Kirsten. He first saw her at the Tate Center, but they didn’t actually meet face-to-face until crossing paths at Fellowship of Christian Athletes. By that time, matchmaking friends had told both Kirsten and Benjamin that they needed to meet. Northeast Georgia FCA head Jamie Jones was the most adamant.
“She was trying to play matchmaker with us,” says Benjamin. “She even told us to get rid of who we were dating and go out with each other!”
Their first date was at the Snelling dining hall. “And we volunteered a lot,” says Kirsten. “There was a local church ...”
“Christ Life Community Church with Pastor Earl Delmarter,” says Benjamin. “We’d go and mentor kids.”
“We volunteered every Wednesday night,” adds Kirsten. “He would take the boys, and I would take the girls, and we would do a lot of stuff together.”
“Those were our first dates, although we were just friends,” says Benjamin. “After a year, we made it official.”
Kirsten and Benjamin also shared finance classes. Both good students, they approached their studies differently. “Usually, I’d be studying an entire week before a test,” says Kirsten. “He’d sometimes come over the night before and ask, ‘Do we have a test tomorrow?’ He’d do great, but I’d have to work so much harder to get that math. It was so unfair — I mean, I made a better grade, but only by a little bit!”
Watson’s academic prowess should come as no surprise. To assess the overall intelligence of rookie prospects, the NFL administers the Wonderlic. Designed in 1936 to measure cognitive ability on a scale of 0-50, the timed exam was first used to measure Navy fighter pilots’ ability to think fast. The median score for an electrical engineer is 30 ... chemist, 31 ... investment analyst, 27 ... football quarterback, 24.
Watson scored a 48, the third-highest on record.
Defying expectations at age 35, when most players are slowing down, Watson caught a career-high 74 passes last year with the New Orleans Saints.
Kirsten had been thinking it might be his final season.
“Our whole married time has involved football, and I had readied myself for it coming to an end. I experienced this build-up of emotion heading into the final weeks of the season,” says Kirsten. But as she watched Benjamin cap off the best statistical season of his career — including a touchdown reception in the season-ender in Atlanta — she realized football wasn’t over. “He runs off the field and I expected it to be really dramatic for me. I didn’t even shed a tear. I realized that this boy is not done!”
When the Ravens offered Benjamin a two-year deal, Kirsten started packing for Baltimore.
“Let’s be honest ... what is he still doing playing in year 13? He’s not a kicker,” says Kirsten, who shares her husband’s excitement, but maintains a sober outlook about it all. “People tell me he looks great, but that’s Sundays on TV. I’m here for the rest of the week. Monday morning, I see the walk to the bathroom.”
Being an NFL family has its perks but also its challenges — and managing it well is an acquired skill. Through the One More Foundation, the Watsons counsel new families when they enter the league.
“It’s easy to get sucked in to the world of pro football,” says Kirsten, who recommends a conscientious approach to financial management. It’s one of the most important things the Watsons learned at Terry, and they still practice it today. “The best thing to remember is that for most, it’s a career with a very short window. As a family, we try to stay as grounded as possible and live a lifestyle that we can have away from the NFL.”
Kirsten says Benjamin learned early in his career not to bring his work home with him. “It’s what he does, not who he is. When he walks into our house at the end of the day, you wouldn’t know he’s an NFL player,” says Kirsten. “It’s about keeping the noise out. During football season, there is no newspaper around and we don’t watch the local news because you’re never as good — or as bad — as they say.”
Instilling a sense of perspective in their kids is vital.
“We want our kids to experience things that they might not otherwise, but we also want them to understand that how we live is not how everyone lives,” says Kirsten. The Watsons involve their children in their community service to develop this kind of awareness. “We want to help them develop empathy for others from a young age like our parents did with us.”
It also means teaching them that football is their father’s job.
“Staying levelheaded is important. I say Daddy’s at work; I don’t say Daddy’s at football,” says Kirsten, who home-schools the kids, so there’s continuity to their education while the family stays flexible to the realities of NFL life. “Football won’t always be Benjamin’s work.”
It’s a journey that has taught the Watsons to plan ahead when and where they can, but live in the moment.
“In three to four years, we have no idea where we’ll be living, if we’ll have more kids, or what we’ll be doing,” says Kirsten, who sometimes feels anxious but has learned to enjoy the ride. “It has always worked out — and there’s something special to be present where I am.
“We want them to see that, as a family, we look at all of this as a mission. God is sending us to Baltimore. We don’t fully know why, but we’re going to be obedient to that, and we’re going to see what God has in store for us there.”