This story appears in FCA Magazine’s January/February 2018.
This has become a frequent rhythm on social media: Flippantly construct a post with a dash of cynicism or sarcasm (or, if you’re clever enough, both). Swiftly launch it into cyberspace. Anxiously keep hitting refresh to see how many friends, family, acquaintances and friends of friends will deliver affirmation through their thumbs.
Benjamin Watson’s social media rhythm on Nov. 25, 2014 was quite different. He spent that Tuesday shaping his most raw emotions and preciously held beliefs into a passionate proclamation. He needed help to even find cyberspace. And he only really could begin to understand the reach of his words hours later, after he had recharged his phone.
Watson posted a watershed message on his Facebook page the day after a grand jury near Ferguson, Missouri, decided it would not bring charges against a white police officer who had shot and killed an 18-year-old black man.
In 13 NFL seasons, Watson has scored 41 touchdowns for four different teams.
Watson, an NFL tight end for more than a decade, didn’t shy from the anger, frustration, sadness, fear and confusion he and many other Americans were feeling about what was seen as a distortion of justice. But he didn’t end there.
Instead, he signed off by sharing that the only way to truly process Ferguson — or anything like it — was through the prism of the gospel.
“There’s a hunger for an answer outside of the usual pundits that strikes a chord in the human heart,” Watson said, reflecting on the post. “Eternity is in our hearts, and we know this is a problem that is different. People understand there’s not a lot we can do to change the human heart … That takes a divine transformation.”
Perhaps it even takes some divine revelation through Watson, who has seen the gospel ultimately frame his performance, define his purpose, ignite a passion, and provide a sustained platform in his personal journey.
• • •
As a boy, Watson told his mother, Diana, he wanted to be a football player and a missionary when he grew up. That was no wonder considering his father, Ken, played football before becoming a pastor.
Almost every summer, the Watsons loaded up the family car and head off to any number of FCA Camps along the East Coast. Ken was a regular as a platform speaker, and camp was the family vacation. The six Watson kids grew up at havens like Black Mountain, North Carolina; St. Simon’s Island, Georgia; and Kutztown, Pennsylvania. Oversized camp shirts sufficed for pajamas.
“FCA has been a part of my family’s life for a long time,” Watson said.
By the time Watson reached high school, the family settled in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He was a Division I prospect in football and had outstanding grades at Northwestern High.
“I've always seen the hand of God in his life.” — Ken Watson on Benjamin, his son.“In high school, the first thing I would do in the morning was sneak downstairs and see if my name was in the paper,” he remembered.
Watson first went to Duke before transferring to Georgia and having a standout career there. In 2004, he scored a 48 on the Wonderlic test, the evaluation tool the NFL started using in the 1970s to gauge problem-solving abilities. Watson’s mark is tied for the third-highest ever recorded. He was 6-foot-3, 250 pounds and fast, all of which made him a first-round draft pick for the New England Patriots.
That success, however, carried some extra weight.
“I’ve always seen the hand of God in his life,” Ken Watson said of his son. “His work ethic and level of commitment, he’s always shown that. But Benjamin struggled with perfectionism … and in hindsight, I think I played a large role in that.”
Ken and Benjamin have spoken candidly about expectation and performance, and Ken said, “The best thing you can do for your kids is make a mistake.”
• • •
The drive to achieve landed Watson in the NFL — impressive, considering that fewer than 7 percent of high school football players continue into college, and fewer than 2 percent of college players make it to the pros.
Playing for the Patriots and their notoriously driven and focused coach, Bill Belichick, the transition to the NFL wasn’t easy. Watson played in just one game as a rookie before finding his footing — in a few ways — in 2005.
Watson had met Kirsten Vaughn at an FCA meeting at the University of Georgia, and the two got married in the summer after Watson’s rookie year. Kirsten did as much as she could as a newlywed to intentionally create a space for her husband to have balance in his life.
“We wanted to make sure our relationship was not based on Benjamin being in the NFL. That was not going to be how we focused our lives,” Kirsten said. “Even when we were decorating our home after we were first married, we made the deliberate decision to not put anything that had to do with the NFL or the Patriots on our wall or on our shelves.
“You would not know an NFL player lived there. You would know Benjamin lived there … I really wanted him to be able to leave work at work, but when he was home, have that based on who he was as a husband and as a man, but also as a leader in the community.”
Watson soon became an integral member of the Patriots offense, averaging 38 catches and four touchdowns from 2005 to 2007.
FCA Magazine Devotional:
By Benjamin Watson,
My goal every day is to be totally dedicated to the things God is dedicated to. Read more
In a 2007 playoff loss at Denver, he endeared himself to fans throughout New England with a remarkable play. Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey intercepted Tom Brady in the end zone and was seemingly headed for a 100-yard touchdown. Watson, who started in the opposite corner of the field, tracked Bailey diagonally and caught him just before Bailey would have scored.
The following year, Watson was a key weapon on the historic Patriots team that went 18-0 before losing to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
Still, despite whatever celebrity football could have provided, Benjamin and Kirsten continued to strive to keep their lives in perspective.
“There’s not really a balance. It’s not 50-50. It’s 100-100,” Watson said. “You’re 100 percent in your job because that’s what you do to provide and be the best at what you’re doing. When you get home, you need to be 100 percent there. It’s not really a balance; I look at it as being ‘all in’ wherever you are.”
• • •
An NFL locker room is full of opinions. Fans today have greater access to sound bites of their favorite players than ever before, but they aren’t able to see and hear everything. The organic conversations teammates can share before or after practice sometimes are able to remain fairly cloistered.
“If you are who you are, following Christ, you have an opportunity to speak into the lives of your teammates,” said Johnny Shelton, the Baltimore Ravens chaplain who has been involved with FCA for almost two decades.
Those sorts of interactions have always appealed to Watson.
“You have conversations, and you might not agree, but you have a relationship with that person. At minimum, a working relationship, so there’s a respect factor,” he said. “It’s not two people yelling at each other on TV or over social media who really don’t know each other at all. What I like is that you can be brutally honest.”
The Watson family: Naomi, Kristen, Isaiah, Benjamin, Eden, Grace and Judah.
That level of authenticity is probably why his Facebook post in 2014 resonated within the NFL. He was with the New Orleans Saints at the time, and they were playing a Monday Night Football game when the Ferguson decision was handed down, so Watson took the next day to collect and communicate his thoughts.
Amid a culture of increasingly knee-jerk reactions, Watson provided measured compassion and relatable anguish.
“I had a lot of teammates say, ‘That’s exactly what I was thinking; I just didn’t know how to say it,’” Watson said.
He also framed the charged debate as, ultimately, “not a skin problem, but a sin problem.”
The post has since been shared more than 468,000 times on Facebook. The likes and reactions to the post are well above 860,000.
“A lot of it is my upbringing. I grew up in a house where we talked about a lot of things, like race and faith and politics,” Watson said. “While we had strong convictions, there was always a certain respect for people who were different from us, even if we didn’t agree. I learned it was OK to disagree and still have respect and say things in a respectful manner because of their humanity.”
Watson didn’t even know how to use Facebook (his PR agency posted his essay), but literally overnight he had become a social media influencer of exponential proportions. And for a guy who had sought to bring glory to God through football, he was in awe of how God was actually using him to make the name of Jesus famous.
He was a writer, eventually publishing a book titled, Under Our Skin: Getting Real about Race — And Getting Free from the Fears and Frustrations That Divide Us.
He was a popular guest on talk shows and in national dialogue.
He was sharing the gospel in a way that people were listening.
“It’s a great testament to how God works,” Kirsten said. “It just brought both of us to our knees. All of these years, I had been praying for God to be known because of his football, but now God is known because of this Facebook post. It was a really humbling experience.
“God’s plan is always awesome, and how we think it should play out is nothing in comparison to what He can do with something so small, something so simple, something so honest.”
• • •
Watson’s humility, wisdom and authenticity helped make people notice his Facebook post. But in a fleeting, attention-challenged society, even the most poignant voices can be obscured or forgotten.
And just as football has always offered the allure of fame, Watson’s newfound status could have done the same.
“I want to be seen, just like anyone else does,” he said. “And I have to fight against that and say, ‘Am I saying things for me, or because I think this is what people want to hear, or I want my name to be great? Or am I saying something that needs to be said at a certain time?’ It’s important to be faithful and not necessarily be looking for the acclaim of men.”
He has spoken about the protests during the national anthem at NFL games. He has taken a stand against abortion, speaking in Washington in 2017 at the March for Life. And even though he was sequestered for game day this past fall during the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, he took to Facebook again to share his thoughts.
“People are now looking for him to post something. That’s where Benjamin has been very guarded,” Kirsten said. “He’ll say, ‘I don’t want to write just to write just because everyone’s expecting me to write. The Holy Spirit has to move me to put something out there.’
“It’s all rooted in the gospel. It’s all rooted in justice, whether that’s for women or for unborn babies or for black men. Whatever group he’s choosing to speak on, it’s all rooted in the gospel, rooted in love, rooted in truth.”
Not everyone sees it that way. It doesn’t take long to scroll through Twitter mentions of Watson to find a common refrain: “Stick to sports.” There is no shortage of people who think athletes shouldn’t use their platform to speak on social issues.
“He plays football. That’s what he does, not who he is,” Kirsten said. “Who he is matters more to me than what he does … These people are sons and fathers and husbands. To me, you’re taking away a majority of Benjamin if you tell him to just play football.”
"We do want our children to be like arrows and to be shot out as world-changers and culture-changers." — Benjamin WatsonCloser to home, the Watsons’ five children — Grace, Naomi, Isaiah, Judah and Eden — were in a suite earlier this season when Watson and his Ravens teammates took a knee before a game and then rose for the playing of the national anthem. The kids heard their father getting booed.
Benjamin and Kirsten see those moments as opportunities to again point their family conversations back to Jesus’ work on the cross. Ultimately, they want their children to let the Holy Spirit guide their thoughts and decisions, much like Watson did when he originally spoke the truth of the gospel on social media more than three years ago.
“We do want our children to be like arrows and to be shot out as world-changers and culture-changers,” Watson said. “We can’t save our kids, and there’s no magic formula that if we do X, Y and Z, our kids will be believers … But as parents, we want to grow them up and teach them to love the Lord with the hopes that they make a decision for Him.”
FCA Magazine Devotional
By Benjamin Watson, Baltimore Ravens
“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” — Jeremiah 29:13 (NIV)
Every athlete, no matter the level, understands the concept of dedication. In sports, it’s that “all in” mentality of pursuing a goal with everything you have. Whether it’s earning a spot on the roster, being the best at your position, or helping your team win a championship, you commit the time and make sacrifices to make it happen. You have to do things when you don’t feel like it, like when you’re hurt or tired. You have to give up certain things and avoid people and places that will distract you from the goal.
Even outside the world of sports, we’re all dedicated to something. It could be a spouse, a relationship, a job, a cause, a goal or an idea. Whatever it is, our dedication is reflected in how we manage our time, our money, and in the things we watch or read.
Quite often, though, we can be most dedicated to ourselves. If I’m being totally transparent, that’s true of me a lot of times in my life. I hate to admit it, but oftentimes I’m looking out only for myself, which leads to my typical convictions of, “That was a selfish decision,” or, “I’m obviously more worried about myself right now.”
As a believer, though, my goal every day is to be totally dedicated to the things God is dedicated to. Through time spent reading His Word and connecting with Him in prayer, I know I can be focused on loving and serving others and getting to know God in deeper and more intimate ways.
The best part is, through a dedicated relationship with Him, all other commitments in my life are transformed. I want to love my wife well. I want to lead, guide and direct the family God has given me in a way that honors Him above all else. And I want to be committed to my job as a professional football player, doing what it takes to perform at my best and help my team.
Away from the game, I want to be about what I believe God is about. As it says in Jeremiah 9, God delights in kindness and justice and righteousness. I want to share His kindness, while simultaneously showing respect to people who disagree with me. I want to speak life to people, showing them loving truth in a way that confirms their God-given dignity.
As believers, we should be dedicated to living our lives as closely to God’s Word as possible and becoming more like Christ every day. When we do, our sinful human nature is crucified with Him. It’s no longer us living; it’s Him living through us (Galatians 2:20).
The death of our selfish desires transforms us into a new creation in Him. The old things are gone, and everything becomes new when we dedicate ourselves to Christ. We are no longer what we were before; our desires change, and the things we delight in change.
True faith and dedication to Christ is transforming. Everything you do, say and see will be done through a different worldview. That paradigm shift in your mind will help you view all things as Christ sees them—cultural and social issues, family, occupation, leisure, whatever it may be. It’s through that lens that your life will be forever changed as you pursue Him with all you have.
• What are you most dedicated to in your life?
• How does your dedication to Christ impact all other areas of your life, including your sport?
• Who is someone you could share this message with as an encouragement to grow in their dedication to Christ?
2 Corinthians 5:17
Heavenly Father, You know my heart and my every thought. You know in what and in whom my deepest dedication lies. I pray that through Your power, I would throw aside anything keeping me from pursuing You with everything I have. Let the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection transform my life. Give me the eyes to see this world as You see it, that I may be completely changed from the inside out. Amen.
Photos courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens and Benjamin Watson.