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FULFILLING A DREAM

New England Patriots tight end Ben Watson runs downfield during a recent game.
New England Patriots tight end Ben Watson runs downfield during a recent game.

When Ben Watson was 3, about to turn 4, he'd grab a football, sprint into the closet and pull the door closed.

From the darkness would come a tiny voice.

"Announce, daddy!"

Outside the door, Ken Watson, smiling and doing what daddies do, would get on a make-believe microphone.

"Introducing number 24, Washington Redskins tailback, BEN-ja-min WAT-son!"

The closet doors would fly open, and little Ben Watson, football jammed under his arm, would dash around the room, scoring make-believe touchdowns that won the big games.

Daddy would clap and cheer.

"Friends would come over," Ken Watson said, "and we'd have to get him to do it. They laughed with us because it was so cute."

Early this evening, Ben Watson's name will be called for real by the public address announcer at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Northwestern High School graduate will be running onto football's biggest stage.

From dashing out of that closet to Super Bowl XLII.

Watson will start at tight end for the New England Patriots against the New York Giants. New England will be trying to cap the most remarkable season in NFL history.

With a win, the Patriots would become the first team to finish 19-0.

The early years

Like most NFL players, Watson worked his way up from youth leagues to high school to college to the pros.

It didn't hurt he had a father who was a pretty fair player himself. Ken Watson played two years at Maryland on teams that went 19-5 and earned two bowl bids. A linebacker, Watson played alongside future NFL Hall of Famer Randy White.

In college, Ken considered the ministry but majored in criminology.

After college, he worked five years as an inner-city juvenile probation officer in Norfolk, Va., but realized he had a higher calling. He spent three years working with inner-city kids as a staffer for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Ken headed to South Carolina and enrolled at Columbia Bible College, now Columbia International University, where he became an ordained minister. He returned to Norfolk to preach and started inner-city sports programs. But because the pay was low -- it was a small church with two pastors -- he also worked as an adult probation officer.

He started an inner-city football team, and Ben got his first taste of organized football at age 12. His dad was Ben's first tight end coach.

"I was 24 when Ben was born, and football wasn't far in my past,'' Ken said. "Out of our six kids, Ben's the one I spent the most time with outside throwing him the ball. He would have done it around the clock.''

Ben told his dad he was going to be a pro football player and missionary when he grew up.

Ken often came to Charlotte and spoke at the annual Shrine Bowl All-Star Football Game's FCA breakfast and FCA camps. It was on those trips he met Rock Hill businessman Steve Heckard, who played two seasons for the Los Angles Rams and is an active member of the local FCA chapter. He also met Northwestern football coach Jimmy Wallace.

Heckard called Ken out of the blue and asked if he'd consider moving to Rock Hill and planting an outreach church in the Catawba Terrace neighborhood through Westminster Presbyterian Church. Ken talked it over with his family, and the Watsons moved to Rock Hill between Ben's freshman and sophomore years of high school.

"It was all kind of weird because I told Steve that if we moved, we had to have a big house because we had six children,'' Ken said. "He called back and said he found us a house, that all we had to do was pack up and move.

"Ben had played running back as a freshman at Norfolk Academy and did not want to move,'' Ken said. "Matter of fact, nobody did at first, except for me. But we did it, and now we call Rock Hill home. Everyone in the family loves it here.''

A new beginning

Ben was tall but lacked bulk when he arrived at Northwestern High School. He saw right away that he had to get bigger and stronger.

"My dad told me before we moved that high school football was good in South Carolina,'' Ben said. "When we got there and I was assigned to the Northwestern district, I was thrilled that I'd be playing football for one of the top teams in the state that had a tradition of excellence.

"My first year at Northwestern, the bigger players pushed me around. I decided that if I wanted to compete at that level, I had to hit the weight room and do something about it. I pushed myself hard, but I kept getting bigger and stronger, and soon I was able to hold my own.''

His mother, Diana, said she'd tell him to take a break and get some rest. He also played basketball and ran track. But, she said, Ben refused to slow down, was always doing sit-ups in his room, running, jumping rope or lifting weights at the YMCA up the street from their home.

It paid off. Watson went on to become an all-region and all-state performer and played in the Shrine Bowl.

As a senior in 1999, he was named Northwestern's student of the year.

"I pulled out some old files about three weeks ago and one was on Ben, listing him at 6-1, 190 his sophomore year,'' Wallace said. "He knew he had to get stronger, so he dedicated himself to bulk up. Ben is the ultimate role model for kids, not just as a player, but also as a person.

"My understanding is that he scored extremely high on the NFL's intelligence test. But that's no surprise because he comes from a great family. When Ben was in our huddle, we could do so many things. He could play tight end, wide receiver, running back or H-back. In my 35 years of coaching, he's that one player you never dream you'll have.''

Watson was recruited by several major programs and had his pick. There was speculation that he would choose Clemson. To the surprise of many, he picked Duke, not because of football, but because of its academic reputation. Those closest to him understood because Ben was just as proud of his success in the classroom as on the football field.

But Duke football had floundered for years at or near the bottom of the ACC. Although Watson played in all 11 games as a freshman, the Blue Devils went 3-8, and he decided it was time to move on.

He knew if he left, he'd have to sit out a year but was willing to make the sacrifice. It came down to Georgia and Virginia Tech, his dad's favorite because of the Virginia ties.

"Ben loved Duke's campus, his professors and its academics,'' Ken said. "But he was unhappy with football there because he had grown accustomed to winning at Northwestern.

"We really liked coach (Frank) Beamer at Virginia Tech, but when he got through talking, he asked Ben if he had any questions. Ben asked him how many catches his tight ends had the previous season, and coach Beamer said 17 or 18. Ben asked which one, and coach Beamer said, 'Both of them.' ''

The answer pushed Ben toward Georgia and coach Jim Donnan, whose offensive system often included passes to the tight end. Ben was with Donnan one season, the one he sat out, before Donnan was fired after consecutive eight-win seasons and replaced by Mark Richt.

"It bothered Ben,'' Ken said of Donnan's firing. "I told him everything would be fine, that coach Richt was the right fit. I told Ben he'd already transferred once, that he needed to stay at Georgia.''

A good move

Ben flourished at Georgia in class and on the field.

Richt fondly called Ben a freak because of his workout habits and "unbelievable strength.''

Ben won numerous weightlifting awards at Georgia. He benched 570 pounds, power-cleaned 365 pounds, ran the 40-meter dash in 4.4 seconds and recorded a 40-inch vertical leap.

Richt said Watson is one of the strongest players he's ever coached.

"Ben is what a football player should look like,'' Richt said. "He's a special talent and learned how to handle what he was given. That's because of his tremendous character and that he's a man of faith.

"It's amazing to see a player his size with wide-receiver speed. We never thought of moving him there (to wide receiver) because we throw to our tight ends and he's an outstanding blocker. He's strong, powerful and changes direction well -- can keep a defender from turning. That shows what a great athlete he is.''

But there was more than football at Georgia for Ben.

He worked with several community groups, including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It was at an FCA meeting that Ben met his wife, Kirsten, a softball player at Georgia. They were married in 2005.

Family ties

Football coaches often refer to their team as a big family, a group of individuals who learn to work as one and support each other no matter how tough times get.

Ben is a prime example of that lesson. But for him, the family part of life extends well beyond the football field. Ben wears his pride for his family on his sleeve -- whether it's his folks in Rock Hill or the Patriots.

Watson credits his dad for teaching him the importance of family along with several other lessons.

"He told me to treat people the way I'd want them to treat me," he said. "And he said no matter what I do, give it 100 percent. He's a good role model, so when he talks, I listen.''

In spring 2003, Ben was on break from Georgia and in Columbia to watch his sister, Jessica, compete in the Class AAAA track championship. She broke the state record in the 800 meters that day, and Watson was as excited as she was.

By the time Jessica turned the final corner on the last lap, Ben was at the bottom row of the bleachers at Spring Valley's Harry Parone Stadium, waving a towel and yelling words of encouragement.

Most eyes were on Jessica, but others were on Ben leaning over the rail next to the track. He was wearing a tank top. He was sweating. His huge muscles were glistening under the hot sun as Jessica helped lead Northwestern to the school's first girls state championship in any sport.

New attendance lines three years ago put the Watson family in the Rock Hill High zone. During the 2006 football season, Watson showed his dedication to his family.

He was home on the Patriots' bye week to watch his brother, Asa, play football. Watson called Bearcats coach Joe Montgomery and asked if he could wear Asa's away jersey to the game as a show of support.

A Northwestern Trojan in a Bearcats jersey?

Blood runs thicker than rivalries.

"Family values are big for me,'' Ben said. "I have so many good memories of growing up; two loving parents, three brothers and two sisters I'm very proud of.

"Now that I'm gone, I miss all of them very much. But I keep up with them. I take pride in what they have done with their lives. We really are as close as a family can get, and I love them more than anybody else.''

New England destiny

In 2004, family and friends met at the Watson home to watch the NFL draft. Among them were Ben's future wife, Kirsten, and a former teammate at Georgia, then-Miami Dolphins tight end Randy McMichael, and his wife.

As the first round progressed, each pick that didn't list Ben Watson's name brought groans and shakes of every head in the room.

Just before the final pick of the round, the phone rang. New England was calling. If he was still available at pick No. 32, he was going to be a Patriot.

Ben couldn't believe it, saying he wasn't going to celebrate until he saw his name scroll across the TV screen.

When it did, the room was filled with applause, much louder than the claps from daddy when he'd run out of the closet.

"I wanted to be drafted by a warm-weather team,'' Ben said. "But to be picked by New England, the defending Super Bowl team, was very exciting. I'm very happy and fortunate to play for the Patriots. I'm glad the way things worked out.''

Maybe it was destiny.

There is a photo of Ben, when he was 10, and his cousin, Jamel Rigenal, at an amusement park in Virginia.

They had posed for a photo on a sports magazine cover -- the kind of photo that's common in malls and at parks. They chose a football cover and got to pick a team jersey.

Jamel picked the local Washington Redskins. He pulled on a 'Skins jersey and was given a Redskins helmet to hold.

The other choices were limited, and there was no jersey of Ben's favorite team, the Chicago Bears.

He picked the red jersey -- with "Patriots" on the front.

In the photo, Ben and his cousin are smiling, clutching the helmets.

Next to Ben, written in white letters, was:

"Plus: Superbowl Preview.''

"I figured it was only right for Jamel to get first pick,'' Ben said. "I guess if there would have been a Chicago jersey he'd have picked that because Jamel got me pulling for the Bears when I was a kid.

"It was kind of strange because nearly everyone where we lived pulled for the Redskins.

"The New England Patriots? I don't think I even knew who they were back then.''

Today's a little more special for Ben Watson, too. When the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl during his rookie season, he could only watch, sidelined by a torn ACL.

It's special for the family, too

Because his work at Rock Hill Bible Fellowship keeps him busy on Sundays, Ken Watson seldom has the opportunity to watch his son play in person. He catches games on TV when he can and e-mails his son nearly every day.

But Ken, Diana and Asa will be in the stands today.

When the PA announcer yells, "Tight end BEN-ja-min WAT-son on the reception,'' it will be for real.

"I never had aspirations of him playing in the NFL, only that he earn a scholarship and graduate from college,'' Ken Watson said.

"But it was always his dream to be a pro football player, and we are very proud of him. Little did we know ...''

• Position: Tight end

• Height/weight: 6-3, 255

• Born: Dec. 18, 1980, in Norfolk, Va.

• College: University of Georgia; graduated 2004 with degrees in finance and real estate

• High school: Northwestern; graduated 1999

•n NFL Draft: First round, No. 32 by New England, 2004

• Family: Wife, Kirsten; father, Ken; mother, Diana; sisters, Jessica, 25, and Karis, 14; brothers Matthew, 20; Asa, 15; and Joel, 12

• Hobby: Photography

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

• High school: Had 31 receptions for 515 yards and five touchdowns as a senior. ... Named all-area and all-region his junior and senior seasons. ... All-state pick as a senior. ... Played in the Shrine Bowl. ... Helped lead the Trojans to the state championship game his junior year. ... Named student of the year as a senior.

• College: In 37 games (26 starts) for Georgia from 2001-2003, had 65 catches for 852 yards (13.6 avg.) and six touchdowns. As a senior, was a preseason All-American and All-SEC. ... Caught 23 passes for 324 yards (14.1 avg.) and two touchdowns. ... Served as offensive team captain and was chosen second-team All-SEC by The Associated Press. ... Second-team All-SEC by The NFL Draft Report.

• NFL: Has started 23 of 29 games, recording 80 receptions for 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns. ... In 2006, finished second among all Patriots receivers with 49 receptions. His reception total was the highest by a Patriots tight end since 1998, when Ben Coates caught 67 passes. Watson set career highs with seven catches and 95 receiving yards against Minnesota on Oct. 30, 2006.

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