After signing a two-year deal during the first week of free agency, veteran tight end Benjamin Watson plans to join his Ravens teammates on April 18 for the start of the offseason workout program.
Watson, 35 years old and a veteran of 12 NFL seasons, views it as an important step in his acclimation to a new city and new organization. He wants to use the time to get a better handle of the playbook and gain more familiarity with offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, quarterback Joe Flacco and the rest of his new teammates.
The Ravens signed the tight end for his productivity – he had 74 catches for 825 yards and six touchdowns for the New Orleans Saints last season – and his leadership. Watson has never hesitated to speak his mind both on football and cultural issues. Last year, Watson wrote a book called "Under Our Skin," in which he discussed his experiences and the racial divide in the country.
In a phone interview this week with The Baltimore Sun, Watson talked about his reasons for writing the book, the recent death of former Saints' teammate Will Smith, and his excitement for being a Raven.
BS: You signed with the Ravens a little more than a month ago. Have you had a chance to get to know the organization and the city of Baltimore better?
BW: I would say I probably know the organization better than the city at this point, and that's not very well at all. I'm looking forward to actually getting up there, physically, and being able to explore the city a little bit and also just spend some time with folks in the organization. I had two visits up there: I came up to sign a contract, I met everybody in the building and then I came back to search for a home, which we found a home to rent. We'll be moving up there in a few weeks. I'll be there the next week to start the offseason program.
After you signed came Mike Wallace and Eric Weddle. What do you make of the team's offseason additions?
Those are two guys that I really respect as football players and leaders. Weddle, obviously being in San Diego for so many years, he's a respected guy in this league, and Mike brings a lot to the table as well. I think that the leadership on the team — Coach [John] Harbaugh, Ozzie [Newsome], they do a great job of building talent from within, but also getting other guys from outside that they think maybe can help the team win. I'm excited to play with those guys.
You've been on a couple of different teams. How long does it take to get on the same page with a new quarterback and offense, and will that process be complicated with Joe Flacco still rehabbing his knee?
I'm sure that he'd rather be there rather than not being able to, but I've had an ACL myself, and I know that it takes time. That's why I want to be there for the beginning of the offseason program. The more time that I might spend there, the more time that I'm with him or the other quarterbacks, and with Trestman, and just with the offense in general, the more comfortable I'll be. It's always a process. Even having been here in New Orleans for three years, the third year, you're still learning, you're still getting more comfortable with things. You never really get to the point in any offense – even when I was in New England for six years– where things don't change.
You had a career year last season at age 35. What is the key, in your mind, to keeping up that pace?
It's a combination of things, actually. I've been blessed by God to be able to perform. I've had a number of injuries, I've had a number of surgeries, and I've been able to bounce back from them. I attribute that to Him as much as me just trying to take care of myself as much as I can. I think over the time that you're in the league, you learn what your body needs, you learn the amount of soft tissue work you need, the amount of dry needling or the amount of sleep or your nutrition. You also understand that you have to pull back. At one point in time, you may have been a guy that works out all the time, but now, you need to pick your
spots when you need to work out and when you need to get a little more rest. There are a lot of things that go into, but I think, really, it's a holistic approach. It's really about understanding that football is a very physical sport. You need your recovery, but you also need to be mentally strong. I think over the course of my career, I've gained a lot more confidence and mental strength. I think it's just helped me to continue to perform at this level at this age. Everybody says it's old. It's not really old, but in football years, it's really old.
John Harbaugh talks a lot about having a family environment in the building. You have five kids. Was that one of the attractive things about signing with the Ravens?
I don't know if it was surprising, but I was delighted to hear that. I knew a little bit about it. I know a couple of guys that play for the team; Justin Forsett, to name one. He's told me. I didn't quite know the extent of it, but in talking to Coach Harbaugh, and really being able to sit down and see how the season is playing, I'm excited. The kids are already walking around with their Baltimore Ravens' shirts on, because they know that they're going to have the chance to come and see Daddy at work. When guys know that their families are being taken care of, when they know the organization cares about their family, I think that they perform better and they are healthier mentally. A lot of this game and your performance has to do with your mental health, and where you are when you come to practice every day, when you come to work every day, and when you go to perform on Sundays. I have five kids, so they'll be running around, tearing up stuff and having a good time. I've been fortunate, though. New Orleans was like that. Even Cleveland, to an extent. But from what I hear about Baltimore, I'm really excited, and as a family, I think we'll be very happy to be a part of the organization.
You were in the same 2004 draft class as former Saint Will Smith and you've been a part of the New Orleans community, too. How much did his shooting death over the weekend hit home for you?
I was in a similar accident in September, where I was hit in the back. We were in tight traffic and I was hit in the back and I hit the person in front of me. I don't know all the details – none of us do – about what really happened. But I do know that it could be any one of us at any time. Will, I was drafted with him. We kind of knew each other in passing, and I was here with him briefly on the 2013 team before he hurt his knee. He's a guy that I really respected. He has three kids and as a father, my heart really hurts, and throbs, for those children, and for his wife. Any time anybody loses their life, no matter what the circumstance is, and for something as frivolous as this, if there was an argument or whatever there was, there was no need for anyone to lose their life. It's something in this country that it's saddening and it can be depressing. I really think it's an issue that's larger than just this one incident. It goes down to the human heart. We need to really think about that, because this stuff continues to happen. It's really sad for the Saints' organization. It's sad for the NFL, and his family, in general.
What motivated you to write your book, and why are discussion on race and your experiences, so important for you?
Honestly, a door was open for me to write this book. I didn't see myself ever writing a book about this topic. But after the events of Ferguson, Missouri, I wrote a Facebook post about what happened, and it kind of got a lot of attention. They approached me about writing a book about this topic. Sometimes doors open and you walk through them. When it comes to the topic of race, it's something that's part of the narrative of American culture, and it's something that doesn't appear to be going anywhere. It just keeps coming back in different ways. My goal, as a man, is to engage with what's important to people and what's important to me, but also to try and give light and truth to that issue. With my book, "Under Our Skin," it's about being honest about the topic of race, like brutally, brutally honest in a way that we need to be in order to move forward and get things better. I know it's challenged people to have those conversations. The great thing, when it comes to this topic, everybody has had different experiences, everybody has different ideas. It's important that we're able to listen to each other and not call each other names … and all that other stuff.
Your new NFL home is a city that's still recovering from the riots and civil unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. How aware are you of that situation?
I'm very aware of it. On my website, I wrote a blog about it and I was able to talk on some network television shows about it, even though I was removed from it. I just saw a lot of brokenness. I saw brokenness, obviously in the way things were handled. I saw brokenness in people. There seemed to be a lack a hope for some people. It was kind of like the same thing with Ferguson where you've seen the same thing happen over and over again, and it becomes hopeless. For me, watching the unrest and watching the coverage of it, I was into it. I was watching the footage of what was happening, and my heart went out to the families, it went out to the people who were protesting and it went out to some of the officers who had nothing to do with it, and also the ones that did, and are just trying to find answers for this whole thing. I wrote that night about praying for the city of Baltimore, about the brokenness that I saw, and the fact that you can have hope in Christ to solve these things and to heal people's hearts. It's ironic that I'm able to come to this city, and I don't know what that means or how I can get involved or if I'm going to get involved at all. But I do know wherever me and my family go, we want to be open to helping people in any way that we can, and open to standing for truth on both sides of everything. We want to help people bridge that gap. I'm looking forward to getting involved in that way in Baltimore, as well.