The announcement was made at halftime of Sunday’s AFC conference championship game between the New England Patriots and Jacksonville Jaguars. Watson joins fellow finalists J.J. Watt, a defensive end for the Houston Texans’ and tight end Greg Olsen of the Carolina Panthers.
A winner will be announced during “NFL Honors,” a prime-time awards show that will air Feb. 3, the night before Super Bowl LII.
“Greg, Benjamin and J.J. have changed countless lives with their generosity and commitment to helping others,” commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement released by the NFL. “As remarkable leaders on and off the field, they personify the character of the late Walter Payton. We commend them for using their platforms to leave a positive impact on communities across the country.”
Watson, 37, made a successful return to the field after missing the entire 2016 season after surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon. In his 14th NFL season, he led the Ravens with 61 catches for 522 yards and two touchdowns.
Watson also continues to be one of the NFL’s most active players off the field. His charity, the One More Foundation, recently partnered with the International Justice Mission, the world’s largest international anti-slavery organization working to combat human trafficking and other forms of violence against the poor.
He traveled to Lebanon in April for a fact-finding mission on the Middle East’s refugee crisis, and he and his wife, Kirsten, went to the Dominican Republic in June, a trip that led to his partnership with the IJM.
The Norfolk, Va. native also hosts or participates in events that help underprivileged families and kids. An author of “Under Our Skin,” a book that is focused on race relations, Watson is also a regular contributor to CNN and Fox News.
“You don’t have to spend much time with Benjamin to understand his passion for serving others,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said in a statement released by the team and league. “He is an exceptional person who has a unique ability to lead, educate and inspire. For him to be honored with this award is outstanding. He never looks for recognition, but he certainly deserves it.”
Watson was the Ravens’ recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award. He also was named the winner of the 2017 Bart Starr Award, given annually to the player who “best exemplifies outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field and in the community.”
Watson, who played the previous three seasons with the New Orleans Saints before signing with the Ravens after the 2015 season, was a finalist for the 2015 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award that was won by former Raven, Anquan Boldin.
Former Ravens center Matt Birk was the 2011 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year.
The winner of the award gets $250,000 donated to his charity of choice and $250,000 donated in his name to expand Character Playbook, a digital course that uses evidence-based strategies to educate students on how to cultivate and maintain healthy relationships.
“We are a brotherhood filled with men of great character, integrity and charity,” Watson said on his Twitter account. “I’m honored to represent all of them, my family and my Savior in joining [Olsen] and [Watt] as a finalist for Walter Payton Man of the Year.”
Watson is a pending free agent. He has acknowledged that he's considering retirement this offseason.
The award, named after the late Hall of Fame running back who starred for the Chicago Bears in the 1970s and 1980s, honors a player's volunteer and charity work, as well as his excellence on the field.