BOSTON (CBS) — It has been a decade since the last time Ben Watson suited up for the New England Patriots, and quite a bit has changed over that time.
The head coach and quarterback are still the same in New England, with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick adding three more Super Bowl titles to their resumes and a lot more knowledge to their playbooks. Watson himself is now an elder statesman of the NFL at the age of 38, and he’s happy to be back where his NFL career started.
“It’s special, it’s surreal, but it’s different. It’s a different year, a different time in my life, a totally different team and totally different situation I’m walking into,” Watson told reporters Thursday following New England’s first practice of training camp. “But to come back and see the fans, to put the jersey back on, it definitely brings back some good memories.”
The Patriots convinced Watson to come out of retirement back in May to help them fill the void left by Rob Gronkowski’s retirement. Watson won’t put up the eye-popping stats that fans grew used to seeing our of Gronk, because really, nobody can. But given his 14-year career, Watson is ready to take on a leadership role in the New England locker room in addition to whatever he can do on the field.
“Everyone is a leader in their own right. Once you’ve played for five, 10, 15 years, you become more and more rare in the locker room. There is a level of respect you’re given,” he said. “But when you put on the helmet and pads, no one can see your gray hair.”
Training camp has changed since Watson first came in the league. He remembers the grueling two-a-day sessions that have since gone extinct, and when players were allowed to hit each other right from the jump. Those changes have certainly lightened the load that comes with training camp, but it’s still no walk in the park.
“Training camp, coach Belichick talked today — it’s not punishment, it’s preparation,” said Watson. “While training camp is tough mentally, physically and emotionally, it’s something that is a grind and a weeding out process. But it’s necessary preparation if you individually are going to perform at your best, and if collectively as a team you want to perform your best.
“I’ll sleep well tonight,” he admitted. “You don’t sleep well the first night because you still have camp jitters. I’m 38 years old, why do I still get camp jitters? You still think about your assignments and how you can improve. Driving over, you know you’re in for the long haul.”
One of the major differences for Watson this time around is his family. The Watsons had just welcomed their first daughter in 2009 — his final season with the Patriots — so he never had a chance to play with her on the field following a practice. Instead, he watched as Patriots veterans Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel spent time with their kids on the field.
Now, Vrabel is in charge of his own NFL team and his kid, the same one who was running around Foxboro 10 years ago, is set to play football at Boston College.
“Time flies,” said Watson.
Watson is now a father of seven and his kids are getting to experience everything that goes with being a member of the Patriots. His kids were one of the big reasons he decided to return to football. It also helped that it was the Patriots that came calling shortly after he hung up his cleats.
“I fought through a lot of adversity, physically and emotionally, and I want to show them how to fight through that,” he explained. “Having an opportunity to be part of a great organization again. When you get older, there are only certain places you want to play. You don’t want to start totally over. Fortunately for me, there was an opportunity to come back here and it played into the decision to keep it going.”
As for catching passes from Tom Brady, Watson can’t wait to get the good times rolling again.
“He is dedicated and makes everybody better. Everybody wants to do well because they know he’s going to bring excellence every single play, every year,” Watson said of Brady. “He’s going to encourage guys and compete in everything we do, every single drill. Whether it’s the offseason program or a Super Bowl, Sundays or in training camp, that’s just the type of players he is.”