He wanted to be the best. But even the best was never good enough, and it tormented him.
Posted in , Aug 1, 2013
Brother of 5, father of 4, servant of 3, son of 2, husband of 1. That’s my Twitter profile. It doesn’t say professional football player or NFL tight end. Don’t get me wrong—I’m grateful I can provide for my family playing a game I love. But football is what I do, not who I am.
It took me a long time to truly grasp that. First I had to face down a formidable adversary. Not a future Hall of Fame defensive back, a potentially career-ending injury or even the toughest coach in the NFL. The biggest battle I had was with myself.
My struggle went back to my childhood in Norfolk, Virginia. I grew up in a house full of love, discipline, faith and kids. Mommy stayed home and nurtured the six of us. Daddy, who’d played linebacker for the University of Maryland, was a parole officer and assistant pastor of our church. He expected a lot from us.
“Get good grades, be respectful, do your best and do it for the Lord,” he’d say. Maybe because I was the oldest, I really took that to heart. Especially the part about doing my best. To me, that meant being just like Daddy.
Everyone looked up to him. He was tough, strong, always doing things right. When he stood in front of our congregation and preached, he seemed larger than life. The perfect example of what a man should be.
It’s no wonder I announced at the age of six, “I want to play football and be a missionary.” Daddy and I would toss a football around after school and he’d teach me verses from the Bible. One day he brought home a giant teddy bear, bigger than I was.
“If you really want to play football, let’s practice,” he said. He held the bear up like a fuzzy tackling dummy and urged, “C’mon, take it down!” “Yeah!” I shouted. I ran at the bear and rammed it. We played this game every night. Of course, Daddy was letting me win.
Then one night he used the bear to tackle me. “You’re going to get knocked down sometimes,” he said. “You’re going to lose sometimes. You have to handle it with grace.”
I didn’t. I begged for—no, demanded—another chance. “Daddy, bring that bear back out here!”
“You did your best, Benjamin,” Daddy said. “And that’s good enough.” Really? How could losing be good enough?
Daddy used this opportunity to speak to my soul. “Benjamin, if you were to die tonight, do you know what would happen to you?”
“No,” I replied. Daddy shared John 3:16 with me and then and there, kneeling beside my bed, I put my faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I got bigger, faster and stronger. My competitive drive grew with me.
In 1995 we moved to Rock Hill, South Carolina, where Daddy planted a church and became a full-time pastor. I played varsity football in high school and helped take our team to the state championship game. I went on to Duke, then the University of Georgia, where I majored in finance and played tight end.
That’s where I met my future wife, Kirsten. She was classy, smart, spirited and raised with the same strong values I was. We worked together in youth ministry.
An ankle injury early in my senior season slowed me and I didn’t put up numbers that met the goals I’d set for myself, numbers that would impress NFL scouts. When I got down on myself, Kirsten was the one who picked me up. “Things will happen in God’s time,” she reminded me.
I put my all into training for the NFL combine, which is like a huge job interview where top college players perform physical and mental tests in front of team representatives. I had a strong showing.
The New England Patriots, the defending Super Bowl champions, picked me in the first round of the 2004 draft and signed me to a six-year contract.
My expectations of myself were already high. Playing in the NFL—especially as a first-round pick on the best team in the league—took them to a whole other level. Everyone in the Patriots organization was hungry to get back to the big game. Anything less would be a failure.
Our head coach, the famously intense Bill Belichick, made that clear. He’s 100-percent focused on winning. If you mess up, even in practice, he’ll mercilessly replay your mistake and dissect it in front of the whole team. It was his way of creating an atmosphere of accountability.
But for a rookie who was already scared to make one mistake, it just made matters worse.
As the new kid on the team, I wanted to make an impact. I didn’t get the chance. I’d only played one game when I blew out my knee, ending my season. Frustration at not being able to contribute bled into my personal life. I was a jerk to my parents, my siblings, Kirsten.
The Patriots won the Super Bowl again. I should’ve been happy to get a Super Bowl ring my first year in the NFL—most guys play their entire careers and never get close. Instead, I felt unworthy.
This only made me more driven to prove my worth in the seasons that followed. If Coach Belichick was hard on me, I was even harder on myself.
For every big reception I made that got replayed on the Jumbotron at Gillette Stadium to the roar of 68,000 fans, there were dozens of things I hadn’t done right that replayed in my mind. A ball that bounced off my fingertips. A route that I didn’t run precisely. I’d beat myself up over every misstep.
Sometimes even after I’d made a great play, my hands would tremble. Not with excitement. With anxiety.
I prided myself on my work ethic, yet by my fifth season with the Patriots, I dreaded walking into our practice facility because all I could think about was the mistakes I might make. Here I was, living a life full of blessings, yet I felt weighed down.
Kirsten could see the pressure I put on myself. “It’s not healthy,” she said. “Maybe you should talk to a therapist.”
“No way,” I said. “I’ll talk to you. I’ll talk to God. But I’m not opening up to a total stranger.”
Kirsten tried to make our home a place for me to get away from football and relax. But I couldn’t get away from my issues.
One night in March 2009, I was cooking dinner, something I liked to do for Kirsten in the off-season since she took care of everything around the house during the season. I was trying a new recipe, pan-sautéed chicken with herbs and roasted vegetables. I’d spent almost an hour chopping all the ingredients.
I checked the pan. Half the vegetables had turned to mush! I didn’t have to taste it to feel sick to my stomach. “I can’t do anything right,” I shouted, pounding my fist on the cutting board.
Kirsten rushed in from the den. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”
“I ruined dinner.”
Kirsten unclenched my fist and took my big hand in both of hers. “I think we both know it’s not about dinner,” she said. “It kills you to make any kind of mistake. But what’s really killing you is your perfectionism.”
“You’re right,” I said. “I need help.” I found a therapist, who helped me see that my perfectionism was rooted in my all-out admiration for my dad. I’d put him on a pedestal so high, it was totally out of reach.
“Have you talked to your dad about this?” my therapist asked one day.
That night I called Daddy. I told him how I’d been struggling. “All this time I thought you were perfect,” I said. “I tried so hard to live up to that standard, I was crumbling under the pressure.”
There was a long silence. “I never meant for you to think I’m perfect,” Daddy finally said, his voice choked up. “I try to do things right, but I’ve made my share of mistakes. I’m human, after all. Only God is perfect. He doesn’t require us to be because Jesus was perfect for us.
"When our worth is tied up in our perfection, we are not only fighting an impossible battle, we are turning our back on God’s grace. There’s no freedom in that. He loves us as we are, son. And you’ve done well.”
Hearing that felt even better than shaking off three defenders to haul in a touchdown pass. I’d broken the chains of perfectionism. I was free to take joy again in playing football, in cooking for my wife, in the love of my family, in the life God has given me. And I do, even when I slip up occasionally.
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Benjamin Watson now plays tight end for the Baltimore Ravens.