Justin Watson thought it was just a punt like any other.
The former Quaker, buried on the receiver depth chart for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, trotted out to the field after his team failed to convert on third down against the Seattle Seahawks. Watson hadn’t produced much on offense in the NFL yet, but was carving out a nice role on special teams.
So as he took his position on the inside of the line, he put his head down and prepared to block for a few seconds and then release down the field.
But this was no ordinary punt.
The Seahawks, instead of rolling out their punt return team, left their defense out on the field. So instead of blocking someone his size or smaller, he looked up and saw 6-foot-5, 255-pound former No. 1 draft pick and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. To make matters worse, the All-Pro was in a four-point stance, a position he had found himself in once before.
If blocking Clowney is a nuisance for a 300-pound offensive lineman, then it was a nightmare for Watson.
“[I was thinking] 'this is gonna be it, either I’m gonna stand my ground and prove myself or he’s gonna blow me up and block the punt and that could be it,'” Watson said.
In the NFL, young players often have to prove themselves on special teams before getting a chance to play on offense. But the margin of error on special teams is razor thin, so even one mistake could mean the end of a career. For Watson, his couldn’t end like this, not after the promise he showed at Penn.
While wearing Red and Blue, Watson re-wrote the record books, becoming the all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, and all-purpose yards in the program’s 140-year history. He also set several Ivy League records as he carried the Quakers to two conference championships.
When his storied collegiate career was finally over, he became the first offensive skill player from Penn to be taken in the NFL Draft in 30 years when the Buccaneers made him the 144th pick in 2018.
“[Penn] definitely prepared me for the NFL,” Watson said. “The coaching staff and strength staff are second to none. The rigors of balancing academics at Penn along with football, it’s a lot, so being in that highly competitive environment on and off the field, you learn to just get used to competing for everything all the time.”
In spite of his accomplishments with the Quakers, he rarely saw the field on offense as a rookie, recording only one reception in 2018. He did turn heads on special teams, and it became his calling card for making a living playing football.
So when the snap came and Clowney bull-rushed him, Watson, who had been preparing for moments like this with strength training, ultimately held his ground.
And it’s a good thing he did, because a few weeks later, injuries to Pro Bowl receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin finally opened up a chance for Watson to play on offense. Over the final four games of the season, he logged 14 receptions for 146 yards and a pair of touchdowns, proving that he can compete in the NFL.
This season, Watson will have a chance to do even more. The Buccaneers' third receiver slot is open now that Breshad Perriman left in free agency, so Watson will fight for the spot in the coming weeks.
His main competitors are rookie Tyler Johnson and second-year Scotty Miller. Watson, entering his third year with the team, may be advantaged because COVID-19 has severely limited organized team activities, not giving younger players as much time to learn the offense.
And while a third receiver spot behind two Pro Bowlers is always coveted, it means even more this year because the team has a new quarterback.
In March, Tampa Bay signed six-time Super Bowl champion and longtime New England Patriot Tom Brady, who is widely regarded as the greatest quarterback of all time. Watson, who hadn’t even started kindergarten when Brady won his first championship, has already started learning from the 21-year NFL veteran.
“It’s cool being able to see the work behind all the success,” said Watson. “Everyone sees the championships and the MVPs and the statistics, but not many people get a glimpse behind the door of all the work he puts in and all the discipline that goes into it and all of the details.”
Watson, who worked out with Brady privately this spring, has already begun to develop a connection with the future-Hall of Famer in the Buccaneers' early training camp practices, a good sign for his prospects this fall.
"The guy that's looking really, really good is Justin Watson," said Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians. "He lost 10 pounds and I think he hit 21 miles per hour yesterday out on the field and that's flying. [He] looked way more confident in what he's doing.”
If the early signs are prescient, Watson will make a sizable impact on the field this year. Regardless of his contributions on the gridiron, he has already made a big difference off the field.
Watson’s oldest brother, Tommy, was born with cerebral palsy, a rare congenital disease, and Make-a-Wish granted his family a wish for an above ground pool when he was growing up. Inspired by the joy that the wish brought his brother, Watson has been active in the rare disease community.
Since arriving in Tampa Bay, Watson has spent much of his little free time volunteering with Give Kids the World Village, a handicap accessible fantasy park for children who are wish-eligible from granting organizations. He has also worn cleats supporting rare disease awareness for the “My Cause, My Cleats” initiative.
“I’ve always been so thankful to anyone who’s been able to put a smile on my brother’s face," Watson said. "[Give Kids the World Village] is a place where magic certainly happens, and I think it’s a great cause if anyone’s looking to give back towards rare diseases,” Watson said.
In last year’s preseason, Watson was able to have a special moment with Tommy when the Buccaneers traveled to Pittsburgh, Watson’s hometown, to take on the Steelers at Heinz Field.
Because travel is difficult for Tommy, he hadn’t attended one of his brother’s games since high school. But since Watson was playing locally for the first time in years, he was able to make it to the game and got to go on the field before the game and take pictures with his family.
If things keep trending the way they are now for Watson, there will be a good chance he will have some special moments on the field with Brady and the rest of his teammates this season, too.