In his 15-year career in the NFL, Benjamin Watson played for four teams, tallying more than 500 receptions and 6,000 yards rushing, and earned a Super Bowl ring with the New England Patriots along the way.
Throughout his football career, he actively pursued philanthropy, starting the One More foundation, dedicated to assisting those in need, and he worked to end sex trafficking as a partner with the International Justice Mission. For that work and more, he won the prestigious Bart Starr Award for outstanding character and was twice recognized by the NFL as a Walter Payton Man of the Year finalist.
In 2014, he wrote a Facebook post about race relations that drew 44 million views and turned into a book, Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race. Getting Free from the Fears and Frustrations that Divide Us. For good measure, he wrote a second, The New Dad’s Playbook: Gearing Up for the Biggest Game of Your Life, tapping into his experience as a father of five—with twin boys due in May.
With all those accomplishments, it might be expected that Benjamin Watson would deliver a speech about achieving success. Instead, he focused on humility, or as he described it, “putting yourself in your proper place.”
“As an NFL player, people want to put you up on a pedestal, and you can get caught up in that,” Watson said. “We all have the same inherent value. It is easy to say that, but you have to believe that.” Through engaging with one another in a spirit of humility, he said, we can begin to discuss some of the most intractable, emotion-laden issues, such as racism, abortion, immigration, poverty, and sex trafficking.
Watson—who attended NA for one year as a ninth grader and is the nephew of Norfolk Academy Dance Master Elbert Watson—came to the school as a guest of the Norfolk Academy Alumni Association. He spoke to students in grades 9-12, and many alumni were in attendance, as well as members of Watson’s family. He asked members of the Class of 1999 to stand up; that group included Bo Wilkinson and Assistant Director of the Upper School Sarah Goodson.
Watson also gave a shout-out to Claude Diggs III ’98, who was in the audience and played football with him during those NA days. “I was simply trying to make it in the ninth grade football league,” Watson recalled, laughing. “I can still remember going to Fork Union and seeing those guys that looked like ogres.” In those days, he could not imagine that he would eventually play for the Patriots, the Cleveland Browns, the Baltimore Ravens, and the New Orleans Saints.
Although his speech had many humorous moments, all were in service of a serious message aimed squarely at both students and adults: Everyone has a role to play in changing our society. “We are all capable of shaping and molding our culture,” he said. “We all have people we can influence positively.”
He did not shy away from naming the problems that need to be addressed, and many of those have to do with race. He drew on history, quoting Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, noting that “we are still binding up a lot of the wounds of slavery, hatred, and injustice.” He spoke about more recent events, such as the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014—an event that was a “lightning rod” for anger among African-Americans over police shootings of African-American men. Brown’s shooting led to Watson’s viral Facebook post, in which he talked about his own anger, as well as the courage that he finds in his Christian faith to stand up and speak out.
“Racism, at the root of it, is a sin,” he said bluntly. And he called upon his audience to take action to heal the culture, offering concrete steps to take at a person-to-person level. Intentionally develop interracial friendships. Avoid stereotypes and hold others accountable for biased actions or speech. And, he told the students, heed the school’s own ideals, particularly the Honor System and the school’s call to “create a just society.”
“Respect breeds loyalty, and I felt respected while I was here at Norfolk Academy,” Watson said. “I can’t say that for every place I have been. That is why I consider it a second home.”