The following is a conversation between Benjamin Watson, tight end for the Baltimore Ravens, and Cheryl Wetzstein, manager of Special Sections at The Washington Times, about faith, sports, race relations, fatherhood and a Bible verse that has been on his mind for a while. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You and your wife Kirsten were part of Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) growing up. How did those experiences affect you?
A: We actually met at FCA at the University of Georgia. I had been involved with FCA in high school, and so had she. I grew up like an FCA little mascot because my father did a lot of speaking for FCA across the country. I am the oldest of six kids, and we would just get in the car and go to wherever Daddy was going to speak that week, and that would be kind of our vacation. So I grew up in FCA, and later, I transferred from Duke University to [University of] Georgia, and I met Kirsten, who was on the softball team. Part of the reason she wanted to be on the softball team was so she could go to FCA again…. We met, became friends and started dating, and got married in 2005 after my rookie year.
Even now, I do speaking at different FCA events…. For Kirsten and me, FCA has always held a special place in our hearts, both collectively and individually, because of the ministry and the influence they have using sport to spread the Gospel.
Q: It sounds like FCA gave you a community as well as a worldview and guidance on how to live your life — something like that?
A: I always wanted to be involved in sports; I wanted to play college football and move on from there. And to be a kid and go to one of these camps with high schoolers who were much older than me and see them excel at their sport, but also be people of faith — that definitely had a great influence on me.
And then just seeing how sports is kind of a universal language, so to speak, and how people of all ethnicities and backgrounds gravitate to sports … and how, while we’re doing sports, we are using our talents to glorify the Lord and be able to tell people about that.
A lot of times in sports, there’s definitely a community, there’s definitely a camaraderie there. I look at my own locker room now, and we’re guys from all over the place. But because we play this sport, we are able to talk about things like faith and politics and all those types of things from a place of understanding because we have that relationship together. So FCA and other ministries like it have a huge influence, not only on young people but on athletes as they grow older.
Q: As a professional athlete, you’ve been through team changes, great performance days and tough injuries. Can you talk about how your faith has helped you through the highs and lows?
A: I would say [it gives] perspective. I am someone who can micromanage, I am somebody who can really get caught up in his performance. And as an athlete, our performance is judged every singe day. Every single day, we come in and watch the film — what did we do well, what did we do poorly — and sometimes it can have you on an emotional roller coaster if you allow that to define you.
So, understanding who I am in Christ and understanding who I am as someone made in His image, and someone who He loves and who He died for and for whom He made purposes — that gives me eternal perspective.
I understand that this world is, indeed, fading away, and that everything we see now is temporary, even though it seems so important at the time. And much of it is [important at the time], but we have to be able to take a step back and say in the big scheme of things what is God doing here and how can I serve Him?
So it’s given me perspective. Even in times when I’ve been hurt — like last year, I tore my Achilles [tendon] and was out for the entire year. It was hard. I wondered why — after we had moved all the way up here to Baltimore; we didn’t know anybody; my wife had to take care of me, plus five children — and it was a really hard, emotional time for all of us. And we understand that God works everything together for the good. Sometimes that good is not what we want it to be; the good might not be enjoyable. But the good is there because it’s called according to His purpose. You understand that … and so you trust in that.
So, as an athlete specifically, it’s being able to trust God when those injuries happen and to trust Him when you’re at the top of your game and you win championships.
I would also say that it’s given me a proper perspective of myself. One thing I tell a lot of younger players, or players going through injuries, and also players that are playing really well — you’re no more important now than when you’re not playing well. I’m no better person when I’m scoring touchdowns than when I’m not. The way other people treat you may be different, which is nice when you’re doing well. But your inherent value doesn’t change — and that’s important because … this game can be really tough on a young man’s emotions and a young man’s psyche, and it can be very hard to handle sometimes.
Q: You’ve written books on two really important subjects — race relations and fatherhood. What is your current thinking on these issues?
A: I would say both are important to all of us. We are living at a time when a third of our children are being raised without a father in the home, at least not the biological father, and some of them not a father figure at all — not even an uncle or stepparent…
A third of our children are being raised fatherless, and when you look at the ills of society, whether it be incarceration rates or poverty, even obesity and teenage pregnancy, a lot of those things can be directly linked to not having a father in the home. And that’s not to say that if you didn’t have a father in the home, you’re doomed — that’s not true at all — but we do see links [to not having a father in the home].
So that’s something that’s very important to me, and I am challenging men. I’ve been in the NFL with 1,600 men every year for 14 years. I’ve come across a lot of men who are having babies for the first time or maybe for the second time, and guys are scared. I was scared when we had our first; I really didn’t know what to expect, and I needed somebody to encourage me.
So part of my mission in writing the fatherhood book was to encourage guys — [tell them] that they are needed and that they have what it takes, even if they didn’t have it demonstrated to them. And why how they treat their children and, more importantly, how they treat the mother of their children is important because children derive such self-worth from the relationship between their parents…
And, obviously, the other book, “Under Our Skin” — after the events happened in Ferguson, Missouri, a couple of years ago, we all had different emotions. Whatever your ethnicity was, you had a response to it, and I was no different — and I expressed my anger, frustration, my hopelessness and my hopefulness, and eventually my being encouraged because of the power of God to really unite people and to allow people to repent and to forgive. That’s where my ultimate encouragement comes from.
When we look at the landscape today, when it comes to race and those relations and all those things, we are in a very tumultuous time. Speaking with my father, who’s obviously older than me, he said these are the most tumultuous times he’s seen since even the ‘60s.
So, I think it’s important for us to address these issues, and it’s important for us to be able to speak honestly. It’s important for us to listen to one another, and to have empathy, whether you agree or not. That’s the major thing that’s lacking because much of the time we get into a tribal mentality. We always cover for our own and make excuses for our own, but point out what someone else is doing. And I think there’s a balance there that we’re missing.
My prayer for this country … is that we need to be real about it. We need to be honest about our history and about our current situation because of that history. Things are not great for a lot of people. A lot of people are hurting. A lot of people are offended. A lot of people are angry for different things. And the only way we can really solve any of this is to be able to be honest with each other and be able to hold everyone to a standard of justice…
Q: You and your wife Kirsten founded the One More Foundation, which has a Hello Beautiful program for girls. What are your thoughts about those things?
A: The foundation is named One More, and the idea is about spreading the love and hope of Christ to “one more soul” by meeting people’s needs. So we do events providing clothing, shelter, promoting education — my wife and I both are college graduates, so education has always been important to us — and then by partnering with other charities and supporting the work that they do.
In 2009, when we started it, we had the idea that wherever we go, we want to be a blessing to the people around us. And so we have done a few events in every place we’ve been — in New England, when I was there, and Cleveland, New Orleans and now Baltimore. And what we’ve found is that whenever we do some sort of event, whether it’s around Christmas time or Thanksgiving, a lot of times people want to help other people, but they just don’t know how. So we want to be a conduit, to put people in a place where they can serve others.
With the Hello Beautiful program, my wife hasn’t been as active doing this lately with the five kids, but early on, she did a lot of work with young girls on self-esteem, sexual purity, and issues like that … and speaking at conferences. It’s been on hold recently because of the babies, but it’s close to her heart….
Q: Is Hello Beautiful aimed at character education/mentoring or geared toward girls and athleticism?
A: There’s a verse in Psalms that says, “the king is enthralled by your beauty.” This gives the idea that, as women, you are the crown of creation … God created you beautiful. But there’s so many negative images about women and the way women are treated. The idea there is that no, those [negative images about women] are not true. What does God say about you? What is your value to Him? So wrapped in all of that is a self-esteem piece; a self-concept, self-image piece; a sexual purity piece. She would speak to groups of young girls of middle school-high school age [about these important messages].
Q: Last question: I am wondering if there is a particular Bible verse that has been coming to mind in recent days?
A: For the last year or so, Jeremiah 9:23-24. It says, “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom, let not the strong man boast of his strength, or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this: That he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises loving kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth. For I delight in these things.”
So that verse there has resonated with me because in the beginning it talks about humility. It talks about the fact that just because you’re rich or you’re strong or you’re wise, don’t boast in that because you think it’s you. It’s not you. God gives you your wealth, God gives you your wisdom. He gives you your strength. And so if you’re going to boast, boast that He’s done those things for you. It talks about humility. And we were just talking about at the race thing in our country now. Entering into that conversation with humility, I think, will get us a long way.
So, whenever I do something, my goal — even though I am a prideful person — my goal is to be humble. Now that’s not something that I do all the time, but that’s my goal — is for people to say that “that guy’s genuinely humble. I generally feel he puts me before himself, and I can have a conversation with that guy.”
So the first part of the verse is talking about humility. Then the second part of the verse is talking about what God delights in. … For us, it would be kindness in how we can treat people, and justice and righteousness. He said, “I delight in these things,” so those are things that I want to delight in as a person, as a father, as a teammate, as a citizen of this country. I want to delight in those things, and I want to promote those things.
• Benjamin Watson has been with the NFL since 2004 when he was drafted by the New England Patriots. He played with the Cleveland Browns and New Orleans Saints before coming to the Baltimore Ravens in 2016. He and wife Kirsten have five children, and are co-founders of the One More Foundation, aimed at spreading God’s hope and love through service to others. He is author of “Under Our Skin: Getting Real about Race — And Getting Free from the Fears and Frustrations That Divide Us” (2015, Tyndale Momentum) and “The New Dad’s Playbook: Gearing Up for the Biggest Game of Your Life” (2017, Baker Books). Follow him at thebenjaminwatson.com and @BenjaminSWatson.