Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Jaylen Watson has grown accustomed to fighting through adversity.
If you’re a reader of Arrowhead Pride, you know about his collegiate journey — and how he had to work with his mom at a Wendy’s, as he was academically ineligible to transfer to USC. Watson would eventually catch on with Washington State, earning All-Pac 12 honors in 2020 and 2021.
The Chiefs hosted Watson on a top-30 visit, but on draft weekend, as he watched general manager Brett Veach take two corners, he began to lose hope that Kansas City would be his destination. But then, in the final round, he saw the Kansas City area code. He was a Chief.
And so the story began. He reported to training camp at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, where, over four weeks, he went from a day-three dart throw by the Chiefs’ personnel staff to the next man up in the defensive back room.
“He had a good camp,” said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid after Kansas City’s 27-24 Thursday Night Football win over the Los Angeles Chargers. “You saw him progressively get better during camp. He played obviously at a high level in college... He’s played against good competition. I think it was probably most of all just his progress that he made in camp. Good size, can run.”
Watson’s improvement during training camp and the preseason saw him climb the depth chart ahead of a fourth-rounder in Joshua Williams. So on Monday of this past week, as first-round cornerback Trent McDuffie was placed on injured reserve, it was Watson — not Williams — who earned the start.
That theme of adversity carried him into the game, at times when he was matched up with a top-20 receiver in the Chargers’ Mike Williams. As part of a nice night for Williams, he got L’Jarius Sneed on a one-handed touchdown grab early in the game. Watson allowed two of his eight receptions.
“I know Mike made a great play on that one, where he kind of one-handed it and got it back up,” said quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who acknowledged that could have rattled the Chiefs’ confidence, but it didn’t. “[Watson’s] a big, tall corner — physical, gets his hands on you, but he’s fast enough to run. He’s someone that’s made plays. Whenever his number’s been called he’s made plays.”
It was called upon again in the fourth quarter, as the Chiefs battled back to tie the game at 17 apiece. At the Kansas City 3 knocking on the door, quarterback Justin Herbert looked to find tight end Gerald Everett.
But it was not to be. In his first NFL start, Watson took the ball 99 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
“We knew that [the Chargers] throw switch routes,” explained Watson. “Justin [Reid], we work together. The ball just ended up in my chest, and I took it home. It was a surreal feeling. [I’m] just so grateful and blessed to be in this position and I didn’t even know what to do when I got in the end zone. That’s why everyone seen me just standing there. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
As Herbert approached him to make the tackle, Watson juked to his right, leaving him in the dust and setting the crowd at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium ablaze.
“We have a rule,” explained Watson. “DBs, you can never get tackled by the quarterback, so that was my first job — making the move on him, then just trying to race to the end zone.”
Kansas City would never relinquish the lead in the eventual win.
“I woke up knowing I was going to get a pick, honestly,” Watson said, as his cell phone continued to buzz with text messages. “I just knew, being a seventh-rounder, having my first start, I was going to get tested a lot. And early. I just felt I was going to get one today, and that’s what happened.”
“That was beautiful,” Reid said of the game-sealing interception.
Jaylen Watson’s 99-yard pick-six is the longest go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown scored by a rookie in NFL history, per @NFLResearch.— Pete Sweeney (@pgsween) September 16, 2022
Watson found out he would get the start in place of McDuffie on Monday morning. That provided 10 members of his family circle to make their way to Kansas City for the primetime game.
The circle included Watson’s mother — his old Wendy’s coworker. If anyone in the world knows the wherewithal it took Watson to make it to Arrowhead Thursday night, it was her.
“[I’m] a very resilient person,” said Watson. “I’ve always been working for what I have. I was never given anything, and I think that gave me an edge on the football field as well, so I just try to carry that edge, show some hunger, show some anger on the football field and let it out on the opponents.
“Every time I step on the field, I’m just super thankful, super blessed to even be in this position that the Chiefs took a shot on me, and I’m super appreciative of that, so I try to take advantage of every opportunity that I’m given.”
As it turns out, Watson has more than just Thursday night’s performance to be thankful for: it is also the perfect weekend to celebrate.
This Saturday, September 17, Watson will turn 24 — the same day another Chief turns 27.
“He has the right birthday,” added Mahomes. “I talked to him, and I’m having a little birthday party on Saturday. I said it’s his birthday party now because of the way he played.”
They sure do have a lot to celebrate.