“You’ve got all different people. Different sizes, different beings. And we’re all not the same. We’re all different in different aspects. That’s what I wanted to touch on.”
Watkins is a master in abstract thought. Some of it is so out there that it’s downright hard to follow.
He’s always been a deep thinker, but it wasn’t until Watkins spent seven months in Orlando from January to July 2017 that he began to really think existentially.
Recovering from his second foot surgery in less than a year, Watkins pored over books and escaped down internet rabbit holes.
He surrounded himself with positive energy, and when he emerged on the other side, he had a new perspective on life — and on his football career.
“Just being down, having all the success and being hurt three years, not leaving the house for like seven months, literally not coming outside the house and just reading books and just staying in the house,” Watkins said, “and then you come back outside the world and you’re like, ‘Oh (expletive).’ What is this?
“If you’re reading stuff and elevating your mind, you’ll definitely see a different world.”
A necessary reset
Sitting in the balcony off his bedroom in his Orlando home last year, Watkins pondered his lot in life.
A star Clemson football player turned first-round NFL draft selection, Watkins was supposed to bring that instant it-factor to a nondescript Buffalo offense when he was taken with the fourth pick in 2014.
And for a while, he delivered.
He peaked during his second season in the NFL, putting up more than 1,000 receiving yards on 60 receptions in 2015.
But in the midst of that near-breakout season, the drama came: his demands for more targets, his public criticism of fans who doubted him, and eventually, his injuries.
The Bills missed the playoffs that season, and a malcontent fan base began lashing out at Watkins.
The 2016 season was even worse. After fracturing his foot in April, Watkins landed on injured reserve in September after a teammate stepped on the surgically repaired foot. He wound up missing eight games and put together the lowest offensive output (430 yards, two touchdowns) of his NFL career.
After that season, Watkins hit the reset button.
He had surgery in January 2017 to insert screws into his previously fractured foot and spent the next seven months in his Orlando home rehabilitating and thinking.
Described by Clemson coach Dabo Swinney as a homebody, Watkins spent most of his time around the house he bought the previous year, splitting his time between his bedroom and the balcony. “Every year I had surgery,” Watkins said. “My first year, my second year, my third year. My third surgery, I was like, ‘I’m going to sit down, I’m not going to mess this up. I’m not going to even walk on it. I’m just going to stay in the bed, stay in the house. Read books and just look up a lot of information.’ ”
He absorbed self-help books, paying special attention to passages that detailed the habits of successful people. He spent time on Google, looking for answers in the search engine.
Anything to promote a positive, unselfish mindset.
“At Clemson, I’m the guy,” he said. “Then I get in the NFL and I’m, like, the so-called bust and I’m getting hurt. You can become a negative person. I was that negative person, just coming to the line like, ‘I’m going to get hurt.’ and then eventually, it happens. I just had to change my whole mindset.”
To complete that process, Watkins had to isolate himself from the outside world. Living with his longtime girlfriend, now wife, and two children, Watkins evaluated his circle of friends. He spent time cocooned in his house, only leaving for doctor’s appointments and quick trips to visit family.
“I just had to get away from everybody,” Watkins said. “You get a lot of money, you get a lot of people coming at you, and as a kid at that time, you go, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ And then you start to say no, and you start to realize, like, ‘Oh (expletive),’ this is real. That’s kind of where I had to get away from everybody. My parents, my cousins, my friends, lost a lot of friends.
“I had to really get back to my old self and stop doing the stuff I was doing. Drinking and everything else. And I kind of found myself.”
Cloaked in a new, positive outlook, Watkins arrived in Los Angeles after a surprise August trade. It was a different environment from the one he left behind in Buffalo. He wasn’t expected to be the guy in L.A., and after seven months of reflection, Watkins was OK with his new role.
He finished an injury-free season with the Rams with 593 receiving yards, eight touchdowns and a playoff berth.
And more importantly, with an unselfish attitude — priming him for his future with the Chiefs.
Swinney still remembers sitting a young Watkins down in his Clemson, S.C., office and launching into the talk that he gives all top targets.
But Swinney was no more than a minute into his seal-the-deal speech when the soft-spoken Watkins interrupted him.
“I’m coming to Clemson, Coach,” Watkins told Swinney. “You can talk to me if you want, but I’m coming to Clemson.”
A little confused, Swinney paused and resumed his speech. But again, Watkins interrupted.
“Oh no, Coach, I’m coming to Clemson,” Watkins said. “This is where I need to be. I know I need to be here.”
Swinney laughs at the memory now.
“I’m like, ‘But yeah, this is really early in the process and you’re going to have this coach and Florida and everybody’s going to be coming.’ He goes, ‘Oh no, Coach, don’t worry about that. I’m coming to Clemson.’ It was done. It was over. He was the most low-maintenance superstar I’ve ever coached.”
The truth is, Watkins made up his mind about Clemson long before he stepped inside Swinney’s office. Growing up in Fort Myers, Fla., Watkins took notice of the orange paw print from a young age.
He watched as fellow Florida natives C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford carved up ACC defenses, and he knew he wanted to follow in their steps long before Swinney tried to sell him on the program.
“Once I saw the paw and orange and going down the hill, I was like, ‘If I get to go to college, I’m going there,’ ” Watkins said. “I made my decision at an early age, when they weren’t even recruiting me. I kind of told them, ‘Man, I’m not going to go to no other visits or anything like that. I’m going to come here.’ ”
That’s just the way Watkins works: He goes with his gut, and his loyalty never waivers.
Watkins’ arrival in Kansas City parallels his recruitment to Clemson.
Over the years, Watkins watched hours of NFL games when he wasn’t playing. He remembers being drawn to the Chiefs, to Reid’s explosive West Coast offense. And when Watkins hit free agency, he already knew where he wanted to go.
“I didn’t know beforehand,” Reid said. “When it came time to talk, I think he got that sense, he had a lot of people tugging on him to go in different directions to other teams. We felt pretty good about it.”
Again, Watkins’ loyalty paid off and he was rewarded with a three-year, $48 million contract in March.
“I was like, ‘Man, if they come at me, this is where I’m going,’ ” Watkins said. “I’m not going to go to Dallas or whoever else is after me. I didn’t tell anyone. I just waited to that time and I was like, ‘I’m going to the Chiefs.’ I told my agent, the Chiefs and leave it at that. I don’t care what they’re giving me. That’s where I’m going.”