At this time last year, tight end Ben Watson was a 35-year-old with a ruptured Achilles tendon who hoped he had not played his last NFL game.
One year later, Watson has returned for his 14th NFL season and has emerged as one of the most reliable, consistent players on a Ravens offense that sputtered in September. He also continues to be a visible face in the national dialogue over racial and social justice issues.
On the field, it's hard to imagine where this Ravens offense might be without Watson after an opening month of the season in which wide receivers disappeared for long stretches and running backs were either losing yardage or the football.
After back-to-back humiliating losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens stood at 2-2 and had the league's lowest-ranked passing attack.
"It's never as good or as bad as you think, even though it's pretty bad right now offensively," Watson said after the 26-9 loss to the Steelers.
"We are going to keep striving forward, we are going to keep pushing. We still have a lot of season left. ... We're not throwing in the towel by any means. We're professionals. Our job is to get better."
Watson's return has been personally gratifying and extremely important to a Ravens tight end group that underwent more than its fair share of tumult during the summer.
During the spring, the Ravens thought they were six deep at the position, including Watson, who did not take part in spring activities while recovering from his injury. But then the others began falling by the wayside.
Dennis Pitta suffered his third serious hip injury and his career is presumed over. Crockett Gillmore suffered a season-ending knee injury. Darren Waller was slapped with a year-long suspension for his second violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. Maxx Williams was sidelined most of the summer while recovering from knee surgery, and then spent much of September dealing with an ankle injury.
The only constants at tight end throughout the first month of the season were Nick Boyle and Watson, who after rattling off a litany of surgeries he's endured during his 14-year career, deemed the Achilles rehab "definitely the toughest."
Watson said that for support and advice during his recovery, he frequently turned to former Ravens receiver Steve Smith Sr., who, like Watson, suffered an Achilles tear in his 30s and returned to action.
Given how much quarterback Joe Flacco relies on his tight ends, Watson's return has been critical.
Through the first five games this season, Watson led the Ravens with 18 catches for 148 yards, with one touchdown. Along the way, he surpassed 5,000 receiving yards for his career, which began in New England in 2004. He spent six seasons with the Patriots, then three with the Cleveland Browns (2010-12) and three with the New Orleans Saints (2013-15).
After his final season with the Saints, in which he recorded career highs with 74 catches and 825 yards, the Ravens signed him to a two-year deal in March 2016. Watson took a pay cut this past summer, dropping his base salary from $3 million to $1.25 million, though he could make that up with incentives.
"He's one of our team leaders, certainly," offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. "We're happy to have him with us, and he's been quite productive, both in line and in the pass game."
In addition to being Flacco's most popular passing target, Watson has been a mentor to young tight ends such as Boyle, who is in his third season.
"It's awesome to be able to learn from him," Boyle said. "He's been in the league forever. Everyone jokes around and calls him the old man because he has so much wisdom, so much knowledge about the game and how everything operates in the NFL."
Boyle added that watching Watson fight back from his torn Achilles to return to the field this year has been "inspiring. ... I would say he must be the best aging person in the world, because you see pictures of him in the NFL from his rookie year to now and he doesn't look like he's aged at all. That's a credit to him taking care of his body.
"He also does a lot a lot of stuff around the community. He's a great example of what you want to be in your life."
As he has done throughout his career, Watson has taken center stage off the field, injecting himself into the national dialogue on sensitive issues such as race and the national anthem protests that roiled the league in late September.
In 2015, Watson published a book on race relations called "Under Our Skin," which evolved from a poignant, 650-word Facebook post he wrote after the rioting in Ferguson, Mo., which occurred after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager. He also wrote a widely shared Facebook essay after the Freddie Gray riots in Baltimore.
Watson, a father of five, also wrote a book on parenting, "The New Dad's Playbook: Gearing Up for the Biggest Game of Your Life," which was published this past spring.
Amid the NFL's anthem protest controversy -- which erupted after President Donald Trump suggested any players who kneel for the anthem should be fired -- Watson took to the national airwaves, appearing on shows such as "Good Morning America" to address the issue.
"I just want to be responsible with the opportunities I'm given," Watson said. "God has given me some opportunities to speak about things outside the game, to speak life, to speak truth, and sometimes these are very tough subjects, but they are subjects we are all dealing with.
"The game is our occupation, but I'm a father, I'm a husband, I'm a taxpayer, I'm an American, so I care about a lot of things outside my occupation. ... A lot of times we see not a lot of kindness both ways, and I think that we can approach some of these things even if we disagree in a way that's respectful to each other."
Issue 238: October 2017