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Watson proving to be a real catch

DENVER -- Clarice Starling had the screaming lambs; Benjamin Watson the growling bear.

He says it is about doing his best; being the best he can be.

In fact, Watson has a simple philosophy: ''If you're going to do it, why not do it well?"

That is partly why he was always such a good student.

''I figure if you're going to go to class, you might as well make an A."

It is partly why he went from being a high school recruit deemed not good enough to be offered a scholarship by his top two choices -- Virginia and Notre Dame -- to a star at a Southeastern Conference powerhouse.

It is why he went from a nerd, who chose Duke for its engineering program, to a sculpted, first-round draft choice of the Super Bowl champion Patriots.

It is why he was upset that he was given a Super Bowl ring a year ago after missing all but the first game of the season with a knee injury. He wishes he had contributed, like he did last week against Jacksonville with a 63-yard touchdown reception, the longest in Patriots' playoff history, and he hopes to tonight against Denver in a divisional-round game.

''If you're going to play football, why not be the best at it that you can be, and fulfill your potential?" Watson said.

But there is something else that drives the Patriots' second-year tight end. He loves to win.

''He has to win," Reverend Kenneth Watson said of his son. ''He has always been that way. Maybe it's the first-child syndrome, but he's a perfectionist.

''He was always a kid that could make straight As, but if he made a B-plus, that was failure to him. In football, he could catch 10 passes, but if he dropped one, he would only think about the one he dropped."

And he didn't accept losing very well.

When Benjamin was no older than 5, he traded in bedtime stories for a nightly ritual of boxing a teddy bear. The bear, held upright by his father, proved to be a good punching bag.

One night, the elder Watson gave the bear a little more oomph, some movement, some counterpunching, and the bear got the best of the kid. The first loss of young Benjamin's life.

''I beat him down pretty good with the teddy bear," Kenneth said, laughing at the memory. ''I knocked him all over the place. And put him to bed."

But not to sleep. A short while later, Benjamin was outside his parents' bedroom screaming for the bear to come out and take the whipping he deserved.

''That bear is not going to beat me!" Benjamin yelled.

''I had to get up and let him beat the teddy bear before he would go to bed, or there was no sleeping in the house that night," Kenneth said. ''I knew then that he was going to be a competitor. Different."

As Benjamin Watson grew up, many thought he was different. After all, he is the son of a preacher and an honor-roll student.

''It was rough," Benjamin said. ''Preacher's kids usually go one way or the other -- way wild or they follow in their dad's footsteps. Fortunately for me, I had a father who didn't let us get away with anything. You were taught respect and you were taught to be humble.

''That has a lot to do with how I am now, because I'm still scared of my dad.

''I used to get a lot of whippings growing up. Daddy did not play. He was tough, but it kept me out of a lot of stuff. It kept me away from a lot of negative situations. I've seen guys grow up and have all kinds of problems in their lives. I've avoided that and I attribute that to my father and my upbringing in keeping me away from those problems."

Father's footsteps
Kenneth Watson was a defensive end and linebacker for Maryland in the mid-'70s, where he met Benjamin's mother, Diana, a synchronized swimmer.

He started his son in football, was his first Little League coach, but as much as his dad wanted him to be a rough-and-tough linebacker, Benjamin kept showing a knack for catching the ball. By the time the family moved to Rock Hill, S.C., before Benjamin's sophomore year in high school, he had tight end written all over him.

Despite being a football player with tremendous potential, he viewed the sport as a fun game that would help him fulfill a dream: ''To be like my daddy, and play college football." The NFL was never a factor in the equation. Therefore, after Notre Dame backed off him late in the process, and Virginia inexplicably never warmed to him, he chose Duke, a perennial basketball contender but an also-ran in football.

''Football was important, but I always looked at it like something that could be gone at any time, so I wanted to go somewhere to get the best degree," Watson said.

While playing for the Blue Devils (the only true freshman to play in the 1999 season), however, he went to bed most nights having lost to the bear in a 3-8 season.

''I wanted to win. I wanted to compete and play with and against the best," Watson said. ''Once I got there, I loved the school, but I realized I kind of sold myself short in football. I went too far on the academic side and not far enough on the football side."

Enter the University of Georgia. Good football team. Good business school.

Benjamin Watson, the preacher's kid from Norfolk, who couldn't get Virginia to show any interest, was ready to become a star. (Duke, by the way, lost every game in the two seasons after Watson's departure.)

''The biggest thing is that he has his life in order," Georgia tight ends coach Dave Johnson said. ''He has very few distractions and a lot of people can overlook that. When he was here, he had his academics in line, his personal life in line, so when he came to the practice facility, he could focus on being a better football player. He managed his life every day -- physically, mentally, and spiritually. That allowed him to come on as a football player. It's a credit to him and his parents."

Numbers cruncher
Some of the numbers on the 6-foot-3-inch, 253-pounder are difficult to believe. A sub-4.5-second 40-yard dash, a 535-pound bench press, 380-pound power clean, and 40-inch vertical leap, plus a score in the top 1 percent of NFL draftees on the Wunderlich intelligence test.

''I'm not saying it's not true, though I'm not saying it's true," said Watson, who has a degree in finance from Georgia. ''Superman didn't reveal his truths to everybody."

Watson's teammates on the Patriots were impressed with him before he joined the team.

''I saw an interview he did at an NFL rookie symposium, and I saw then that he carried himself well, said all the right things, made sense, and he wasn't cocky, he was very humble," fellow tight end Christian Fauria said. ''Right off the bat I had a lot of respect for him without really knowing him. And he's done nothing to dissuade me from thinking that way being around him the last two years."

The spiritually centered Watson, who got married last July, is also learning from his veteran teammates. In his first full season, he led the tight ends with 29 receptions, 441 yards, and four touchdowns. Among New England receivers with 20 receptions or more, his 15.2 yards-per-catch average was the best. Last week he set the pace for the Patriots with five catches for 91 yards and the spectacular 63-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown.

''Ben, probably more than any other player, has made more improvement over the course of one season than I can remember," quarterback Tom Brady said. ''He's really become a guy that's a playmaker for this offense.

''He missed almost all of last year with his injury and he came back this year and everyone was assuming that he would jump right into it and play at the level he's playing at now, but it's taken some time. He's had to run a lot of routes, practiced a lot. But a lot of that hard work the last few years has really paid off. That play the other night was just an incredible play. We haven't had that happen in a long time."

And Watson is getting better.

''He's starting to get a little bit of a nasty attitude on him," tough guy tight end Daniel Graham said. ''I tell him to keep being physical out there, it's a physical sport.

''You have to remember, this is his rookie year, basically. He's come a long way and has a bright future."

A better blocker than he has ever been, and learning enough about the offense to get on the same page with Brady, Watson is winning fights with Dolphins and Jaguars and Broncos on a weekly basis.

Who knows, maybe in a few weeks he'll whip a Bear in the Super Bowl.

Mike Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.Jerome Solomon can be reached at jsolomon@globe.com

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