How a minimum wage fast food job reignited this Augusta-area NFL Draft prospect's hopes

Gabriel Stovall
Augusta Chronicle

From about age five through his senior season at Laney High School, Jaylen Watson played football primarily because it was fun.

That doesn’t mean he didn’t take it seriously. Anyone who’s seen him play knows he plays with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Watson says that comes from years playing recreation league football for the Central DeKalb Jaguars in metro Atlanta. He had to develop that chip in order to stay afloat in an ultra competitive little league scene.

“Every year we’d have new players on the team, so somebody might be a starting player one year and not even start the next year,” Watson. “They treat rec ball real serious in ATL. They treat it like high school football. Every year you had to fight for your spot and never get complacent. Nothing was given to me. I had to work for everything.”

Even when Watson and his family moved from Atlanta to Augusta “around the fourth or fifth grade,” he ended up taking that chip with him. And it’s a good thing he did, because the balance of his career would ensure that success would remain anything but automatic.

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Watson excelled at Murphy Middle School and then attended Curtis Baptist before transferring to Laney for his senior campaign. His only regret? Not coming to Laney sooner.

“I loved playing at Laney,” Watson said. “I wished I would’ve went there straight out of middle school. There were a lot of guys who played before me — great players that I wish I could’ve played with. And then the crowd was great, the alumni support. I wasn’t used to that going to a private school. I still have friends from Laney that I talk to until this day.”

Dreams to reality

He still played the game, largely because he loved it and mostly for fun, with visions of playing big time college ball and making a NFL roster dancing scantly in the background of his mind. But something began to shift in Watson’s approach to the game after his senior season at Laney and following his commitment to Ventura College.

“I always thought I was the best player on the field,” he said. “I stood out. But after my senior year, I really hit the weight room. I’m so competitive, and in high school I was this tall, lanky kid, and I was about to go play with grown men now, and I didn’t want to look like a twig on the field.”

Watson said his weight room grind paid off.

“I bulked up and just got super explosive,” said Watson, now a 6-foot-3, 205-pound NFL Draft prospect. “I felt different just walking around.”

The pay-off on the football field was immediate. In his first game at Ventura, Watson picked off three passes — two of them he took back for touchdowns.

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“It was like everything blew up as soon as I went to college,” he said. "That's when I really began to think that I could play in the NFL."

That explosion included his recruitment. By the time he finished at Ventura, he had played himself into being a 3-star prospect with more than a dozen Power Five scholarship offers.

“All these schools started to hit me up,” he said. “The Alabamas, the Kentuckys, the Georgias.”

He initially signed with the USC Trojans. But just when it seemed like his road to football stardom was smoothing out, an unexpected detour set Watson back. After signing with USC in February 2019, he had to de-commit five months later due to what he simply referred to as “grade problems.”

So in a matter of months, he went from ballyhooed major college football prospect and signee to moving back to Augusta to work at Wendy’s with his mom. To say the sudden change was a culture shock is an understatement. When Watson temporarily lost football, he felt like he lost a major piece of his life.

“It was really hard because I’d been playing football since I was five and just have a tremendous love for the game,” he said. “Football is a safe haven. I didn’t have the best in home life, so when I’m going through family issues or whatever I was going through, when I got on the field, it was my safe haven.”

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Nevertheless, Watson said he appreciated the lessons he learned while working along side his mom for minimum wage. Still, the fast food grind only reignited his fire for the gridiron.

“I was like, ‘man, this is tough,’” he said. “Not actually being able to play football for the first time in 13, 14 years, coming back to Augusta with my (associates) degree and still can’t get a job, it was like real life actually hit me.”

Lessons learned

In the process, he became more appreciative of life. He saw first hand the kind of sacrifices his mom made to give his sister and himself the best life possible. But he also became more determined to maximize his potential to get more out of life.

“Working at Wendy's, I realized I only had two choices,” he said. “Either get my grades right and change for the better so that I could live the lifestyle I wanted to live, or put up with that kind of life I was living for the rest of my life, and it was an easy choice.”

Watson employed that chip on his shoulder — typically reserved for the football field — to help rebuild himself in the classroom. And almost a year to the date that he had to walk away from USC, Watson committed to Washington State, another Pac-12 squad, and began to show himself a viable NFL Draft prospect.

As a redshirt junior, Watson was named All-Pac-12 Conference honorable mention. As a senior, he picked off two passes, had three pass breakups, four fumble recoveries and recorded 31 tackles with 23 solo stops. Watson's combination of athleticism, size and speed has turned heads during NFL Scouting Combine and Pro Day performances.  In his latest evaluation, he posted a 40-yard dash time of 4.51 seconds and a 38-inch vertical.

He’s been called one of the most underrated players in the Draft by many Draft prognosticators, and one who could hear his name called on either Day 2 or Day 3. While Watson says he has no idea who will actually draft him, the Augusta product is confident that hearing his name called is not a matter of if, but when.

“Oh, I’m gonna hear it,” Watson said. “I put the work in and I deserve it. There’s not any luck that went into it.”

When the Draft begins Thursday, Watson said he’s going to take time to relax and be with the ones who have proven to be in his corner through thick and thin.

“I’m going to spend time on the first day going fishing,” he said. “Then I’ll get a cabin and be with my family and the two or three friends that have stuck with me. Like I’ve said before, nobody really believed in me, especially during that year I went back home. A lot of people wrote me off and thought it was over with. But I’m definitely looking forward to being with the ones who supported me from the beginning.”