All his life, Maryland linebacker Tre Watson has dealt with adversity.
After transferring from Illinois, Watson found his footing at Maryland and led the Big Ten in interceptions and tackles per game to earn First Team All-Big Ten honors. But the Tampa, Florida, native was snubbed of an NFL combine invite come February.
While this may have discouraged many players, Watson is using it as his fuel, just as he has with every challenge life has dealt him through the years. He’s had nine coaches in nine years of high school and college, allowing him to become a master at adapting to unforeseen changes and improbable situations.
“It’s just always been a lot of chaos all the time,” Watson said. “Consistency hasn’t been something that I can find around me, so it’s just been about me finding a way for me to be successful no matter what exterior things are going on around me.”
Watson begged his parents to sign him up for football long before he was old enough to play. Even as a toddler, something in Watson knew football was his true calling.
Watson’s father, James Timothy Watson, played as a defensive back in the NFL from 1993-97, so football was a huge part of their family. As a little kid, Watson and his siblings — Lexi, just 366 days younger, and Christian, less than three years younger — always went with their parents to watch different football games on the weekends, soaking in everything from high school to pro teams.
When Watson was 4 years old, his parents took in their nephews Brandon, 14, and Michael, 17. They both played football, one on the freshmen team and the other on varsity, and the whole family went to every game. At 4 ½, he started to play flag football, finally getting his turn on the field.
“Football started for Tre when sports started,” Watson’s mother Christa Lynn said. “He literally counted down the days until he was eligible to play flag football, and then eligible to play tackle football. And it’s never been backwards since then.”
After a season, Watson was determined to take on tackle football. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t hit people in flag like all the games he had watched up until that point (it’s no surprise he eventually became a linebacker). So at 5 years old, Watson joined an 8-on-8 tackle football team. Watson said he tried every sport a kid could play, but nothing gave him the feeling that football did. He didn’t want to play anything else when the other seasons rolled around, so he played football in the spring and summer in addition to the fall.
The night before kindergarten, Watson asked his mother, “Do you think if I make straight A’s my whole life through high school that I will be able to get a scholarship to college and get my education and play football for the Florida Gators?” She responded with a resounding yes. All he wanted to do was play in college and then the NFL, and he was determined to do whatever it took to get there. Lynn said he got straight A’s all the way from that first year of school through high school.
At age 7, Watson’s team, the Air Raid, which his mom helped run, found its way to the championship game, despite being a new team and having only 11 players. They won it all, defeating a team that no one had managed to beat in recent years.
“For Tre, I think that was the beginning of football being an emotional bond, a brotherhood,” Lynn said. “Like emotional ups and downs, forming relationships for life, the things that sports do that a lot of people don’t really realize unless they played them.”
That year, Watson won what was called the “Lion Heart Award.” Lynn was in charge of making the end-of-season awards, but she didn’t want to be the one to make her son’s — that didn’t seem fair to her. So one of the other moms came up with the distinction, and with the type of player Watson had already proven to be, it was a pretty simple task.
“The way she described it was like, it doesn’t matter where you need him, when you need him, what you ask him to do, if it’s his normal position, he goes out there and he does it with his whole existence every time, and there’s no fear, there’s no nothing,” Lynn said. “Tre has received over the years what will equate to that award on every team he’s ever been on.”
But as he grew older, the first real wave of adversity hit. When Watson was almost 12 years old, his parents divorced and his father suddenly moved across the country. It wasn’t easy. As the oldest, Watson’s siblings looked to him for guidance in an entirely new situation for all of them. He was there for them as any good big brother would be, but Watson himself didn’t even have a grip on everything that unfolded.
“When that happened, I think he dove deeper into [football] than ever,” Lynn said.
An unmatched work ethic
Former Tampa Catholic coach Mike Gregory, who now coaches at Lyon College, can still picture Watson dripping in sweat in the weight room, getting in extra reps long after all of his teammates had left. He’d then watch film in Gregory’s office — it didn’t matter that no one asked him to, he just wanted to do whatever he could to improve on his weaknesses. Watson was always the first one to practice and the last to leave.
He wasn’t a crazy athlete or the most talented on the team, but that work ethic gave Gregory the inkling that Watson had what it took to one day make it to the NFL.
”The way I am as a person about anything, you ask anybody, if I say I’m going to do something, if I’m setting out to do it,” Watson said. “There’s nothing that I’m going to allow to stop me from getting there.”
Watson transferred from public school to Tampa Catholic for his sophomore year to put himself in a better position to get college scholarships. He knew he had to prove himself to his team and make the most of the opportunity.
“I think he felt a little bit like a fish out of water at first,” Gregory said. “That’s something to overcome, plus you’re adjusting to new teammates and guys that have an established culture and established cliques and things like that.”
But he quickly ingrained himself as one of the most reliable options on the team and even became a role model to younger players, Gregory said. In his senior season, Watson totaled 164 tackles, 8.5 sacks, six deflected passes and four fumble recoveries to lead the Crusaders to the 3A state semifinals and a district title. He also played some tight end, tallying 11 receptions for 192 yards that season.
“I just don’t see anyone outworking Tre ever,” Lynn said.
‘Writing on the wall’
When Watson committed to the University of Illinois, it was to play under coach Tim Beckman. Watson redshirted his freshman season, and by the time he was ready to suit up the following year, Beckman had been fired for mishandling of injuries following an external investigation and Bill Cubit was his new interim coach.
Watson didn’t start a game in 2015, but saw action in all 12 for the Fighting Illini. He ended the season with 21 tackles and one sack, earning him the Illinois Defensive Newcomer of the Year award.
But just as he started to find his footing, another coaching change ensued. The university hired ex-NFL coach Lovie Smith and with him came defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson. The new coaching staff brought on Nickerson’s son, Hardy, and suddenly he had the role that Watson had worked so hard to get.
“You’re fighting an uphill battle when get into college and you’re dealing with daddy ball,” Lynn said. “Tre could kind of see the writing on the wall at that point in time.”
Despite feeling pushed aside, Watson found a way to make a huge impact on the field. He only started eight games, but recorded 102 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles to earn an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention.
After Watson’s impressive redshirt sophomore season, he didn’t get the playing time he knew he deserved in 2017. He injured his knee midway through the season, which kept him out for three games. By the time he returned, he wasn’t a priority for the Fighting Illini staff and only started two games. Still, he ended the year with 65 tackles, one interception, two pass breakups and a team-high five quarterback hurries.
At the end of that season, Watson sat down with his coach to figure out his next steps.
“What do you think of my future here?” he asked Smith.
“You already have your degree, we don’t owe you anything more than that,” Smith told him bluntly. “And if you come back, I can’t promise that you’re going to play.”
Around a week later, Watson visited College Park. And after a few visits, he committed to transfer to Maryland for his final season. Former Terps linebackers coach Matt Barnes, who helped recruit Watson and now coaches at Ohio State, just had a feeling it was the perfect fit.
From stardom to snub
After finally getting out of a bad environment at Illinois, Watson was thrown into another tough situation.
On May 29, Watson and his teammates witnessed offensive lineman Jordan McNair collapse during an offseason workout. The redshirt freshman died two weeks later. On top of everything he had already been through in his whirlwind of a football career, Watson had to deal with the tragic death of a teammate, followed by a program in turmoil.
While both the incident and football program were being investigated, DJ Durkin was put on administrative leave, and once again, Watson had a new head coach in Matt Canada.
“Few teams are going to ever have something like what we had happen this year and I hope none ever have to have it again,” Watson said. “[It was] just constant struggle, constant chaos, always looking over your shoulder knowing that you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
But as he always has, he persevered. He ended the season with the best stats of his college career, tallying 104 tackles to lead the Big Ten with 9.6 tackles per game and a conference-high five interceptions — also tied for the most for a linebacker in Maryland history. Watson’s impressive stat line earned him First Team All-Big Ten and Second Team All-American honors. Watson also received the Ray Krouse Memorial Award, given to the MVP of Maryland football — one of four awards he received from the program.
“Coming into the year, expectations for me from the outside were low, but my expectations remained as high as ever,” Watson said. “I hold myself to a high standard, and I feel like this year I was able to accomplish a lot of the things that I know were in my ability to do.”
Since returning home from Maryland on Dec. 16, Watson was determined to do whatever it took to make his NFL dream a reality, pushing himself further than most athletes are willing to, as he always has. He didn’t allow himself to drink any alcohol or eat fried food and limited himself to one dessert a week, insistent on dropping below 10 percent body fat. He even forced himself out of his comfort zone by trying yoga to increase his flexibility and core strength.
But on Feb. 7, the NFL combine released the list of players invited to compete in front of scouts, and Watson didn’t make the cut.
With 37 linebackers invited, it was a shock to many that the First Team All-Big Ten selection wasn’t one of them, including Watson and his family. Six Big Ten linebackers were invited, many of whom’s stats couldn’t even touch his.
I guess being the best in the B1G in two of the most important statistical categories AND being an All American just isn’t good enough to get a combine invite these days— Tre Watson (@MDQue_33) January 29, 2019
After finding out the news, Watson simply texted Lynn, “No combine invite.” A few minutes later, they were talking on the phone.
“I understand that there’s a process,” he told Lynn on that phone call. “But what have I done to anybody over these years that would make someone say that there are  linebackers more talented than I am, that deserve this more than me?”
Lynn knew exactly what to say to get him over the hump, as mothers often do.
“Your path has never been the same, your walk isn’t the same … but you can still get there,” she told her son. “God just gave you three more weeks to get everything you need to get together, to work hard, to prepare some more, and that’s what your going to do … You can absolutely never look back at anything as a negative, all you can do is use it as gas.”
But it was still something Watson really struggled with. When the combine rolled around, Lynn could tell something was up with Tre. She talks to her son every day on the phone and their conversations were shorter than normal.
Those days were tough, but Watson used the pain of not getting the invitation as fuel to prepare for his pro day, still with his NFL dreams in reach.
“Everything adds to the fire,” Watson said. “It’s just another bump in the road.”
The path to the draft
While not getting a combine invite was initially a huge disappointment, it wouldn’t stop Watson from making a name for himself.
A couple of weeks before the combine, Watson’s agent sent the linebacker a preliminary offer from Under Armour. At first, Watson thought it was a joke. Very few players get endorsement deals before the draft, let alone before the combine.
Soon, what his mom describes as a “small truckload” of Under Armour gear was sent to his house. By March 1, Watson was announced as part of the Under Armour team.
“It’s an incredible accomplishment,” Watson said. “It’s something as a little kid, you know, you sit there and dream about getting paid to wear somebody’s clothing and shoes, and that’s just an incredible honor for me and my family.”
Watson met Kendall Ogle, the company’s director of sports marketing for NFL athletes, at a Maryland football awards ceremony in December, and his connection with Under Armour blossomed from there. For the brand, choosing him as a representative was an easy choice, regardless of the combine snub.
“Despite being an elite player, he’s still an underdog with an underdog mentality,” Under Armour representative Matt Whewell said.
Watson took that mentality with something to prove into his pro day at Maryland on March 27. He ran a 4.14 pro shuttle and his 40-yard dash was estimated to be in the 4.73-4.75 range. Watson also went through drills with New York Giants linebackers coach Bill McGovern, eager to show scouts he belongs in the league.
“I [hoped] to show that even though I’m not the freak athlete that a lot of guys want to look at these days, I’m someone who can play the game of football really well,” Watson said at the event. “All the things that I did in the testing and the drills translates into my film, which I’m really comfortable with.”
Since his pro day, Watson has worked out with the Baltimore Ravens and has planned visits with the New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, likely among other teams who have not made announcements yet.
The first visit to the Ravens was a surreal experience for Watson, as he finally got to glimpse everything he’s been working for.
“I got to really taste it,” Watson said. “Being in that facility, looking around, just seeing an NFL environment and knowing that pretty soon I’ll have a home of my own at one of these places, it’s pretty crazy.”
Due to the lack of seven-round mock drafts, it’s hard to gauge where Watson could land in the NFL Draft. But with all the accolades he racked up at Maryland and his recent visits, it’s hard to imagine him going undrafted.
For now, Watson and his family will wait to see what happens next. He’s dreamed of hearing his named called on draft day for his whole life. That moment is almost here.
“We’re this close to the sprinkles on the ice cream sundae for Tre,” Lynn said. “Right now he’s got the three scoops and it’s ready to go, but draft day for him is going to be the sprinkles because this is what he’s prepared for his whole life.”