On Jan. 1, former Azusa Pacific running back Terrell Watson played in his first career game in the National Football League (NFL) for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Watson finished his New Year’s Day debut by rushing for nine carries for 28 yards and a touchdown, along with a five-yard reception, helping the Eagles defeat the Dallas Cowboys, 27-13 in the final week of the 2016 regular season. He scored the only rushing touchdown for the Eagles on that game.
Watson became the first APU alumnus to appear and score in a regular season NFL game since Christian Okoye in week 17 of the 1992 season.
Watson played in seven preseason games over the past two seasons, where he had gained 187 rushing yards and 35 receiving yards, but his touchdown with the Eagles was the first of his professional career.
“It’s a moment you have to stop and just embrace it.” Watson told PhiladelphiaEagles.com. “You dream about moments like that sometimes, but you never know when it’s going to come and I’m blessed enough to have an opportunity to play and have the opportunity to be called up the last game of the season and I’m happy with my end results.”
The journey for Watson has not been easy though. The Eagles became Watson’s fourth NFL team, barely signing him to their practice squad on Dec. 20, and promoting him to their active roster on Dec. 30. The Eagles promoted Watson late in the season when RBs Ryan Mathews, Wendell Smallwood and Kenjon Barner all sustained injuries.
Before Philadelphia, Watson spent his rookie season on the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad after going undrafted in the 2015 NFL Draft. On Jan. 21, 2016, he signed a reserves/futures contract with the Cleveland Browns. The Browns released Watson on Oct. 26, and by the next week, Watson signed with the Denver Broncos’ practice squad. However, Denver released him on Dec. 14, which led to him signing with the Eagles less than a week later.
“For a D-II guy coming from Azusa Pacific, you go out there with a chip on your shoulder,” Watson said. “That’s how I like to play, and it was a good statement being let go from the Browns and being let go from Denver and now being here in Philadelphia. I felt like this was a statement, like I belong here. I got my opportunity here and I’m excited about the outcome.”
APU’s head football coach Victor Santa Cruz described Watson’s performance as a moment of affirmation, being able to prove that he can compete at the NFL level of play.
“His performance validated the experience he had at Azusa Pacific, and validated his journey…when he scored. There’s a story behind it that speaks to the endurance he had to have in terms of the mental stress, all the spiritual development, it was just a validating moment,” Santa Cruz said.
Santa Cruz was proud of Watson’s performance, but he wasn’t surprised. “We knew that if somebody just gave him a chance and that if he continued to hang in there, he would eventually make it, and he did,” Santa Cruz said.
After the win against Dallas, Watson compared Eagles RB coach, Duce Staley, to APU’s RB coach, Ben Buys.
“They both teach that life is bigger than football. Duce told me before the game that I would have a chance to score in this game, so it made it special to be able to come through when I got that opportunity,” Watson said.
Buys admitted that he was unaware of Watson’s comparison, but was proud of the influence that Watson had at APU, along with the influence he’s gaining in Philadelphia.
“That’s how we try to do things. This is a game, but we try to teach life, and the best part about it is seeing people grow and having a relationship with them because without that, it’s just a sport,” Buys said.
Something else Buys has been impressed with is Watson’s mental attitude through this entire process. Over the past two seasons, Watson stayed in close contact with the APU coaching staff and has maintained a positive and hard-working attitude.
“Talking to him through the process, he had so much perspective. He never got discouraged, and continued to just work hard and have a positive attitude,” Buys said. “At the end of the year when he finally got to Philadelphia, it may have been a bit mentally draining on him because it was the third offense he was learning in one year, but he never had a bad attitude about it, and it all worked out.”
Watson broke 21 school records at APU and 25 Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) records, including APU’s single-season rushing record, which was set by Okoye in 1986. His career as a Cougar included 79 touchdowns, almost 6,000 yards, All-American honors in 2014 and the 2015 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl MVP award.