Even with a plethora of receiving talent around him in perhaps the team’s deepest unit, rookie wide receiver Justin Watson has managed to stand out to coaches and fans alike. Whether it be for his effort on special teams or putting in extra work after practice with one of the vets, the Pittsburgh-native has started to make a name for himself.
And while Watson wears his name on the back of his jersey, come Sunday, there will be a different name on his cleats: Tommy. Fifty-one Buccaneers players will be wearing customized cleats during this week’s home game against the Carolina Panthers as part of the NFL’s My Cause, My Cleats Campaign, where each player chose to represent a charitable organization that was close to their hearts.
“The first thing I thought about was my brother,” Watson said.
Watson’s brother, Tommy, was born with cerebral palsy. He’s been in a wheelchair his entire life, never having been able to walk. With dozens of surgeries, including one to put a rod in his back in order to stabilize it, Watson says his brother’s muscles stiffen often. Tommy found relief through water treatment at the School of the Blind in Pittsburgh, which helps youth dealing with all sorts of disabilities.
“[The water treatment] did wonders for him,” Watson said of Tommy’s treatments that began when he was four years old. “[His school] said it was his favorite part of the day. He only got to do it once or twice a week but it was the one thing that just put a smile on his face. They said they’d open the door and he could feel the humidity of the whole room, that’s when he would know and it would put a smile on his face.”
It was through the School of the Blind that Watson’s family was then put in touch with an organization that would have a tremendous impact on Tommy and the whole family. It was Make-A-Wish. After being informed that they would be granting a Wish for Watson’s brother, it didn’t take long to decide on what Tommy’s Wish would be.
“It was a no-brainer that if we could get a pool or something, if he could be in water, that would be a miracle,” Watson said.
Initially, the family didn’t know that it was something realistic for Make-A-Wish to do. Not only was it realistic, Make-A-Wish made the process incredibly easy for the Watson family. On average, the organization grants a Wish every 34 minutes in the United States and its territories, believing that Wishes can be game-changers for children and families facing critical illnesses. Watson knows firsthand how true that is.
“It was his favorite thing to do when we were in that house,” Watson said of the above-ground pool that was installed by Make-A-Wish in his childhood home. “I was blown away, my parents had tears in their eyes, too. It was a very special time. That pool brought us all together. It was an activity we could all do. It was something we all enjoyed doing together.”
That’s what goes more unnoticed of the work that Make-A-Wish does. Their mission may be based in granting Wishes for critically ill children, but an ancillary effect of each Wish is how it uplifts entire families who face residual hardship because of their circumstances. A pool was something Watson said his parents wanted more than anything for his brother, but it was something they couldn’t afford. It’s stressors like those that are often overlooked, though they weigh heavily on families. It's something Watson realizes now more than ever.
“I never fully appreciated what my parents were going through,” Watson said. “It was a Wish for my brother but I could really see that it was more than just for my brother. When it puts a smile on his face, when he’s at ease, when he’s not in pain, it lifts my whole family up.”
So when it came time for Watson to decide what went on his cleats for this very special campaign, the first organization he thought of was of course, Make-A-Wish. His blue-and-white cleats don the Make-A-Wish logo along with a portrait of his brother, Tommy, so Watson can keep them both close on Sunday.
“A lot of people have helped him,” Watson said. “I wanted to do something that honors him and honors the people that have helped him and my family. Make-A-Wish really changed my family’s life with that pool. I think the cleats are just a small thank you for everything they’ve done for me, for my family, for my brother.”