Tommy Watson helped his younger brother, Justin, make it to the highest level of football. It's only fitting that it was football that brought Tommy and Justin – and the entire Watson family – back together last weekend.
Justin Watson plays wide receiver for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, having been drafted out of Penn in the fifth round in 2018. Last Friday night, the Buccaneers opened their 2019 preseason with a road game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. Watson is a Pittsburgh native, son of Doug and Terri and a sibling to two older brothers, Tommy and Alex, and one younger sister, Abby. Thanks to school (Abby) and work (Alex) and the NFL (Tommy), the last time all six Watsons had been together was Christmas of 2017.
There is another factor in the equation that makes it difficult to bring all four of Doug and Terri's kids together anywhere but their hometown: Tommy, the eldest of the four, has cerebral palsy. Tommy cannot walk or speak and requires constant medical care. When Justin does get to see his older brother, it's almost always at the group home where Tommy has lived and received that care for the past eight years. Tommy lived at home during most of Justin's childhood.
That's what made Friday night at Heinz Field special for all the Watsons, but especially Justin. With the Buccaneers so close and the weather cooperative, Doug and Terri were able to bring Tommy to the game and onto the field pregame. Alex and Abby were there, too, and many more from the extended Watson family were nearby in the stands.
"Justin wanted this so much, and we didn't know if we could get this," said Doug. "We were worried that it would be too hot – Tommy would be sitting in that chair for hours – but it couldn't be better than this. This means so much to all of us."
Before the game and after warmups, Tommy had the uplifting moment with his brother that he had been hoping would be possible, behind one of the Heinz Field end zones.
"He can't walk or talk, but his reactions are obvious," said Justin. "Any time we visit him it's immediately obvious when we walk in the room that he's happy to see us or hear our voices. He gets visited all the time by my parents. So he was already in a good mood on Friday night, and then when I got in his ear and I said something I saw a spark in him. So that was really cool. Any time I get to see him for the first time in a long time is fun for me. Any time I can say hi to him and put a little smile on his face is always great."
Since his high school days, Watson has drawn inspiration from his brother on the football field. When practice is tough or his body is sore or the next challenge seems insurmountable, Justin thinks of all Tommy endures while still finding a reason to smile. So to have Tommy actually on the football field, and this one in particular, was priceless to him.
"The fact that the meeting place was on Heinz Field before a Steelers game was incredible," said Justin. "Playing this game is something that not many people get the opportunity to do, and I'm so thankful and I'm blessed to be given that opportunity."
Tommy had not attended one of Justin's games since high school, as travel is very difficult for him. Watson would go on to catch four passes for 37 yards in the Buccaneers' 30-28 loss to the Steelers, as he continues his battle to carve out a significant role in Tampa Bay's offense in his second season. Justin has had a strong training camp and Tommy continues to have a lot to do with that.
"It's hard to put it exactly into words, but it was really special," said Justin of the family reunion on the Heinz Field grass. "Tommy is someone who inspires me a lot, especially in football. Really, through camp and on the hard days is when I think about him and how lucky I am. He hasn't been to a game since high school. So for someone who influences what I do on the field so much to finally get to be there, and to see him before the game and know he was in the crowd, was incredible. It really just shows how much bigger than the game this is. It was a really cool side of sports."
Tommy wasn't the only one excited to see his brother visit Heinz Field. The Watson family held a tailgate outside the stadium that drew more than 100 friends, family members and former high school teammates. Justin's high school coach, Joe Rossi, was on the sideline and 50 juniors and seniors on the current South Fayette High team came to the game to cheer him on.
"We are all always so excited to see Justin play, but this was just unbelievable," said Doug, who paused for a moment to point out the smile on Tommy's face. "All of my kids are really close, which is a blessing. Justin and Alex used to fight all the time when they were kids, but now Alex is his biggest fan. And Justin and Tommy, they have a special bond. I know how much this means to him."