From a basket to the Browns: Terrell Watson, the NFL’s unlikeliest player


The running back was left on a doorstep as a baby but overcame learning difficulties to give himself a shot at a professional career

The bell rang at Billy and Janice Watsons modest townhouse in Oxnard, California, early one September evening in 1993. This is odd, Billy thought, opening the door. They had just returned after a day at the Ventura County fair with their four-year-old son Billy Jr, and werent expecting anybody. Upstairs, he could hear Janice preparing the child for a bath. He looked outside and saw only their quiet neighborhood street and the retirement apartments across the way. Then he glanced down. Tucked in an alcove beside the front door, surrounded by bags of clothes was a basket and inside the basket was a baby boy, no more than two weeks old.

Janice! Billy shouted. Come here!

A baby? Who would have left them a baby? Billy raced down the street. There hadnt been enough time for someone to run away. Behind a parked car he saw somebody move thats where he found his daughter from another relationship. She had mostly disappeared from Billys life, calling occasionally from Los Angeles, never sounding well. Now, through tears, she told him that he had a grandson, and that that the boys name was Terrell, that she was alone and could not care for him, and so she was leaving her child with the only person who could.

Billy shook his head. He and Janice already had a child. They couldnt take another. But Janice couldnt stop looking at the baby.

He had the most beautiful little green eyes, she says.

We will take him, Billy heard himself telling his daughter.

The baby with the beautiful green eyes would grow up as their son; a happy bubbly child, always making friends. And Terrell Watson needed everything Billy and Janice could give, because things that came easily to others did not for him. He couldnt sound words. He struggled to read. His school years would be spent in special education classes where teachers sometimes wondered what kind of future hed have.

But there was also this about the boy left in the basket on the doorstep: he was determined to read. I dont have no disability, he told his parents, trying to decipher the jumble of letters in the school books before him. When he was done agonizing over his words he went to the football field, where he too was determined to be great: building his body, straining to run faster while refusing to listen to those who said a kid in special education could never play professional football.

This is how Terrell Watson became the most improbable running back in the NFL.

He is standing now on the Cleveland Browns practice fields in Berea, Ohio, looking past the goalposts and laughing. The teams last spring mini-camp has just finished, and there seems to be an excellent chance that at 22, having already been left on a doorstep and pulled through special education classes, he will make the team this fall. The boy who could never read now can as a man because he forced himself to figure them out, just as he is forcing himself undrafted and from a tiny college, Azusa Pacific, that many football fans have never heard of on to an NFL roster.

I mean, I feel like everything I went through in school has made me the person I am today in football, he says. You dont let adversity define who you are.

He smiles again. Its freaking hard when you have people say youre this or youre that, or you cant read or you cant write, or you cant jump, he says. You go to make up your mind to prove them wrong. Thats my favorite thing. I remember going to high school, they were saying: You cant go to university youre going to have to go to junior college, its too hard, youre going to need too much assistance. So, I remember when someone said: You cant play football. And I proved I could.

It wasnt until Terrell was in kindergarten that Billy and Janice first heard the words learning disability. At last they had an explanation for his inability to build words the way other children did, mixing the sounds of some letters with others. Sometimes they couldnt understand what he was saying, cringing at times when he did. One time he followed Janice around Walmart begging her to buy him a toy truck. Only his Ts came out as Fs and he wailed: Mommy, I want this fuck! as everybody stared and Janice screamed: Truck! The word is truck!

The doctors stuck pencils in Terrells mouth, hoping that would force his tongue to move the right way. The doctors also said he was hyperactive and suggested Ritalin, but Janice refused. He had so much good energy, she wanted him to run outside. The schools refused to place him in mainstream rooms, assigning him to special education classes. There were constant meetings with teachers and principals to discuss his individualized education program. She worried. Would he ever fit it?

But there was little time to agonize over Terrells education, because soon more children arrived on the Watsons front porch. A year after they found Terrell in the basket they returned home, one Friday, to find a social worker outside their door holding another baby. This was Terrells brother DeShawn, the social worker said. His mother had sent them to the one family she trusted to raise her second baby.

Just for the weekend, Billy and Janice said. His construction job and Janices program analyst position at a nearby navy base left them barely enough time for the two children they already had. But that night Janice had a dream. In this dream, 18 years had passed, and there was a knock at the door. When she opened it, a grown man stood before her. I have one question, he said. Why did you keep Terrell and not me?

The next day she called the social worker. They would keep this baby, too. A couple years later, there came a late night phone call, a hurried drive to Los Angeles to Billys daughter and another social worker with another child, this one a girl named Nina. Please, they told the social worker, they already had her two brothers. They would take her as well.

As the children grew up, Terrell longed to read like his brothers and sister. He just couldnt make sense of the words. He made friends easily and tried to hide his learning disability from other kids at school by avoiding situations where hed have to read in front of others. Sometimes hed tell the teacher he forgot his glasses or that he couldnt see the board. As a fifth grader, hed ask Nina, then in first grade, to help him spell simple words. He cried when DeShawn, for whom learning came easily, would glide thorough his homework. A teacher told Terrell he was not smart and would never go to college.

I think that was always in the back of his mind, Janice says.

Billy and Janice refused to let Terrell believe there was something wrong with him. Billy always said: God gave you gifts just as He has the other children. Terrells gift, it turned out, was determination. Everything he did, he put 150% into it, Janice says. For him to learn he had to do more. He practiced his words every day, trying to unlock the mystery behind those swirling letters.

Janice finally noticed something interesting. Terrell had an almost photographic memory. Anything he saw once he remembered forever. She pointed to words and repeated them. Terrell couldnt recognize them phonetically but he could memorize them, matching spelling with meaning. Over time he built enough words that he could make simple sentences and read paragraphs.

At school, kids snickered when he stood up to read. But rather than focus on the child teasing him, he would listen for the one sitting nearby who quietly whispered the words. He loved football and was becoming a very good player. And yet he told his parents he would gladly give it up if that mean meant he could read.

By the time he got to Oxnard high school, he should have been a top football prospect, high on the list of every big college coach. He was tall, strong, fast and aggressive. Oxnards coaches moved him between linebacker and running back and he dominated at both. But his special education curriculum wouldnt pass the NCAAs clearing house. The college recruiters never called. Had a coach at a prestigious school in Los Angeles not watched Terrell play and phoned Rudy Carlton, the offensive coordinator at Azusa Pacific in LAs eastern suburbs, he might never have played past high school. As an NAIA football power, Azusa did not have the same eligibility rules as the NCAA. Carlton watched Terrell run over players headed to big schools like USC and UCLA in a local all-star game and soon after Azusa offered him a scholarship.

But there was something else, something Terrells parents didnt even know for weeks. Midway through high school, he worked his way out of special education classes. He had taught himself to read well enough that he was moved in with the mainstream students. When he took the SAT, he skipped the special accommodations room where he would have been allowed breaks and extra time. He scored well above the minimum for NCAA athletes, and the boy who just a few years before had to ask his sister in kindergarten to help him with vocabulary, scored highest on his essay.

I used every word I know how to spell, he told Janice.

Azusa was perfect. Terrells classes were small, with no more than 15 students. His professors were always available to talk. He loved sociology. He was fascinated by social structures. He wanted to know how the wealthy lived one way and the poor another. What did it mean? How could they work together? He wondered why some parents divorced and why the children of those parents often divorced themselves.

He wrote essays and used words Janice did not realize that he knew. She read them with tears streaming down her cheeks, remembering the boy who couldnt read kindergarten books in the fifth grade.Hes such an amazing kid, I wonder if he knows how amazing he is, she says.

Terrell reminded Azusas coaches of the schools greatest running back, Christian Okoye, who came from Nigeria in the 1980s unfamiliar with football, yet who would go on to lead the NFL in rushing in 1989. He was not a polished player, but he was relentless, refusing to be tackled. He ignored injures that would sideline other players, refusing to be pulled from games. The same drive the propelled him to read pushed him in football. The intangibles that have gotten him through his setbacks are incredible, Azusas running backs coach Ben Buys says. For years, Okoye had held most of Azusas rushing records. One by one, Terrell broke them.

The memorization system Terrell used to read was ideal for football, where so much of game-planning is built around watching film and looking at still photographs of the other teams formations. He learned to take mental photographs of his opponents schemes while on the field, scanning the line in front of him and committing each mans position to memory. During games, Azusas offensive line coach Jackie Slater, a Hall of Fame tackle who blocked for Eric Dickerson, asked him to describe what the other team was doing. Terrell told him where the other players were, how they stood and what Azusa players they were assigned to take out. In addition to being the teams best player, he was their top in-game scout.

By then, he was almost impossible to stop on the field. Azusa moved from NAIA to NCAA Division II. As a senior, in 2014, he led all NCAA levels with 2,212 yards and scored 29 touchdowns. But his biggest game might have come in his junior year when he ran for 302 yards to lead Azusa to a win against Simon Fraser in a game they were losing 23-3 at half-time.

He literally put the team on his back, Buys says. People would just rally around him.

NFL scouts soon arrived on Azusas campus looking to speak with the player few of them knew anything about. Often they would receive their parking pass from a smiling security guard at the schools entrance, without knowing this was Terrell working a morning job to make extra money. They later laughed when they recognized him at practice, but they also had questions based on his special education background. Was he smart? Could he understand an NFL offense?

Understand an offense? Didnt the NFL scouts realize that nobody except the quarterbacks understand Azusas offense as well as Terrell? Still, he was not invited to the 2015 Senior Bowl or the draft combine. And even though he was freakishly good in his Pro Day, running a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash and jumping nearly 11 feet on the broad jump, he was not chosen in that springs draft. He refused to be disappointed.

It was awesome to go [to Azusa] and prove everybody wrong, Terrell says. Yeah, Im a special ed kid, but I went to college and I graduated, and thats a good thing.

Several teams invited him to training camp. He chose the Cincinnati Bengals, who did not need a running back but were offering an opportunity to learn. He led the team in rushing during the pre-season, and became a favorite of the teams offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. He was placed on the practice squad and stayed there the season, making $100,000, and studied the best techniques for picking up blitzes and reading coverages.

In January, Jackson became the Browns head coach. One of the teams first transactions after Jacksons hire was to claim Terrell off Cincinnatis practice squad. Jackson has said little about Terrell through the Browns spring workouts, but as a coach whose offenses are often built around running backs, his chances appear good especially given the fact Cleveland were the NFLs 11th worst running team while going 3-13 last season. The Browns will run a lot, and without an established running back, Terrell who was the teams top acquisition at the position should have a decent chance of not only making the roster but perhaps landing a leading role.

Standing now on the Browns practice field, Terrell squints into the sun and smiles again. He is sure he has found a home in Cleveland with coaches he loves. He lives alone in an apartment near the Browns facility so he recently got a dog, a pit-lab mix, he named Dexter. When he feels lonely he talks to Dexter. I know, its so weird, he says.

He has started speaking to children who were like him, kids with special needs, whose disabilities separate them from others. He tells them what he always told himself: Dont let anyone define who you are. You set the road map for who you are. Even if you get of stray, you go left or you go right theres always a merging, you can always find your way back.

Terrell wants to be a policeman after football. He wants to help people, and he believes that would be the best way he could. He imagines himself arresting a kid and talking to him as they drive to the station, giving the speech that changes the kids life. If he could do that, he would consider his job complete. Im always OK with laying my life on the line for someone I dont know, to make sure they are safe, he says. So I dont know, Im a big people person.

Looking across the empty field, he smiles again. He has a relationship with his mother. More brother and sister than mother and son, Janice says. Last fall, during a break from the Bengals season, they talked as he drove her to the train station after a dinner at Billy and Janices home. In the car, she tried to explain the decision to leave him on her fathers doorstep. He told her he forgave her.

Nearly 23 years ago she put her baby on her fathers doorstep to give him a chance at life. How could any of them know he would take it and run all the way to the NFL?

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