It's sometimes the unlikeliest of heroes who make all the difference in the end, and that was certainly the case in the Kansas City Chiefs' thrilling victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday night. In fact, it was 24-year-old rookie and seventh-round draft selection Jaylen Watson who made the play of the game, and as it turns out, Watson's path to the NFL was as resilient as his go-ahead, 99-yard pick-six was on Thursday.
If you didn't see the play live, you've surely seen Watson's phenomenal dash to the end zone by now. It was simply "the play" that turned everything around for the Chiefs in what ended up being a huge divisional victory.
Watson told the media after the game that he knew the Chargers were switching routes on that specific play, and that "the ball just ended up in his chest."
"It was a surreal feeling," Watson said. "I just feel so grateful and blessed to even be in this position. I didn't even know what to do when I got in the end zone – everyone just saw me standing there. It was a moment I'll never forget."
The play would have been special enough for any rookie, but for Watson, this one simply meant a little bit more. A true story of resiliency, Watson spent the first two years of his amateur career at a community college after being lightly recruited out of high school. He impressed enough to earn the attention of USC, but despite his strong play, Watson was ruled academically ineligible and had to instead return back home. It was there that he worked at a Wendy's restaurant with his mom in an effort to pay the bills while he worked on his grades.
"I was never given anything," Watson said. "I've had to work for everything. I think that gives me an edge on the football field as well."
Watson eventually earned a scholarship to play at Washington State, and ever since, he's shown that "edge" through his abilities on defense. That was certainly the case on Thursday, too, when Watson - who was filling in at cornerback for Trent McDuffie – picked off Chargers' quarterback Justin Herbert in the fourth quarter of the game. At that point, the Chiefs were tied with the Chargers at 17 points apiece and had yet to lead all game.
Watson said that he found out Monday morning – approximately two and a half days before the game – that he would be filling in for McDuffie. It was a quick turnaround for the seventh-round pick, but he knew to stay ready and be prepared for when he got a chance on the field.
Fittingly, Watson had about ten of his family and friends cheering him on at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium on Thursday, including his mother.
"Every time I step on this field, I'm super blessed and super thankful to even be in this position," Watson said. "The Chiefs took a shot on me. I'm super appreciative of that, so I try to take [advantage of the] opportunity every chance I'm given."
Watson took advantage of that opportunity as part of a defensive effort that helped seal the game. The Chiefs pressured Herbert on 18 of his dropbacks and only allowed 14 points in the second half.
"I'm just so proud of those young guys on defense," quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. "You just don't know until you get in these situations, and in some games where the offense played like we did today – because we didn't play our best football – a lot of times, we'd lose those games. For the defense to keep us around, it's a big, big step I think in the right direction."
And for Watson, it was another step in what has been a long and winding journey. The man is no stranger to adversity, but despite his unlikely path, the rookie cornerback never let circumstances get in the way of his dream.
"I woke up knowing I was going to get a pick, honestly," Watson said. "I just knew being a seventh-rounder, I was going to get tested, a lot. I just felt I was going to get one. I just knew it was going to happen."