Ryan Watson's journey at the academy was news from the beginning.
The Gazette followed him and another incoming football player during basic training. From there, he found his way onto the field as a freshman and become a mainstay on the defense. He really broke out as a senior, registering nine sacks.
In the tumult of the draft and the uncertainty with the Department of Defense's abrupt rules change, Watson thought he had agreed to a deal with the Arizona Cardinals before it was determined NFL teams couldn't sign the recent service academy graduates that year.
He went to a mini-camp with the Cardinals, graduated and is now serving as an acquisitions officer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, biding his time for another chance at the NFL.
Watson, who will join Jacob Onyechi, Jalen Robinette and Weston Steelhammer from his class at Pro Day at the academy on Monday, recently chatted with The Gazette's Brent Briggeman.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you at Wright-Patterson?
It hasn’t been too much, I guess you could say. Basically sitting in meetings, discussing programs, helping out in the various ways I can. Taking courses that will help me in the career I likely won’t have.
Q: Is it hard to stay engaged when you know this might be temporary?
I’ll be honest. Yea, definitely.
Q: So, why are you coming back to the Springs for Pro Day?
I’m coming back to the Springs to do Pro Day because I feel like I have a good chance to go make it in the NFL. You know, my agent is confident. Some teams have reached out during my two-year hiatus, I guess you could call it. I think I’ve done a good job in shape and staying football savvy, as some might say. It will be a good chance to show them I’m in shape, still committed to it, and then from there just pick up where I left off.
Q: When you say teams are checking in, is that just a verbal check-in or have you been to any additional camps or anything?
More verbally checking out. Unfortunately when the minicamp season was around last year I wasn’t able to go because I was taking Air Force classes and I wasn’t allowed to get out of them, I guess you could say.
Q: After everything went down after the draft, you went to camp with the Cardinals. Was that the only one you went to?
Yes sir. At the time I had an agreement with the Cardinals. I was essentially signed. So I didn’t think there was a need for anyone else because I had signed with them. So I had declined all over invites. That’s kind of when the mess boiled over even more and there were certain guidelines sent down from higher up in the NFL.
Q: Where are you at now size-wise? How have you changed in two years?
I’m still in the 250s. The heaviest I got was 255, but I didn’t like how that weight was so I toned back down. I think I’ll come in around 253 on Monday.
Q: What’s your height?
Q: So, what are you hearing from teams?
Pretty typical. Nobody’s putting me at safety or anything. It’s pretty much end rusher, or really just what the defense is – 4-3 or 3-4. There have been two teams, weirdly enough, who looked at me as a pure linebacker. I wouldn’t say no to anyone, but that would be an interesting change to be an inside linebacker as opposed to outside in a 3-4. But whatever gets my foot in the door.
Q: Have you been working out in the facilities on base, or are you working with a trainer? What’s been your routine?
For the first year and a half I worked out at the facilities on base and off base, but for the last few months I’ve been working out with a trainer over in Dayton who trains other athletes – mostly college athletes around here.
Q: Has it been with a group, or one-on-one?
Both. We do two-a-days. When I go in the mornings it’s just me. When I go later it’s a bunch of college guys.
Q: What advantages do you think you might have gained going through this process again after two years?
I guess my body is more rehabbed and healed than it was coming straight out of college. I ended my college career pretty banged up, pretty injured. There were some knee and foot things. So there’s the health standpoint. Just the maturity, having that time away from everything and having that time to reflect. You know what you really want and you get that passion even more for football because you see what else you could be doing. Not to say the Air Force is a bad gig or anything of that nature, I think it’s a wonderful career opportunity. It’s just a lot of things pale in comparison to football.
Q: So, not to be too cliché, but would you say the hunger has grown for football?
Definitely. My supervisor asked me about it the other day and I said it’s like a dog and you have a juicy steak sitting right in front of you and then they take in and throw it super far away from you and you have to go chase it. It’s like delayed gratification.
Q: Has there been a time in this two years that you thought all the working out and everything else wasn’t worth it, or did it never change?
Anybody who says it never changed is probably lying. There were definitely some down days. I wouldn’t say that was the environment or the Air Force, it’s just when you’re away for two years you wonder if working out is going to be enough. There’s so much more to football than just being in shape. If it was just being in shape the CrossFit guys would be great NFL players, the body builders, the world strong men… but there’s so much more to it.
Q: Have you done anything on the mental side? Do you watch film or anything?
Yes. I’ve watched film privately. I was actually involved with some high schools a little bit, coaching them up a little bit. I think coaching players somewhat helps you stay into it. You’ve got to know what you’re talking about if you’re going to coach someone else, essentially. But I haven’t been on the field, running around and having people hit me live fire. I feel like that’s a big thing.
Q: Were any of your teammates from Air Force out there with you?
Jesse Washington and Roland Ladipo are both out here. Both of them are kind of all about the Air Force, though. I don’t think they’re really planning to pursue the NFL anymore.
Q: Why are you coming back to the academy specifically for Pro Day as opposed to doing it in Ohio?
My understanding was it would be, as a D-1 athlete, it would be pretty difficult to get into another D-1 school for a Pro Day. With the way it’s structured, you’re supposed to do it at your school. So it’s to avoid low blocks. And of course, familiarity with the Springs and just desire from other guys to do it there.
Q: Have you been in touch with Air Force strength and conditioning coach Matt McGettigan for help with your workouts?
Yes sir, I reached out to Getty a long time ago and got workouts from him to supplement workouts from my trainer. Yes, Getty has definitely been involved. When it comes to physical exercise, Getty is the one I trust first and foremost above anyone.
Q: With all the new leagues now like the AAF and XFL, are you NFL or bust or would you go down one of those roads? Or even the Canadian Football League?
To be honest with you, I haven’t given it much thought. I guess you could say I’ve been on an NFL-or-bust mentality, but if one of those roads opened up for me and I thought the opportunity was worth it, I definitely wouldn’t say no.
Q: What do you think your chances are if you had to weigh them yourself? This fall, will you be on a roster?
I definitely think I have a good chance of signing and making it to preseason. I would say it kind of just depends on the defense I’m playing in. No. I’ll just keep it blunt, I think I have a really good chance. 90 percent or above. I’m keeping it confident.
Q: When you were with the Cardinals, did they treat you like one of their guys or what kind of feedback did they give?
They gave me really good feedback. They liked me. Like you said, they considered me one of their guys. I was probably going to be more of a special teams kind of dude because they had Marcus Golden and Chandler Jones at the time. I’d be a backup, of course. But for most rookies, special teams are kind of where you make your bread and butter. So, yeah, I thought I had good chance there. Even at the end of camp, they seemed really fond of me. I think I made a good impression. They had me doing a lot of things with guys who had already signed, despite me being not able to sign; because they expected everything would work itself out before summer was over, but unfortunately that is not how that went.
Q: Do you think you might appreciate this more than other rookies in camp this summer because you’ve had a 9-to-5 job and you know the real world? Do you think a typical rookie might not have a perspective as broad?
I think there’s some truth to that, but I’m not going to say I’ll appreciate it more than anyone. Some guys are coming in from backgrounds that are a lot grittier and tougher than mine. I came from a middle class home, well off. For them, they are pursuing not only their dreams but also providing for their families, so I don’t want to knock those guys. But you are correct. Working a 9-to-5 has definitely humbled me and made me appreciate the football lifestyle even more, just knowing what the other road through life is. And, again, that’s not saying that’s a bad avenue through life by any stretch of the imagination – just not my preferred one.
Q: What do you miss most about football?
This might sound rather psychotic, but the release of aggression and the ability to go out and hit someone, feel the contact. It’s almost like medication for me, honestly. … As bizarre as that might sound.
Q: Your class as a whole, have you been in touch about everything and talk about how everything went down, or have you kind of gone your separate ways?
For the whole group, after graduation we kind of drifted apart. But there was a bunch of Air Force paperwork that you have to do in order to get out in time. I was the one to start that, so that is what kind of reunited us. I started asking questions and we started communicating and we started relaying advice given to us by Ben Garland, the last person to go through something similar to this. So we’ve been in touch pretty regularly since last summer.