Chiefs CB Jaylen Watson was improbable star against Chargers

Late Thursday night, the previously (relatively) anonymous Jaylen Watson emerged from a Chiefs locker room still buzzing about him and stepped to the microphone in the media room at Arrowhead Stadium.

“How’s everybody doing?” he said.

Maybe no one was doing as well as him just then.

The cellphone in the rookie seventh-round draft pick’s pocket kept vibrating as he spoke about what he called a surreal moment in his life, a 99-yard interception return that essentially created a 14-point swing in a 27-24 victory over the Chargers at Arrowhead Stadium.

Coach Andy Reid would simply say, “That was beautiful,” and defensive end Frank Clark thought about how players “dream of stuff like that.” Defensive tackle Chris Jones thought about it for a second and said the play “changed the dynamic of the game.”

Heck, a few minutes after Watson said out loud in the locker room that “all I want for my birthday” is a shoutout from Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce, Mahomes came through for him at the podium.

And then some, actually, considering it turns out they share the birth date of Sept. 17 and Mahomes had a party planned.

“It’s his birthday party now,” Mahomes said, smiling, “because of the way he played.”

Especially considering some extreme and improbable circumstances.

That’s both in the context of the night itself as well as the arc of a life that included a year out of college football because of academic complications (transferable credits from junior college).

Instead of heading to USC, that left him home in Augusta, Georgia, working at a local Wendy’s … for his mom.

We’ll come back to that. But that stint helps explain how a play the Chiefs virtually had to have to win this game came to be.

“I’m just a very resilient person (who’s) always been working for what I have,” he said. “I was never given anything. And I think that gave me an edge on the football field as well.

“So I just try to carry that edge, show some hunger, show some anger on the football field, and let it out on the opponents.”

Extrapolate that attitude to how he viewed the game on Thursday against the Chargers.

“I woke up knowing I was going to get a pick, honestly,” he said. “I just knew being a seventh-rounder, having my first start, I was going to get tested a lot and early.”

It’s telling that he saw not adversity as much as opportunity in that.

Never mind that he had been pressed into a starting role because of an injury to fellow rookie Trent McDuffie.

A starting role against one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in Justin Herbert in an assignment that would leave him frequently lined up against terrific receiver Mike Williams.

This figured to be a vulnerability, if not a liability for the Chiefs. And Williams managed eight catches for 113 yards, some at the expense of Watson.

But a guy who figures he’s here because of resilience and perseverance wasn’t going to be easily dissuaded.

Moreover, he had earned some faith in himself here.

All through training camp, safety Juan Thornhill noticed, “You could see it starting to click” with the playbook and how fast he played. Safety Justin Reid pointed to training camp, too, adding that Watson “has been on the right trajectory since he got here.” From the other side of the ball, Mahomes had taken note of his confidence and speed.

So by the time it came to this week, Andy Reid said on Tuesday, where he was drafted “doesn’t matter now, right? It’s a matter of how he continues to up his game with the things that he’s seeing there.

“That’s the important part and focusing in on the game plan and being able to execute that absolutely (the) best he can.”

When it mattered most, that’s exactly what he did.

With the score tied 17-17 early in the fourth quarter, the Chargers had driven to the Kansas City 3-yard-line. On first and goal, Herbert tried to hit tight end Gerald Everett near the goal line only to misfire and have Watson zoom into the errant pass.

“The ball just ended up in my chest,” he said.

Suddenly, the only Charger who had a decent chance to tackle him was Herbert. But one of the rules of being a defensive back, he said, smiling, is “you can never get tackled by the quarterback.”

So he cut away from Herbert and was on his way to about 80 yards of open field.

As he later thought about getting in the end zone, he couldn’t even really remember what happened after that. Just that it was surreal and he didn’t know what to do once he got there.

So instead of uncorking some well-considered celebration, he just stood there for seconds extending both arms with the ball in his right hand.

“It’s a moment,” he said, “I’ll never forget.”

All the more so with his mother among some 10 family members in the stands.

“My mom showed up,” he said, “not my boss at Wendy’s.”

They’re one and the same, of course.

But he wanted to make the distinction when it comes to a force in his life he likes to call his “super-woman.”

Grateful as he is to her for everything, including offering him a $7.25-an hour-job at the Wendy’s she managed after a scholarship at USC fell through in 2019, he doesn’t remember that gig so fondly.

“I love her to death, but it was terrible,” Watson said, albeit playfully, in the spring. “You get no breaks from your mom. You go to work, you’re with your mom. You go home, you’re with your mom. You can’t even talk about work.

“But I still love her.”

His journey home ultimately led him to Washington State, from where the Chiefs drafted him in April.

He had hoped to be picked much earlier; in frustration he had left a small party at his house to go listen to music in a car with a friend.

When the call came from the Chiefs, he said at the time, “I started running full speed down the street” to share the news.

He’s been going about it the same way ever since — including doing the same for 99 yards in front of a national television audience to save a momentous game on Thursday.

The stuff that dreams are made of.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.

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