TAMPA, Fla. -- For Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Justin Watson, Friday’s preseason opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers has been a long time coming -- it will mark the first time his brother Tommy will experience one of his football games since Justin's senior night at South Fayette High School on Oct. 18, 2013.
“There will be a lot of emotions,” said Watson, 23, who calls Tommy “his inspiration” and his reason for living by the words, “There are no bad days.”
Tommy has cerebral palsy. He's 30 but weighs just 95 pounds. He can’t see or walk or feed himself. He requires around-the-clock care, making travel nearly impossible. But because Heinz Field is just 10 minutes from the group home where Tommy lives, just outside of Pittsburgh, and 20 minutes from the Watson family’s home, Tommy will get to take in all the action.
“[The last one] ... he was up in the stands, it was cold and he was under a blanket, so this one will be a little bit better,” Justin said. “[This one] will be warm, and he loves noises, so hopefully we’re scoring a lot and some sirens will be going off -- it’ll really make him happy, make him smile.”
It will also mark the first time the whole family has been together since Christmas 2017. His father, Doug, and mother, Terri, will be joined by his brother Alex, who is driving up from North Carolina, and his sister, Abby, who’s home from college for the summer.
“My wife said, ‘That could be our Christmas card!’” Doug said, chuckling.
Tommy’s school will transport him to and from the game, and his driver and a respiratory therapist will stay with him the whole time. Justin was able to secure special pregame field passes so they can all be together for warm-ups.
“Though he can’t see -- and with his mental capacity, you don’t know what all he understands -- I know when he gets there, he’ll definitely know,” Doug said. “He’ll know that Justin’s there, that we’re all there, and this will be a good night for him.”
Tommy’s life has been full of challenges. He gets painful muscle spasms throughout his body that are managed with medication. He underwent an eight-to-nine-hour surgery to place metal rods in his spine to correct the scoliosis that was crushing his organs. Stomach acids from his feeding tube have charred his skin so badly that it bleeds.
"And he’ll just sit there; he’s so tough, you won’t know," Doug said. "And then he’ll start fussing a little bit and we’ll be like, ‘Oh, something’s wrong,’ and we’ll look, and sure enough, it will leak and you’ll see it -- it’s raw, it eats the skin away."
It’s particularly hard on Justin not to be there. His sophomore year at Penn -- which is five hours away -- Tommy’s appendix burst, and for two days, doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. During Justin's senior year, Tommy was hospitalized for a month due to breathing issues.
“He’s been really good," Justin said. "He’s been healthy, smiling a lot. He was just home last weekend, and I always get pictures when he’s smiling or when my dog’s laying with him, so he’s doing really well.”
When Justin is able to get back to Pennsylvania, which he did this offseason, he'll visit with Tommy usually every day. The two talk a lot, even if Tommy is able to communicate only with sounds and facial expressions.
"I went home and we got the new coaching staff and everyone was a little uneasy because of the new staff. It wasn’t the staff that drafted you and everything else, but he’s always there -- a great listener and just always gives you that smile like, ‘Hey, you’re living the dream.’ He always reminds me of that," said Justin, who admitted he was nervous after the Bucs' coaching change.
“I was, but I went back and saw him again after OTAs, I said, ‘Hey, you’re right. It went pretty well.’ So then I started complaining about the heat, [and he gave] another big smile, so that’s what I think about when I’m out here. No matter how hot it is or how many reps you get, what a blessing [it is] to be out here; complaining about playing football for a job is something you should never do.”
“One of the phrases that someone kind of attached to Tommy’s story is ‘no bad days.’ That’s something I try to live by, especially with football. Even on my worst day, it’s pretty great," Watson said. "I should be smiling. He finds a way to smile every single day and that’s what motivates me to find a way to smile every day out here as well.”
"He finds a way to smile every single day and that's what motivates me to find a way to smile every day out here as well." Bucs WR Justin Watson on his brother Tommy
He'll certainly have reason Friday night. The previous Friday night Tommy got to see Justin play, Watson's South Fayette High shut out South Park High 48-0 en route to a perfect season.
“When they were younger, all of us used to go to the games. All the kids and Tommy, we’d go to every kid's game," Doug said. "He was a trouper. He’d go to all of them. But then as he got bigger -- to sit that long in a wheelchair got uncomfortable for him. We are so excited. I know Justin is, too. He can’t wait ....”
Back then, Justin was the 35th-best high school prospect in the state of Pennsylvania. Now he’s not only a tone-setter for the Bucs’ receiving corps but a favorite target of quarterback Jameis Winston.
“He’s doing phenomenal,” Winston said of Watson. “J-Wat is out here making one-handed grabs -- [Pro Bowl wide receiver] Mike [Evans] is going to be like, ‘Hey, I’ve definitely got to get me a one-handed grab.’ J-Wat is catching a ball and taking it 99 yards and it’s actually a true touchdown -- it’s influencing our other guys to catch the ball and finish when they get the ball.”
"His awareness. I mean, he went to Penn, so I've never doubted his awareness," Winston said, "but I just think he's playing fast and doing an excellent job."
Watson hopes he can put it together again the way he did last preseason, when he caught two touchdown passes from Winston, solidifying his spot on the team. He treated every one of those preseason games as his "Super Bowl."
Tommy's presence for Friday's game ups the ante even more.
“[He] always reminds me of just how lucky I am," Watson said. "That’s why I’m especially excited for him to come see a game because he’s someone that I think about so much when I’m on the field, and for him to finally get to see that product would be really special for me.”