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‘It was a surreal feeling’: WSU rookie Jaylen Watson decides a quarterback showdown between the Chiefs and Chargers

Sept. 16, 2022 Updated Fri., Sept. 16, 2022 at 5:46 p.m.

Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Jaylen Watson picked off Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert in the fourth quarter and ran the ball back 99 yards for a Chiefs touchdown on Thursday, September 15, 2022, at Arrowhead Stadium.  (Kansas City Star)
Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Jaylen Watson picked off Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert in the fourth quarter and ran the ball back 99 yards for a Chiefs touchdown on Thursday, September 15, 2022, at Arrowhead Stadium. (Kansas City Star)
By Joe Drape New York Times

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Three years ago, Jaylen Watson was working for his mother at a Wendy’s in Augusta, Georgia. He was making $7.50 an hour and getting his grades in order.

On Thursday, he was the most important player on the field for Kansas City, though one that few had heard of.

Watson was getting this opportunity to start at cornerback against the Los Angeles Chargers and their All Pro quarterback Justin Herbert because Kansas City’s first-round pick, Trent McDuffie, pulled a hamstring in the season opener.

Watson made the most of it.

With Kansas City and Los Angeles tied at 17 in the fourth quarter and the Chargers 2 yards from taking the lead, the seventh-round pick from Washington State stepped in front of tight end Gerald Everett, picked off a throw from Justin Herbert and ran 99 yards for a game-changing interception return for touchdown.

When he got to the end zone, Watson confessed that he really did not know what to do.

“The ball just ended up in my chest, and I took it home,” he said. “It was a surreal feeling.”

It was a backbreaker for the Chargers, who were trying to do something they had not done in 10 years: begin the season 2-0.

Instead, Kansas City built on the play to win Thursday night’s game 27-24.

Watson and his defensive teammates apparently were rejuvenated. Defensive linemen Chris Jones and George Karlaftis chased Herbert throughout the second half, and Mike Danna’s hit on Herbert with 4 minutes remaining briefly sent him out of the game.

“The defense kept bringing it and bringing it,” Kansas City coach Andy Reid said.

Herbert returned and finished with 334 yards on 33-of-48 passing, with three touchdowns. Patrick Mahomes – perhaps missing Tyreek Hill, his top threat from a season ago who was traded to the Miami Dolphins in the offseason – racked up 236 yards and two touchdowns on 24-of-35 passing.

But it was Watson who delivered the heroics. His time at home with his mother made him realize how badly he missed football.

Watson had a couple of scholarship offers from small schools but chose instead to go to Ventura College in California, where he earn JUCO All-American recognition both years.

In 2019, Watson signed with the University of Southern California, but his grades were not in order, and the offer was rescinded. His mother managed a Wendy’s and put him to work.

“I learned resilience,” Watson said. “Nothing was ever given to me, and I think that’s my edge. I bring hunger. I bring anger to the football field.”

At 6-foot-2 and 196 pounds, Watson impressed his teammates in training camp – and not just because of his physical gifts.

Last season with the Cougars he had four interceptions and eight fumble recoveries.

“He’s confident; I mean, that’s big when you’re a corner, because you’re going to get beat sometimes, and you’re going to have to step back up,” Mahomes said. “He’s a big, tall corner, physical, gets his hands on you, but he’s fast enough to run. He’s someone that’s made plays. Whenever his number’s been called, he’s made plays.”

When Watson found out that he was starting, he called home and made sure there was a hometown crowd in Arrowhead Stadium for his first NFL start.

Did his boss from Wendy’s make the trip?

“Yes, my mom showed up,” he said. “Not my boss from Wendy’s.”

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