Steelers coach Mike Tomlin calls undrafted free agent running back Terrell Watson “Nightmare,” a playful nod to Watson’s alma mater. Watson attended Division II Azusa Pacific, which became famous a generation ago for producing Christian Okoye, the former Kansas City Chiefs running back who became known as the “Nigerian Nightmare.”
Watson plays a little bit like Okoye with his downhill running style, but this “Nightmare” has a story of his own that is worth telling.
Watson was abandoned when he was a few weeks old. His troubled mother left him on the doorstep of a home in Oxnard, Calif., hoping the people who lived there would care for him.
“You see that all the time in movies and on TV shows, but you never, ever think something like that will happen to you,” Billy Watson said.
But the woman didn’t drop off her son at any random home. Billy Watson spotted the woman as she left. It was his 15-year old daughter.
Billy Watson and his wife, Janice, were busy enough raising their own 3-year old son, Billy Jr., but within a few weeks they decided to adopt Terrell and raise him as their own son. In the end, it wasn’t much of a decision for them.
Money was tight on his carpenter’s salary, but they were going to make it work. They knew their daughter couldn’t care for him, and they believed Terrell deserved to be raised by family.
“It was just by the grace of God that we were home that day and did what we did,” Billy said. “The way I feel is no kid should be left behind — black, white, green or blue. They all need a chance.”
Twenty-four years later, that’s all Terrell Watson is looking for with the Steelers — a chance. He is on his fifth NFL team since entering the league in 2015. He was a Division II star, rushing for 4,756 yards, including 2,153 as a senior in 2014, when he led all NCAA players.
But that wasn’t enough to get drafted. Watson latched on with Cincinnati after the 2015 draft and spent the season on the Bengals’ practice squad. He was on the Browns, Broncos and Eagles practice squads last season before being activated to the Eagles’ 53-man roster for the regular-season finale against the Cowboys.
In his first NFL game, Watson carried the ball nine times for 28 yards and scored on a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter of a 27-13 victory in Philadelphia. Billy and Janice flew in for the game.
“My grandparents are awesome,” Terrell said. “They made me into the man I am today. I can’t see my life without them. They’re my grandparents, but they’re my mom and my dad. People think it’s weird or unique, but for me, they’re my mom and dad forever.”
Terrell has only sporadic contact with his birth mother. His biological father died when he was in middle school.
The bond with Billy and Janice makes up for any void in his life. They might be 2,516 miles apart at the moment, but Billy and Terrell are as close as any father and son could be. Terrell calls him after every training camp practice to let him know how he’s doing.
They talked about Billy and Janice flying out for the preseason finale against the Panthers in Charlotte because Billy is originally from North Carolina, but Terrell persuaded them to wait. He knows there is uncertainty about his future.
Watson learned that the hard way. After his successful Eagles debut last season he figured he’d have a real chance at making the Eagles roster again this season. But shortly after the draft, they released him.
Watson had a tryout with the Steelers and signed a futures contract. He is competing for a roster spot with veterans Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis, as well as Trey Williams, another undrafted free agent who boosted his stock with a 64-yard punt return against the Falcons.
Watson led the Steelers with 44 rushing yards and scored a touchdown in the preseason opener against the Giants, but he didn’t play Sunday against the Falcons. That was by design, as Tomlin wanted to evaluate rookie James Conner, who missed the first few weeks of camp with a shoulder injury.
“With James not working and Le’Veon (Bell) not working, we’ve seen a lot of Knile and a lot of Watson,” Tomlin said. “They didn’t do anything wrong. We needed to see some of the other guys. I communicated that to them. They understood that. Over the course of this journey that is the preseason, we’ll get an opportunity for everyone to show what they’re capable of. We’ll get a good accounting of their capabilities and then make necessary decisions.”
Watson, who turned 24 Tuesday, remains very much in the mix for a spot on the roster or practice squad. Tomlin has been vocal about his desire to improve in the red zone, and the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Watson was better at that than any college football player from 2011-2014. He scored 78 touchdowns in his college career, including 29 during his senior season, eclipsing the records Okoye set at Azusa Pacific from 1983-86.
Watson met Okoye once during his college days. He doesn’t knowingly mimic the “Nigerian Nightmare,” but he’s fine with Tomlin’s nickname.
“That’s how I always ran,” Watson said. “We had this thing in high school called ‘99 yards.’ It was offense vs. defense. We’d go 99 yards down the field. That’s where it developed, doing that in high school over and over. That’s just my running style. Who doesn’t like to score, right?”