GREEN BAY – The kid who once traveled 1,800 miles from home to live out his college football dreams returns to Tampa, Fla., this Sunday under very different circumstances.
The Packers' Week 3 road trip to face the Buccaneers marks a homecoming for rookie second-round pick Christian Watson, a Tampa native who played high school football only 10 minutes away from Raymond James Stadium.
He wasn't the same 6-foot-4, 208-pound receiving prospect back then. An under-the-radar recruit, Watson hit his growth spurt before his senior year at Plant High School while committing to the first college program that offered him, North Dakota State.
His stock skyrocketed during his four years in Fargo, though the Bison's FCS schedule never brought Watson back to Florida. This weekend, Watson is relishing the opportunity to finally play in front of friends and family.
"It's amazing," Watson said. "There's going to be a lot of my family there, a lot of people I know there. Any chance to play in a game at this level is amazing but it's definitely going to be a fun one at home."
Watson spent a little time around Raymond James as a kid. He attended a few Buccaneers games and even played a peewee championship game at the stadium when he was 7 years old.
After getting suited up in NFL lockers and running out of the tunnel like the pros did, Watson told his mom, Christa, he hoped to one day play in that stadium again.
Only next time, it would be as an NFL player.
"It was as close to an NFL game-day experience for a little kid as you can get," Watson said. "So, it was definitely something that I was hyped about and definitely stuck with me throughout the process in terms of, I definitely wanna be doing this again someday."
That opportunity presented itself this past spring when the Packers traded up to draft Watson with the second pick in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft (No. 34 overall).
Watson missed the first couple weeks of training camp after undergoing a knee procedure in the summer but started his first NFL regular-season game earlier this month in Minnesota.
Given Watson's speed and versatility at North Dakota State, Head Coach Matt LaFleur has already drawn up different ways to get the ball in the hands of his 23-year-old rookie receiver.
Through two games, Watson has touched the ball six times for 50 yards on 62 offensive snaps. In addition to testing defenses deep with his speed, Watson – who unfortunately dropped a potential long TD pass on the Packers' first offensive play in Week 1 – also has been running some of Green Bay's popular pre-snap motion concepts.
"He's still a guy who we're going to try to find ways to get him the football," said LaFleur of Watson. "I'm really pleased with where he is but also know that he's got a long way to go for him to maximize his potential."
The learning curve for receivers has multiple layers in Green Bay, from mastering the playbook and offense to developing trust with quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The NFL's reigning MVP was complementary of both Watson and rookie fourth-round pick Romeo Doubs during Rodgers' weekly media scrum last Wednesday, calling both "good kids" who "want to do the right thing."
Noting how much Watson and Doubs have shown they care, Rodgers went on to say he's "going to figure out a way to continue to get on the same frequency with them." The feeling is mutual on Watson's part.
"Obviously with someone with his experience and the success that he's had, there's a lot of things he wants done a specific way," Watson said. "You gotta play at those standards each and every play if you want to be out there playing with him. I definitely think there is (a different tempo with Rodgers), but that only makes all of us better."
Seeing the bigger picture, Watson says he doesn't view Sunday's homecoming game any differently than a typical road trip – even if there are a few more people cheering for him.
"I'm just excited to be able to go out and play in Florida," Watson said. "It's been a while since I've played out there and just to have a big support group out there, hopefully ball out."