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"You Don’t Have a Chance to Take it for Granted": The Grind of a UFL Season Described by Tre Watson

Tre Watson knows the sacrifices it takes to play in a professional spring football league. So does his family. Watson had to be away from his family for months at a time for multiple seasons, competing in two seasons of the XFL (now merged with the USFL as the UFL) and two in the Canadian Football League (CFL). Watson spent the 2019 training camp and preseason as an undrafted free agent on the Miami Dolphins roster but did not make the final cut for the regular season. After being waived by Miami, Watson was only hungry for more opportunities.

In the second rendition of the XFL in 2020, Watson was drafted by the Dallas Renegades under legendary head coach Bob Stoops. Watson quickly realized that every player in the league shared his passion for the game and hunger for another opportunity.

“Everyone who's in the XFL or really any non-NFL league you're trying to either get back to that point or just sustain being able to get paid to play football,” Watson said on a phone interview with ThirdDownThursdays.

The shared drive from the players created a unique bond between the teams that isn't as common in the NFL. Most players in the NFL have another paycheck guaranteed. Another opportunity to play football. That’s not the case in the world of spring football. According to Watson, players were able to bond regardless of their career backgrounds.

“While you might be coming from a different situation in terms of your time in the NFL, what your experience looked like, whether you were drafted or not, we're all really in the same boat,” Watson said.

“Obviously not none of us are getting paid a ton. So you're really just playing for another opportunity to keep it going. And that's what makes it special. … I think all the players can really relate because they were all in the same boat. You just want to keep playing as long as you can. And if there's a chance to earn an opportunity to go back to the NFL, that's what you're looking for. So everyone at the end of the day can relate to that.”

Players have to be realistic about their situation in spring leagues. The room for error is minimal. To earn a chance in the NFL, you need to be a star. In 2023, 63 XFL players signed contracts with NFL teams. Only one made an initial 53-man roster. He was a punter. 

For the USFL, only two players made an initial NFL roster. One was a kicker — Brandon Aubrey of the Dallas Cowboys. Spring leagues present an opportunity for players, but there are no guarantees on the other side.

“You don't really have a chance to take it for granted,” Watson said. “You don't have a chance to not give it everything or become complacent because you're not making so much money that, if you do get cut, you're probably good for a year or a couple of years you might get that opportunity bouncing around somewhere else. That's not necessarily the case (in spring leagues).”

Playing in these leagues is mentally taxing. Not only are players fighting to keep a dream alive, but also often stuck in a hotel for months on end. 

“That's a unique circumstance, and some guys are able to make the best of it, other guys kinda can't deal with the fact that you're stuck in one place all the time you go back to the same hotel room all day every day,” Watson said. “So it's kind of up to every guy to, you know, maneuver through those circumstances”

“I don't think anyone is gonna put themselves through being isolated for three, four months of a year, having to sit in a hotel room with another teammate as a roommate for all that time and deal with all these different unique circumstances if they're not serious about the game and serious about trying to earn something out of it.”

After spending the 2021 and 2022 seasons playing for Montreal and Edmonton in the CFL, Watson returned to XFL for the St. Louis Battlehawks in 2023, simply to play in, at the very least, the same country as his family.

“A part of playing in these spring leagues is that you don't really get to spend a lot of time at a true home,” Watson said. “So if you have a family and a home base, there’s a lot to kind of coordinate all that all at one time.”

Returning to the XFL allowed Watson’s family to see him more often and attend a few games, but they were still often separated for most of the season.

 “I have a wife and at that time had one son so throughout the whole season, I'm missing out on experiences while trying to do things that provide for them at the same time. So that was the biggest thing for me is knowing why I was doing what I was doing. And also understanding the gravity of that I'm sacrificing daily moments to be over there. I certainly wasn't the only one doing that”

After being a consistent piece of the Battlehawks defense in 2023, Watson was not brought back to the team’s 2024 roster. He’s still looking to play for a UFL team this season but is yet to receive a call a little over a month from the league's kickoff on March 30. After playing for four seasons, he’s become well aware of the unpredictability with being a spring football player.

“You don't really have a lot of opportunities for mistakes,” Watson said. “You never do in professional sports, but in these kinds of leagues, you have one opportunity to make an impression or you might be out of that opportunity.”

(Main Image via the St. Louis Battlehawks)

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