Going from the gridiron to the garage has been a recent trend in NASCAR. For Asa Watson, the journey to get here has been a long and arduous path.
Four years ago, Watson was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a heart condition that led to two separate surgeries. Just over a year ago, he was cut from the New England Patriots after going undrafted in the 2014 NFL draft.
Did he let that deter him? No.
Is this where Watson expected to be after college?
“I would say no,” Watson said with a laugh. “I didn’t see this coming at all. But what I have learned is that life isn’t about your destination, it’s about the transition. How you’re able to take it on and adjust to what God gives you makes you who you are.
“I could say not making it in the NFL makes me a failure, but there’s a lot of people who don’t even get that opportunity. I’ve learned that God’s plan for me might not be football, but it led to a different career for me.”
Rather than landing with a new team after being released by the Pats, Watson looked at other avenues. Despite never watching a race in Rock Hill, South Carolina, the 6’3″, 236-pound tight end found a new home with Roush Fenway Racing.
Nothing sobers up a young pit crew member like being thrown in during Speedweeks before the Daytona 500. Serving as a rookie jack man for Bobby Labonte, the 2000 Sprint Cup champion, Watson missed an assignment when he jacked up the passenger side for two right-side tires after his radio went out.
“It’s a completely different environment chasing around a car rather than a football,” fellow crew member Josh Patch said. “But Asa seems to have it down. He’s exactly what pit crews are looking for. They want more and more athletes because they are so versatile. We’re used to strenuous work and getting beat up.”
Patch knows all about the transition Watson is experiencing. As a former defensive tackle for Wingate, Patch found a home with the Roush Fenway development team as a gasman. Ironically enough, that’s the one position on the crew Watson never wants to man because of the danger involved.
However, if there’s one person prepared for the risks of jumping over the wall in NASCAR, it’s Watson.
“I feel like there’s more risk playing football than running out in front of a car,” Watson said. “In a lot of ways I feel safer jacking up a car than running across the middle against a safety or linebacker. There’s a lot more happening and a greater chance of ending your entire season on one play.”
After working with Elliott Sadler in the Xfinity Series, Watson now spends every Sunday with Go Green Racing. Serving as a crew member for a team with a rotation of drivers, Watson has slowly come into his own in the pits.
“It has definitely been an adjustment for me, but I feel like I’m growing and learning something every week,” Watson said. “I’m not quite as wide-eyed about things that are happening. I know what to expect now, which helps me to perform better.
“Don’t get me wrong, I still have a lot to learn. But each weekend is a new comfort level for me.”
What area does he still need to improve upon? That one is easy for Watson.
“The mechanical part of the job has been the most difficult part for me,” he said. “Obviously I have the physical and mental side from football, but there’s no machinery on the football field. (Laughs) If one part is off, the team falters for it.
“That’s a lot of pressure. Luckily, playing in front of thousands of fans in the ACC prepares you for that.”
Stepping away from the sport he loved and grew up playing was a difficult one. Especially when his brother, Ben Watson, is still thriving in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints. However, Watson said it was the best decision for him to start young in a career that he admits won’t last forever.
Does he ever miss running on the field for a huge game at Carter-Finley Stadium?
“Only every day,” Watson said. “That experience will always hold a special place in my heart. Every time I played for the Pack it was special. Seeing the players run on the field now is emotional for me because I still want to be a part of that.
“I still love football. I still love NC State. But I also understand that I had my opportunity and know that I’ve been afforded another great opportunity to prove my talent.”
That talent already has him working with a Sprint Cup team during his first season over the wall. Where his journey takes him next should be as compelling as the steps he took to get to this point.