In 2006, Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora penned one of their more recognizable modern hits titled “Who Says You Can’t Go Home?” Without delving into the history of the song (which featured duet vocals from Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland,) the lyrics convey the sentiment of returning to one’s place of origin. In short, the song’s subject is doing so in search of an elusive fulfillment, unable to be obtained anywhere else. As the song states:
“There’s only one place left I wanna go…Who says you can’t go home?”
Welcome to New England, 2019.
While homecomings in the NFL are far from a rare occurrence, the defending Super Bowl Champions, the New England Patriots, find themselves welcoming back three fan favorites to the Foxborough fold. Linebacker Jamie Collins, tight end Benjamin Watson and special teamer/running back Brandon Bolden have each returned to the place in which it all began. While their reunions with the Pats seemed unlikely at best, each are on the precipice of a new beginning; hopefully brimming with success.
With mandatory minicamp beginning on Tuesday, June 4 at Gillette Stadium, here is a look at the varying roads each traveled in their return to the Patriots.
At the conclusion of the 2018 season, Brandon Bolden once again found himself a free agent. His one-year contract with the Miami Dolphins had reached its expiration, and the seven-year NFL veteran began to assess his potential suitors. However, in Bolden’s estimation, a reunion with the Patriots seemed improbable. He had previously been cut by New England following training camp in 2018. Like many others, Bolden believed his days of playing in Foxborough were long behind him.
Much to his amazement, Bolden soon found that his services were once again required at Gillette Stadium. By his own admission, it was surprising. However, he had, at least, entertained the idea as early as just one day prior. During the first round of OTA in May, Bolden told the media of a conversation, which he had with his wife prior to re-signing with the Patriots.
“It was actually funny, the day before, my wife asked me, she was like, ‘Would you want to go back?’ And I was like, ‘I mean, it would be easy. I know the system. I know everybody there. Even with the coaches leaving, I still know everybody there.’ And sure enough, the next day, I got a phone call, it was great. I’m happy to be back, excited to get back to work.
“I missed this place,” Bolden added. “It’s like home.”
Despite his one year hiatus, Bolden has no doubt that he is returning to the place in which he is most comfortable. While he did enjoy his year in Miami, one thing was always certain. Miami was simply not New England. Sure, the weather was warmer. However, Foxborough offered something that Miami could not…the ability to contend for a Super Bowl championship. It is that competitive spirit that drives Bolden as he prepares for his second tour of duty with the Pats.
As Bolden prepares to return to the field for Patriots minicamp, he is reminded of camaraderie that makes New England his home. Simply put, it feels comfortable. His New England teammates will welcome him back both on the field and in the locker room. However there is one subject that is like unwelcome among his Pats brethren. Bolden was a part of the Dolphins “Miracle in Miami” victory in 2018; a game in which he scored two-touchdowns. Despite his pride in that performance, he knows better than to mention that since his return to New England.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Bolden previously joked with reporters. “I legit don’t talk about it.”
When the Patriots traded Collins in October of 2016, it appeared as if the door for his return had been securely closed behind him. In fact, some might say that the locks on the Gillette Stadium gate had been changed before he had even reached the parking lot. In the midst of the season, Collins was shipped to the Cleveland Browns for a conditional 2017 third round draft pick. While Patriots fans, as well as Collins’ teammates, were taken by surprise, there were some signs that the linebacker might have been wearing out his welcome in New England.
At that time, former Patriots assistant (and current NFL analyst) Michael Lombardi provided some insight on the reason for Collins’ sudden departure from Foxborough. He advised that there were some in the Patriots’ camp who believed Collins gave inconsistent effort, while tending to ‘freelance’ instead of sticking to his defensive assignments. With Collins coming due for a lucrative long-term deal, the Patriots chose to move on from the enigmatic, but undoubtedly talented linebacker.
It was not a decision that sat well with many of his former Patriots teammates, particularly Collins’ good friend and linebacking partner, Dont’a Hightower. Appropriately nicknamed the “Smash Bros’ the duo of Hightower and Collins formed a formidable tandem in the Patriots linebacking corps. Needless to say, Collins’ jettison from New England was still a sore subject with Hightower Despite his personal feelings, he accepted that it was not personal, it was strictly business. Just prior to facing the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI (a game which the Patriots won 34-28), Hightower told reporters:
“It sucked, it’s part of the business and we’ve kind of moved on from it. Obviously he’s doing a good job. He got his contract extended and everything. Everything is going well for him and I obviously wish him the best. We’re here now.”
During his time in Cleveland, Collins played in 30 games, posting 204 tackles and seven sacks. The 29 year-old was released by Cleveland on March 6. It was reported that the team had tried to trade him but were unable to find a suitable deal. As a result, Collins signed a deal to return to the Pats on May 15. Hightower was among the first to welcome the news that the ‘Smash Bros’ were once again joining forces.
While some concerns surrounding his durability and consistency still cloud him, there is no denying Collins’ skill and athleticism. In a 2015 regular-season contest against the Indianapolis Colts, he delivered a block of an Adam Vinatieri extra point that would become a stalwart among the team’s historical highlight reel. The image of Collins athletically leaping over the Colts’ offensive line is one that is still fresh in the minds of Pats’ fans. He was a productive Patriot, tallying 206 solo tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 23 quarterback hits and 10.5 sacks across 50 games (41 starts). In this reunion, head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots are hoping Collins can replicate that kind of impact.
Following the 2009 season, tight end Benjamin Watson left New England via free agency to sign with the Cleveland Browns. After two stops in New Orleans (with a tour in Baltimore mixed in), Watson came out of a brief retirement to sign a one-year deal with the Patriots earlier this month. Much like Bolden and Collins, a return to New England seemed like a remote possibility.
However, following the retirement of Rob Gronkowski on March 24, the Pats had a need for a veteran tight end. Watson had a knowledge of the system, a familiarity with quarterback Tom Brady, and enough left in the tank to provide a boost to the Patriots tight end depth chart. As a result, Watson and the Patriots agreed to terms on a deal to return to Foxborough on May 10, 2019. It seemed to be a perfect match.
The era of good feelings surrounding Watson’s second tour of duty in New England was, however, to be slightly interrupted. On May 27, Watson announced on social media that he would be facing a four-game suspension under the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. Watson had taken a testosterone supplement that was legally prescribed by his doctor, but banned by the NFL. With the assumption that his career was over, Watson chose to take the drug to aid in his healing and recovery.
”After my contract expired last March I told my doctors I was finished playing, went through a series of medical tests and was prescribed Bio Identical Testosterone Cypionate to assist in healing my body and mind,” Watson explained on both Facebook and Instagram. “On March 29, nine days after I started therapy, I was randomly tested under our substance policies. I complied out of habit, never thinking in that moment I’d want to come back.”
Watson, 38, spent the first six years of his career in New England. The Patriots drafted him with the final pick of the first round out of Georgia in the 2004 NFL draft. Upon the conclusion of the 2018 NFL season (as a member of the New Orleans Saints) he seemed content to ride off into the southeastern sunset, to begin the next chapter of his life alongside his wife and seven children. Watson had considered broadcasting and player development opportunities during the early part of the offseason.
Still, the lure of the gridiron beckoned.
As a result, Watson began having second thoughts about suiting up for a 16th season. Although he was a wavering on the decision, he was certain about one thing. Should he decide to return, it would only be for the Saints or Patriots. Shortly thereafter, Watson said he received a letter from the NFL on May 3, informing that he had tested positive for testosterone. Watson was devastated by the news. At that time, he strongly considered a cessation to his plans for an NFL return. After all, his return would come with the caveat of a four-game suspension. He believed that might be considered too steep of a price to be paid by contending teams like New Orleans and New England. Though difficult, Watson was fully transparent about his situation during the negotiation process.
Despite the specter of his suspension, the Patriots decided to sign Watson. While he is disappointed about being unable to immediately contribute to the team, he recognizes the Patriots penchant to take the ‘big picture’ approach. In his statement from May 27, Watson had the following to say about his return to the Patriots:
”This is not how I would want to enter a new locker room and attempt to earn my role on a new team. However, I respect the regulations that have been collectively bargained to promote fairness on the field of play and accept the discipline associated with my infraction. My goals as an athlete, teammate, friend, father, husband and believer have not changed. To live a life of integrity and humility while standing for kindness, justice and righteousness and to serve the people in the cities, regions and organizations that God places me in.”
Per the terms of his suspension, Watson is eligible to return for the Patriots’ Week 5 game against the Washington Redskins.
There’s No Place Like Home
As they say in Foxborough, “We’re on to 2019.” For Brandon Bolden, Jamie Collins and Benjamin Watson, it is a reunion that each hopes will being great success. While it may not be as melodramatic as Dorothy Gale clicking her ruby-slippered heels together three times, each is hoping that the phrase “There’s no place like home” will take on a more poignant meaning. Their season destination is Foxboro. Their postseason goal is Miami; site of Super Bowl LIV. Only this time, the color of which they dream is not ruby red, yellow-brick gold, or even emerald green. Rather, their aspirations beam with the bright glint of Lombardi Trophy-silver.
–Mike D’Abate is a Managing Editor and National Columnist for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots and provides NFL editorial content. Follow him on Twitter @mdabateFPC