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Feature Wed Apr 29 2015

Chicago Fire's Matt Watson on Art, Veganism & Playing for a Living

Chicago FireIt's a Monday night and I'm sitting in the Chicago Diner with Matt Watson, the English midfielder with the Chicago Fire a month or so into his second year playing for the club. We're at Chicago Diner—perhaps the city's premier meat-free eatery—because Watson is a vegan and has been meaning to try it out since arriving from Vancouver last March. But at present it seems a bit of a fool's errand, as our conversation has gotten off to a running start and Watson has hardly had a moment to pause and bite into his Buddha's Karma Burger, a curried sweet potato sandwich that captured his attention straightaway.

It seems though that whenever I let up with my questions to give him a chance to eat, Watson still has something more to say. He's a gregarious person; curious, open, funny, all in ways that one doesn't expect to find in a professional athlete. It's quite refreshing honestly, and so the conversation just keeps flowing. Before the end of the night we've covered serious ground — not unlike Watson does on the pitch — chasing topics in every direction from discussing our mutual love for "The Walking Dead," to heady talk about whether art and souls actually exist, even stopping briefly to figure out what is going on with Jay Electronica's rap career (Watson has had to give up on the underground sensation ever releasing a proper album).

In fact, the entire conversation is so engaging and laid back at the same time that I almost forget to ask Watson about the real reason that I've brought him out, which is to talk about his journey as a professional soccer player, the one which led him from his native England to the United States through its many levels of professional play to where he is today. It can be very easy to get pulled in several different directions when talking to Watson which, when one compares his personality with his playing style, all makes perfect sense. The playful tenacity that he exhibits chasing opposing teams around the field is part and parcel with how he treats life.

matt watson chicago fire soccer
Photo courtesy of Chicago Fire

Born in Bromsgrove and raised in Redditch in the English midlands, Watson says that his love for soccer happened very early. The sport was never just a game to him, but a true obsession, leading to hours spent practicing outside in the traditionally rainy English weather. Eventually Watson would join the Wolverhampton Wanderers' youth system with an eye toward playing the game professionally. However, at age 19 he was released from the squad, a move that others might see as effectively putting an end to his top flight dreams but not Watson. You see, Watson is perhaps one of the most laid-back people you may ever hope to encounter, so he took the move in stride. "I go with the flow." He tells me, even though as much is already apparent. "When I was told I was getting released it probably hurt my parents way more than it did me. I was like, well I've always been very laid back, so whatever would have been next is next."

Shortly after being released he was made aware of a combine being held in Manchester, giving players the opportunity to try out for coaches representing American colleges and universities. Watson went, and ended up being offered a scholarship to play at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County which he accepted, moving stateside in 2004. It was there that he would meet and fall in love with Cat Ward, who would later become his wife and mother to his three children. It was also there that Watson would choose to challenge himself further by leaving school and going professional.

Before we get to there though, Watson and I are talking about the elephant in the dining room: his veganism. It can't be understated how rare this is among professional athletes, so much so that it can be hard to point to other current professional athletes who keep a strict vegan diet. Perhaps the only other individual practicing this at such a high level is Pat Neshek, a relief pitcher with the Houston Astros who went vegan in 2007; however, accounts of his diet in the media seem to have dried up in the past five years. In a realm where one must continually push their body to the limit, seeking to replenish spent calories quickly and easily is a must. As such other major team sport athletes who profess to be vegetarian or vegan end up only practicing a sort of vegan-adjacent diet, supplementing a majority of plant-based foods with lean proteins like chicken and eggs.

Watson is a different story altogether. He came to the vegan life in a rather roundabout manner, and his commitment to the diet has grown steadily over the last four years. For starters, as Watson is quick to explain, it wasn't really even something that he was aware of prior to starting out on the diet; it was more a baptism by fire of sorts. "It never really crossed my mind before," he tells me, in between bites of his sweet potato burger. "I never really thought of it, but once my eyes were opened to it, it was hard for me to ever look back."

The long version is this: In late 2011 when Watson was playing for the Carolina RailHawks of the newly-formed North American Soccer League, his teammate and friend Akira Fitzgerald adopted a vegan diet. Watson's eating habits were by contrast admittedly abysmal at that time, consisting largely of fast food, but he was soon given a very convincing reason to reform them. RailHawks head coach Martin Rennie had been cherry-picked to become head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps following their rather disastrous inaugural season in MLS under coach Teitur Thordarson. Watson saw this as his best opportunity to make the jump from the lower leagues of the sport to the big time, and set out to get into his best shape ever. Step one of that was to reform his diet, and somewhere along the way it became more than just a healthy option.

"It is the best choice for my body and I think it's the best choice for humanity in general." Watson tells me, in typically earnest fashion. "I think that's the way it's supposed to be for me. Everyone's quick to protect people, but as far as animals go, we just forget sometimes. We've kinda disassociated ourselves from that side of things."

After our chat I end up uncovering a Twitter post from Watson's original vegan catalyst Akira Fitzgerald, wherein the goalkeeper — now playing for New York City FC — confesses to having given up the diet as far back as 2012. It looks as though that old saying, the one about the student becoming the teacher, holds some truth.

Watson and I continue to talk about quite literally everything. Like the differences between his new home turf, Chicago, and his previous city, Vancouver. Our conversation on the subjective nature of fashion, manages to touch on Jermaine Jones, Young Thug, and Childish Gambino, before going off the rails entirely as we attempt to dissect where it all went wrong for Lil Wayne. I say it was Wayne's long-term abuse of lean, or purple drank, while Watson believe that it has more to do with lack of cohesion on Weezy's albums following The Carter 2. In this instance, I think we might both be right, but Watson's point is easily the more artistically sound.

As Watson is an avowed Arsenal supporter, I have this need to ask whether he finds it hard to root for the England national team now that North London rival Tottenham's forward Harry Kane is being vaunted as the country's new savior. The answer to that is a surprising one, as Watson professes that he can't really support the England national team, being that for him it feels weird to despise players from other Premier League teams week in and week out, only to root for them when they don the Three Lions' shirt.

But again, there we go. Off on a tangent.

Milkshakes are ordered once the meal has concluded. This is because we're in a vegan restaurant and everything on the menu seems bathed with the radiant sheen of healthiness, even if it contains the words "chocolate chip cookie dough." I am now getting to the heart of the conversation with Watson, and I ask him about playing for the Fire. But first, he has a great story about head coach Frank Yallop that is ultimately illustrative of Watson's personality as well. The short version is this: In his first year playing for the Carolina RailHawks Watson was approached by Yallop — in his previous stint as head coach of the San Jose Earthquakes — who made him an offer to sign with the team. Because of a contract loophole involving the folding of the team that owned his rights, Watson would have been able to simply leave Carolina and sign with the Quakes without incident. He chose to stick with his moral compass and see out his obligations to both the RailHawks and his burgeoning family at the time, only to finally be picked up by Yallop some five or so years later.

When Watson tells me that this year's Fire locker room is one of the better he's been a part of, I'm inclined to believe him. Not just because of his demeanor, but also because he's been a part of so many teams along the way, playing in pretty much every league in the North American soccer pyramid. He says that there is a new feeling about the team since last year, that even small things like the lockers being reassigned numerically have helped to shake up any preexisting dynamics. There is also a collective sense of accountability that the entire squad has bought into which Watson credits as a major part of the team's newfound success, and that has given him high hopes for the remainder of the season.

I feel it as well. Even though he's a persistently positive person, I can tell that there is more to it than that. This is not just artifice for my sake. Because despite the long journey Watson has had with the sport to here, he isn't trying to convince me. Or himself. He has gotten where he is today by just going with the flow, following whatever current of energy that life has given him. I think back to something that he told me earlier in the evening, when we were discussing the difference between his stated atheism and his wife's more spiritual interpretation of the world.

"It's more like we define the same things differently," he explains when I press him. "when she talks about God, I guess that, without sounding too cliche, that the universe is kind of my god, like the power of the universe essentially. The not knowing in the way that the galaxy works, I find is something amazing."

It is in that statement that I find the truth about Matt Watson. As a player he can be often seen as something of a journeyman, this hard worker who has toiled and risen steadily through the ranks. But to hear him put it, it has never been work to him, always play. He regards the world with a gaze of youthful wonder. He is a person of many passions, from art and design, to his family, to the sport that has taken him halfway around the world, all of which has benefited him immensely. Moreover, Watson doesn't seek to understand or control that wonder, he chooses instead to revel in it.

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Jeff M / April 30, 2015 2:51 PM

Nice read. I hope you can continue with these profiles. Different angle, deeper look of the guys.

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