Another chapter in the unlikely success story of Danny Watkins will be written next week at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
The 26-year-old offensive lineman from West Kelowna has been projected as a late-first or early-second round pick in the 2011 edition of the National Football League player draft.
Most pre-draft polls have Watkins being chosen somewhere between 27th and 35th spots overall.
“I’m getting pretty excited,” said Watkins. “The worst part is waiting. But whatever the outcome is, whatever happens, it’s all been a pretty pleasant ride for me. It’s still sometimes hard to believe it’s actually happening.”
That Watkins would become one of the most sought after U.S. college players in the class of 2011 once seemed a remote possibility, at best.
The 6-foot-3 310-pound Mt. Boucherie grad had never played a down of football before the age of 22.
He attended Okanagan Sun training camp a few years back, but suffered an injury and never saw game action.
It turned out to be Watkins’ first passion, firefighting, that eventually led him to a career on the gridiron.
While taking fire sciences courses at Butte College in California in 2007, the school’s football coach recognized Watkins’ size and potential and, the rest, as they say, is history.
He played two seasons at Butte, then two more at Baylor University in Texas where he established himself as one of the top linemen in the NCAA.
But through it all, Watkins has never forgotten his connection to the West Kelowna Fire and Rescue Service where he first volunteered as 15-year-old high school student.
Over the next decade, he developed a lasting bond, both with the profession itself and with the people he worked alongside at the local fire hall.
To show his appreciation, Watkins is flying five members of the West Kelowna department to New York next to share his experience.
Fire chief Wayne Schnitzler, captains Lionel Bateman, Todd Moore, Pat Harmata and firefighter Richard Bliss will all stay at the same hotel as Watkins and will be on hand to watch the draft live.
“These are the guys who have been with me through the whole thing, the guys I leaned on when I started out at the department,” said Watkins. “This is my way of repaying them. I’m pretty broke right now, or I would have brought more people. It’s just going to be nice to have these five guys with me in New York.”
Wayne Schnitzler is flattered and excited by the invitation, and thrilled with the way Watkins’ unlikely career in football had unfolded.
“For us this is the thrill of a lifetime, getting the opportunity to be part of what will be a really exciting day for Danny,” said Schnitzler. “It’s simply amazing the way this whole thing has come about for him and it’s been fascinating for us to watch him learn and grow from a teenager into the person he is today.
“The biggest thing about Danny is was he always loved the team aspect of firefighting and the passion he had for that translated well into football.”
As a first or second round NFL draft pick, fame and fortune are almost certain to follow for Watkins.
Still, Schnitzler doesn’t expect it will change his amicable and happy-go-lucky friend one bit.
“He’ll still be the same smiling kid we always knew, down to earth and happy,” said Schnitzler. “Fame’s not going to spoil him. All good kids seem to have that drive to succeed and I have no doubt he’ll handle it very well. It’s still hard to believe how its unfolded.”
Last year, the B.C. Lions recognized Watkins’ talent and drive, and selected him fourth overall in the CFL draft.
However, with the NFL beckoning, it’s unlikely B.C. will ever see Watkins in Lion colours .
Atlanta, New England, Chicago, Green Bay, the Jets, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Cincinnati are among the teams who could call his name next week.
And does Watkins have any preferences on where he’d like his NFL career to begin ?
“They’re all good, it really doesn’t matter,” said Watkins. “But after playing in Texas for two years, I’m pretty sold on the weather down here. I’m not big on the cold weather, but if my luck runs out, that’s the way it goes,” Watkins added with a laugh.
The first round of the draft will be staged Thursday, April 28, with the remaining rounds to be held April 29 in New York.