Sporting a wide grin, Danny Watkins looked up and acknowledged the hoots and hollers from the upper deck of Radio City Music Hall in New York with an emphatic thumbs-up.
The 6-foot-4, 310-pound West Kelowna product had just been chosen by the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round—23rd overall—of the 2011 National Football League draft.
In the seats Thursday night providing celebratory support were five of Watkins’ friends and colleagues from the West Kelowna fire department, all of whom were invited by the talented Baylor University lineman to share in one of the most significant moments of his life. Much to his surprise, the cheering section also included members of the Fire Department of New York.
“This is unreal,” Watkins said on ESPN. “I knew the boys were going to be here, but they brought others with them. I thought there was going to be a riot.”
Watkins, whose first passion was firefighting, never played football before the age of 22. But on the gridiron he was a quick study and, after two seasons at Butte College in California and two more at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, he developed into one of the most sought after prospects in U.S. college football.
Joining Watkins in New York from the West Kelowna fire department were Fire Chief Wayne Schnitzler, captains Lionel Bateman, Todd Moore, Pat Harmata and firefighter Richard Bliss.
All paid a visit to a Ground Zero, site of the World Trade Center where 343 firemen lost their lives during the events of 9/11.
“These guys have had a hand in helping me become who I am today,” Watkins said of his firefighting colleagues from West Kelowna. “I owe a lot to them and bringing them here this was a way to pay them back.”
Watkins, who was drafted fourth overall last spring by the B.C. Lions, is the first Canadian to be chosen in the first round of both the the NFL and CFL drafts since Mike Schad in 1986.
An offensive tackle during his university career, it’s believed Watkins—a Mt. Boucherie grad—will be converted to a guard at the professional level.
How soon Watkins’ pro career in Philadelphia will actually begin remains in question.
A lockout by NFL teams is threatening the start of the 2011 season.