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 National Football League draft.In the stands 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. “I owe a lot to them and 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.
Last year Capital News reporter Warren Henderson had a chance to speak with Watkins about how his career started, and in light of the draft news we’re bundling that in our Watkins coverage.
Okanagan Sun offensive line coach Paul Carson admits he was befuddled as to why Danny Watkins would want to play football.
For starters, the 6-foot-4 Mt. Boucherie grad grew up in hockey arenas and on rugby pitches. Watkins hadn’t played a single down of football before arriving at the team’s training camp in the summer of 2006.
At 22, the West Kelowna native was also several years beyond what is considered a reasonable age to begin learning a game as complex and demanding as football.
On top of it all, his true passion was firefighting, a career he was in the throes of pursuing.
Still, there was Watkins in 2006, curious, raw and inexperienced, practicing with the Sun and trying to absorb a new sport from scratch.
“I wondered why at 22 he wanted to come in for one year of football, it just didn’t seem to make a lot of sense…I thought maybe it was for social reasons or something,” said Carson. “He came in and he knew nothing, it was square one, but he wanted to learn. He was a good looking athlete, too. He lacked any experience or any real understanding of the game, but he absorbed the position and technique very well.
“Anything Danny’s accomplished since then is all a credit to him,” Carson continued. “In sports, you can go that much farther if you’re a good person. He was a good kid and a well adjusted young guy with a good attitude, but there was no reason to think at the time he’d end up where is now.”
An appendicitis attack prevented him from ever appearing in a game with the Sun that summer, but it would only be a temporary setback in the unlikely story of Danny Watkins and his meteoric rise to prominence in the football world.
Less than four years after strapping on the pads for the first time, he has evolved into one of the most highly-touted offensive linemen in all of U.S. college football.
An offensive tackle for the Baylor University Bears in Waco, Texas, the ultra-fit 310-pound Watkins is high on the radar for next spring’s National Football League draft.
A recent poll ranked him second among O-lineman in the Big 12, one of the NCAA’s most powerful and respected conferences.
Not surprisingly, Watkins has also been making waves north of the border as last month the B.C. Lions selected the 25-year-old fourth overall in the CFL draft.
“It’s an honour and a privilege getting drafted by the Lions,” said Watkins. “It’s where I grew up, I watched them as a kid, so it was kind of weird to see my name up there. That kind of thing doesn’t happen to many people. It almost feels like it happened to someone else.”
But because a potentially lucrative NFL contract awaits Watkins next year, the Lions know there’s a strong chance they will never see the strapping lineman wearing B.C. orange.
Still, head coach and GM Wally Buono said players of Watkins’ talent are rare and the risk is worth the potential reward.
“I think he was the best player in draft,” said Buono. “Playing left tackle at a high level of football demands a lot of a player…he’s a very mature, bright football player and he has the right disposition, the right mentality for that spot on the field.
“Today we have his rights,” added Buono. “If he’s drafted in the NFL next year, we’ll deal with it then. If he can make it down there, then God bless him. But for me, the risk is well worth the reward.”
Considering how innocuously it all began, Watkins had no reason to believe his original foray into football would lead him anywhere beyond the Apple Bowl’s practice field, let alone to the apex of the American college game.
“I think it was (Sun players) Mac Wynsouw and the Blanleil boys who told me I’d be a monster if I played football,” said Watkins who, despite not playing in one game, was named the Sun’s most popular player in 2006.
“I said ‘What do I want to play football for ?’ But I thought, sure I’ll give it a try and see what happens, see if I can get a year out of it. So I went out and started to learn the game from coach Carson. Then I got hurt, had surgery and that was it. It’s kind of weird how fast it’s gone by. I have really good memories of my time with the Sun, as short as it was. It’s hard to believe where it’s all led me.”
At the time, football was simply a minor diversion as Watkins’ focus remained squarely on firefighting. He had been working and volunteering as a fireman, mostly with the Westside Fire Department since he was 17 and hoped to turn his passion for the profession into a lifelong career.
Captain Lionel Bateman, a 13-year veteran of the West Kelowna Fire Department, has been a mentor and friend to Watkins for the past eight years.
Bateman said the qualities he sees in Watkins as a fireman have translated well on to the football field.
“When he first came here was a just a kid, but you saw some really good qualities in him right from the start,” said Bateman. “The No. 1 thing we look at is livability and type of person he is, because in this business you spend a lot of time with people. Firefighting has that team-sport aspect to it, and Danny fits right in. He’s just a good guy, hard working and fun to be around. You can see why he does well in a football environment.”
In 2007, Watkins was ready for the next step in his career as a firefighter and planned on attending the Fire Academy at Butte College in Chico, California.
It seemed like the ideal scenario as his girlfriend at the time was attending nearby Fresno State University.
And just like his former Okanagan Sun teammates, she recognized Watkins’ athletic potential.
“I remember she told me at the time that no one else looked like me, there’s no one that moved or looked like me around there. She said I had something special. I didn’t know it at the time but I guess I had the tools to play football. If somebody had told me then I’d have chance to get drafted in the NFL, I would have said they’re crazy.”
So with a renewed interest in football, Watkins tried out for and made the Butte College Roadrunners. As football required much of his attention, firefighting would take a back seat, although he was still able to combine fire studies with general arts classes.
On the football field, it didn’t take long for Watkins to make an impact. By 2008 he was an all-American and had helped lead Butte to a 12-0 record and the national junior college championship.
The fact that Watkins had virtually no experience probably worked in his favour, according to Butte offensive line coach Rob Snelling.
“He didn’t know much when he got here, he was even a bit naive, but he was a good athlete and he had a good work ethic and he had no bad habits,” said Snelling. “You look at guys who have five or six years of competitive football before coming to this level, and he learned it all in two seasons. He did very well with his studies, too, he finished all his academic requirements in a year-and-a-half. He came here as an older, more mature guy so that helped him a lot.”
Even before his breakout year of 2008 had begun, calls were already cascading in from NCAA Div. 1 programs.
Watkins estimates he had been contacted by no fewer than 50 big-school coaches between the spring and fall of 2008.
“Coach Snelling told me it was going to get intense,” said Watkins. “It was ridiculous, I was getting stressed out about it. I would get home after being on the road and there would be 14 new messages on the phone, people wanting to talk to me. But the coaches were all really good about it, so that helped a lot. And it was exciting. So I kind of got used to the attention.”
Eventually Watkins narrowed the list of candidates down to five schools—Cal Berkley, Arkansas, Hawaii, Florida and Baylor.
After visiting all five, Watkins found his choice to be a relatively easy one.
“It was funny, I said one of my requirements was I wanted to play somewhere where it was warm,” Watkins said with a laugh. “All of them were great schools, but I based my decision on the people. I was there only five hours when I said, ‘This is the place.’
“I met J.D. Walton (the Baylor centre) and we hit it off right away. Coach (Art) Briles and coach (Randy) Clements welcomed me with open arms. I knew it was the right thing to do.”
The fact that Watkins would be taking over at Baylor for high-profile left tackle Jason Smith was an added bonus. Smith, a second-overall draft pick of the St. Louis Rams, had recently signed an eye-popping $62-million NFL contract.
Watkins proved himself a worthy replacement and was soon garnering accolades and attention from every corner of the nation.
Baylor assistant line coach Jeff Lebby said Watkins has compensated for his relative lack of experience with his physicality, his thirst for knowledge and a simple desire to succeed.
“The greatest thing about him is that he’s motivated on a daily basis, he asks great questions, writes everything down at the meetings, and he’s eager to know what he needs to learn and do,” said Lebby. “He has great passion and we all love to be around him. He comes ready to go every day.”
“He’s incredibly physical, too,” added Lebby. “He’s a great left tackle, he gets after it, and he can be nasty—all within the rules of course—but he can be nasty when he’s out there because that’s what the position requires.”
What makes Watkins’ even more impressive is that left tackles often bear the brunt of the responsibility for protecting an offense’s most important player—the quarterback.
It means playing against the opposition’s most talented and athletic players on a weekly basis. Lebby said the manner in which Watkins finished the 2009 Big 12 season was nothing short of spectacular.
“We went down and played at Texas A and M in the last game of the season and they had the leading sack guy in the country (Von Miller) going up against Danny,” said Lebby. “Danny got after him real hard and it wasn’t long before (Miller) just wanted to get off the field. If you look at the last four or five games on tape, Danny played them all at a very high level and just kept getting better and better. We have the best league in the country for big guys and Danny leads the pack.”
Watkins will play one more year at Baylor, then will find out next spring where his football career will lead.
Barring injury or any unforeseen twists in his career, Watkins will likely be drafted in the first two rounds in next year’s NFL draft, and fame and fortune are sure to follow.
It’s been a lot to absorb for the big, amicable guy from West Kelowna but Watkins is doing his best to keep it all in perspective.
“It’s been crazy, I’m still kind of in shock,” said Watkins, whose parents, Todd and Vicki still live in West Kelowna. “I never, ever thought I’d be playing in front of 100,000 people or thinking about an NFL career. It’s unreal, it’s been a lot of hard work and stressful, but it’s been fun too.
“I try not to look too far ahead and like the captain (Bateman) told me, don’t look too much at the big picture, just focus on the task at hand,” Watkins continued. “Everyday I work towards that and try not to look too far down the road. I consider myself very lucky to be where I am right now.”