TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Menelik Watson’s multi-sport odyssey has taken around the globe the past five years. And now his next step appears to be the NFL.
Florida State’s junior right tackle has just 20 games of football experience, but Watson has indicated to friends that he will opt to leave school early for the NFL draft.
His path to the NFL is among the most unlikely. Watson grew up playing basketball in Manchester, England, before later moving to Spain to play for a youth team. And after two years of basketball at Marist, he took up football for the first time at a junior college in California before becoming a sought-after recruit who chose Florida State.
He allowed just one sack in 12 games for the Seminoles in 2012, helping protect quarterback EJ Manuel and paving the way for an offense that accumulated more than 6,500 total yards.
Watson never saw himself as a football player, but he could soon be playing professionally. He was a rugby fan, although he never had enough money to play the sport, and a basketball player who was 6-foot-6 and more than 300 pounds.
He landed in the U.S. at Marist and often took a break from studying and playing basketball to watch the football team.
“Even when I was young, people used to always tell me, ‘When you go to America, people are going to make you play football,’ ” Watson said after Florida State’s win over Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl. “And I said, ‘I ain’t going to play football. I don’t like it.’ I was a rugby guy. At Marist, I used to go to the football games there, and I knew I could play the sport. I just needed the right coaching.”
Watson made up his mind. Basketball, he said, had been his life. But at Marist, he was frustrated that the team was losing so much. Watson scored 4.7 points and had 3.3 rebounds per game, but the Red Foxes finished his redshirt freshman season 6-27. So after two years at Marist, he said goodbye to basketball.
He found that fresh start across the country in Mission Viejo, Calif., at Saddleback College. Watson had never played football before. Never lined up to block anyone.
But he had little trouble with football. And in just a few games, the Division I programs were pursuing Watson. He chose FSU in January 2012 over schools like LSU, Oklahoma and Auburn.
He wasn’t sure how prepared he was and how things would go at FSU. But that first day went well at right tackle. And his confidence grew in the searing August heat.
“When I made the decision to switch over, I said, ‘I’m going to give it everything I’ve got,'” Watson said. “If it didn’t work out, it didn’t work out. If I came here and I couldn’t handle it, I tip my hat and say thank you and roll on.
“It’s all mental, really. If you tell yourself you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it. First day, it was faster and stuff, but you have to adjust.”
Watson adjusted. He was challenged by defensive ends like Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine and, while learning from his mistakes, often held his own. He also found the coaching that he needed from offensive line coach Rick Trickett, who is well known for his tough love.
Trickett dished it and Watson took it. He knew that Trickett was trying to teach him and make him better.
“That guy is unbelievable,” Watson said. “The mental part of the game, technique-wise the guy is a perfectionist. That guy cares. The biggest thing for me is I try to care more than he cares.”
Watson and Cameron Erving cared. They had never played a down of Division I football on offense going into September. And they were sure to get beaten on plays by defensive ends with speed and experience.
FSU was going into the 2012 season with two wild cards at each tackle spot. But protecting Manuel soon became of little concern because they often held their ground.
Erving graded out at 73 percent in his final six regular-season games. Watson graded at 76 percent and allowed just one sack.
“Each time before we go out there, they are like, ‘EJ, nobody is going to touch you,’ ” Manuel said. “Going out there, running on the field, it gives me a lot of confidence.”
FSU’s offense certainly had its shaky moments, but the running game racked up a school-record 40 rushing touchdowns. And Manuel threw for 3,392 yards, the second best passing season in school history.
Offensive linemen like Watson can take pride in those numbers and the results: 12 wins, an ACC title and an Orange Bowl win.
Watson found happiness playing football after all. The sport that he once held in disdain is now one he loves.
“It’s been a special year,” Watson said. “I’m just happy for everyone. I’m just glad I could come in and be a part of something special. … It’s like a new beginning. I’ve been through a lot in my life.”