In his 24 years on the planet, first-round prospect Menelik Watson has tried his hand at several different sports. He was a soccer player as a kid in Manchester, England, rooting on Manchester City over the more popular (and successful) Manchester United. When an ankle injury set him back and a growth spurt sent him forward, he picked up basketball, ultimately earning a scholarship to play at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.
A productive player, but one without an NBA future, the 6-6, 320 pound gave up hoops and turned to boxing. He wanted to be a British-born heavyweight, the next Lennox Lewis, perhaps, and he trained with Oscar de la Hoya. It wasn’t meant to be.
Watson then took his athletic gifts to the most unlikely of places: Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif. At 21 years old, it was time to give football a try.
Less than three years later, Watson stood with a smile — gold tooth shining brightly in the Manhattan sun — at an NFL Play 60 event held right off the city’s West Side Highway Wednesday. His journey hasn’t been traditional, as after a year at Saddleback, he went to Tallahassee to play for Florida State.
It’s a fair question to ask, then, of a 24-year-old athletic nomad: Do you love football?
“Do I love football? Of course I love football," Watson says. "You can’t play this game if you don’t love it. I’m telling you. If you don’t love this sport, you can’t play it. It’s not that type of sport. You can’t just prance around in football. You have to love something about it.”
Watson, who played college hoops 80 miles up the Taconic Parkway at Marist, insists that this is it. He’s a football player. There should be no doubts about his passion. He’s in it for the long haul.
“You’ve got to love the physical contact, the speed, the [expletive] talking — there’s something about the sport you have to love. I love team sports. And football is the right fit for who I am and my personality. It fits my [athletic] skill set.”
The versatile offensive tackle says both the New York Giants (19th) and Chicago Bears (20th) have shown considerable interest in him over the past few weeks. But how does one just adapt to a sport as complicated as football?
Watson says he picked up a lot of the history of the game from Don Butcher, one of his coaches at Saddleback.
“Butch” would sit Watson down and teach him about the leather helmet days, as well as explain things like the invention of the forward pass and the reason the football field is called the “gridiron.” Butcher also went out of his way to educate Watson on the game’s legends. “Dan Marino, Joe Montana, all of the great quarterbacks,” he says, before rattling off names like Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones, and Orlando Pace as the guys he was introduced to on the offensive line.
Though incredibly new to the sport of football, Watson is a longtime veteran compared to BYU prospect Ezekiel Ansah. A native of Ghana, Ansah hadn’t picked up a football until 2010, when he first saw it being played by BYU after he was cut from the hoops team. Three years later, he’s expected to go in the top 10 — the first BYU player to go so high since Jim McMahon went No. 5 overall to the Chicago Bears in 1985.
Nicknamed “Ziggy” by former BYU defensive end Vic So’oto because that’s what the name Ezekiel sounded like when he first introduced himself to his teammates, the 6-5 football wunderkind has had a meteoric rise up draft boards.
A day before the NFL Draft makes him millions and one year removed from being a complete unknown to the draft, he was as cool as a cucumber. Ansah says he was nonplussed when “multiple teams” asked his agent to send them his passport, so they can verify his age.
He insists he “wasn’t upset” by the requests and understands it’s just “part of the process.” He wants to check out the Statue of Liberty and is excited for Thursday’s draft.
Watson and Ansah, two bright international stars, met for the first time this week and immediately hit it off. “He’s a great guy,” says Watson with his impossible to ignore British accent. “We’ve taken different roads, but are both happy to be here this week.”
Along with German-born Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner, the three players could put an international flair on the first round.
As for what we can expect next year?
“I can tell you,” Watson says with a wink, “but it’ll be best to show you. Just wait and see.”