Firefighting past will serve Watkins well

BY Peter Schrager • April 11, 2011

You’ll have to excuse Danny Watkins if he didn’t grow up idolizing NFL offensive tackles Anthony Munoz, Orlando Pace and Jonathan Ogden. You see, as a kid growing up in Kelowna, British Columbia, he had other athletic heroes to look up to. Guys like Trevor Linden, Pavel Bure and Sergio Momesso.

At 6-feet-3, 315 pounds, Watkins’ Canadian heritage and love for the Vancouver Canucks aren’t the only reasons why he’s far and away the most interesting man in this year’s NFL draft. The fact that he’s the seasoned age of 26, a former firefighter and a junior-college-transfer-turned-All-Big 12 selection certainly helps his cause, too. His personal story and unlikely path to this year’s NFL draft is as unique as any prospect’s journey in recent years. The long and winding road? Yeah, something like that, if you add in a few burning buildings and a couple of dalmatians.

When Watkins graduated Mount Boucherie Secondary School — a high school in West Kelowna — at the age of 18, he opted to take a little time off before heading to college. For most recent high school graduates, that means a two-month backpacking trip around Europe or a job bussing tables in the local pub. For Watkins, it meant four years earning paychecks as a firefighter.

Watkins fought fires by day and often slept in the firehouse at night. His fire captain, Lionel Bateman, suggested Watkins consider enrolling in fire science classes at Butte College, the same junior college Aaron Rodgers once attended in California. Watkins did so, and soon the towering 6-foot-3 student caught the eye of the school’s football coach, Jeff Jordan.

Two years later, he was starting at left tackle for Baylor, replacing Jason Smith, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft. And now, in 2011, at the ripe old age of 26, he’s considered a potential first-round pick.

Baylor coach Art Briles raves about Watkins — as a player and as a man.

“Here’s the thing with Danny,” Briles said in a phone interview earlier this week. “Chronologically, he’s 26 years old, but physically — he’s probably got an 18-year-old’s body. He’s a 26-year-old mentally and emotionally, a man in every sense of the word, really. But as a football body? Wow. He’s completely fresh.”

Briles added, “Other offensive linemen’s bodies have been under the wear and tear of 10 years of playing competitive football and battling it out at the line of scrimmage. Danny’s body, though, is still unscathed. It’s avoided the aches and pains of a decade of playing football in the trenches. So, yes, he’s 26. But the potential there is incredible.”

As for his love for firefighting? Should that be viewed as a positive or a negative?

“It’s absolutely a positive,” Briles said with conviction. “We were fascinated by it when he first got to Baylor. He spent offseasons fighting fires back home, and on Sunday nights after Saturday games, he’d be at the local firehouse here in Waco (Texas). What we quickly came to discover was that the very same skills that made him a fantastic firefighter make him a tremendous offensive lineman. He has a calmness and confidence under duress that you just don’t see every day. He’s always in control. He’s always cool under pressure. He's accountable, obviously, too.”

Though Watkins played tackle at Baylor, scouts and front-office personnel have projected him as a guard in the NFL.

“He’ll be fine at either spot,” Briles said. “Danny is a grown man that you simply don’t have to worry about. He’s a tremendous person, a leader, and has the strongest hands we’ve ever seen. He’s got no off-the-field issues whatsoever and he will be a 10-year starter in the NFL starting with his first day on the field. Plug him in, let your tailback run behind him, and enjoy the next decade of having him on your offensive line.”

Watkins will be in New York for the draft later this month, and he’ll have some special guests by his side. In addition to Briles being there, Watkins is bringing five of his fellow West Kelowna firefighters along with him for the biggest weekend of his life.

"They're guys you'd never forget," Watkins told The Vancouver Sun last week. "They're the guys who have been with me since the beginning, when I was just a young, immature kid. They've taught me a lot. . . . They've become very close friends. I wish I could bring a lot more of them, but I don't have a lot of money yet."

The money will come. The respect is already there.

A Canadian, hockey-loving, firefighting, 26-year-old man with a big heart and the strongest hands we’ve ever seen?

Forget the 2011 draft, Danny Watkins might just be the most interesting man in the world.

Remember when: Forgotten moments in NFL draft history

Last week, we went back in time and dissected the 49ers’ 2000 decision to select Hofstra’s Giovanni Carmazzi over Tom Brady. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and we found that at the time of the selection, just about everyone alive (outside of San Francisco quarterbacks’ coach Greg Knapp) had Carmazzi rated above Brady as an NFL prospect.

This week? We put the 1998 draft under the microscope. The hallmark selection of the ’98 draft that we always hear about is Ryan Leaf going second overall to San Diego. However, 13 years later, I’m far more fascinated by the 16th overall selection. With Randy Moss still on the board, the then-Tennessee Oilers opted to pass on the 6-4 physical freak of nature and college All-American, and instead, went with another receiver — Kevin Dyson out of Utah.

People hear Dyson’s name and immediately think of arguably the two biggest plays in Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans history: The Music City Miracle and The Tackle. In truth, he was a decent NFL receiver and had a nice little career before a knee injury cut it short in 2004. A starter with Tennessee for five seasons, Dyson finished his six-year NFL career with 178 receptions and 18 touchdowns. Not bad, considering Jeff Fisher’s offense was a run-first attack.

Not bad, no, but certainly not 954 receptions and 153 touchdowns — Randy Moss’s career numbers.

Of course, it’s easy now to kill the Titans for passing on Moss and taking Dyson, but we must realize that 20 other teams passed on the future Hall of Famer that day, too.

There were no questions about Moss’s physical abilities at the time. Sports Illustrated scribe S.L. Price described him in 1997 as, “the most gifted player in college football.” But there was a spotty past surrounding the uber-athletic Moss. As Price wrote in that same SI piece, “Certainly no player in college football bears more stains on his name.”

Moss’s rap sheet? As a high school senior with a scholarship offer from Notre Dame, he got involved in a racially motivated fight and kicked a white classmate on the ground. Moss pleaded guilty to two counts of battery, which brought a 30-day jail sentence and a year's probation. The Irish refused Moss' enrollment application after the incident.

So, he enrolled at Florida State. Considered a transfer student, he was redshirted for the 1995 season. But he got caught smoking marijuana and was booted out of FSU. Then, later in 1996 while he was at Division I-AA Marshall, both he and the mother of his newly born daughter were charged with domestic battery in a dispute. The charges later were dropped.

When the Titans acquired Moss off the waiver wire 12 years after passing him up in the ’98 NFL Draft, Jeff Fisher explained to reporters last November, “Our personnel department decided that Kevin Dyson was a better fit. Randy has had a terrific career, he’s a Hall of Fame receiver. You don’t always make the right decision. The draft is an imperfect science. We’ve had No. 1's that haven’t panned out for us before.”

But it wasn’t like everyone outside of the Titans front office was absolutely sold on Moss at the time. Yes, 20 teams passed on him, but there was more to it than just his checkered past. Beyond the character concerns, there were questions about his toughness, too.

Reading Paul Zimmerman’s mock draft from the ’98 draft issue of Sports Illustrated, the always-opinionated Dr. Z had Moss going 15th to Seattle, writing, “Actually, I'm really sure — that Moss will be a bust — but I'm too polite to say it. I have yet to see him do one tough thing on the field.”

Reading through the Monday morning articles recapping the ’98 draft, there were very few reporters all too “shocked” or “stunned” to see Moss slip to 21st overall. To be certain, Matt Leinart going 10th overall in 2006 and Brady Quinn falling to 22nd overall in 2007 seemed to be far more newsworthy draft-day surprises. Remember, this was fresh off Lawrence Phillips, the sixth pick in the ’96 draft, fizzling out of the Rams’ lineup after a string of off-the-field incidents.

Even at 21st overall, the selection of Moss was viewed as a bit of a gamble for the Vikings, a team in desperate need of defensive help. After the ’98 draft, Peter King wrote in SI: “I think everyone is forgetting one thing about Randy Moss. It isn't only that Moss could leave a team in the lurch if he implodes in a year or two. It's the salary cap consequences. If, say, some team gives Moss $4 million to sign over five years, and this team has to cut him after one year, then all the prorated signing bonus (about $3.2 million) immediately comes due on that team's cap. So it's pretty dangerous to take a guy who, if he's not trustworthy, could really hurt your cap."

It’s amazing to think now, but at the time, Dyson was actually the “safer” pick over Moss.

Then again, how many Super Bowl winning teams were built around drafting only the “safest picks” year after year?

A guy you've never heard of whom you should get to know

Week 1 subject: Greg Salas, WR, Hawaii

Week 2 subject: Blaine Sumner, DT, Colorado School of Mines

Week 3 subject: Isa Abdul-Quddus, DB, Fordham

Week 4 subject: Cecil Shorts III, WR, Mount Union

This week's subject: Julius Thomas, TE, Portland State

The Saints struck gold in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft, rolling the dice on Jimmy Graham, a tight end out of Miami who recorded just 17 career receptions in one year of college football. Of course, the 6-5 Graham was a well-known prospect in a different sport — basketball — in which he was a four-year contributor for the Hurricanes. Though some feared Graham’s football skills were still too raw to make him worthy of an early round pick, he proved his doubters wrong with a fantastic rookie campaign, scoring four touchdowns in the Saints’ final four games. With Jeremy Shockey now in Carolina, Graham will be the Saints starting tight end in just his third season of competitive football.

Whether it’s been Graham, San Diego’s Antonio Gates, New York’s Kevin Boss or Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez — the list of college basketball star turned NFL tight ends is fairly long. This year, we can add Julius Thomas to the list.

A 6-5, 245-pounder out of Portland State, Thomas set school records for career games played (121) and career wins (78) . . . in basketball. After he played four years of college ball and twice was named to the Big Sky All-Tournament team, he walked on to the college football squad in 2010. He had just one year of high school football experience.

In his one year on the gridiron at Portland State, Thomas earned All-Big Sky Conference honors with 29 receptions and 453 receiving yards. But he really raised scouts' eyebrows in Orlando at the 2011 East-West Shrine Game, where he excelled in blocking and receiving drills, drawing comparisons to Packers tight end Jermichael Finley. Thomas, who still has a lot to learn, loves the game of football and shows true passion for it on the field and off. So why did it take him until his 20th year of life to actually play the game competitively?

“In high school I had a lot of success in basketball. They said don’t play football, you’ll get hurt and you are being given a scholarship; be safe about it,” he explained at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. “So, I didn’t really have an opportunity to play football in high school. In college, for the two-sport athletes, it works well for a football player to play basketball. But for a basketball player, football season goes halfway into November, so they didn’t allow me to play. It was always if I had my redshirt year left, then they would want me to go on and play football.”

Thomas is considered a seventh-round prospect, but if we’ve learned anything, it’s that the NFL is a copycat league. The success of Graham, Boss, Gonzalez and Gates can only help Thomas and his draft status. I can see the former hoops star getting scooped up by a tight end-hungry team as early as the fourth or fifth round.

Schrager draft projection: Fifth round

“On the Clock" trivia question of the week

The Buffalo Bills haven’t had a top-three overall draft pick since the 1985 draft. Who’d they take with their first-rounder that year?

Answer below.

Reader email of the week:

Peter,

Lifelong frustrated Browns fan, here. Though I was only 7 years old at the time, I remember exactly where I was for Red Right 88. I was in the building for “The Drive”, cried for hours after Ernest Byner’s fumble, and traveled to Pittsburgh for our last playoff appearance. That, of course, resulted in yet another heartbreaking loss. One thing I still haven’t done is attend the NFL draft. We have the sixth pick. I’m thinking about hopping in the car with a few friends and making a weekend out of it. Total waste of time? Oh, and can we crash on your couch in New York?

Freddy T., Lakewood, Ohio

Freddy,

If you love the NFL, you’ll love the draft. Plain and simple. It’s pretty much Comic-Con for all the NFL diehards across the country. You’ll meet, mingle, cheer, boo and heckle with not only all the other hundreds of Browns fans in attendance, but with all the different fans following the NFL’s 31 other franchises. Last year, I saw Bengals, Browns and Ravens fans arm in arm, in unison like a band of brothers, chanting “Big Ben’s a rapist” when the Steelers were on the clock. It was a thing of beauty.

At that moment, I knew world peace was possible after all. If you can make the trip to New York and don’t mind sitting indoors in a dimly lit room for 40 hours in one weekend with a bunch of pale men wearing Elvis Grbac Chiefs jerseys, I can’t endorse an event any more than the NFL draft. I love it. I think you will too.

As for you staying on my couch, you’re welcome to. I just have three rules:

1. No whining about LeBron James.

2. No Drew Carey reruns clogging up my DVR.

3. No late-night sob sessions over Tim Couch and Brady Quinn.

And bring some baked goods. I like baked goods.

“On the Clock” Trivia Answer of the Week:

With the first overall selection in the 1985 NFL draft, the Buffalo Bills selected defensive end Bruce Smith out of Virginia Tech.



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