Danny Watkins’ quest to become a better firefighter in his hometown of Kelowna, B.C., has turned into his rapid rise to being rated the second best guard prospect in this year’s NFL draft class.
He went to Butte Community College to complete a two-year fire science degree. He left 18 months later as a good enough offensive lineman to earn a scholarship at Baylor University.
And that’s just the tip of the improbable iceberg that is Danny Watkins, the Kelowna, British Columbia-born blocker who grew up playing hockey and only turned to football after he outgrew his first love.
Watkins was one of the last players to enter the media interview room at the NFL scouting combine on Thursday. He came armed with one of the better stories, one that definitely was worth the wait.
One of the first questions for the potential first-round draft choice as reporters gathered around his podium at Lucas Oil Stadium: Can you tell us your story, for those who might not know?
Watkins cracked a smile and shifted his 6-foot-4, 310-pound frame from one leg to the other before offering, “After high school I started with the fire department, because that’s what I wanted to do. I had some great friends and did that for four years. After that, I went to a school in California to advance my career at the fire department. I met with Jeff Jordan, the head football coach (at Butte) and decided I was going to play football while I was attending my studies there. After two years playing there, I enrolled at Baylor and played two seasons there.
“And it’s just kind of taken off.”
Has it ever. Watkins stepped in at left tackle for Jason Smith, the No. 2 pick overall in the 2009 draft by the St. Louis Rams. He played guard at the Senior Bowl in January. Mike Mayock, draft analyst for the NFL Network, rates Watkins as the second best guard in this year’s draft class behind Florida’s Mike Pouncey.
“He took to the position immediately at the Senior Bowl, putting forth one of the week’s strongest performances,” said Rob Rang, senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com.
Credit his background as a defenseman in hockey.
“A lot of the knee bend and just the way you put your feet in the run game, it’s very similar to skating,” Watkins explained. “And then obviously moving backwards in hockey, that’s something that came very natural to me in pass protection as well, because in football you’ve got to move backwards and bend your knees and sink your hips.
“So a lot of it has been able to carryover and work in my benefit.”
A hockey and rugby player in high school, Watkins didn’t even watch football. He was all about the Vancouver Canucks and “Hockey Night in Canada.”
“Growing up, I was a true Canadian hockey kid,” he said.
What happened? “When I was in my grade 12 year, I was 270,” he said. “And there weren’t too many 270-pound hockey players.”
So football it was, but only after his time at the firehouse.
“A lot of stuff I learned at the firehouse has carried over to this,” Watkins said. “I went in there very young, at 17-years old. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a great bunch of individuals. They kind of took me under their wing and matured me and molded me into what they wanted.
“I feel that’s helped me in the football transition.”
With this multilayered story, however, comes the fact that Watkins is 26. Regardless of how unfazed he is by his advanced age.
“Well, I don’t have arthritis,” he said, cracking another smile. “I feel pretty good. I was doing my physical today and I was one of the first guys out of there. I don’t have anything wrong.”
Watkins actually views his age as being something right.
“I’m a little more mature, I think, than the other guys,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a negative.”
How does the NFL feel about a 26-year-old rookie?
“It’s all positive,” he said. “I haven’t heard one negative think about being 26.”
But it is a factor in the evaluation process – especially for teams selecting in the second half of the first round that could use a versatile, physical offensive lineman; like the Seahawks.
“He had a very good Senior Bowl. But you’ve got to understand that guy, three years from now, is going to be close 29 or 30 years old,” Minnesota Vikings vice president of player personnel Rick Speilman said. “So how long is that guy going to take to develop before he’s ready to go on the field?
“It’s not like taking a 20-year old and by 23 he’s going to hit. So he’s an extremely talented football player and you weigh that in a little bit, but you also recognize what he does on the football field.”
Again, Watkins does not see the fact that he has played only four seasons of football as a negative.
“I feel like my skill level just keeps improving every year,” he said. “So I think there’s still quite an upside. As for my peak performance, it’s hard to say where that will come or when that will be.”