March 4, 2009

Watkins tackles next step in winding road

Every now and then, Danny Watkins catches himself sitting in class, gazing at a map and asking himself, "How did I get here?"

"Here" is Baylor. And how he arrived in Waco, Texas about 2,000 miles off his charted career path isn't as much a mystery as it is amazing.

After all, nothing is mysterious about a 6-foot-5, 290-pound offensive tackle getting a scholarship to play football. That's an annual occurrence that's repeated over and over.

But Watkins never expected it to happen to him, probably because he never played high school football. And because he's already reached an age (24) when most college players have completed their playing careers. And because he's Canadian.

To be clear, that doesn't mean he's from Canadian, Texas the home of Oklahoma defensive end Auston English, whom Watkins likely will be counted on to block in Big 12 play.

Rather, he's the hockey playing, metric-system using, Celsius-following genuine article who never intended to pursue anything but a career as a firefighter. Yet here he is 2,500 miles (about 4,000 kilometers) from home, ready to step into the starting lineup to replace the best player Baylor has produced in more than decade.

"It's still kind of a shock," Watkins says. "Two years ago, if you had asked me if I would be playing Division I football and in the Big 12, I would have laughed and said, 'What is that?' "

The improbable path to Waco started in Kelowna, British Columbia, a city of about 45,000 about 240 miles east of Vancouver. Watkins grew up there, and after high school began working at the West Kelowna Fire and Rescue Department on a "pay-per-call" basis.

At first, he was almost like a mascot. The guys in the fire hall liked having him around and taunting him unmercifully for everything from the size of his feet to hearing his father call him "Doogie."

"He was 17 or 18 when he first came around," says Capt. Lionel Batmen, who became something of a second father. "He was a big kid and he wasn't in the best of shape. But you knew if he got in a gym working out with that frame, he would become a monster. Now, you look at him and he's turned into that monster."

Watkins really wanted to be a firefighter. Opportunities were limited, though, and Batmen said firefighters in his area usually don't get full-time jobs until their mid-20s. But Watkins was determined and eventually received a scholarship to attend the Fire Academy at Butte Community College in Oroville, Calif. A Fire Science degree would enhance his career and could lead to becoming a fire chief.

"I wanted to advance my career with the fire department," he says. "The guys I worked with at the fire hall were great. That's something I want to do the rest of my life."

But life changed at Butte. At a friend's suggestion, Watkins decided to try out for the football team though he'd never played the sport.

"I had always played hockey in Canada and was involved in staying physically fit," he says. "I never played before, but I thought it would be a great thing to do to stay in shape. I ended up playing and starting every game at left tackle."

Watkins earned a four-star rating from Rivals.com and was the No. 39 junior college prospect in the nation. He definitely was No. 1 at the fire hall in Kelowna.

"First, we heard he made the local team," Batmen says. "Next thing you know he's going off to Texas. We are all ecstatic and proud of him. He's earned everything he's got. I know for a fact that he's a hard-working kid. But he has a great heart, that kid."

Maybe the success shouldn't be that much of a surprise. Watkins obviously has the size to play big-time football. Hockey has made him tough. And ice skating would seem a good way to develop nimble feet.

"I definitely had a bit of a learning curve," Watkins says. "But the coaches at Butte took me under their wings and developed me into a player Division I coaches would want. It definitely took a couple of weeks to get used to the tempo and what was going on. But it's funny in hockey you go out looking for the big hits. In football, you know it's coming."

He received scholarship offers from California, Arkansas, Hawaii, Kansas and Baylor, which has two other Canadians on its roster. Last year, Baylor signed linebacker Fred Plesius from Lennoxville, Quebec. Guard Philip Blake, who signed this year, is from Brampton, Ontario.

"We started recruiting [Canada] about five or six years ago when I was at Houston," Baylor coach Art Briles says. "The thing I appreciate most about them is they are grateful to play American football, they're great students and they have great desire and discipline. Those are qualities you look for in people in general, not just student-athletes.

"Most of them haven't played that much, so they don't have bad habits. If we teach them wrong, it's our fault."

Briles says he believes Watkins can be a standout.

"We've seen all the upside we need to see," Briles says. "He plays physical by nature and we like that. We brought him in to be a starter."

Baylor desperately needs him to be a starter. Both starting offensive tackles from last season's team have completed their eligibility, including All-Big 12 selection Jason Smith, who is projected by some as a top-five pick in April's NFL draft. No Baylor player has been a first-round selection since Daryl Gardener in 1996.

Though Baylor hasn't made a bowl appearance since 1994 and hasn't managed a winning season since 1995, there is an optimistic atmosphere in Waco this spring. The Bears posted four wins last season, and three losses were by a touchdown or less. Eight offensive starters return, including sophomore quarterback Robert Griffin, who passed for more than 2,000 yards and rushed for more than 800 in '08. Baylor needs reliable offensive tackles, though.

"We feel good about the pieces we're getting," Briles says. "We'll be fitting them together trying to make it happen. And [Watkins] is one big piece right in front of us."

Watkins is expected to replace Smith at left tackle, and Smith has been working with him this spring to ensure that the torch is smoothly passed.

"We've been watching a lot of film together and he's been teaching me about the spread offense, technique and stuff like that," Watkins says. "I definitely have big shoes to fill."

Briles said Watkins can fill them.

"He's going to get great knowledge from Jason," Briles says. "And he's physically gifted enough to fill his shoes. They're not filled yet, but the shoes are on. They're just not tied."

A new tradition

There was a time when wide receiver Jerry LeVias, a native of Beaumont, Texas, ignored the old Southwest Conference primarily because he thought it would ignore him.

"You didn't pay any attention to the Southwest Conference because you knew you couldn't go there," LeVias said in 1997. "It was like the Southwest Conference? Who cares? Big deal. We paid attention to Syracuse, Nebraska and Oklahoma. We would pay attention to who had black athletes. I didn't even know what an Aggie was."

Ironically, LeVias became one of the brightest stars in the conference in the late 1960s, for SMU. He was the first black to receive an athletic scholarship in the SWC, then earned all-league recognition in 1966, '67 and '68. He also made athletic and academic All-America teams and still holds SMU records for receptions and receiving yards in a game and receiving yards in a season. He went on to play six seasons in the NFL.

To honor LeVias' contributions, SMU coach June Jones announced this week that starting this fall, a deserving player will be chosen to wear LeVias' No. 23. The first player to earn the honor will be announced April 23.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




 

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