Picking a fireman caps strange day

Posted: April 29, 2011

The lights were on all through the NovaCare Complex early Thursday night. They were on in the war room where the Eagles' player-personnel brain trust readied another deep-thinking assault on the college draft, and, for a change, the lights were turned on in the locker room, too, as Andy Reid fluffed the towels and made sure everything looked nice for the players who might wander in soon.

One of the guys who will be stopping by very soon is Danny Watkins, a 26-year-old with more experience at fire protection than pass protection. A native of British Columbia, Watkins played hockey and rugby growing up and worked five years as a fireman before heading to a California junior college to study fire science.

There's no record on how he did with the classes, but the football coach liked the looks of him just fine, and two years later he found himself playing offensive tackle at Baylor. The end of that improbable story, and the start of a new one, culminated in the first round of the NFL draft when the Eagles took him with the 23d pick.

"We hoped he would be there," Reid said. "He's got a toughness and a blue-collar attitude. Being a fireman delayed his football career. His body hasn't gone through the beating-up process."

Obviously, Reid isn't familiar with the sports of hockey and rugby. But, anyway, it was such an exciting day for Watkins, no one had the heart to tell him the Eagles get rid of players when they turn 30. That gives him at least three good years with the team, though, and maybe he can be the guy who breaks the pattern.

"Play time is over when the game starts," Watkins said. "I like playing tough and physical. It's how I grew up playing sports. In hockey, you're looking to hit someone. In football, the guy is six inches from your face. So, someone's got to win that battle, and I like winning."

Reid said the 6-foot-3, 310-pound Watkins probably will be a guard for the Eagles and is capable of winning a starting position right away, assuming there is an NFL season. That's good news for Watkins. If he had to wait four years to get a shot at starting, he'd either be a very late bloomer or Kevin Kolb.

As for Kolb, who should have been the bait for a long night of fishing in the first round, the Eagles, like all the other teams, could trade only picks, not players, because of the ongoing labor nonsense.

So they went with the old motto of keeping their pick and simply taking the best guy on the board. In this case, it was an older motto than most. That's all right. Watkins may prove all the doubters wrong, and it was a kind of strange day overall for the NFL, even by the league's recent standards.

The first round of the draft coincided with the league's decision to comply with a court order and at least temporarily lift the lockout. The players under contract can return to their place of employment Friday, although it is unlikely that many will. They won't start getting paid for their workouts at the complex until Monday and, well, principles are one thing, but that $130 is another.

The players who return Friday might not be back for long. The legal fights have many rounds to go, and the NFL has to win one eventually. Maybe it will come from the National Labor Relations Board, which still has to determine whether the Players Association was only pretending when it said it wasn't a union anymore. Maybe it will come from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis, a three-person panel that could trump Judge Susan Richard Nelson's ruling that the league's argument for the lockout had more holes than the Eagles' run defense.

The players are banking their biggest hopes on winning the antitrust suit filed with Tom Brady and Drew Brees as the figurehead complainants, but that's a tough fish to land, and the timetable for that one - also to be heard by the Eighth Circuit - could reach July.

Everything before that is just rubbernecking at the wreck by the side of the road, even if the players will be getting paid to lift weights and watch film in the interim. It doesn't get a new contract, and without a new contract, there isn't going to be a new season.

The league will announce guidelines Friday on the rules for player movement - free-agent signings, trades, tryouts - but the draft won't be affected. The Eagles go back at it starting at 6 p.m. with the second round. They already have a new player who knows what to do when the action heats up, and they are one-quarter of the way to collecting the entire Village People.

"When we had a couple of high-pressure games and the boys were getting all worked up, I say [to them]: 'Trust me, boys. It could be worse,' " Watkins said.

That's the voice of experience - and is it ever.

Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com and read his blog at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/bob_fords_post_patterns/



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