Eagles' draft pick Watkins: This hoser is no poser

Posted: June 15, 2011

WEST KELOWNA, British Columbia - The accident was a bad one, a car and a truck smashed together, people injured, awaiting rescue. The first responders from West Kelowna Fire and Rescue had a problem.

The truck's hood was crumpled. The firefighters needed to disconnect the truck's battery, with fuel leaking and the battery arcing sparks against the fender. Plus, the still-connected battery meant damaged, undeployed air bags might suddenly inflate in the middle of the rescue. That could be as lethal as igniting fuel.

The men pried and tugged. The hood wouldn't pop open.

Finally, as his fellow firefighters scrambled to find a big enough pry bar, Danny Watkins stepped up to the truck. Watkins put his hands on the outside edges of the hood and yanked. Metal screeched. And then, there was Danny, holding the detached hood, while another firefighter quickly secured the battery.

"When the front end is smashed, it's so hard to get into it," firefighter Nathan Cureatz, who had been one of those guys tugging on the stuck hood, was saying last week. "I've never seen anything like" what Watkins did.

Asked recently if he remembered that call, Watkins says he did.

"It was pretty hairy," he says. "The battery was shorting out. I didn't have time to grab a tool, I just did what had to be done."

The qualities that have made Watkins valuable to the West Kelowna firefighters - not just the brute strength, but the presence of mind, the focus, the resolve and composure under pressure - also helped make him the Eagles' first-round draft choice in April, 23rd overall. It wasn't a happenstance pick, because someone else was already taken. The Eagles had called the Watkinses a week before and said they'd likely draft Danny in the first round if New England didn't get him first, choosing six slots earlier.

Watkins, 26, is older and has less football under his belt than any of the other 253 players drafted in 2011. The word "unique" gets thrown around a lot. But in the NFL universe, Watkins is just that. You probably know the outline of the story: Grew up playing hockey in Canada. Joined the hometown fire department at 16. Went to California to take a junior college fire science course. Tried out for the football team. Earned a scholarship to Baylor. Started for 2 years on the offensive line. Went from a projected middle-round draft also-ran (partly because of his age) to a first-rounder, when coaches and scouts intrigued by his dominance at Senior Bowl practice took a closer look at his Baylor tape, then had him in for interviews.

"He's got a toughness, and a blue-collar attitude," Eagles coach Andy Reid said the night he drafted Watkins. Reid said the lack of wear and tear might counterbalance concerns about Watkins' age.

Given the path Watkins has taken to Philadelphia, it's almost a miracle he's here. But if Watkins wins a starting-guard job as a rookie, which is what the team expects, then has a long and productive career as a bulwark of the line, that will not be a miracle, say the people Danny Watkins grew up around, on the shores of the Okanagan Lake, in the enchanted area often referred to as Canada's Napa Valley.

"Danny, when he came to us as a firefighter, one thing that always stood out to me was his work ethic, and his desire to do a good job at what he's doing," says Capt. Lionel Bateman, a mentor and family friend. "If he wasn't good at it, he'd work until he was . . . If I was in trouble [at a fire] it would take everything possible to keep him from coming in to help me out."

Bateman says more than a few young men wander down to the fire hall, to see if this might be a job they'd enjoy. Watkins, he says, stood out in ways other than stature.

Capt. Troy Russell agrees. "His size was noticeable, but his personality was noticeable. He made a lot of friends" quickly, Russell recalls. "Strong and dependable . . . As a company officer, if you would say, 'Danny, I need you to do this,' he would come back when the task is done."

Brent Livingston trained as a firefighter with Watkins.

"As a friend and a social person, he's very goofy. Some might even think he's irresponsible. But when you see Danny in the jobs he had before he went away to college - like he worked for the water district - he was so steadfast and responsible," Livingston was saying last week. "Whenever he's given a challenge or given a job to do, he takes it seriously. He'll do his best. He doesn't want to let anyone down. When he gets put on a football team, a coach comes to him and says, 'Danny, this is your job.' He takes that very seriously."

Capt. Lyle Young adds: "He doesn't get stressed out by it, either. The challenge can be daunting . . . The stress might limit other people's capacity to act, but he's got sort of a relaxed demeanor, that he doesn't overthink it."

Why wouldn't a guy 6-3, 310, with long arms and a solid base, grow up blocking for quarterbacks? Partly because there weren't any high school football programs in the Okanagan region. Watkins grew up cramming his size-17 feet into hockey skates, because that's what young athletes do in Canada.

On any given Sunday, they'll pass

Several firefighters sit around a formica-topped table in the Station 31 fire hall in West Kelowna. Young, athletic-looking guys. How many of them regularly follow the NFL, a reporter asks? Heads shake. Finally, Livingston speaks up. He has developed an interest in the Miami Dolphins, in much the same way a Philadelphian might settle on a Premier League soccer squad to follow.

Many Americans, when they think of Canada at all, imagine it as a colder, quainter version of the United States, the main difference being the inflected "eh?" at the end of most declarations. But there are more crucial distinctions. Among them is a near-total obliviousness to the league that dominates the U.S. sporting discussion.

There are no Canadian franchises in the NFL, unlike in the other three major sports, and only four players from Canada have ever been selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Watkins was the first since running back Tim Biakabutuka in 1996.

"Football's not a big thing up here," says Allie Watkins, Danny's sister. Allie, 10 months younger than her brother, teaches preschool in Vancouver. "I didn't know anything about football," she says, until she saw Danny playing for Butte Junior College near Chico, Calif.

Canada's ESPN is TSN, which has a "SportsCenter" show formatted just like the U.S. version, complete with breezy patter between the co-hosts. Except, one day last week, the lead story on TSN was the Stanley Cup finals. The second story was Binghamton winning the Calder Cup, the championship of the American Hockey League. Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James came later.

Todd Watkins, Danny's father, said Sunday afternoons in the Okanagan are for "boating, maybe a little yard work."

It's hard to fault people for being outdoor-oriented in a spot where, as Danny's mom, Vicki Watkins-Rigden recalls, families often pick a spring weekend afternoon to see if they can snow ski and water ski the same day. And of course, there is the long shadow hockey casts. Danny Watkins will have to make more than a few Pro Bowls to unseat former Canucks captain Trevor Linden as the area's most famous pro athlete.

"Most people tune in to a Super Bowl sort of thing, but hockey is just so dominating up here," says Young, as on the other side of the Station 31 room, Game 4 between the Bruins and Canucks stood frozen, paused until the reporter left and the firefighters could give it their full attention.

New career path

Even after Danny transitioned to Baylor and became a starting left tackle, the idea that he was going to make a career out of this pursuit seemed strange to his family and friends.

"He would tell me, 'I'm going to get drafted,' and I would tell him, 'No, you're not, you can say whatever you want,' " Allie says, laughing.

Livingston recalls when he and Danny were completing their certification - "running laps around the track and running stairs," Livingston says. Did Livingston ever envision his training partner as a future pro athlete?

"That wasn't on Danny's radar, so it certainly wasn't on anyone else's radar," Livingston says. Though around that time, a lacrosse team recruited Danny as an enforcer, Livingston says. "He came to the hall with his face looking like hamburger a few times . . . He played hockey, he played lacrosse, and then, firefighting's got an athletic side to it. He picks it all up very easily. He can move, for a big man."

Todd Watkins said he never entertained any grand athletic aspirations for his son, though Danny was bigger and stronger than most kids from a very early age.

"To me, that was always leisure," says Todd Watkins, who earns his living driving a road grader, which he outfitted with a satellite radio so he could hear Danny's Baylor games. "Leisure hockey, leisure football, that's fine. You don't let it get in the way of work."

Even when Danny got the scholarship to Baylor, Todd Watkins says, one of his thoughts as a dad was, "How long does the holiday continue?" before settling into a real job.

Danny's mom didn't fully realize what a big deal Danny's football career was becoming "until the night of the draft," when Vicki found herself backstage at Radio City Music Hall, watching the cameras follow her son.

"I don't know any NFL moms," she says, still seeming a bit overwhelmed.

Danny understands why it was hard for those close to him to accept what was happening. It was hard for him, too.

"Because it doesn't happen to people in B.C.," he says. "It's only happened to four people in the whole country, ever. You don't know how to describe it."

As he accepted the call from the Eagles, Danny had only one regret. His stepfather, Randy Rigden, wasn't there to celebrate, having lost his 2-year battle with lung cancer in November.

"I was really lucky, growing up with two dads," Danny says. His parents divorced when he was 6; Todd Watkins was "Dad," Randy Rigden was "Pop." Randy was the kind of guy who invited Todd along on family vacations, and Todd was the kind of guy who actually went, heading off camping somewhere or to Disney World with his kids, his ex-wife, and his ex-wife's husband.

"I really wish he'd been able to see this out," Danny says.

Where's the fire?

Originally, Danny had planned on attending a Baylor draft party, but then he found he was among the select group invited to New York. From there, he ended up taking along both parents and a group of five West Kelowna firefighters. They were feted by the FDNY and given a tour of Ground Zero. Their new buddies even came to the draft with them, and gamely endured seeing Danny drafted by the hated Eagles.

"That New York trip was busy," Bateman recalls. "I was texting the whole time with my wife" who wanted all the details, he says. "I wanted to say it was the best trip I've ever been on my entire life, but I didn't think she wanted to hear that."

Having his firefighter friends share his big moment was important, Watkins says. No matter how much money he makes in the NFL, his intention is to come back home eventually and work at the fire hall.

"That's always going to be home to me," he says. "Going back home and getting in the fire service."

The attraction, he says, is "camaraderie, just the relationships you have with people."

Livingston says he believes he and Danny think the same way about firefighting.

"It's a family. It's a physically challenging and interesting and exciting job, but it's a family," Livingston says. "You face all kinds of challenges, emergencies and stuff with the guys, and it brings you closer. Afterwards you're doing housework and cleaning and that kind of thing together . . . It's even tighter than a sports team is. Danny got a taste of that when he was 16 years old, and he never wanted to leave it.

"When Danny first went away to college and was playing football, he came back for, I think it was Christmas break . . . We were talking and he was all worried, he was saying, 'I don't know if I should keep playing football, because what if I miss my chance to get a job with the fire department?' He was all worried that he was going to miss his chance to get on with West Kelowna or something. I was like, 'Are you serious? You're getting a free education. You'll get a degree, all this experience playing football, and you'll get picked up by the first fire department after you graduate, no problem. That's the worst-case scenario. The best-case scenario is you'll make 'the Niffle' as you call it.' "

Firefighting in the Okanagan region probably is a little different than firefighting in Philadelphia. Hard to have a rowhouse fire without any rowhouses. During a couple of afternoon hours while a reporter from Philly is visiting, Station 31's only call is to check out an elderly woman who had taken a fall in her home.

But in 2003, the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire destroyed 239 homes and caused $100 million in damage. Burned trees still stand on that ridge, just south of Kelowna, the town of 110,000 that sits across a narrow piece of lake (and a heavily traveled bridge) from the fast-growing suburb of West Kelowna. Three years later, a smaller wildfire threatened the West Kelowna subdivision where Danny Watkins grew up.

Last week, as the engine from Station 31 returns from the trip to check on the elderly fall victim - she was safely shepherded onto a stretcher and into an ambulance - Russell points out the blackened trees from that second fire. He nods toward Gorman Brothers Lumber, the major local employer whose facility practically borders the fire site.

"The guys from Gorman mills came out and worked alongside us, trying to save their jobs," Russell says. They succeeded, he notes.

It's worth pondering that while there is plenty of justified concern about the safety of football players today, Vicki Watkins-Rigden knows what it is like to sit at home by a scanner and wonder if the firefighter calling for assistance might be her son.

His FD friends tend to see Danny as Superman - two of them recently checked to see whether his turnout coat would cover them both, and it did - but being the biggest firefighter isn't always a plus. Danny recalls eagerly running through the front door of a house, only to find himself in the basement, after the floor gave way under him.

But danger isn't the only thing football and firefighting have in common.

Answering the bell

It isn't unheard of for a talented athlete to pick up a sport late and show enough to earn a pro chance. Ex-Eagles offensive lineman Stacy Andrews, you might recall, went to Ole Miss to throw the discus and didn't play football until his junior year. Size and talent count for a lot. But they don't count for everything. One of the reasons Andrews was a huge disappointment in Philadelphia, and finished last season as a Seattle sub, is that he lacked football instincts, technical polish, and maybe a little something harder to define, having to do with really loving a sport that can be grueling to play.

It's hard for a skeptic to get past the fact that Watkins enters the NFL having played only 4 years of football. But people around him don't question whether he has the intelligence, grit and toughness to make up for what he missed.

Bateman's theory is that football and firefighting aren't all that different, in some important ways. Both involve a lot of repetitive drilling, doing something over and over until it becomes second nature, Bateman says. Watkins says he believes this as well.

"Attention to detail" is important in both pursuits, Watkins says. "Just the discipline of it, and the [importance of] relationships you have with people."

Bateman sees something more visceral than that, though, a quality that sets Watkins apart in both realms.

"What makes him a great firefighter, that's going to make him a great player on a team," Bateman says. "He'll be Michael Vick's best friend . . . He'll do everything possible, sacrifice, do what it takes to take care of him."

Just as if the quarterback were a fellow firefighter.

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