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Sourth squad offensive lineman Danny Watkins of Baylor, walks off the field following Senior Bowl NCAA college football practice in Mobile, Ala., Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011. Watkins stands out from most of the other Senior Bowl players, and not just because the Baylor offensive lineman is a 26-year-old Canadian. He also has logged more time as a fireman (five years) than a football player.(AP Photo/Dave Martin) (Dave Martin/The Associated Press)
Sourth squad offensive lineman Danny Watkins of Baylor, walks off the field following Senior Bowl NCAA college football practice in Mobile, Ala., Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011. Watkins stands out from most of the other Senior Bowl players, and not just because the Baylor offensive lineman is a 26-year-old Canadian. He also has logged more time as a fireman (five years) than a football player.(AP Photo/Dave Martin) (Dave Martin/The Associated Press)

ALLAN MAKI

A Kelowna firefighter eyes NFL fame Add to ...

Yes sir, he says politely. Danny Watkins is honoured to be attending the NFL draft at New York's famed Radio City Music Hall, where the Rockettes have danced, Sinatra crooned and where New York Jets' fans have demonstrated they're not above booing their team's first-round pick.

Who can top his tale? Former hockey-playing Canadian firefighter first tries football at age 22 (he wasn't a big fan of the game, he explains) then veers south to Butte College in Northern California, earns a Division 1 scholarship from Baylor University and becomes a projected first- or second-round NFL draft pick. All in a four-year span.

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The good thing, Watkins explains, is that after being measured, weighed and asked all manner of questions these past two months, he'll finally know which team he'll play for. "So I can get going and get to work," he says.

But far better than that is what will happen after he becomes NFL property. Along with five of his closest friends, Watkins will head south from New York's Avenue of the Americas, past Union Square and New York University, past Little Italy and Chinatown all the way to Ground Zero. There, they will pay their respects; five firefighters from Kelowna, B.C., and the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Watkins, the guy who used to sit at the back of the fire truck and "be on a nozzle working a line" long before he became a prized football player.

"It'll be pretty overwhelming being at Ground Zero. I can't even imagine," Kelowna fire captain Lionel Bateman said of their pending visit to the site where 343 firemen lost their lives. "Firefighters are a brotherhood. We're family, and Danny is a part of that family and we're always there for each other."

Danny Watkins was going to be the biggest, best damn firefighter anyone had ever seen. That was his dream 10 years ago, before the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. He walked into the West Kelowna Fire Hall and asked if he could sign on as a 16-year-old recruit.

Today, he's something altogether different; a National Collegiate Athletic Association-trained, Big 12 Conference football star and the owner of the most improbable story at this month's NFL draft.

His rise to prominence is next to urban legend. The stuff of disbelief. And yet Watkins was almost a natural. His overall athleticism was beyond the norm for men his size. He had quick feet and could set up fast for pass blocking. He was smart, knew his assignments and was a tenacious worker.

Baylor head coach Art Briles describes Watkins' tale as "pure storybook" but gave several reasons as to how it happened.

"He didn't have any bad habits when he got here. We were able to work with him on his technique and Danny's very coachable," Briles says. "He's also got a fresh body. He hasn't been beaten up for 12, 14 years already like a lot of guys. What I really liked about him was his toughness and how calm he was in pressure situations. That came from being a fireman."

Watkins' run to football glory was centred on what mattered most to him. While working at the Kelowna Fire Hall, he wanted something to do to stay in shape so he tried football. (He had physically outgrown hockey by then.) And through football, he found many of the same elements akin to firefighting, a sense of teamwork and the pursuit of a common goal.

Not that Watkins was convinced football would amount to what it has. His gridiron introduction came with the Canadian Junior Football League's Okanagan Sun. He never played a game, only practised. His teammates laughed the first time he tried to put on his equipment without a clue. Helmet here, thigh pads how?

"He was a great kid who didn't interfere with what we were trying to do," Sun assistant coach Paul Carson said. "He left for a time because of appendicitis."

"I couldn't play and the team would be leaving at 6 a.m. by bus to go to a road game," Watkins remembered. "I'd go out to see them off. They were my friends."

From there, Watkins enrolled at Butte College, where he took firefighting courses. Once again, football became an outlet until he got so good at it people began talking to him about his future.

"The funniest part was him being so naive," recalled Butte assistant coach Rob Snelling. "He'd say, 'Do you think I have a chance to go Division 1?' And I'd say yes and he'd be, 'Really?' I'd say, 'You'll probably get about 15, 20 offers.' And he'd go, 'Really?'

"After the first year at Baylor he said, 'Do you think maybe I can get to the NFL?' I said, 'We'll see what comes of it.'"

At Butte, Watkins helped the 2008 Roadrunners go undefeated and win the junior college national championship. The offers from the bigger schools came flooding in and Watkins, unsure of what to do, called Bateman for advice. It was given whole-heartedly, "Take football as far as you can. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

So Watkins went to Baylor and polished his game, and the more the NFL scouts learned about him, the more they liked his ability to play tackle and guard along with his maturity, on and off the field.

"Yes sir, I was raised to be respectful," said Watkins, whose parents divorced and whose stepfather died of cancer five months ago. "I think the life skills I got at the Fire Hall got me to where I am today, the integrity, discipline, accountability. I can remember the [emergency]calls would come and you got an adrenalin rush. You were with those guys all the time, snow and rain, good and bad, helping people. It's like I'm going to have my offensive line with me at the draft."

Watkins did more than invite Bateman to the draft along with four other former co-workers (Fire Chief Wayne Schnitzler, captain Todd Moore, firefighters Richard Bliss and Pat Harmata). He is paying their way with money he may not see for some time given the NFL's labour strife. It's a minor detail. What counts is paying back the men and the profession he so dearly cherishes, something he may have been born to do.

"He was an active member of our crew and we were on a medical call where a gentleman had passed away," Bateman said. "I had to get the guy - he weighed about 250 pounds - onto the ground to try and resuscitate him. I was getting ready to take his ankles and have Danny take his arms. But Danny picked him up off the bed and gently put him on the ground. I was amazed by his strength."

Some day, Watkins may rejoin the Fire Department, depending on how his football career goes. But if not, the teenager who almost cried when his Fire Hall captain bought him a new pair of size-17 athletic shoes will always be true to what he learned and where he learned it - core values forged through a brotherhood of helpers.

"I see a lot of guys go to the bigs and they forget about the past. Watkins said. "I don't think I could do that."

No sir, he probably couldn't.

Follow on Twitter: @AllanMaki

 

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