Originally, Danny Watkins had planned to stay in Texas and just hang out with his friends. But when the National Football League called and invited him to attend the 2011 draft, he figured he was duty bound to go to New York.
Good thing he went.
With the 23rd pick overall, the Philadelphia Eagles used their first-round selection to claim the 26-year-old Canadian fire fighter in Thursday night's televised event. The 6-foot-3, 310-pound offensive lineman from Kelowna, who celebrated his moment with five visiting members from the Kelowna Fire Hall where he worked, is now the fourth Canadian to become a first-round NFL draft pick.
The others are running back Tim Biakabutuka (Carolina Panthers), offensive lineman Tony Mandarich (Green Bay Packers) and Mike Schad (Philadelphia, who was also taken 23rd overall by the Eagles in 1986).
Watkins, who only started playing football at 22, needed just two seasons at Baylor University to prove he could handle himself against some of the best athletes in NCAA Division 1. But it was his showing at the NFL Scouting Combine, where he played guard instead of tackle, that convinced everyone, especially the Eagles, he could be a dominant pro.
"I was planning to go to a friend's ranch outside of Dallas and just hang out with friends and family. But when I was invited to New York I knew it was an honour and a privilege," Watkins said. "Having my friends from the fire hall was the extra bonus."
Watkins flew in his former co-workers and with them visited New York's Ground Zero, where more than 300 firefighters lost their lives in the aftermath of 9/11. The Canadian contingent also went to several fire halls and spoke with their U.S. counterparts.
"They embraced us as one of their own," Watkins said. "We went to a fire hall today and this has been a special opportunity … It's a big brotherhood from coast to coast. I met some of the guys and have tremendous respect for them. I'll never forget them."
Watkins' story elevated his stature heading into the draft. Several scouts and draft analysts commented on his physical strength and discipline and how his firefighting training had actually transferred well to football. Baylor head coach Art Briles said, "What I really liked about him was his toughness and how calm he was in pressure situations. That came from being a fireman."
Watkins grew up in Kelowna playing hockey and rugby. He joined the fire department as a recruit at the age of 16. He later headed to Butte College in Northern California to take firefighting classes. It was there he learned enough football basics to earn a scholarship from Baylor.
"I owe a lot of people for what's happened to me," Watkins said. "It wasn't until Baylor that I thought I had a chance to maybe play pro football. I wasn't sure I could do it."
Watkins was selected by the B.C. Lions last year as the fourth pick overall in the CFL draft.