Raw Canadian fireman blossoms at Baylor

March, 20, 2009
3/20/09
4:22
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

WACO, Texas -- Only a couple of years ago, Danny Watkins was living back at the fire hall in Kelowna, British Columbia, playing weekend hockey and helping out any way he could with a regular shift with the local fire department.

The 6-foot-4, 310-pound Watkins never could have conceived the idea of playing football at an American college back then.

As a matter of fact, Watkins had never played football before in his life. Life as a rookie fireman meant a lot of cooking and cleaning as well as his other duties with the company.

Today, the 24-year-old Watkins is challenging for a starting position at Baylor in an unlikely success story considering his lack of formal training and experience at the sport before arriving in America.

"I was talking about this with my roommate [Baylor offensive lineman J.D. Walton[ the other night," Watkins said. "He told me that only about 1 percent of the kids who play football at American high schools will get a shot at a Division I scholarship. I was telling him it was crazy how I ended up here. I'm just kind of oblivious to how long the odds really are."

The big Canadian has made a remarkable development in the two years he has played football, starting the sport at Butte Community College in California.

Baylor coach Art Briles saw some film of Watkins' raw pass-protection techniques while there and liked what he saw, despite Watkins' lack of experience.

"The key is that he wants to be really good," Briles said. "If you've got some desire and self-discipline and a little vision and some ability to go with it, you've got the chance to be something special. And Danny definitely has that opportunity."

Despite Watkins' lack of a football background, Briles is intrigued by his early progress. He's still green and is developing as he learns, but has a chance for unlimited success because of his athletic ability.

"If Danny messes up, it's our fault because he hasn't gotten any bad habits," Briles said. "He hasn't played long enough to have them. And if there's something wrong, it's because we caused it. I think he'll be a great player because he has a great mental aspect."

Briles wasn't hesitant to take a chance on Watkins after successfully using several Canadian players previously at Houston and at Baylor.

Among the players on Baylor's current roster is freshman linebacker/defensive end Frederic Plesius, who signed with the Bears last year after playing at Champlain Regional College in Lennoxville, Quebec.

"These kids come in here very mature, very hungry and very grateful," Briles said. "Coming from Canada to the United States and the Big 12 is like [they've] walked out of Luby's and found a $100 bill on the ground, so all of a sudden they feel good. [The Canadian players] are just very grateful, very humble student-athletes to coach."

Watkins has made rapid progress since he arrived at Baylor. He's already added 20 pounds and is currently in the hunt for the starting job at left tackle -- arguably the most important line position because he will be protecting quarterback Robert Griffin's blind side.

He'll have some huge shoes to fill there where he will replace Jason Smith, an All-Big 12 player who will likely be taken early in the first round of the NFL draft.

Smith came into the program as an undersized 220-pound tight end who added 80 pounds while in college to grow into a key contributor.

The former starter is helping Baylor coaches develop Watkins and has liked what he's seen so far.

"The guy is really developing," Smith said. "He reminds me a little of me."

While growing up, Watkins said he never watched "American football" or followed the Canadian Football League. Instead, he was a hockey player who savored the contact while playing as an oversized defenseman.

As such, it was a natural transition for him to move to the offensive line, where he now protects the quarterback rather than the goalie.

"The mental aspect to switching over to protect the quarterback wasn't as hard a transition as some people might have thought," Watkins said. "The rules are a little different. I don't have a hockey stick in my hand or a pair of skates. But everything else is about the same."

Watkins worked five years as a fireman and said he plans to return to it after his finishes with his education and his football career.

"I had my own room at the fire house and it was a good way to save money," Watkins said. "I started out in the junior program and went through recruit training with a bunch of guys. I was ready to advance in my fire career."

Making calls with his company gave Watkins a sense of accomplishment every day and an adrenalin rush when he jumped on the vehicle. He also compared the camaraderie he shared with his fellow firefighters as similar to those with his football teammates.

"It was great. I just loved it," Watkins said. "You worked with some of the best guys who were really good at what they do. You're with them during the good and bad, the hot and the cold. It's the same as being in the trenches here every day."

He's also excited about being at Baylor, where the Bears are hoping to halt the Big 12's longest bowl drought. A strong returning cast of 18 starters has excited them about being the first Baylor team to make a bowl since the 1994 team played in the Alamo Bowl.

"Everybody is really hungry for next year to come," Watkins said. "We'll go out and I can tell how excited everybody is for the upcoming season. Like coach Briles says, Baylor will change the way they play football in the Big 12. And I'm really excited to see it happen."

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