Sammy Watkins counts on mother
NEW YORK -- In the hours before Sammy Watkins crossed the NFL draft stage, his mother, Nicole McMiller, tightened up the narrow coils of his long hair. It's a simple ritual, one they've had since Watkins was in sixth grade and started to grow out his hair.
There were times when he was younger, Watkins said, when he could gauge his mother's frustration in the brusque way she moved her fingers. She remembers giving his hair a quick tug if he fidgeted.
But on Thursday before the Bills picked her son with the fourth overall pick, her hands were slow and deliberate, as if she wanted to keep him close for just a little bit longer.
"Getting ready to go on the biggest stage of my life, it's an honor to have her doing my hair," Watkins said.
Over the years, there have been a lot of discussions and information gleaned during those sessions. They've become less frequent since he has been at Clemson for the last three years. But on the morning of the draft, McMiller had her little boy back.
"It was really special for me to sit him on the floor like I used to do," McMiller said.
In a way, Watkins crossed that stage at Radio City Music Hall into adulthood. But he can never be sure. McMiller moved the family to be close to Watkins once before, after Watkins' arrest in May 2012 for possession of marijuana.
"As a mother sometimes it's something that you have to do," said McMiller. "I had an older son who had some issues -- the city that we were living in was kind of bad. And then Sammy, he was doing pretty good but we're a close-knit family. So I knew that he was missing me a lot and then he feel down and was getting in some trouble and then he ended up falling sick. So I knew then that it was really time for me to relocate. And I did it. No thought no anything. I just packed up my stuff, the little bit of stuff that I had, and we left."
There you are, a college sophomore, one of the most celebrated wide receivers in college football, and your mother packs the entire family from Fort Myers, Florida, to move to your new town. Do you see your autonomy at risk? Can you say that out loud? But Watkins has come to realize how important it was -- a mother reaching out to find a son who was slipping away from her.
"Just having her there just made me realize how important, I needed my parents," Watkins said. "As far as getting into trouble, that was a wakeup call for me."
And those are the things you need to say at the NFL draft, which may have seemed a bit like Mother's Day come early for all the proud women in their sharp dresses and carefully arranged hair. Where rookies debated whether their mothers needed a jeweled watch or a new car with all-wheel drive and motorized cup holders -- or both. After all, McMiller and all her sisters earned their place on the red carpet too, for the years spent tightening coils and following their instincts even when they led to South Carolina.
"I knew that my son needed me," McMiller said. "And we sat down and we talked and he told me some things, and if I had known he was going through the things he was going through I would have moved his first year because that's just how close we are."
"It was a great moment," Watkins said.
Does that mean that Watkins can expect to see his family in the cold November of Buffalo this season?
"We're going to see where things go," McMiller said. "It's really whatever he tells me he wants me to do."
There was so much to consider as she dressed in her hotel room before the night started. She remembered when she first realized Watkins might be an athlete. He was still little, and her husband set up cones and got a football to run a few drills for Sammy and his older brother, Jari.
"Sammy throw the ball!" he said.
The ball flew.
"When he threw it at 5 years old, he threw it so far and we were like 'Wow, how does this little guy have an arm like this?'" McMiller said. "So I was like, 'let's see if he can do it again,' and he did it again."
McMiller signed him up for Pop Warner the very next year and Watkins played quarterback until he was in ninth grade. Watkins didn't even realize back then how hard his mother was working to get him new cleats every year and the right sneakers for school.
"For me I didn't have a bad life, it didn't look like it," Watkins said.
But now he can appreciate how much work went in behind the scenes.
"It's a blessing to be in this position to take care of my mom and my family," Watkins said. "It's a great chance to get away from the old things that was going on, working 10-hour shifts, now she can enjoy time and be with her nephews and nieces, have fun and live, and she doesn't worry that much. Not saying that we're not going to have problems as a family. Now you have choices that you can make a little better."
Which is what draft night is all about really. Beyond the contracts and interviews, the bear hug with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, draft night is a memorial to the nights long before an NFL dream even dawned, about all the hard work to keep that dream on track.
Finally, it's about getting your son's hair right one last time, before he walks across that big stage.