Football might have been the furthest thing from Danny Watkins mind four years ago when he made the decision to pursue a Fire Sciences degree to enhance his prospects of making firefighting his life's work. Volunteering at a fire station in his native British Columbia from the time he was 16, Watkins would've been happy with that noble pursuit as his full time profession. But a set of circumstances even he could not have anticipated has him poised to be a big story at this week's NFL combine as he sits on the cusp of a promising NFL career.
Baylor's starting left tackle the past two seasons, Watkins is projected by many as a guard in the NFL. His performance at the Senior Bowl was impressive as he won almost all of his one-on-one battles in individual drills and played admirably in the game.
"He's a good kid that had a solid week," said Bills offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris. "He's going to be a big help to whoever gets him."
Watkins (6'4" 312) has been projected as high as a late first to early second round pick by several draft analysts including the NFL Network's Mike Mayock.
"Danny Watkins is a kid that I'm intrigued by," Mayock said. "He's only played four or five years of football and has some upside. He's a tough, nasty kid."
Four years ago however, football wasn't even part of the discussion. Watkins grew up in Kelowna, British Columbia and had an early fascination with firefighting. By the time he was 16 he was volunteering at his local fire hall.
"After a while I got put on paid call, and then sleeper in at the hall," he said. "Then I went to California to get a Fire Sciences degree to help my career at the fire department. I was 22 then."
Watkins attended Butte College in Chico, California to earn his Fire Sciences degree. That's when fate stepped in.
"A friend of mine recommended playing football there to get a fee waiver on tuition," he said. "I never really watched it or cared too much for it."
The native Canadian grew up playing hockey and rugby. He admits adjusting to the techniques of offensive line play proved to be a challenge initially, but eventually he took to it quite well.
"There was a learning curve for sure so it took some getting used to, just the novelty of the game," he said. "But I caught on pretty quick."
So quick in fact that Watkins was plugged in as a starting left tackle from day one of his football career. After earning Junior College All-American honors in his second season at Butte, Watkins was quickly on the radar of big time college programs.
"The main schools I narrowed it down to were Hawaii, Cal, Arkansas and Baylor," said Watkins.
After choosing Baylor Watkins' burgeoning college career was arcing sharply upward. In his first year as a starter for the Bears his average performance grade from Baylor coaches was an 89. His play was so promising that his hometown CFL team the B.C. Lions made him the fourth overall pick in the 2010 CFL draft. Watkins chose to return to school for his senior season.
Watkins' tenacious and physical playing style earned him the highest average grade among all of Baylor's linemen as a senior (90) from the Baylor staff. He also earned First team All-Big 12 honors.
Invited to the Senior Bowl in late January, Watkins was moved inside to guard where many NFL talent evaluators project him to play at the next level, and played well by the accounts of those in the know.
The only potential drawback is Watkins, though young in football, will be a 26-year old rookie this fall. Bills head coach Chan Gailey however, doesn't see it as a negative.
"I think you disregard that totally," Gailey said. "You have guys that come from BYU that are in the same situation. They go on a two-year mission and they're 24 and 25-years old when they first start to play. I think you have to dismiss age in this thing and say he is what he is. He's older, but he hasn't played as much football so he may have more hits left in him. You look at the guy and evaluate what he is and he did an excellent job for us."
While NFL scouts and coaches wonder how good Watkins might be today had he started his playing career at a much earlier age, the Baylor lineman doesn't play the game of 'what if.'
"I'm never trying to look that far down the road," Watkins said. "Someone asked me if I'd do anything different and I thought about it for a second and I'd leave everything the same. I love everything that's happened up to this point so I wouldn't change a thing."