WACO, Texas -- Before you is nearly 6½ feet and 320 pounds of hand-shaking, good-timing, easy-going yokel.
That's not an insult. That's Danny Watkins.
Baylor's offensive lineman sits down, pulls up a chair at a conference table and immediately begins lighting up the room. He's Jethro Bodine selling Mary Kay. Naïve, maybe, but certainly disarming.
|Danny Watkins gets some assistance in learning the game from ex-Bear Jason Smith. (Baylor Athletics)|
There's the one about his hockey background: "I was a glorified goon."
There's the one about passing through some big city in Arizona. Tuck-son, he called it.
There are several about his vocation, firefighting: "I can remember [falling] through floors and flames shooting up."
There's the conclusion that everyone seems to agree on at the moment.
"He doesn't know the rules of the game," says Jason Smith, the All-American who Watkins is replacing.
"He's still learning," says his coach, Art Briles.
A scant two years of organized football (in junior college) in an adopted country has brought Watkins to Baylor for this moment: As the starter at a position most recently inhabited by the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft.
"I didn't even realize the importance of the position," Watkins said. "It's cupcakes and brownies to me."
Dessert, anyone? Neither side is quite sure what it has gotten itself into. Watkins, a Canadian, is still getting acquainted with a new country, new friends and a new school. Down deep, Baylor believes it has another pro prospect at the position that is arguably the second-most important on the field.
"Everyone seems to think if I keep doing what I'm doing, you know, [I'll] go to the Niffle," Watkins said.
"Or, the NFL," he corrected.
This could be an interesting two years coming up.
Yeah, it's Baylor, so what did you expect? From the outside, it looks like the Bears were desperate for a replacement for Smith so they took a flier on some late-blooming Canadian kid.
This is the same Baylor that hasn't been to a bowl game in 15 years. That's tied for the longest bowl-less streak among BCS conference schools. It didn't get in that position by 1) developing first-round draft picks or 2) replacing them quickly.
At the beginning of 2008, Smith was a prospect only to the most optimistic of Bears fans. He came here as an undersized tight end, switched positions, redshirted and was only an honorable mention pick after the 2007 season. Prior to this year, Baylor had only two first-round draft picks in its history. One draft analyst dug up that Smith was the first top-five pick since at least 1989 to never play on a winning college team.
So, yes, Baylor got a little lucky. It changed coaches between Smith's junior and senior year. The 4-8 debut by Briles in 2008 was seen as something of a breakthrough. Quarterback Robert Griffin was the Big 12 offensive freshman of the year. The Bears lost to Texas Tech by seven, Missouri by three and beat Texas A&M.
Smith saw all this and was inspired to work with Watkins in spring practice before heading to the pros.
"My football knowledge is obviously limited," Watkins said. "They're using terms and words and I'm going, 'I don't know what this is.' Jason was there every day at practice."
"I think if you tell him to run through a wall he'll end up figuring out how to do it by the end of the day," Smith said. "That's the kind of guy you want on the offensive line."
First thing to learn: Take care of your quarterback.
"Jason told Danny, 'You've got to be the first guy to pick him up,'" Griffin said.
"I didn't like to see him on the ground," Smith said. "Our best chance of winning was with him on the field."
With Griffin, and at least the promise of a serviceable replacement for Smith, this season could mark a Baylor renaissance. Since the murder of basketball player Patrick Dennehy six years ago, the hoops program has rebuilt itself going to NCAA tournament (2008) and the NIT championship game (2009). Football is no longer a punch line in the Big 12 and Baylor is a dark horse to break that postseason drought. Less people here remember that bowl-less streak than anticipate what is on the horizon.
"You can tell the buzz around campus, how bad people want it," Griffin said.
So maybe it's a good thing Watkins hasn't grown up with nuances and expectations of playing left tackle.
"He didn't have many bad habits," said Butte College coach Jeff Jordan, "because he didn't play before."
Butte College is 80 minutes north of Sacramento, Calif., near Chico, best known perhaps for brewing Sierra Nevada beer. Best known in football circles for being the JUCO home of Aaron Rodgers.
But try to connect a line from Watkins' native Kelowna, British Columbia, to Chico and it's difficult. Kelowna is four hours northeast of Vancouver, a town of 110,000 known for its orchards and vineyards. Watkins was a youth hockey player who became enamored with firefighting.
"I just stood in front of the net and hit people," he said. "I spent probably half the time in the penalty box. It got so bad my parents said, 'We're not going to come to the games anymore.'"
|Watkins has served as a firefighter since he was in high school. (Baylor Athletics)|
The plan was for Jeannette Payne to get her degree and come back to Kelowna, where firefighting Danny would be waiting for her.
"That was going to be life," Watkins said. "I called her up one day and was like, 'By the way, I'm going to play football at Butte.' I can't remember [what she said] but it wasn't good."
Coaches began checking him out at Butte once he started walking across campus. Jordan had recruited several Canadians into the program and thought he could mold this laughing, happy kid. Canada is an otherwise little-known hotspot for certain recruiters who know how and where to mine it. Miami had two offensive line starters from Canada on the 2001 national championship team. Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, just joined Division II as the first Canadian university in the NCAA.
But Watkins, he was almost a fluke -- and a project.
The kid was raw but he was willing. Several schools inquired after the 2007 season but there were no offers. After Butte's undefeated 2008 season, Watkins became a hot commodity. Cal, Kansas and Arkansas came in hard, but Baylor had offered first. The Baptist-affiliated private school in Texas was just right for the strapping kid from the wilds of western Canada.
"I knew nothing of any of the schools that called me," Watkins said. "I remember I got a call from Coach Briles on the phone. I thought: 'Baylor, Texas, that's kinda neat.' I looked it up on the Internet and said, 'Big 12? What is that?'"
Baylor, Texas? In some ways, the Bears' coaches were just as clueless. Assistant director of football operations Beau Trahan had been scouring the Internet. He was intrigued by Watkins' size. That led to a request for film. Then the formal recruiting began. Briles thought the upside could continue in Waco.
"He's a child in a football world, but he will understand," Briles said. "Twenty-four years old, I liked that. When you're 18 you think you're real smart. When you're 24, you know you might not be as smart."
It's Watkins' attitude that gets you. Everything is going to be all right. Things just seem to happen for the kid. Two years ago Watkins was going to be a firefighter for the rest of his life. One day at age 16, he applied as a junior firefighter in Kelowna and a boy found his calling. Two years later he was able to drive a fire truck. In high school, instructors wouldn't blink when Watkins left class. Once they heard his beeper go off and the sirens roaring down the street, Watkins was out the door.
"It was pretty much all hands on deck," Watkins said. "I'm getting goose bumps just thinking about it."
His life, really, was West Kelowna Fire/Rescue Station 31. His title was "paid, on call", a freelancer in love with the adventure of putting out fires. The kid would do anything, drive that truck, knock down super-heated doors, even rescue trapped victims. Smoke inhalation? A badge of honor.
Watkins was never what you'd call worldly. His parents divorced when he was six. The extended family -- mom, dad, stepdad -- traveled together on vacation to Las Vegas and Disneyland. Capt. Lionel Bateman became Danny's mentor. On a trip to the states, Bateman purchased some running shoes that fit Watkins' hard-to-fit size 17 feet.
"He almost cried," Bateman said.
The short-term mission is for Randy Rigden to be able to see his stepson play big-time football. During spring break Watkins found out his stepdad has lung cancer.
"It's pretty bad," the kid said.
It's a wonder, then, that Watkins made it to Waco. After graduating from Butte in December, he had to make the marathon drive from Kelowna to central Texas. He ran into Friday rush-hour traffic in Los Angeles, passed through the mysterious Tuck-son. That's Tucson, Ariz., to you and me.
Excited to have finally reached Texas, he called new roommate J.D. Walton from Lubbock.
"I'm close," Watkins said.
As a player, maybe. As a cartographer there is still a bit of yokel in the kid. Three-hundred fifty-two miles from West Texas to Waco isn't exactly close.
He eventually got here. Can the Niffle be far behind?