A Canadian bear in Texas

Could the pros be next for a firefighter turned college star?

A Canadian bear in TexasUntil two years ago, Danny Watkins had never played football. In fact, while growing up, he hated the game. “I thought it was such a waste of time,” he says. “I mean, you’re wearing pads and you’re not even on ice.” And yet, this fall, the 24-year-old former firefighter from Kelowna, B.C., is suiting up every Saturday to play left tackle for Baylor, a major college football school in the heart of Texas. And his coach is already talking about him going pro.

His road to the NCAA’s Big 12 conference was a winding one. While working as a firefighter in Kelowna a couple of years ago, Wat­kins frequently travelled to California to visit a girlfriend at Fresno State. On a friend’s recommendation, he enrolled at nearby Butte College. Turns out the Oroville, Calif.-based junior college is a football powerhouse. And it wasn’t long before the college’s coaches noticed Watkins’s athletic build—at six foot four inches and 315 lb., he’s tough to miss—and talked him into trying football pads on for size. After a couple of seasons with the Roadrunners (Butte won the community college national championship in 2008), Watkins started getting calls from Division-1 schools, including Hawaii, California, and Arkansas. He opted for Baylor, in Waco, Texas, which has a program that some have said is on the verge of a breakthrough—they haven’t been in a bowl game since 1994.

As the left tackle, Watkins has one of the most important assignments: stop linebackers from blindsiding right-handed QBs. And he has big shoes to fill at Baylor. Watkins replaced Jason Smith, who signed a US$62-million contract with the St. Louis Rams after being selected second in this year’s NFL draft. Getting to work out with Smith during spring training sessions helped Watkins handle the steep learning curve. It also helps having a fellow Canadian on the green-and-gold’s offensive line: Philip Blake, another junior college transfer, hails from Toronto.

Art Briles, Baylor’s head coach, says Watkins’s lack of football experience has its advantages, since he lacks many of the bad habits coaches have to undo. And the fact he’s older than most college players is also a plus. “Eighteen- and 19-year-olds got the answers, but 24-year-olds are smart enough to realize that they don’t,” says Briles in a smooth Texas drawl. “They’ve done enough, seen enough, lived enough to understand that sometimes it helps to listen and pay attention, you might actually learn something.” Briles says Watkins has a shot at a “great career in the NFL” due to his size, strength, tenacity, balance and speed (he runs the 40-yard dash in five seconds). Watkins, who plans on eventually settling back in Canada, is currently ranked second in the CFL’s Amateur Scouting Bureau’s list of prospects eligible for the 2010 draft.

Watkins is already making his presence known on the field. Against Connecticut, he shut out the nation’s early-season sack leader. And in Baylor’s third game, a victory over Northwestern State, he helped in his team’s 68-point performance. Briles credits part of his left tackle’s success to all the time he spent at the rink growing up (Watkins says he was a goon during his minor hockey days in Kelowna). “When we heard that he’s an ex-hockey player,” says Briles, “we thought, ‘okay, you get a good, big, mean guy with a tough attitude.’ ”

Not that you’d know it from the way he talks. His propensity for naive but lovable quotes, rare among big-time college athletes, has made him into something of a media darling. “I didn’t even realize the importance of my position,” he told CBS in August. “It’s cupcakes and brownies to me.” He’s also told the press that he’d never heard of the Big 12 before enrolling at Baylor, and in one interview mispronounced the NFL, calling it the “niffle.”

His Texas-style initiation to Baylor included a wild pig hunt with an assault rifle from the back of a pickup truck, and an early morning spent duck hunting. “It was 5:30 in the morning, and I said, ‘The only reason I’d be up this early is either for a fire or a hockey practice. What are we doing?’ ” says Watkins. He was handed a 12-gauge, and headed into the bush. “These bloody ducks go flying over and it sounded like World War II, all hell was breaking loose,” says Watkins, who had never shot a gun before that day. “I just started shooting in the air, I don’t know what I was doing. They were like, ‘Did you get one?’ and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I got one. Didn’t you see it fall?’ ” It also took Watkins a little time to get a handle on the local lingo. “The first time I heard them say ‘y’all,’ I thought, what’s a y’all? It’s got to be an animal.”

At the rate he’s progressing on the field, it won’t be long until everyone knows Danny Watkins. If he shows well in upcoming games against the likes of Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas, he’ll have a future as big as he is—all cupcakes and brownies.

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