MOBILE, Ala. — Danny Watkins didn’t grow up dreaming of playing pro football.
Hockey was his sport, and firefighting was his first vocation.
Now, the 26-year-old Canadian and former Baylor offensive tackle is trying to forge a career in cleats not skates or boots. Watkins is taking a first step toward that goal this week at the Senior Bowl along with other senior NFL prospects, most of whom have nursed that ambition for far longer.
“I just kind of stumbled into it,” Watkins said. Then he adds, “It’s a dream now.”
The NFL seemed an unlikely destination for a native of Kelowna, British Columbia, who has more experience as a firefighter (five years) than a football player (four) and played hockey and rugby in high school.
He was attending Butte College near Sacramento, Calif., to study fire science, when someone suggested the 6-foot-4 and now 312-pounder should give football a try.
“After the first year, the college scouts started sniffing around and that’s when I sat down with the coaches and they told me, ‘You’re going to do good things in football,'” Watkins said.
He landed at Baylor after his sophomore year and wound up replacing Jason Smith, the NFL’s No. 2 overall pick in 2009, at left tackle and holding down that spot the past two seasons. Watkins was a first-team All-Big 12 Conference performer as a senior.
He took an unconventional route to college much less the NFL.
Watkins started working as a volunteer firefighter at 17, getting paid per call and spending one year living in a fire hall with guys who were mostly years older.
“That was awesome,” Watkins said. “I was young and single and it was great. There were some sleepless nights but it was with a great bunch of guys and you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
He said being around the “older, mature guys” helped him grow up.
“I think it was really good for me because I came in there young and immature and they kind of smartened me up and put you in your place,” Watkins said.
He has gained some 35 pounds since taking up football, making him better able to handle Big 12 defensive linemen. The drawback is he’s a little less nimble on the ice now.
“I can’t move like I used to on skates,” Watkins said.
The BC Lions from his home province picked him fourth in the Canadian Football League draft last year. It seems unlikely Watkins will ever head that route now after the NFL comes calling.
But he has hardly been totally Americanized. He still battled with teammates who wanted to watch football games instead of hockey on TV. His accent would never be mistaken for a Texas drawl.
And starting with Butte, he has always sported a Canadian flag on his helmet instead of the Stars and Stripes.
“I love representing Canada,” Watkins said. “I’ve got a Canadian flag on the back of my helmet. I’ll never take that off. People look at it and wonder what it is. That’s definitely my heart and soul. I’m proud to be a Canadian, that’s for sure.”
Asked why he wears the Canadian flag, he said: “There’s an American flag on there, and I’m not American. It is America’s sport but a Canadian’s playing it, and I want people to know.”