IRVINGTON, N.J. -- The Canarias Basketball Academy, a prep school team from Spain's Gran Canaria Island, had many curiosities on display during its tour of the United States this week. A 7-foot-3 center from Slovakia; lesser giants from across the European Union and Great Britain; an Israeli point guard who just committed to Seton Hall; a few Americans studying hoops abroad; and a former U.S. college coach of Peruvian heritage whose shouting on the sideline alternated between English and Spanish. But when the tour stopped at Irvington's Chris Gatling Recreation Center on Tuesday for a game against the postgraduate Robinson School that was attended by six current college assistants, the most curious presence was a member of Canarias' entourage.
He was a mammoth man in black sweats, wore a black skullcap and had a gold cap on his left front tooth. When he gathered the Canarias players around him for a pregame pep talk, it was delivered in a booming British accent. Canarias head coach and founder Rob Orellana was standing nearby, identifying a few of his Division I prospects for a reporter. Orellana pointed at the oversized Englishman and said, "That guy, you'd probably be interested in. One of my original captains. He's signing with Florida State tomorrow -- to play on their offensive line."
That guy, whom Orellana calls "Men," is Menelik Watson, who just might be the biggest wild card of college football's 2012 recruiting class. A few thousand players faxed in their National Letters of Intent on Wednesday, but it's unlikely that many of them will have played less football than Watson. He suited up for the first time in August 2011 and has appeared in just eight career games, all at the junior college level.
It will be difficult to find a prospect who took a stranger route to the gridiron than Watson. When a Florida State student named Reggie Johnson first called the Seminoles' football office last fall to alert coaches about Watson, who was his friend (that's right: he was pitched to FSU, not the other way around), Johnson hung up after reaching an answering machine. He worried that the story would get dismissed as a hoax.
"I didn't have a highlight tape to show them because Menelik hadn't played yet," Johnson said. "And I figured if I just left a message, it would sound too absurd. They would've deleted it."
I have this friend from England. He played basketball in Spain, then two years of D-I hoops at Marist, then quit ... briefly considered becoming a heavyweight boxer, decided on football instead, and is enrolled at Saddleback junior college in California. He's 6-foot-6 1/2, 320 pounds and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.72 seconds. He has no game film. Would you guys be interested in recruiting him?
No one was interested in Watson until Orellana saw him at a Christmastime basketball tournament in Manchester, England, in 2006. Orellana, a former assistant at Cal State-Fullerton who left for Spain and helped develop British NBA Draft pick Joel Freeland (taken at No. 30 by the Blazers in 2006) on Gran Canaria, was starting up the academy and looking for its first crop of players. Watson was a 6-4, 300-plus-pounder with decent feet who was about to graduate from Manchester's Burnage High.
Watson was worried about what might happen if he remained in his hometown. He was one of seven children raised by his mother, in a home where there was so little money to buy food that he sometimes resorted to eating butter or drinking ketchup packets. (He can no longer stomach ketchup, he says, due to the bad memories.) Three of his brothers had already turned to crime and spent time in prison. "I really had no options, no offers from prep schools," Watson said. "Rob was the one who took a chance on me."
When Orellana did his due diligence on Watson at the tournament, the coach only heard good things. "People said he had a rough home life, but that he was a fantastic kid, even if he looked like [MMA fighter] Kimbo Slice." Watson and Ashley Hamilton, who now plays at Loyola Marymount, became Canarias' first two team captains and were among the first of more than 20 Canarias alums to receive D-I scholarships. In a U.S. tour during Watson's second season in early 2009, he impressed Marist coaches enough to earn a scholarship offer, which he accepted without even visiting campus. He was so gracious for being rescued from Manchester that when he and his girlfriend had their daughter, who's now 3 years old, they named her Orellana.
Watson's Marist experience did not go as well as he'd hoped. He had to endure a redshirt season before debuting in 2010-11 as a power forward, averaging 4.7 points and 3.3 rebounds. He made 13 starts, but was miserable over all the losing. The Red Foxes went 6-27 and finished tied for last in the MAAC.
Due to Watson's size, Marist football players had inquired about his availability for the school's FCS team, but he knew little about that sport. The extent of it was that Watson's best friend on the hoops team, Rob Johnson, had introduced him to EA Sports' NCAA Football on Xbox 360. "I didn't know a damn thing about that game," Watson said. "It looked like a mess. I had no idea what the rules were."
Johnson, who grew up near Atlanta, was partial to Florida State -- he often played as the Seminoles when he dominated those Xbox games -- and his younger brother, Reggie, was studying at FSU. For Rob's birthday in September 2010, he brought Watson down to Tallahassee to visit Reggie and get an introduction to big-time college football by attending the BYU-Florida State game. Watson had been playing for small basketball crowds at Marist and was overwhelmed by the enormity of the scene at Doak Campbell Stadium. "That trip," he said, "is when I kind of fell in love with the place."
He also drew plenty of attention while standing in the student section. Said Rob, "People kept coming up to Menelik and asking, 'What's your name? Are you a football recruit?'"
Watson was far from a recruit. But the idea of playing football had been planted, and the Johnsons encouraged him to pursue it. The following spring, Orellana got a call from Watson, who said he wasn't going back to Marist. He and Orellana agreed that with Watson's body type, the ceiling on his hoops career was in the low-level European pro leagues. "And so I told him," Orellana said, "you have two other options: Either become heavyweight champion of the world, or be a football player."
Orellana was serious enough about the boxing option that he introduced Watson to Robert Alcazar, the former Olympic trainer of Oscar De La Hoya, during a summer trip to Southern California to visit Orellana's relatives. Watson sparred at Alcazar's gym for a few days, but pushed Orellana to explore the junior college football route.
In June, they showed up unannounced at Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo, Calif., to visit -- and by August, they had arranged for Watson to join the team. Saddleback was quick to offer him a spot on the roster. Don Butcher, its director of football operations and a former pro personnel scout for the New England Patriots, remembers that after he saw Watson run for the first time, he said, "This kid is going to be in the NFL in a few years."
The Saddleback staff had to start from scratch. The progression, as head coach Mark McElroy tells it, was stunning. On Aug. 12, Watson put on football gear for the first time and had to be shown how to get in a lineman's stance. "We had to teach him everything," McElroy said. "Initially he had no idea about his responsibility in relation to the ball, or any of the technical aspects." Through the first two weeks of the season, Watson practiced with the second and third units and did not play. He worked out with the starters in Week 3 and was allowed on the field for a few snaps near the conclusion of a rout.
Watson started in game four, played well, and by game six McElroy figured he should start alerting D-I coaches. By season's end Watson was second-team all conference and had more scholarship offers than starts. "I had never seen anything remotely like this, where a player picks up the sport at this level and after seven starts, has guys like [Oregon's] Chip Kelly, [Oklahoma's] Bob Stoops, [Auburn's] Gene Chizik and [FSU's] Jimbo Fisher lining up with scholarships," McElroy said. "I'll probably never see anything like it again."
The footage found its way to Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett, who was wowed by the evolution he saw from Watson's first game to his fifth. It was almost, Trickett said, like Watson had become a whole different player. The raw specimen had turned into a dominant force.
Trickett flew out to visit Watson at Saddleback on Dec. 1 and offered him a scholarship on the spot. "He walked in and I said, 'Holy hell, that guy is big,'" Trickett said. "Jimbo [Fisher] asked me what he looked like, and I told him, 'If you were to draw up a [dream] lineman, that's what he looks like. I've never coached a guy who was 320 pounds and moved like he did on tape."
On Jan. 25, Watson ended his recruitment by choosing Florida State over Auburn. The Seminoles plan to use him as a right tackle and he could potentially play on the line alongside fellow 2012 signee Daniel Glauser, who came over from Switzerland to play at a junior college in New Mexico. FSU's roster already featured a German-born defensive end, junior Bjoern Werner. "What we've got here," Trickett said, "is a United Nations."
At Tuesday's Canarias game, during which Watson sat in the center of the team's bench, an assistant coach from St. Peter's, one of his old Marist opponents, recognized him from his basketball days. "He was a big body for them," the assistant said, "but you could pressure him when he got the ball in the post."
At FSU, Watson will only have to worry about applying pressure on run blocks and protecting his quarterback's front side. Trickett says that Watson's understanding of leverage and footwork from basketball should help in pass protection and thinks he could be a "first-day pick" in the NFL Draft if he makes the kind of progression they expect at FSU. Given the track he's on, Watson has no regrets about giving up hoops -- or choosing not to pursue boxing.
In the parking lot after the game in Irvington, Orellana took out his phone, displayed a photo of Watson training with Alcazar and said, "You remember this, Men?"
"Yeah. You wanted me to box. You were going to be my Don King," Watson said, laughing.
"I'm a sports nut. I just thought, there's nobody in the heavyweight class anymore, just those two Russian twins, and you're tough and you've got quick hands," said Orellana. "But I knew in your heart you wanted to try football."
"I would have been fine as a boxer," said Watson. "But the isolation wasn't for me. I like doing things as a team. That's why I like offensive line; they're the unsung heroes. I like doing the work, and being unheard of."
Orellana then talked about the Signing Day party they were holding for Watson the next day after Canarias finished two more prep school scrimmages. It wouldn't be a media event. It would just be a family thing, Orellana said. He and his Canarias players would celebrate the good fortune of their old captain, whose road to Tallahassee was truly unheard of.