Finding Danny Watkins

A late-bloomer who seemed too good to be true, a first-round bust who helped get a once-untouchable coach run out of town, and to some, a hero. The bizarre football life of a man who was built for the game but born for something else
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It’s game day in Philadelphia, and Howard Mudd is certain of one thing: Danny Watkins can handle Ndamukong Suh.

The Eagles are hosting Detroit in Week 6 of the 2012 season. Andy Reid had coaxed Mudd, the grizzled offensive line coach, out of retirement two years earlier, charging him with molding Philly’s up-and-coming front five. That included Watkins, the Eagles’ 2011 first-round pick.

Watkins, 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds, overflowed with God-given talent: agile feet and mind, natural balance, the toughness to thrive in the trenches. No one man can singlehandedly shut down Suh, but Watkins, Mudd thought, had the smarts and raw strength to hold one of the NFL’s elite defenders in check.

Yet that afternoon, Suh and teammate Nick Fairley set up residence in the Eagles’ backfield. Watkins offered little resistance as the Lions harassed Michael Vick throughout the afternoon. The Eagles blew a 10-point lead and the game went to overtime. After back-to-back sacks of Vick set up a third-and-31 at Philadelphia’s four-yard line, the Lions rushed only three. Watkins stood awkwardly at the line of scrimmage, no teammates or opponents around him. He looked confused, out of place as his quarterback scrambled and threw a ball away out of bounds, setting off a cascade of boos from the home crowd. That was the last meaningful snap of Watkins’ NFL career. Detroit’s field goal on the subsequent possession finished the second of a calamitous eight-game losing streak that cost Reid, Mudd and Watkins their jobs.

Watkins was there that day, but only in the most literal sense. Mudd was looking for the can’t-miss mauler who had so enthralled the Eagles’ brass and coaching staff that they took him with the 23rd overall pick of the 2011 draft. That Danny Watkins could have handled Ndamukong Suh. This Danny Watkins could not.

There is no shortage of colorful parlance in the scouting community. Offensive linemen with a rare blend of size, strength and quick feet are sometimes termed “dancing bears.” The Eagles were certain that’s what they were getting in Watkins. Instead, they had a deer in headlights.

How could a player endowed with outrageous talent come up so… vacant? It didn’t add up. Then again, for those—like Mudd—entrenched in football’s inner circles, nothing about Danny Watkins’ brief and bizarre NFL existence makes sense at all.

* * *

Mudd found Watkins one afternoon early in training camp and pulled the rookie aside for a one-on-one session. It was 2011, and Watkins was a collegiate left tackle transitioning inside for Philadelphia. Because of the lockout that spring, Eagles coaches couldn’t work with him until late July, when a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was reached. And because his agent was still negotiating his contract, Watkins missed the first five days of camp. Now he was behind.

“When you pull, you pull too quickly,” Mudd instructed. “You can’t get yourself back in position.” The coach planted his foot into the grass and motioned behind him, showing the rookie he needed to be two yards deep.

Do you understand this angle?

“No, Captain, I don’t,” Watkins replied.

The coach went over the positioning again. Two more times. Five more times. Maybe a dozen more times.

Do you get it?

“Yes Captain, I feel better,” Watkins replied. Always with a smile. Always “Captain.”

Watkins and the old-school Mudd were never on the same page. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Watkins and the old-school Mudd were never on the same page. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Danny Watkins is not dumb. Quite the contrary. At Baylor he was known for being as cerebral as he was tough. He reportedly scored a 40 on the 50-question Wonderlic personality/intelligence test; the average score for an offensive lineman is in the low 20s. He was one of the smartest guys in one of the smartest position groups in football. He was disciplined; as a senior, he only drew one personal foul. Mudd couldn’t wait to mold him. And yet, the next day at practice they tried the same drill; it was like the previous day’s conversation had never taken place.

At first, Mudd wrote it off as the rookie curve, something he calls the Valley of Darkness. A first-year player may be timid his first few weeks, overwhelmed by the pace and the magnitude of the NFL. At some point during that first season, almost every player—especially those with Watkins’ physical talent and mind—find the light.

Watkins struggled that summer, failing to earn a starting spot until five weeks into the season. Once he did get on the field, he was often a liability. Watkins stayed in the dark his whole rookie season.

At the end of the year, Mudd tasked his offensive linemen with writing a self-assessment. Watkins’ paper, according to Mudd, “approached the quality you’d find in a master’s thesis.”

Mudd received another surprise. Center Jason Kelce and guard Evan Mathis approached the coach with a request he had never heard before: Take it easy on Danny. Mudd was old-school tough and he knew it. Kelce and Mathis asked him to consider taking a different approach with Watkins. Don’t be so hard on him. They found a teammate breaking down.

* * *

How does a kid who grew up in a lake-crested British Columbia town end up playing professional football anyway? Like all of Canada, West Kelowna was hockey-crazed. The NFL was an afterthought, at best.

But Watkins, at his size… once he settled in on American soil, he was going to end up on the gridiron.

The football machine found Watkins when he enrolled at Butte College in Northern California in 2008 to study fire sciences. Football junkies might recognize the community college in Oroville, Calif. Larry Allen played there in 1990. A decade later, their quarterback was Aaron Rodgers. Butte people know a football player when they see one.

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So it was only a matter of time before someone put Watkins in pads. Classmates had begun suggesting it since the day he arrived. Two weeks before Butte’s season began, Jeff Jordan invited the 22-year-old freshman into his office. Jordan explained how football might pave the road to a four-year college, or at the very least help him assimilate to Butte’s campus life. What the heck, thought Watkins. He had played hockey and some rugby growing up; this wouldn’t be much different. He signed a waiver and showed up for two-a-days.

Allen is in the Hall of Fame, and Rodgers will likely join him in Canton one day. But Watkins’ raw potential—it was unlike anything the program ever had. Coaches liked the fact that he had no bad habits to break. Everything was new, and Watkins was their protégé. He’d go to offensive line coach Rob Snelling’s house a few nights a week, and they’d devour meat loaf, mashed potatoes and Division I football. The first time Watkins watched a full four quarters of America’s most popular sport, he was hooked. By the season opener, he was Butte’s starting right guard. In year two, he had progressed so much that Butte coaches shipped his tape off to programs across the country.

Nearly 50 schools contacted Watkins; the Canadian was endearingly clueless. Florida called, is that a good football school? How about Arkansas? Watkins settled on Baylor because it fit his criteria: warm weather and friendly folks. His arrival in Waco marked his first exposure to big-time football. He was thrown into the machine—preseason camp, two-a-days, film sessions, media days, preseason watch-lists—and fit in just like any other cog. He had replaced Jason Smith, the No. 2 pick in the 2009 draft. Late that season, he matched up against Texas A&M’s Von Miller, the nation’s leading sacker. Miller did not record a single sack or tackle for loss.

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Friends and former teammates from Butte and Baylor rave about Watkins as a person: affable, always smiling, a bit goofy. He rode a motorized scooter around campus. He told everyone and anyone that if the Bears won a bowl game in 2010, he’d celebrate at Disneyland.

The bright and eager learner at Butte and Baylor was not the Danny Watkins who went to work for the Eagles. It wasn’t just the fact that the guy who once shut down Von Miller suddenly struggled to contain players with half the talent. In Philadelphia, he was an outsider. He rarely hung out with teammates on off days. He was aloof, as far as the team could tell almost reclusive.

Every Monday, Mudd would ask his players if they’d watched film of the previous day’s game yet. Kelce, Mathis and Todd Herremans almost always said yes. Jason Peters, too. (Mudd didn’t always believe him, but he knew Peters would always watch tape before Tuesday morning rolled around.)

Watkins’ answer, always without fail: “No Captain, not yet.”

* * *

Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

Mudd remembers word spreading through the Eagles’ facility sometime during the second half of that nightmare 2012 season. This was Mudd’s 45th year in professional football, as a player and a coach. “Never have I heard something so ridiculous,” he says. “Not in my entire NFL career.”

Danny Watkins was spotted on the 11 o’clock news, in full gear. Not pine green with a white 63 on his chest. Philadelphia Fire Department. Watkins insists it was a misunderstanding, that he was only wearing the gear as part of charity work with his firefighter-related foundation.

As far as the Eagles organization was concerned, they finally had an explanation. This was why their first-round pick was giving them the kind of measly performance they could get from a street free agent. He wasn’t putting in the time, not pulling his weight during the week. Watkins denies it, but those within the organization were certain what they had found: Danny Watkins was moonlighting as a firefighter.

* * *

Watkins was 26 when the Eagles made him a first-round pick. But he had already found his calling, a decade earlier. Wayne Schnitzler found Danny Watkins knocking at the door.

Watkins was a good kid. He played hockey—always the biggest kid on the ice—and some rugby. But sports weren’t his passion. He was obsessed with firefighting. He spent years talking about the profession, lit up when he heard a siren. His mother told him to do something about it. One day, he finally worked up the courage to knock on the maroon door of Fire Station 31, at the foot of Old Okanagan Highway, and ask for a job. He was 16, and he wanted to run into burning buildings.

Schnitzler, the station’s fire chief, looked at the kid—rosy cheeks, round face, baby fat—and didn’t know what to say. His initial instinct was to turn Danny away, tell him to come back in a few years. But this kid had spunk, and at 6-feet-and-burly he looked more than able. So Schnitzler called Mrs. Watkins to make sure they had permission. (Vicky said yes, but would only drop off Danny if he finished his chores.) And so Danny Watkins became West Kelowna’s first junior firefighter.

In a profession with a lot of downtime, chemistry in a firehouse is important. Schnitzler worried the kid might be pesky or annoying, but figured he could always tell him to shoo off after a couple months. This was a man’s job; some teenager couldn’t just tag along for an extended take-your-son to work day.

Yet the age difference didn’t matter. Watkins showed up every day with a smile, and that smile became infectious. Sometimes he’d join the guys upstairs to play cards. Most of the time he would linger in the garage, inspecting the equipment, fiddling with different pieces of the truck. He’d sud the thing down until it was as shiny as a toy.

After a few months, the guys let him ride on the back for calls. Soon after, they let him join in. Watkins had that perfect blend of intellect, compassion and girth. On one medical call, he singlehandedly lifted a 250-pound man. On an emergency call for an automobile crash, Watkins volunteered to remove a truck’s detached hood so a colleague could get to the battery. Watkins was to firefighting what a young Peyton Manning was to quarterbacking. His story would be something of West Kelowna legend.

And so, Watkins spent his formative years cooking pasta with the guys, watching slapstick comedies with the guys, responding to calls with the guys.

* * *

After graduating high school, Watkins joined the department in a part-time capacity. He even moved into the firehouse for a year, occupying a small room upstairs. But he worried he’d never be a full-time hire without a degree. He looked up the school with the best fire science program, and that’s how he landed south of the border at Butte.

As he sat in Coach Jordan’s office he thought, You want me? You’re kidding, right? The coaches told him to show up to practice, see if he liked it. When Watkins arrived, he was mesmerized by the intensity, pads popping on practice dummies. The guys at the station had always told him that if he worked out, even just a little, he’d be unstoppable.

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Watkins liked Coach Snelling, a family man. This was his first time away from home, and it was nice to enjoy a home-cooked meal. They watched football games, but a lot of the time he and Snelling would just talk about life. Watkins would tell his coach about his aspirations to be a full-time firefighter, about the rush he’d get when the sirens went up, about the sound sleep he’d have after hosing down a building or carrying someone out of danger. Snelling would listen, just like Watkins’ friends in West Kelowna did.

Everything had happened so fast at Baylor. His senior year, Art Briles brought him along to Big 12 media days in place of star quarterback Robert Griffin III. A few weeks later Watkins heard rumblings that NFL scouts were interested. After the season, he received an invitation to the Senior Bowl. That’s when he realized the NFL was a possibility... or rather should be a possibility. Watkins was friends with Jason Smith, and he knew the money: More than $60 million to play football? Nobody could say no to that. So Watkins went through with it—Senior Bowl (where he starred), combine, pro day, workouts. Football to that point had been a fun and exciting chapter, and firefighting would be there for him when it was over. After all, an average NFL career was only a few years.

Draft day 2011, in New York City. (Photo courtesy Lionel Bateman)

Draft day 2011, in New York City. (Photo courtesy Lionel Bateman)

When Watkins received an invitation to Radio City Music Hall for the draft, he was going to turn it down. He’d put on a pair of sweatpants and sit on his couch in West Kelowna, maybe have a few friends over. Plans changed when he found out he could visit with the New York Fire Department and tour Ground Zero. So he and some old firefighting pals flew east for draft day.

“I think we were more excited for the draft than he was,” says Schnitzler. “He was excited for the fire-related stuff.”

After arriving in Philadelphia, one of the first things Watkins did was visit local firehouses. He met a local fireman named Joe Gordon, and they hit it off. Together, they founded a charity called All Hands Working, to help save the lives of those who save lives. Watkins’ thinking was this: He could use his leverage as an NFL player to raise visibility for a group he believes needs support.

He also did something that his Eagles teammates found strange but charming: He bought himself a fire truck.

* * *

Watkins found NFL culture to be different from what he had experienced in college. At Butte and Baylor, the coaching staff felt like family. “As cheesy as it is, it’s like the movie, The Blind Side,” explains Lionel Bateman, one of Watkins’ best friends in West Kelowna.

It’s the scene when Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) explains to Michael Oher the concept of teamwork in the trenches. This team is your family and you have to protect them. Tony is your quarterback. You protect his blind side. When you look at him, think of me—how you have my back.

After a strong two seasons at Baylor, Watkins starred in front of scouts at the Senior Bowl. (Dave Martin/AP)

After a strong two seasons at Baylor, Watkins starred in front of scouts at the Senior Bowl. (Dave Martin/AP)

“At Butte and Baylor it felt like that,” Bateman says. “Danny wanted to have their back because they were his family. In Philly it was harsher. It wasn’t an ask, but a demand. They wanted you to do something because they demanded it, not because you wanted to play for them.”

Watkins’ personality clashed with Mudd. That’s not to say he was a perfect teammate. He had allowed himself to emotionally drift away from a sport that requires intensity. While teammates spent off days at the facility, Watkins spent his down time visiting local firehouses with Gordon.

The money was great, but never that important. The fame was irrelevant. After he bought a house in Philadelphia, he brought his buddies down from West Kelowna to help with renovations. Bateman noticed the flooring looked cheap. Watkins told him it was the cheapest he could find at Home Depot—and on sale. “It’s not that he was stingy,” Bateman says, “it’s just that he’s not a material guy. The fame and the fortune of the NFL meant nothing to him. All he wanted was a simple house and to do what he loves.”

There were changes in Philly after that 2012 season. Reid and his staff, including Mudd, were out. Oregon coach Chip Kelly was in. Watkins was cut during training camp. He was scooped up by a Dolphins team that spent 2013 embroiled in a hazing scandal. Watkins spent the season in Miami, a seldom-used reserve. Then he walked away.

“I coached many players over many years, and not reaching Danny Watkins was my biggest failure,” Mudd says. “He had so much talent, so much potential, and I failed.”

As far as the NFL is concerned, Danny Watkins is a bust. He never filed official retirement papers, hoping to slink out of the league without notice, leaving football behind as a distant and forgettable chapter. “Making an announcement would have called attention to himself,” his agent, Joe Panos, says.

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When his ex-teammates talk about Watkins there’s a hint of anger, and more than a hint of disappointment.

“He was more than intelligent enough, and more than athletically gifted enough to play football,” Mathis says. “The reason he’s not in the NFL right now is because of him. This isn’t what he wanted to do.”

Up until October, Panos was still fielding calls from teams wondering if Watkins would come in for a workout. He would not.

* * *

“There is so much of the NFL that is not part of who I am or what I do.”

Watkins spoke to The MMQB, his first public comments since leaving the NFL last winter. He was not easy to find. An initial interview request to Panos was met with the response “Danny is not interested.” Watkins didn’t turn up during a search of Dallas-area firehouses. Turns out, he is stationed in a suburb a few miles north. He is a firefighter again.

A few weeks after the initial request, he agreed to a brief phone interview. The biggest reason he has been so reluctant to talk, he says, is that previous stories about him “reflect poorly on the firefighting profession.”

Watkins is adamant he wasn’t fighting fires while with the Eagles. It was a misunderstanding, he says. Repeatedly, the coaching staff called him in and questioned his priorities, told him he needed to spend less time at firehouses and more time at the facility. But he insists he wanted to make it work with the Eagles.

Photo courtesy Lionel Bateman

Photo courtesy Lionel Bateman

“I guess you could say it didn’t go well in Philadelphia. I got hurt [he dealt with a nagging ankle injury his second season] and never really performed,” he says. “Then I got to Miami, and the whole Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito scandal happened, and I looked around and realized this isn’t where I wanted to be. I re-evaluated how things were going, and I knew I was ready to be a fireman again. I missed it so much.”

Mudd thinks back to the local news footage, a mystery that, publicly, has never been solved. In August, Philadelphia sports blog Crossing Broad published photos that allegedly depict Watkins fighting a fire. The Philadelphia Fire Department looked into claims Watkins violated code; PFD Executive Chief Clifford Gilliam says the case is closed, no action will be taken against Watkins.

Mudd knows what he saw on the news… or maybe he had just heard about it so many times he convinced himself that he saw it. Now, he thinks back and sighs. “It wasn’t like it was a national emergency, like the fire department summoned anyone with experience to help,” Mudd says. “For whatever reason, he was just motivated to be there and not with us.”

For Eagles fans, this is unforgivable. They’ll complain about the money Watkins made, play the “we-coulda-had” draft game. But it’s more than that.

In the U.S., football is a religion. High schools invest in professional-grade facilities, hoping to buy Friday Night glory. Universities stake reputations on gridiron wins and losses. Millions make the NFL part of their autumn Sunday ritual. It is consistently television’s highest-rated programming. The day after the Super Bowl is an unofficial work holiday.

An estimated 3.5 million kids played in youth leagues this fall, the majority dreaming of advancement to high school, college, and one day the NFL, a league with fewer than 2,000 available roster spots. For those who do make it, the fame, the fortune and the glory are almost immeasurable.

Those who work in football at the highest levels operate in a bubble. They got there by investing their lives into the game. Every day they are surrounded by players desperate to make a team, to earn a contract, to be a cog in the machine. They will never understand Danny Watkins. He was given a free ride to the top of the football world, and he said, No thanks.

Fourteen years ago, before he was a first-round pick or an NFL draft bust, before Division I coaches watched him on tape or a future Heisman winner relied on his protection, before he had ever thought about putting on shoulder pads, Danny Watkins found where he belonged. And for those in the football world who wonder whatever happened to him, Schnitzler can provide the answer in eight words:

“Danny Watkins was born to be a firefighter.”