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Hockey paves way for Watkins football glory

by Tal Pinchevsky /
The road to the NFL is generally a pretty standard path.

Start as a child with Pop Warner before graduating to glory with high school and college teams. Then, if you are extremely good and extremely lucky, you may just get to play on Sundays in the NFL before millions of fans.

Danny Watkins, however, was so far off the path that a road map couldn't even put him in the general direction of football glory.

So, how did Watkins, from Kelowna B.C., end up as an interior lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles despite not even playing in a competitive game until he was 22?

He had hockey to help with the navigation, of course.

"I was a typical Canadian," Watkins told "Going to the rink at 5:30 in the morning on the weekends. Those early mornings with the old man. Sitting in the car on the way back with the stinky gear."


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It wasn't hard for Watkins to get noticed at the local rink. Even among the largest local kids, the future first-team All-Big 12 football guard honoree towered over the competition. By the time he was named the No. 1 guard prospect at the 2011 NFL Draft, Watkins measured 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds.

But, he was big as a teenage defenseman in Kelowna and he wasn't shy about throwing his weight around when he played in local leagues, earning his fair share of penalties.

"I think the biggest on skates I got was 260 [pounds]," said Watkins. "I spent a lot of time in the sin bin."
Growing up in the shadow of the 2004 Memorial Cup champion Kelowna Rockets, Watkins was interested in the sport, but not consumed by it. He didn't follow the Rockets all that closely, but he was a family friend of Rockets defenseman Josh Gorges, who now plays for the Montreal Canadiens.

Simply, Watkins outgrew the sport of hockey, both literally and figuratively.

And, it was then that the road map to NFL glory first came into the blurriest of focus, beginning a unique journey that somehow ended with Watkins earning a roster spot on a NFL team in another country and across a continent.

When Watkins abandoned hockey, he decided to chase another passion: firefighting. He grew up as a volunteer firefighter in his hometown and decided to attend the Firefighter Academy at Butte College in Oroville, Calif.

"That was when there was a fork in the road and I had to pick one or the other," said Watkins.

As he had done as a young hockey player, Watkins stuck out immediately in Oroville.

The football coach at Butte COllege noticed him immediately. He always had an eye out for size to help the team, which, in the past, had help produce NFL stars  Aaron Rodgers and Larry Allen.

"I went down to the school and the football coach said ‘hey, you're a big guy. If you come play football we'll help you out with school,'" said Watkins. "I thought ‘this isn't a bad gig.'"

So at age 22, having barely played the sport, Danny Watkins was a college football player.

Four years later, after transferring to Baylor University and blocking for future Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, he was the Eagles' first-round draft pick. By any standard in any sport, Watkins' was a meteoric rise; one he credits primarily to his background in hockey.

As Watkins started honing the lateral movement, foot speed, and manual dexterity required of an offensive lineman, he found the physical dynamics remarkably familiar. It turned out that blocking a quarterback's blind side wasn't all that different from patrolling the blue line on the ice.

"Obviously, the terms and verbage and concepts were different but the techniques were very similar," Watkins said. "You just have to have that natural knee bend and be able to move your feet and move your hands. It was a pretty easy transition. It was probably halfway through the first year [at Butte] when the coach said, ‘You're a very natural pass protector. You're very fluid in your motions.' I wondered how that happened and then I figured it must have been hockey that helped me pick that up."

With the city of Philadelphia hosting this season's NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 2 at Citizens Bank Park, there will be at least one player anticipating hockey's biggest regular-season showcase from the Eagles' locker room across the street at Lincoln Financial Field, where the Eagles play Jan. 1. Certainly, he will reflect on the most unusual of roads that delivered him to this point in his life and the role hockey played in his football stardom.

Watkins knows he can partially credit his young, burgeoning NFL career to the skills he developed on the ice as a youngster.

"It definitely helped," he said. "That's for sure."
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