First and long odds for Watkins

Danny Watkins (centre) expects to go through growing pains as a rookie lineman on the Philadelphia...

Danny Watkins (centre) expects to go through growing pains as a rookie lineman on the Philadelphia Eagles. (Getty Images)

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:36 PM ET

TORONTO - As a cocky 17-year-old “I think I know everything about sports” freshman living in Carleton University residence back in 1980, yours truly could only scoff when a lovely young lass in the next room named Esther claimed her younger brother one day would make the NFL.

Bad mistake.

Six years later, Esther would have the last laugh when her brother Mike, an offensive lineman at Queen’s University, became the first Canadian-born player ever picked in the first round of the NFL draft, plucked 23rd overall by the Los Angeles Rams.

Did we mention that Esther’s last name was Schad? Didn’t think so.

During an interview many years afterward, Mike Schad chuckled when informed of the scepticism shown to his sister when she was correctly forecasting his future success back in the days when he was still playing high school football in Belleville.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “No one thought I would make it.”

Mike Schad would be the first to tell you that his road to NFL success wasn’t easy. Because he had played his collegiate football in Canada, the concept of lining up helmet to helmet at the line of scrimmage was a foreign concept to the kid from Queen’s, who had been accustomed to setting up a yard off the ball.

It took Mike Schad a couple of years to learn the nuances of the NFL game. He eventually landed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1988, where he carved out a solid, if not spectacular, career over the next six seasons.

But there were growing pains.

Just like the kind Danny Watkins is going through right now.

Twenty-five years after Schad’s selection, Watkins, the personable fireman from Kelowna, B.C., was selected 23rd overall — the same spot Schad had been taken — by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2011 draft. In the process, he was just the fourth Canadian ever selected in the opening round of the NFL’s annual auction of college football beef, joining Schad, offensive lineman Tony Mandarich (second overall by the Green Bay Packers in 1989) and running back Tim Biakabutuka (eighth overall by the Carolina Panthers in 1996).

While Schad’s struggles early in his career can be attributed to adapting to the American game, Watkins is just trying to learn the game, period.

Keep this in mind: As one of the older rookies in the league at age 26, Watkins has spent more time in his life serving as a firefighter (five) than playing football (four).

Like many Canadian kids, Watkins grew up loving and playing hockey. But as his body began sprouting into the 6-foot-3, 315-pound frame he sports today, well, “I knew that I didn’t have the ideal frame to make it as a pro hockey defenceman,” he said.

Not willing to serve the primary role as a hockey goon because of his hulking size, he turned his sights to firefighting, joining the West Kelowna Fire and Rescue fire station as a junior fireman at age 16. It was a love that eventually led him to Butte College in California, where he enrolled in a fire sciences program.

It was here that Danny Watkins’ life would change.

Encouraged to go out for the Butte football team, Watkins picked up the game so quickly, he received a scholarship from Baylor after just two years. Two years later, in New York’s famed Radio City Music Hall, his buddies from both the West Kelowna station and the FDNY burst into cheers when the Eagles selected him.

Just four years after lining up for his first football snap, Danny Watkins was in the National Football League.

A Cinderella story? Perhaps. But a lot of polishing of Danny Watkins’ game is required before this tale has a happy ending.

Needing as much football education as he can get, Watkins has suffered from the lack of off-season team-run camps, which were wiped out because of the league’s labour dispute during the summer.

With opponents throwing at him all kinds of defensive looks he has never seen before, Watkins, pencilled in as the starter at right guard, had his problems during the exhibition season. He even asked coach Andy Reid to play him in the team’s pre-season finale against the New York Jets, a game in which the regulars usually sit out in preparation for the regular season.

“I just wanted to give him a little extra time, with the lockout and the holdout,” Reid told reporters. “I thought he needed that. He wanted to work, so that was a plus there.

“It’s just a matter of playing. The more reps he gets, the better he gets,” Reid added. “We understand he’s playing catch-up in a lot of different areas.”

Watkins, a self-proclaimed “highly motivated” person, knows there is plenty of work to be done to become the player he wants to be. In that respect, he welcomes the challenge.

“The more experience for me, the better,” Watkins said. “We didn’t have the rookie (minicamps) or anything like that, so I’m just trying to make up for lost time.

“Just seeing different defensive fronts like this where it’s changing and you have to prepare for it, it’s good.”

Through the pre-season, Watkins has been a plough horse in the running game for the Eagles, opening up huge holes for LeSean McCoy and Ronnie Brown. It is his pass blocking that requires work, a key element when it comes to keeping franchise quarterback Michael Vick off his butt and out of the trainers’ room.

With Sunday’s regular season opener against the St. Louis Rams looming, the Eagles are taking no chances, newly acquired guard Kyle DeVan will start in Watkins place. DeVan, who played under Eagles offensive line coach Howard Mudd in Indianapolis, is actually younger than Watkins, but claims he is not looking to get into a heated competition with the Canadian rookie.

“I’ve been where Danny was,” DeVan told the Eagles website. “I was the young guy my first year in the league, but coach Mudd does all he can to make sure his rookies get up to speed. He knows his veterans will be ready to go, and he’ll coach Danny up.

“He always puts a lot of faith in his young guys, just like he did with me. He’ll chew you out sometimes, but he’ll make you better if you listen.”

One thing the Eagles know they are getting in Watkins: A man with character. In fact, that quality was on display during the first day of training camp.

Just as line drills were set to begin, defensive tackle Mike Patterson collapsed to the ground and began having a seizure. Relying on his training as a firefighter, Watkins immediately attempted to jump into action.

“He wanted to jump right in there,” Reid said afterward. (The trainer) was stabilizing (Patterson), and I kind of held (Watkins) back just a little bit. His first reaction was to dive in.

“Then he came back in when we were trying to get (Patterson) on the spine board and helped out.”

Perhaps it is fitting that Danny Watkins will make his NFL regular season debut Sept. 11, the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Indeed, on the day he was drafted back in the spring, he spent the morning touring Ground Zero with some of his fellow firefighters from Kelowna and the FDNY.

Hours later, after the Eagles traded up to draft him, Reid proclaimed that “he was the man we wanted.”

Will Watkins succeed? Can he live up to the lofty expectations lumped on him by Reid despite the warts in his game caused by inexperience on the gridiron?

Given his determination, it says here that, like Mike Schad, Danny Watkins will find a way to have an NFL career.

Besides, after being completely wrong about Schad’s future three decades ago, yours truly would be foolish to make the same mistake about Watkins.

Right, Esther?


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