Watkins' heart never seemed to be in it

Imagine you're Danny Watkins, a relative newcomer to football, on scholarship at a Division I college, and you're being touted as an NFL first-round draft pick.

And what if, perhaps, you didn't love the game as much as, say, firefighting? Would you withdraw your name from consideration and tell more than a handful of teams that you weren't willing to accept their millions because your heart wasn't in it?

Some would. Most wouldn't.

Watkins, for the record, has never said that he didn't love football. Attempts to reach the former Eagles guard, who was released Saturday after two disappointing seasons, were unsuccessful.

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  • But there were plenty of clues that Watkins, who first picked up the game at 22 when he attended California's Butte College to study fire sciences, didn't have the passion required to succeed in the NFL. If true, he certainly wasn't the first top draft pick to lack the necessary drive.

    Watkins loves firefighting, though. There is no speculation there. He was a regular at Rescue 1, Philadelphia's elite firefighting unit, and at Engine 7 in Kensington, according to sources within the department.

    Watkins would cook, do dishes, mop the floor, and even rode the trucks to calls.

    On Dec. 16 last year, a Sunday, Rescue 1 was called to a four-alarm fire at a commercial building on Aramingo and Streets. The Eagles had played the previous Thursday night and were off. Watkins was at the scene, according to photos on NortheastBravest.com, a website that chronicles firefighting from Philadelphia to New York.

    In a series of photos, Watkins is wearing full gear with an air pack designed for interior firefighting and he's carrying what one firefighter said was an 80-pound saw. He's walking along with other firefighters in the fire zone just outside an exit.

    Shown the photo a week after it was taken, Watkins confirmed that it was him. But he said that he wasn't inside the building and that he was there just helping pick up equipment. If he were firefighting, it would have been in violation of his contract with the Eagles.

    Watkins also met with then-coach Andy Reid and told him that he wasn't fighting fires, according to an Eagles spokesman. He was clearly dedicated to the profession, though. He served as a firefighter for five years in his hometown of Kelowna, British Columbia, before he left for Butte.

    Not long after the Eagles selected him 23d overall in the 2011 draft, Watkins helped establish All Hands Working, a program that was designed to assist firefighters after they became injured in the line of duty and provided them with better training to prevent injuries.

    One firefighter from Engine 7 acknowledged that Watkins hung out at the station. He didn't want to be identified, he said, because Watkins was well liked and because he worked as hard and did all the same chores as the firefighters.

    By the time of the Dec. 16 fire, Watkins wasn't playing much on game days. He had lost his starting right-guard spot two months earlier because of an ankle injury, although it was clear that he was also being benched.

    And now eight months later, playing in a new regime with coach Chip Kelly, Watkins has been released. General manager Howie Roseman said that being the team's top pick weighed heavily on the 28-year-old.

    "Part of his personality, and you talk about him being a firefighter, is that he feels like he has to help save people," Roseman said. "He put a lot of pressure on himself and he couldn't just go out and play."

    Watkins spent much of his two years in Philly running from reporters. While many first-round picks have been prized athletes who had dealt with the media glare for years, Watkins was also a novice in that area. He once said he hardly ever spoke to reporters when he was at Baylor.

    There were red flags all over, although the Eagles weren't the only NFL team to have Watkins high atop their draft boards. But he was 26 at the time and had played only four years of competitive football. The Eagles thought they were getting a tough-guy Canadian.

    "When you watched Danny play, the toughness, the hockey-playing aspect of him never translated to Philadelphia," Roseman said. "You felt like you were getting an enforcer."

    Watkins struggled throughout his rookie season even though he started the final 12 games. It was no secret that he did not get along with offensive line coach Howard Mudd, who could be gruff and had a specific method for blocking. Some within the organization believe that the relationship stunted Watkins' growth as a player.

    Watkins seemed refreshed at the start of offseason conditioning this April. He had recently gotten married and said that he was excited to work with new offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland. But his performance on the field remained the same.

    Mistakes are orphans. Asked about who was responsible for the Watkins pick, Roseman said, "A lot of responsibilities have changed since 2011."

    Reid had final say on football matters. Former team president Joe Banner was also among the decision makers. Roseman has made a point of saying that the Eagles have not drafted for need since.

    Whoever was at fault - and most likely, it was the whole outfit - the Watkins draft pick illustrates how difficult it is to get inside someone's head.

     


    Contact Jeff McLane at jmclane@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_McLane.

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