By Nick St. Denis, AllPuck.com
Danny Watkins is a 27-year-old ex-hockey-playing Canadian firefighter. But he’s taking a break from all that to play offensive line for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. Go figure.
Watkins was selected by the Eagles in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft, just four years after he began playing football for Butte College. As a 22-year-old studying fire sciences at the community college, Watkins was recruited to play offensive line for Butte. Despite having no experience with the sport, he did it anyway – well enough to score a transfer to Baylor a year later and start for the Bears.
In his introductory press conference with the Philadelphia media, Watkins was asked how he picked up the position so easily. The 310-pound Vancouver Canucks fan answered Happy-Gilmore style: “I think a lot of it has to do with hockey.”
Watkins, who referred to himself as the “designated goon” on the ice, grew up playing hockey as a defenseman until he was 17, getting as far as the midget triple-A level before hanging up the skates competitively. He noted similarities between being a defenseman on the ice and blocking on the field. “Just the fundamentals of skating backwards and the knee-bend involved,” Watkins said.
Sure, playing hockey can make you better at a lot of things. I mean, look what it did for Gilmore? But I never considered any aspect of hockey, aside from simple athleticism, to translate effectively enough into football — such a different sport — that someone who never played football could compete at the highest level just a few years later.
Here’s my feeble attempt to make sense of this thing:
Stance: The ready position to skate backward is very similar to that of an offensive lineman. Hockey players have their feet shoulder-width apart, assuming a sort of sitting position with their knees bent and chest up.
In front: While defending an offensive rush or setting up shop at the blue line, the defenseman’s job is to keep the play in front of them using good awareness and proper technique. Offensive linemen do the same when in pass protection.
Behind: Defensemen must also be aware at all times of what is happening behind them. That means helping and protecting the goaltender, whether it’s blocking pucks or giving the netminder a clear look at oncoming shots. And just like an offensive lineman protecting his signal-caller, defensemen must take exception to any unwanted contact with their goalie.
Mean streak: Offensive linemen and defensemen need to have a mean streak in them to compete at the highest levels. They are both some of the biggest guys in their respective sports and hit a lot of bodies all game long.
Lesson Learned. Hockey players who are nearing the end of their careers at a young age may have another sport to fall back on, after all. That, or Watkins is just a freak. Probably the latter.