Indianapolis, Ind. - It’s been epic journey for Menelik Watson, a classic rags to riches story.
Watson, from the poverty stricken streets of Manchester, England is on the brink of NFL fortunes. He only spent one semester in Tallahassee at Florida State yet will be one of the first offensive tackles tackle in April’s NFL draft.
“My best football is in front of me,” Watson said. “I know that I have not even scratched the surface.”
The 24-year old Watson grew up playing football, but not the Americanized kind. He was a soccer player. And it was that game that almost entirely ended any kind of athletic career he hope to have when he was only 12-years old.
“I got tackled playing soccer and dislocated my ankle real bad,” Watson said. “There was a fracture and it messed with my foot plates. It was so bad the doctors almost amputated my foot.”
Worse than the injury were the streets of Manchester. Watson and his family had very little if any money. The family relied on mom, who did whatever she could to provide shelter and food on the table.
“There were times when I opened up the fridge and there was nothing in it,” Watson said. “One time I was starving and I was at the building where my mom was working. I mean I was starving. All that was there was ketchup. Being as hungry as I was, I drank the ketchup. Needless to say, I don’t like it anymore.”
Food wasn’t the only thing on Watson’s mind as a kid. He didn’t want to fall to the streets. He didn’t want to become a thug and had the mindset to stay clean and do things the right way.
“It was so tough,” Watson said. “I had to persevere. It was rough on my mom and under the circumstances she did a good job. Most of it [the streets] was drugs, gangs and family in the hospital. I always wanted to do something positive and be a shining example no matter where I came from. I can do something. So I was big into school not big into money.”
Watson was also big into sports. His next mission was to become a basketball star. Watson thought that could be his ticket out of the streets. In 2007 he went to play basketball in Spain and later earned a scholarship offer from Marist College, where he played from 2009 through 2011.
“I always wanted to be a pro and play in the NBA,” Watson said. “But I had to make a calculated decision and give it up. I had a daughter back in England and I had to find something.”
Watson then decided to give football a try. But there were no takers. At the time he was 23-year Englishman soliciting colleges.
“They all thought I was crazy,” Watson said. “Then I found Saddleback [College]. Honestly, I didn’t know anything about the game. But I had the mindset and I just wanted to dedicate myself to football.”
Watson showed up at Saddleback in Mission Viejo, Calif. and started off on the defensive line before switching to offensive tackle. When he tells you he knew absolutely nothing about the game he’s being understated. Watson didn’t know the rules, didn’t know how to put on the equipment and certainly didn’t know how to play the game. But this is a kid that’s highly intelligent and even more motivated. And Watson’s blessed with size and super athleticism.
One of his teammates at Saddleback was Kyle Long. Long, who went on to Oregon, is also here at the NFL Combine and is considered one of the top guard prospects in this draft. He sat down with Watson and made things real simple for him to understand.
“Kyle basically told me that the quarterback is a basket [like in basketball] and that I have to protect the basket,” Watson said. “It’s a basic principal, to protect the quarterback. I learned everything from there.”
Watson took to the game and became good.
“Playing with Kyle and all those guys was great,” Watson said. “We just mauled guys and the defense hated us.”
Watson then earned a scholarship from Florida State, where he played with the Seminoles for only one season which was last year. There, his offensive line coach was Rick Trickett.
“I owe a lot to coach Trickett,” Watson said. “He’s a great technician and I hope to get down there and work with him in the off-season.”
So here Watson is, at the NFL Combine. It’s just another step in his long journey. He’s on the verge of becoming a professional player who has so much upside. Watson, 6-foot-6 and 310-pounds, is so close to being in position to take care of his mom, his daughter and the rest of his family. But don’t let the big pay day fool you.
“I didn’t do this to chase the millions,” Watson said. “It’s just what I want to do now.”