Florida State OT Menelik Watson has gone through a lot to get to Indianapolis this weekend including time as a basketball player and boxer. Now, he's looking to make his case as one of the draft's top tackles. (Photo courtesy of AP Images)
INDIANAPOLIS – If Menelik Watson never eats ketchup again it will be too soon.
Sorry Heinz, tough luck Hunt, bad break Del Monte. If and when the Florida State offensive tackle strikes it big as an NFL player, it’s probably best not to expect him to endorse your product.
As he stands on the verge of realizing a life long dream to become a professional athlete, Watson can’t help but think about how far he’s come. When he looks back on that journey, he reflects on a kid growing up in poverty, surrounded by the potential pitfalls of one of the poorest parts of Manchester, England…and ketchup.
It’s not so much what the condiment tastes like as what it represents that Watson won’t get past. As drugs, guns and gangs enveloped everything in his immediate vicinity, Watson relied on his mother to provide for he and his siblings.
Watson vividly recalls accompanying his mother to work when she’d be called upon to clean a building. Required to sit in the cafeteria of the building to wait for her to finish the job, Watson and his siblings would find themselves hungry.
Knowing that he couldn’t bother his mother for money for food, assuming she had some anyway, Watson took to consuming ketchup packets. It became a regular occurrence, the type of repeated process that would cause one to grow tired of anything let alone a single tomato-based condiment.
“I would never like asking my mom for money,” Watson said. “So being hungry I just started drinking ketchup. I don’t really like ketchup anymore. Now my mom always kept us fed, don’t get me wrong, she’d make big dinners and stuff like that but when money was short sometimes you remember those days, the struggles and stuff like that. You never forget them.”
“I’VE SEEN A LOT”
According to a study done by the Campaign to End Child Poverty in England, Manchester has the third worst rate of children living in poverty in the United Kingdom with nearly half of the city’s kids living below the breadline as of 2012.
Those numbers weren’t far off as Watson was growing up there. Just outside his door, every potential trap for a young, impressionable kid waited to swallow him whole.
Relying almost exclusively on a working mom to show him the right way, Watson developed the ability to avoid those temptations at an early age.
“It was rough,” Watson said. “I have seen a lot of things but my mom did a good job of just showing us that even if things are tough how to persevere. I made the most of a situation that potentially could have been worse.”
Watson turned to the good things that were available to him as his way out, his escape. He loved going to school and learning new things and sports quickly became a passion.
Like most kids his age in England, Watson was a huge soccer fan. He loved Manchester City and wanted to play just like his older brother. He played the sport through most of his early childhood until a fateful day playing with his classmates at lunchtime.
The 12-year old Watson was tackled from behind by a classmate and immediately felt the searing pain of a devastating ankle injury. Upon further inspection, the ankle was dislocated and fractured and a growth plate was damaged.
“It was actually so bad they were thinking about amputating the foot and told me I shouldn’t play sports again,” Watson.
It was advice that Watson was quick to ignore.
As Watson grew bigger and recovered from the horrific ankle injury, he turned away from soccer in pursuit of another spot that could quench his thirst for playing. Growing by the year, Watson turned to basketball.
Watson learned the game at Burnage High School and with a solidly built 6’7 frame; he believed he could have a future in the game. After graduating from high school in 2006, he went in search of the next move up the hoops ladder.
So Watson took his basketball talents to CDA Academy in the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the Northwest coast of Africa to play for coach Rob Orellana.
Watson spent two years there before getting the opportunity to come to the United States and play college basketball at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. It was Watson’s first trip to the United States and gave him the chance to keep his dreams of playing professional basketball alive.
“When I was a kid I always wanted to be a pro, a professional athlete,” Watson said. “I was that kid who said I wanted to play in the NBA. Until that second year at Marist I still thought I could.”
Watson redshirted his first year at Marist in 2009 but impressed enough to become a team captain in his first season playing the following year. Watson played center and power forward, averaging 4.7 points and 3.3 rebounds in 29 games with 13 starts.
More concerning than his lack of production was the overall struggles of a program that went 6-27 in his lone season playing. Watson again found himself looking for a different path to keep his sports dreams alive.
And this time, the stakes were higher as Watson fathered a baby daughter whom he knew he’d need to provide for.
“I just had to make a calculated decision where I was going in my life,” Watson said. “I have to think about her and being a father and providing so I just made a calculated decision. It was either go back to England, get a job and rethink the whole athlete situation, maybe give it up or find something new. I found football.”
“THEY THOUGHT I WAS CRAZY”
After things at Marist didn’t work out, Watson looked for options with the help of Orellana, with whom he’d developed a close enough relationship that Watson calls him a “father” figure.
Orellana had always been impressed with Watson’s hand speed and power and while Watson viewed himself more as the next Karl Malone, Orellana saw the next Lennox Lewis.
Watson agreed to go with his coach and give boxing a whirl. The pair contacted a man named Robert Alcazar, who had worked as Oscar de la Hoya’s Olympic coach many years earlier.
For the next week, Watson learned how to box, learning combinations and working speed bags and pads. Despite his promise, he quickly decided it wasn’t what he wanted.
“We went out there and for a week did about a week of intense training just hitting pads and combinations to see my hand speed and power,” Watson said. “He was pretty excited about the fact that we were doing boxing but I wanted to do a team sport. I’m a team player. I love team sports, always have.”
Given his size, the footwork he’d learned from basketball and the hand punch techniques from his short time boxing, there was only one team sport that made the most sense for Watson: football.
Of course, there was one minor problem with the idea of becoming a football player.
“I didn’t know a thing about it, honestly,” Watson said.
Considering his knowledge of the game was limited to what he’d seen on television or played on an Xbox 360, teams weren’t exactly lining up for Watson’s services.
Desperate to find a coach, any coach, who would look at Watson and agree to mold him into a football player, he called as many universities and junior colleges as possible. One by one they turned him away.
“They all thought I was crazy what I was trying to do,” Watson said. “I was 23 from England, never played football, didn’t know what a three point stance was, what a two point stance was, didn’t know how to put on pads. I didn’t know a thing about football. They were like ‘You are 23, you’re a basketball player, why are you trying to play football?’”
Watson’s exhaustive search finally ended in Mission Viejo, Calif., home of Saddleback Community College and head coach Mark McElroy.
A MAUL FEST
At the same time Watson was walking on to the Saddleback College campus, another player of similar size was looking for a fresh start. Kyle Long, younger brother of Rams defensive end Chris, was also looking for a chance to give football a try.
Serving as something of a house for vagabond athletes, McElroy gave Long and Watson an opportunity. Suddenly, McElroy had a pair of physically imposing players with miles and miles of untapped athletic ability.
“I can't imagine being the head coach at Saddleback Junior College when Menelik Watson and Kyle Long walked on to campus two years ago and said I'm here to play ball,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “Pretty amazing that they were the two offensive tackles in junior college. Both of those kids are really talented, but underdeveloped and raw kids.”
Watson initially hoped to work as a defensive lineman since he was much lighter than his current 310 pounds and had good speed – he clocked a 4.7 40-yard dash around the time he first started playing football – but the defensive scheme didn’t quite fit his size and lack of skill.
To hear Long tell it, he was responsible for making Watson his bookend on the offensive line.
“He came in as a defensive end and I snuck a white jersey on to the field and I said ‘I am not going against you, you are playing right tackle,’” Long said, laughing.
It didn’t take long for Watson to embrace his new position and his new pal, who helped him understand the simplest concept of playing offensive tackle.
“We went out there and Kyle Long said ‘Listen, the quarterback is the basket, protect the basket,”’ Watson said. “It was just as simple as that. From that day it was OK. That was the main principle to protect the quarterback and then after that, you learn the techniques and that’s what happened with me.”
Watson adapted quickly as he carried his affection for learning in the classroom out on to the football field. He devoted himself to learning protections and techniques. Blessed with the footwork and hand speed learned from basketball and boxing, Watson burst on to the scene and immediately started overpowering opponents.
Long and Watson became Saddleback’s version of the Bash Brothers, the Fulton Reed and Dean Portman version from Mighty Ducks 2, not the Oakland A’s sluggers.
“It was a maul fest,” Watson said. “Defenses used to hate us. It was fun. Defensive ends used to hate us. They’d go to one side and get beat down by him (and vice versa). They quit. We were a high scoring team. I wish I’d get to play with him again. It was a lot of fun.”
A congenial and genuine sort, Watson comes off as a salt of the Earth type off the field but Long said his former tag team partner has a switch he can flip on the field that would make him a nightmare for anyone who did him wrong.
“I think we kind of rubbed off on each other a bit when we were there,” Long said. “We kind of fed off the energy that we had. He was a nasty dude. He’s a nice guy off the field but you don’t want to get caught in a dark alley with Melenik Watson.”
Just seven starts into his time at Saddleback, Watson had college football royalty coming to watch him on a regular basis. The scholarship offers rolled in with schools like Auburn, Oregon, Oklahoma, California and Florida State chasing.
Given the chance to face top-notch pass rushers such as Bjoern Werner in practice every day, Watson opted to become a Seminole.
Watson wasted no time making an impact in Tallahassee, quickly establishing himself as the Seminoles’ starting right tackle. He started 14 games for the ACC champions and helped them to a convincing Orange Bowl win against Northern Illinois.
Although he had a year of eligibility remaining, Watson figured now would be the best time to leave for the NFL so he can provide for his family. He knows he’s considered a raw prospect but believes he’s just scratching the surface of his potential.
At this week’s NFL Scouting Combine, Watson hopes to show teams he can play and also prove to them he’s ready and willing to devote himself to learning the game, a process he’s taken so seriously that he says he hasn’t been to a bar or club in the two years since he picked up the game.
While Watson hasn’t been mentioned as prominently as other tackle prospects, his is a name that’s likely to gain steam as the draft nears.
“He has first‑round talent,” Mayock said. “I know he's raw and undeveloped. But I get excited when I see a physical skill set as good as his. He looks like a natural left tackle to me.”
In training for the combine and the lead up to the draft, Watson has spent as much time working on learning protections, fronts and techniques as he has on the physical aspects like the 40-yard dash and bench press.
While working out at IMG Academy in Florida, Watson has been working with former Rams guard Tom Nütten. At the top of the list of priorities for Watson has been learning to work out of a three-point stance, something he didn’t do much of in college.
Nütten has also been showing Watson film of former Rams teammates and legendary left tackle Orlando Pace.
Watson said he enjoys watching many of the game’s greats to play the position, especially since he never watched the game before he started playing.
“That’s what I want to be,” Watson said. “One day I want to be a pioneer, I want to be someone who all the kids look up to and want to watch film of me and see what I did. That’s the goal I am aiming for.”
When all is said and done, there’s a strong chance Watson will become a first-round pick. It’s possible he might even be a Ram as they have an opening at right tackle.
Asked what he’d buy with his first NFL paycheck, the mature beyond his years Watson said nothing, noting that money is far from a focus in his relentless pursuits of athletic excellence.
The mere mention of a dream realized is enough to make Watson light up, enough to make him think back to the days of drinking ketchup and plotting a better life, a life where his example can some day stand out as one other kids can see and find hope of their own.
“I just felt as a kid growing up seeing those things I saw, I needed to do something positive,” Watson said. “There was a lot of negativity around and there was no point in me getting involved in anything negative. I’ll do something positive that will benefit everyone and just be a shining example that no matter where you come from, you can do something positive and do something big.”