NFL player decides he’d rather be a firefighter

Danny Watkins

It’s a pretty incredible story.

A very talented NFL pro football player gave up his multi-million dollar a year job to do what he really wanted — to become a firefighter.

Danny Watkins was born  in Kelowna, British Columbia. He didn’t play American football in Canada at all, but did play hockey and some rugby. He was fascinated with firefighting and at the age of 16 became the first junior firefighter with the West Kelowna Fire Department. He was large, 6 feet tall, and after a while he began responding to calls. There is a report that on a medical aid, he singlehandedly lifted a 250-pound man.

After high school he joined the department in a part-time capacity, and lived in the firehouse for a while. Knowing that he needed some formal education to further his career, he researched colleges with fire science programs and enrolled in Butte College in Oroville, California in 2008, at the age of 24. At 6-feet-3 and 305 pounds, the football coach convinced him to be on the team. By the season opener he was the starting right guard. That year he watched on television for the first time an entire football game, and was hooked. In his second year he was contacted by nearly 50 four-year universities and selected a football scholarship at Baylor.

Mr. Watkins was selected with the 23rd overall pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2011 NFL Draft, at 26 becoming the oldest first-round selection since 1980, signing a four-year contract worth $7.9 million. Before the draft, most players take a test, the Wonderlic personality/intelligence test. He reportedly scored a 40, while the average score for an offensive lineman is in the low 20s. He was one of the smartest guys in one of the smartest position groups in football. By week 5 of the regular season he was the starting right guard for the Eagles.

He was very effective and involved with football while at Butte and Baylor, but when he moved to the pros, he seemed to be disinterested or preoccupied. Many football players at the NFL level spend much of their unscheduled time at the team facility studying or working out. Mr. Watkins used some of that time to visit fire houses in Philadelphia. He became friends with some of the firefighters and it is said that he sometimes provided them with tickets to the Eagles games. He was reportedly photographed at the scene of a fire with an elite crew, Rescue 1, outfitted in personal protective gear and carrying a cutoff saw. But fighting fire was not something his coach wanted him to do.

During his second year at Philadelphia he dealt with a nagging ankle injury and was traded to Miami for his third year in the league, getting a one year contract.

The Monday Morning Quarterback has a long, interesting, detailed article about Mr. Watkins, and includes this quote from him about his third and final season in the NFL:

Then I got to Miami, and the whole Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito scandal happened, and I looked around and realized this isn’t where I wanted to be. I re-evaluated how things were going, and I knew I was ready to be a fireman again. I missed it so much.

He spent that season as a seldom-used reserve and when it was over, walked away. He never announced his retirement. He just left when his contract was over at the end of the 2013 season.

Many teams called his agent asking if he would come to their facility to work out and discuss his availability, but he was not interested.

Now he is doing what he really wanted all along. He is fighting fire with a department near Dallas.