NFL Draft 2013: Menelik Watson swaps inner-city life for the big time

By Ian ShoesmithBBC Sport
Menelik Watson's NFL trial

From devouring free sachets of tomato ketchup as an impoverished kid in inner-city Manchester to the brink of a multi-million dollar career in the NFL, Menelik Watson's journey is an incredible tale.

As one of four boys brought up by a single parent on the tough Anson Estate in Longsight, an area of Manchester which until recently was infamous for gun crime and turf wars between gangs, life's dice were loaded against him.

One of the Watson boys is still in prison and another has spent time inside. But not Menelik.

Menelik Watson
Watson played for Florida State University

"I saw my brothers hit the streets and I really saw what it was doing to my mum," the 24-year-old told BBC Sport ahead of Thursday's NFL Draft (early hours of Friday in the UK), in which the cream of the college crop are allocated to the sport's 32 professional teams. "I always knew that I didn't want to add to that stress - it was really breaking her down.

"I've been on the street corner before, but I've always been blessed by a good spirit around me that kept me out of trouble."

That and his quick feet. Able to complete the 40-yard dash in a shade over five seconds, Watson is freakishly fast for a man standing 6ft 5in (1.95m) tall and weighing 310lb (22st, 141kg).

Watson also thanks his lucky stars for the day he met basketball coach Rob Orellana.

The American spotted him at a Christmas 2006 basketball tournament in Manchester, just after Watson's 18th birthday.

While being 6ft 5in tall is something the vast majority of us can only dream of, amazingly it is not quite tall enough to put you into the stratospheric world of an NBA power forward.

But Orellana thought he would take a punt on Watson anyway, because of his "agility, lift and unique ability to move laterally for a kid of his size" and offer him a place at his basketball academy in the Canary Islands.

It represented a second chance in sport for Watson, whose dreams of playing as a defensive midfielder for his beloved Manchester City had been shattered along with his ankle five years previously during a "100 against 100" game of park football.

"Can you imagine seeing the bone poking out of your skin? The doctor told me they almost amputated [my foot] because they were worried about the difficult complications that could happen if they put my ankle back together," he recalled.

"They told me I shouldn't play sports again. Me being bone-headed, I found basketball and fell in love with it."

What he lacked in inches Watson certainly made up for in application, although he openly admits to having initially found Orellana's tough training regime hard to deal with.

"The first year, I hated him. I couldn't stand him," joked Watson before talking about the incredibly close relationship which now exists between them.

The love goes both ways.

"If everyone had his drive we would have a beautiful world," said Orellana. "You'd have to do a lobotomy; you'd have to do open-heart surgery to see what was in his brain and what he's got in his heart."

When Watson was about to become a father four years ago, it was coach Orellana who stumped up the money to pay for him to fly home to Manchester.

"I got home to see my baby being born. He's like my father, he always has been and always will be," said Watson.

When it was clear a couple of years ago that his protege would not make it as a professional basketball player, Orellana took Watson to a small-town college which barely registers in its home state of California, let alone across the United States.

"We showed up unannounced on the doorstep at Saddleback junior college and said 'hey, he wants to play [American] football'," explained Orellana.

"He ran a little, they looked at the size of his legs and they said 'we'd love to have you'."

At this point, Watson had never donned a pair of shoulder pads or even picked up an American football.

But he took to the sport like a natural - "I had to learn all the rules; it was fun, like being a kid again" - and within months he had scouts from elite colleges checking him out.

The man who ended up signing Watson, though, did so purely by chance.

If you were looking for an actor to play the role of a gruff, grizzled coach, Rick Trickett's name would surely be at the top of Central Casting's list.

"I went to California to see another guy we had on our list," explained the former US Marine and Vietnam veteran. "And the junior coach then pulled me aside and said 'I've got one better than him'.

"And I'm thinking 'OK, sure you do'."

Watson joined Trickett's Florida State University team as a right tackle, a position where your main jobs are to stop your equally huge opponents from flattening your quarterback and to open up gaps for your running back to exploit.

"I've been doing this going on 41 years now," said Trickett in his slow West Virginian drawl. "And Menelik is the most explosive big man that I've ever coached.

"It didn't take long for me to realise this cat is a little bit different."

Having only played 20 games in his entire life, Watson now heads to the NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York as one of the highest-rated young players in America.

A seven-figure salary awaits wherever he ends up, although he had the option of further honing his skills by playing one more year in college.

Menelik Watson (right)
Watson gets to grips with an opponent while playing for Florida State University last season

But American football is a brutal sport. With the risk of a torn cruciate ligament or a head injury snatching away any dreams of a million-dollar contract in an instant, few can blame him for turning pro at the first opportunity.

"I'm 24 years old, I've been in school my whole life and I thought it was about time I got a job," said Watson, who promises to give some of his first pay cheque to his mum Novlyn as well as buying his first place to live and a "little" vehicle.

"I'm a simple guy, I don't need much," he said.

"Some consider me as a mummy's boy. She had four boys, she was by herself and many a time she could have walked out and left us [but] she always showed us love.

"She was hard on us - she had to be - but it's just the respect, when you see somebody fight that hard for you. I owe it to her, more than anybody else in the world, to do something positive and see her smile. That's my motivation."

When he was growing up, he remembers being so hungry that, when accompanying his mum on a cleaning job, he helped himself to ketchup in the canteen.

Watson is desperate for his four-year-old girl Orellana - named in honour of his mentor Rob - to have a better start to life than he did and is relieved that his soon-to-be-found financial security will enable him to see a lot more of her in Manchester, where she still lives with her mother.

"She is so aware of her surroundings, so advanced, smart, respectful and loving," he says with pride. "I'm just so glad that she won't have to ever go through some of things [I had to]."

Watson knows he still has a lot to learn but, in the words of coach Trickett, "Menelik is like a sponge".

Trickett explained: "He's not been Americanised so he doesn't know what he's not supposed to know.

"God's blessed him with enough ability and enough intelligence that, for the most part, he can do anything."

As for Watson himself?

"I haven't done anything yet in terms of where I want to go and want to accomplish," he said.

"Rome wasn't built in a day but I've figured out the formula of the way you're meant to do things.

"One of my big goals is to win a Super Bowl. I watched this year and I was telling myself 'I know I'm going to be there one year'."

You can listen to BBC Radio 5 live's NFL Draft Preview programme by clicking here. Live coverage of the first round will be on BBC Radio 5 live Sports Extra from 00:30 BST on Friday


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