ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — A decade ago, while still living in the soccer-mad British city of Manchester, football was a game that Menelik Watson watched from a distance. It was a game he dismissed, even though his friends thought he’d be a natural.
“They’d be like, ‘Man, when you move to the States, you’re going to play football,'” Watson recalled. “I’m like, ‘I’m not playing football. No chance!’
“I was one of those English guys who said, ‘Oh, rugby’s way tougher than football.'”
Not anymore. After a decade-long trek that crossed oceans and continents and took him through Poughkeepsie, N.Y. and Mission Viejo, Calif. on to Tallahassee, Fla. and finally to the NFL, football is Watson’s true sporting love.
So fervent is Watson’s desire to extract every drop out of his football life that he chose the Broncos in part because of their strength and conditioning staff, feeling that the methods utilized by Luke Richesson and his fellow strength coaches could help Watson avoid the injuries that have undercut his development during four seasons with the Raiders.
“I’ve had these [nagging injuries] that have set me back,” Watson said. “We’re trying to find the best situation moving forward where Menelik Watson can elongate his career and play football.”
Watson’s love of the sport wasn’t love at first sight … although when he first saw a game in person, he found himself intrigued.
That came while he was still playing basketball at Marist College. In 2010, he traveled to see a friend at Florida State.
“We were in the stands watching Florida State football. Everyone thought I was a recruit,” Watson recalled. “And then, funny enough, two years later, I’m actually on the field. From sitting there watching versus BYU, and then two years later, I’m on the field and I can find the exact spot where I was sitting — and I had no clue I was going to be there two years later.
“It’s just crazy where life can take you.”
In those two years between being a new fan and suiting up for the Seminoles in 2012, Watson transferred to Saddleback College in California, where he had to learn everything about the game of football — even the basics of putting on the uniform.
“I didn’t know what a girdle was. They taught me how to put a girdle on, how to put pads in, how to put shoulder pads on,” Watson said. “I was just a blank canvas, and the first thing, I went out for defense and I had no clue what I was doing — we were doing pursuit drills and I was like, ‘Is this it?'”
Watson had to learn fast. He said he could only afford to pay for one year at the junior college, and he planned to graduate by then. If he was going to make any kind of impression to continue his first steps into football at a four-year university, he had to develop quickly.
Then Kyle Long, the current Bears Pro Bowler who was then a teammate at Saddleback, suggested Watson change sides.
“I remember walking off the first day, confused, [thinking] ‘This might not happen, this might not happen,'” Watson remembered. “And he was like, ‘Hey, come on offense tomorrow! It’s easier!’ I was like, ‘All right.'”
One day later, Watson switched sides. And since Watson’s background was in basketball, Long sought to put Watson’s new job into the nomenclature of hoops.
“He said, ‘Hey, man, the quarterback’s the basket. Don’t let [the defender] get to the basket,” Watson said. “So from there, everything was pretty much [set]. I learned pass pro[tection] before I could run block.”
With Long’s words, a switch flipped. Watson showed enough physicality and promise for his journey to continue. He’s still playing catch-up; the 2017 season will be just his seventh football campaign at any level. But his passion for the game is pure and powerful.
Yes, Watson still adores basketball. And as an ardent soccer fan, he lives and dies with Premier League powerhouse Manchester City, and attends matches whenever he gets back home.
But he wouldn’t want to play any other sport.
“Without football, I’m a miserable person,” he said, “and that’s just the bottom line.”