BRADENTON, Fla. – The kid was a natural the junior college coach kept saying. But how many times had Florida State's offensive line coach Rick Trickett heard that line? Everybody, it seems, has a prodigy to push: a player ignored, forgotten or left behind. Four decades of a football life taught Trickett there usually was a good reason they had been overlooked.
Still the coach at Saddleback Community College was persistent and Trickett had flown all the way to Southern California to look at another player. Since he was already there…
You have to meet Menelik Watson, the junior college coach insisted.
Trickett shrugged. Then the door opened and in stepped a giant standing 6-foot-6 with hands like catchers' mitts and arms bursting thick from his sleeves. He must have weighed 300 pounds. He had a gold tooth and a smile that glowed. And when the man spoke, his words spilled out in a Mancurian ramble almost impossible to understand.
"I got excited when he walked through the door," Trickett says. "They don't make a lot of people like that anymore."
Someone turned on Watson's game film. And all it took was two plays for Trickett to understand the ballet the giant beside him had been performing at right tackle. Even on the grainy game video, Trickett could see the perfect form, the delicate feet and the powerful hands that simply pushed pass rushers away.
"He did things you couldn't coach," Trickett says now, some 16 months after initially meeting Watson – who went on to play a year at Florida State before entering next month's NFL draft. "He just has instincts."
As Watson spoke in his thick British accent, Trickett learned he was from a blighted, drug-filled neighborhood in Manchester, England; that he played football for only a few weeks; and that three months before he had never heard of the line of scrimmage, or knew how to wear a helmet or make a block. He said he was once a basketball player at Marist College. He also said he had a daughter in Manchester and that this little girl meant everything to him.
Then Watson said he was going to play in the NFL.
And Trickett listened because four decades of a football life had taught him something else: A tackle this big, this strong and this quick will have a long and prosperous NFL career.
"Listen, I've had four first-round draft picks but I've never had a guy do the things this kid could do," Trickett says, his voice still filled with wonder. "He's the most natural talent I've ever coached."
The natural one is running on a brilliant late winter morning. This is in Florida, at the IMG Academy where Menelik Watson has been preparing for the draft along with a cluster of better-known prospects like Geno Smith, Matt Barkley and Manti Te'o. He is 24 years old and more than 300 pounds now, his forearms huge from months of lifting weights. His thick legs pump as he churns across a small turf field. He does not run like an offensive lineman.
Over the next two hours, he will stretch and jump then drop to the field and leap back up. Then he will retreat to a weight room and push iron bars into the air. He will do all of this without complaint. In fact he will smile for he smells a life he once struggled to imagine. A life so good, so exciting, so filled with hope that he would run sprints and lift weights all day if it would get him there faster.
Later Menelik drops down on a pile of cushions and gives an exhausted sigh.
"My biggest thing is I just want to show people [to] stay with your goals, man," he says in his Manchester accent, stretching out the "o" sound in "goals." "Nothing is too far-fetched. I hate when people say you can't do something. I had friends who were more talented than me and I would tell them I was that kid when I was younger who was saying: 'I'm going to play in the NBA. I'm going to play in the NBA' and people looked like you were crazy. They were saying: 'You don't have a pot to piss on, how are you going to get to America?' "
He smiles again, staring away from the field, toward a cluster of white classroom buildings and a line of palm trees swaying in the distance.
Everywhere he has been in the U.S. he has left a line of coaches and teammates smitten with his desire and amazed by his determination. They all tell stories of a man so big and strong and perfect he almost doesn't sound real. "It's folklore," says Kyle Long, who played with Menelik on the offensive line at Saddleback and is now draft eligible after a season at Oregon. "He's almost a tall tale."
Like the day he hit a punching bag for fun in the Florida State locker room and the boom of fist on stuffed canvas was so loud everybody fell silent. Or the endless workouts. Or how he learned all the plays and formations so fast he was starting at Florida State after eight junior college games and two weeks of summer practice.
Almost every day brings a new story, a new height, a new reason to wonder just who this guy is and how he got here.
Menelik leans back on the pads and smiles into the sunlight.
"I'm almost getting sadistic now, trying to see how far I can take this," he says.
Nothing in Menelik Watson's past says he should have made it out of Manchester let alone the NFL. Menelik is one of five children of a Rastafarian father who took off for the Rastafari promised land of Ethiopia when Menelik was 9. Menelik's mother, Novlyn McFarqhuar, also a Rastafarian, held the family together as best as she could, but it wasn't simple.
Trouble was everywhere. Gangs called for her boys. One-by-one, Menelik's three oldest brothers were lured to the streets. One eventually escaped his gang Menelik says; the other two are in prison. In a way, it made sense – money was tight, food was scarce. Years later, at Saddleback, he refused a coach's offer of ketchup at lunch by saying: "I don't eat that stuff anymore. That's what we used to eat when I was a kid. That and straight butter."
The only way out was through sports. And Menelik could do sports, especially soccer. He might have had a future at it but at age 12 he tripped in a schoolyard match and felt his right ankle snap. He looked down and saw part of the bone sticking out from his skin.
The injury was so severe a special surgeon had to be flown in to put Menelik's ankle back together. For a time the doctors considered amputating the leg below the knee because they feared it wouldn't grow back correctly. They told him one leg would probably be longer than the other. They said he would never play sports again.
Within a year, however, he was running. Not on the soccer fields but in a new sport: basketball. And because of his size and quickness, he was able to get on one of England's top youth club teams, the Manchester Magic. But by 18, his path had stalled. He faced a dilemma – turn professional, something he wasn't physically ready to do; or quit and find a job.
Then Rob Orellana, a former assistant coach at several American colleges who was now running a full time basketball school called the CA Academy in the Spanish Canary Islands, spotted Menelik at a Christmas basketball tournament in Manchester. He was intrigued. Big men normally didn't move as easily as Menelik did. More importantly, he looked desperate, like he needed a chance. At the time, Orellana was trying to establish his basketball academy in the Canary Islands. Come to Spain, Orellana, told Menelik. Work hard and there might be a future at an American college.
"He didn't have a whole lot of options," Orellana says. "But he trusted me." It turned out to be the best thing Menelik ever did. The academy gave him structure. It gave him hope. Orellana was demanding. He made his players practice three times a day. He made them lift weights and run. He yelled at them … a lot. For a time Menelik's nickname for Orellana was "the Devil." Then something happened to change the relationship forever.
Back in Manchester, Menelik's girlfriend was pregnant with their baby. They had been talking nearly every day up to the child's birth, but with Menelik in the Canary Islands with no money, he wasn't sure when he'd see his baby. On the morning the girlfriend went into labor, Menelik told Orellana the news, then started to dress in the locker room.
Orellana stopped him.
"Get changed," the coach said. "I'll get one of my coaches to get you to the airport."
The next day and a half were a whirlwind of travel: a flight to Madrid, then Madrid to London, then London to Redding and finally Redding to Manchester. He walked into the hospital room just as his daughter was coming out.
"It was amazing," Menelik says. "It was almost like she waited for me."
He held the child for the first time and as he talked, the tiny girl turned and looked at him.
"I was like, wow I knew she was special," Menelik says.
He thought of the man who made it possible to be there, the one who pulled him out of practice and placed him on a plane. He said he had a name for the baby. He wanted to call her Orellana.
"He had done so much for me, picking me up in Manchester," Menelik says. "I had nothing. I went on a whim."
Coach Orellana was right – the American colleges did come. Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles offered a scholarship after Menelik's first year in Spain, but he was recovering from a foot injury. The timing was wrong. And a year later, Marist, a mid-level Division I school just north of New York City, recruited him. Menelik noticed the team had signed a forward named Rob Johnson who he had played against in a holiday tournament in New Jersey. He loved Johnson's game. It seemed a good omen, so he went to Marist.
Only Marist was a disappointment. The NCAA made Menelik sit out his first year (2009-10) because his high school transcript didn't transfer well to an American system. The team was awful, finishing 1-29. Johnson quickly became a great friend – telling him that at his size he should be playing football ("I put that bug in his ear early," Rob Johnson says) – but the losing frustrated him. He felt empty. He was 21 and playing a few minutes a game, but it wasn't enough to get him where he wanted to be.
"My dream was to always play in the NBA but I knew you wouldn't get there if you didn't play well in college," he says. "I just missed my daughter. Why keep chasing this selfish dream when I could go home and be involved? So I just had to recheck my whole life, you know? With six games left in the season I decided I didn't want to be there anymore. I was prepared to just go home and get a job, man."
He called Orellana and asked what professional future he had, if not in the U.S. then in Europe?
"I told him '6-6, 6-7 power forwards are a dime a dozen in Europe,'…" Orellana recalls.
Meaning, he probably wasn't going to have a professional basketball career. Johnson's words rolled in his head. Maybe he really wasn't a basketball player. Maybe his body did indeed make him perfectly suited for football. He called Orellana again and said he wanted to leave Marist to try American football.
If only they knew how to do this.
Orellana requested that his U.S. basketball contacts ask their school's football coaches if they would look at Menelik. Oklahoma State said no. So did Mississippi State.
"Nobody helped us," Orellana recalls.
While they waited, Orellana had an idea. Menelik was so fast and his hands were so strong had he thought about boxing?
Menelik and Orellana went to California where Menelik stayed at Orellana's family home in Orange County. For a few days he went to downtown Los Angeles and worked with a trainer who once prepared Oscar De La Hoya for the Olympics. After a few sessions the trainer told Menelik that with a few months of intense training he could probably make the Olympic team.
Menelik considered the possibility. He went back to Orellana's family house, watched a handful of fight tapes and decided boxing wasn't the right fit.
"I don't like isolation sports," Menelik says. "I like team sports. Especially after everything that happened at Marist, I just want to get back around a team setting to have a common goal, to work with a group of guys trying to win a championship or a conference title or whatever it is."
Orellana looked around for junior colleges. Being from Orange County he knew Saddleback. It was close. He called.
"It was 15 minutes from my mother's home," Orellana said. "There is no other reason we called them than that."
Imagine the look on the Saddleback coaches faces when Menelik and Orellana stepped in their offices that June day in 2011.
"A once in a lifetime moment," head coach Mark McElroy says.
It was hard not to be impressed. Menelik just looked like a football player. The team's director of football operations, Don Butcher, pulled him into a hallway and showed him pass rush moves. Menelik copied each one perfectly. The coaches looked at each other. Players like this didn't walk in everyday.
Kyle Long, son of Hall of Famer Howie and brother of Rams defensive end Chris, got his first look a few weeks later on the first day of training camp. Menelik was easy to spot. He loomed in a doorway in sweat pants and a waffle shirt, "like Sasquatch," Long says. He had no idea how to put on his helmet and pads or where to stand. He started that day at defensive end, but Long sneaked on the field an extra white practice jersey worn by offensive players. After a few snaps at defensive end, Long gave Menelik the jersey and told him he belonged at right tackle.
"Pretend you are playing basketball and the quarterback is the basket," Long said to him. "What do you have to do to stop an opponent from reaching the basket?"
"Move my feet," Menelik replied.
"At the end of the day the only thing he was behind on was terminology," Long says.
Saddleback's coaches spent the first week teaching Menelik the basic stances, then watched in shock as he improved by the day in Week 2. By the third week he was dominating practices so much they sent him into a game.
After a few plays, an opposing pass rusher – upset about being blocked – jumped at him swearing and, as Menelik says, flashing gang signs. Menelik did what anyone on the Manchester streets does in such a situation – he punched the other man, which drew a penalty. Saddleback's coaches yanked Menelik from the game. He was perplexed.
"If you watch rugby, guys go off and then join the game," he says. "I guess you can't do that here."
Still, he started the next week and for the rest of the year. He was too good to sit down. Within weeks he had jumped to a top 20 junior college recruit. Trickett offered a scholarship at spring's end and he was off to Tallahassee.
The first practice at Florida State last summer was on Aug. 8. That was also the day Trickett decided Menelik would start the Seminoles' first game less than a month later. It was silly to wait. Menelik had already learned the formations and the plays and physically there was no reason to keep him off the field.
"He can do things with a 300-pound body that no one can do at that spot," Trickett says.
Coaching Menelik was simple. No matter what Trickett threw at him, he absorbed. He was already good the first week, then he improved. Almost by the day. He loaded tapes on his computer, then went home and digested them for hours.
"In 14 or 15 weeks I think he only went out at night two times," Trickett says. "That's very rare."
How good had Menelik become? In 12 games at Florida State, he gave up just one sack.
Then at season's end Menelik told Trickett he was leaving for the draft. Trickett tried to talk him out of it. He said there was so much for Menelik to learn. But Menelik worried about his daughter. He worried too that he was getting too old, that he needed to start a professional career immediately. Trickett understood, if only grudgingly.
"He's a top five talent in the draft," Trickett says. "He's not going to be picked in the top five because he just hasn't played enough. If this kid had played high school ball and then two or three years of college it wouldn't be a contest."
Menelik has dreams, vivid dreams. They come in his sleep. They tell him things. They predict the future. The dreams guide him and he listens, because the dreams are almost never wrong. The dreams have brought him this far. By now he accepts them as markers on a path no one could have predicted for him. The dreams will be his guide.
The only dream that turned out wrong was the one that told him to go to Marist. For a long time this perplexed him. The voices that spoke to him that night had been insistent. Marist was where he needed to be. But Marist wasn't right. What was the lesson? What was he missing?
Then one day it struck him. But of course, he had to go to Marist to get to the United States. Otherwise he wouldn't have found football. And if it wasn't for football he'd probably be back home in Manchester standing on a corner. So the dream was right after all.
"I get this from my mom," he says. "She is very spiritual. …"
Novlyn McFarqhuar raised her children as Rastafarians, just like the father who left them behind. But Menelik never embraced Rastafarianism. McFarqhuar actually encouraged this. She never wanted her kids to be trapped by faith, to be forced to believe something they didn't see as real. Menelik understood. He knows he is a spiritual man, his dreams are too vivid. But his own guidance comes from a collection of religions he has absorbed over the years.
"No matter what language we all speak we all come to the same understanding," Menelik says.
Then he smiles. Those who know him best have always thought of him as a thinker. They say he challenges their world views and listens to others' arguments. Rob Johnson's brother, Reggie, a law student at Emory University says Menelik has even attended some of his law classes while visiting Atlanta. It is for reasons like this that even the coarsest football men go soft when his name comes up.
"I fell in love with the guy," Don Butcher says. "Go look up his name. Menelik was the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It's a royal name. That's what this kid is. He's royal."
NFL teams have been calling. Interest is everywhere. Good tackles are among the hardest players for teams to find, especially ones with quick feet. Mock drafts have him going everywhere from the end of the first round to the middle of the second.
"There are things you can't explain," says Chris Weinke, the director of IMG's football academy. "He can pick up a lot of things very quickly. He's a smart guy and in a lot of ways he's raw. If I'm a [general manager] sitting there, he's going to have a huge upside."
And maybe something more. Something pure. Something that touches the heart of who we all hope we are.
"He is the American dream," Reggie Johnson says. "People came to America and they started with a clean slate no matter where they were coming from. It's the people who worked the hardest to make it work. They worked as hard as the work ethic allowed them.
"He shows what can be done with hard work."
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