Tally-ho, Watson

Menelik Watson combines a lineman's build with a basketball player's feet and a boxer's hands. David M. Hale/ESPN.com

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Menelik Watson had just wrapped up the first game of his career at Florida State, just the ninth football game he'd played in his life, and there was cause for celebration.

Watson was the Seminoles' starting right tackle in a blowout win over Murray State, an easy victory for his team but a nearly incomprehensible milestone for the 23-year-old junior college transfer. Watson had company, too. His close friend Reggie Johnson, an FSU alum who just a year earlier had spent hours calling coaches and recruiters hoping to sell them on the potential of a 300-pound behemoth with a funny accent and no understanding of the game of American football, had made the trip from Atlanta to see Watson's debut.

After a late dinner, the two trudged back to Watson's apartment. Johnson pulled out his laptop to check his email and watch a few highlights of the game.

"Play it from the beginning," Watson told him.

Watson quickly pushed his friend aside and took control of the computer, rewinding the video again and again, pausing to critique each block he made.

Within minutes, any hope of a nightcap had dissolved. Watson was immersed.

"We were up until 2 o'clock in the morning watching film," Johnson said.

Six years earlier, Watson knew nothing of football. In Manchester, England, "football" was soccer, and he still cringes at the Americanized terminology.

As a teenager, Watson had excelled on the soccer field, developing quick feet and exceptional balance. But there was no future in soccer for him, and what he wanted more than anything was a chance at something better than the crime and poverty that surrounded him in Manchester.

"He comes from a very tough background," said Rob Orellana, who stumbled upon Watson playing basketball during a 2006 tournament in Manchester and recruited him for his prep team in Spain. "Single mom, and one of the toughest neighborhoods in England."

Watson's family had little, and several brothers had already run afoul of the law. At 6-foot-7 with a bushy beard and a gold tooth, Watson cut an imposing figure, and he might have been a more celebrated recruit among local criminals than by any serious basketball programs.

While he had the look to fit his upbringing, that smile always told the real story.

"He's as big as an ox," Orellana said, "but it's just that smile."

Watson wasn't cut out for a life on the streets. He was made to do something harder.

Growing up in Manchester, Watson was an avid sports fan. In athletics, he saw a way out of the poverty that surrounded him.

In 2007, he joined Orellana in Spain and was named a team captain and served as his coach's enforcer, setting the tone with his work ethic and insisting his teammates follow suit. In Orellana, Watson found a father figure, and when his own daughter was born, he named her after his coach.

"It's a bond that will last forever between us," Orellana said.

After two years and a tour of the United States, Watson parlayed his hard work on the basketball court into a scholarship offer from Marist.

The transition wasn't easy. He was redshirted in his freshman season, and the challenges of life with a new team in a new country were difficult.

But at Marist, Watson played alongside another undersized power forward he'd met during a tournament a year earlier. Rob Johnson came from a distinctly different background than Watson, but they were kindred spirits.

"He's like a brother to me," Johnson said.

The two even sport the same tattoo, an image of an eagle and a lock. There's a deeper meaning to it, Johnson said, but it essentially symbolizes an unbreakable bond. "Locked in," Johnson said.

Throughout their first year at Marist, Johnson's younger brother Reggie had pushed the two to make a trip to Tallahassee, where Reggie was a student at Florida State. In the fall of 2010 they relented, making the trip for the Seminoles' game against BYU -- the first college football game Watson had ever attended.

In England, Watson had heard about the hysteria and pageantry of marquee college basketball games between Duke and North Carolina, but the sheer spectacle of Florida State football amazed him.

He was transfixed by the game, but every few minutes another Seminoles fan would notice the hulking 300-pounder in the stands and ask whether he was a recruit. It became a running joke, and the Johnson brothers were quick to prod Watson to consider a future on the football field.

"That really planted a seed within him," Reggie said.

The rough neighborhoods of Manchester left Watson with little room for sentimentality.

He loved basketball, but he saw the writing on the wall. He was undersized to play power forward professionally, and without a contract offer from a quality team in Europe, he'd likely end up back on those same streets he'd worked so hard to leave behind. He began looking for other options.

At first, Watson tried his hand at boxing. He was powerful and quick. "He could've been heavyweight champion," Orellana said. But the seed planted that night in Tallahassee had taken root. Watson had a lineman's build, a basketball player's feet and a boxer's hands. He was a football coach's dream, except that he had no idea how to play the game.

Still, Rob and Reggie began making phone calls. They left messages for coaches at big-time programs. They mailed letters to recruiting coordinators with dim hopes of getting a reply. A few years earlier, Rob had met Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed at a party, and he asked Reed to get word to the coaching staff at his alma mater, Miami, about Watson's potential.

"I'm sure they hear all the time, 'I've got somebody's friend who plays,' or 'My kid plays,' " Rob said. "But without any film, nobody took us seriously. They were just thinking this was some kid trying to look out for his friend. Little did they know."

In June 2011, Watson placed a call to Mark McElroy, the football coach at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif. Johnson's sales pitches might have sounded like practical jokes at places like Florida State, Oklahoma and West Virginia, but there are few stories McElroy hasn't heard.

"I got an email yesterday from a guy who graduated high school seven years ago and never played quarterback, but he's been working with a coach and he wants to play quarterback," McElroy said.

So when Watson explained his background, McElroy needed little convincing.

"I just said, 'OK, well, show up in August,' " McElroy said.

Watson arrived on campus in time for Saddleback's first two-a-day session. He requested a spot on the defensive line.

During that first practice, Watson went up against Saddleback's talented left tackle, Kyle Long, the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Howie Long and the brother of St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long.

Kyle took note of Watson's agility, his footwork and his athleticism, and he knew his new teammate had no business working with the defense. By the second practice session of the day, Long had recruited Watson to the offensive line.

"I walked out with a white jersey and said, 'You're playing right tackle,' " Long said. "From that day on, he's dominated everybody."

The offensive line was a more comfortable fit, but Watson was still a blank slate when it came to technique. He didn't know how to get into a stance, didn't understand how to anticipate the direction of a run, had no grasp of the technical aspects of pass protection.

What Watson did offer was the willingness to learn.

"He's like a sponge," McElroy said. "He's one of the most coachable and brightest people I've been around."

Watson's work ethic paid instant dividends, and with each practice he was taking mammoth steps forward. McElroy's hope was to have his new tackle ready by midseason.

As it turned out, Watson's learning curve required less time than that.

"He got into his first game in Game 3, and he started for us in Game 4," McElroy said. "By Game 6, we were getting calls from all over the country about him."

Watson entertained more than three dozen scholarship offers, but there was really only one place he wanted to go.

He'd fallen in love with Florida State during his visit in 2010, and he developed an instant bond with Seminoles offensive line coach Rick Trickett.

He signed with FSU in February and moved to Atlanta, where he stayed with the Johnson family. For the next few months, he trained, watched film, worked on technique. The preparation was constant.

"It'd be, like, 2 o'clock in the morning, and we'd go to the lap pool at [the gym]," Reggie said. "It'd be us, the goggles and the clock."

Watson officially arrived in Tallahassee in June, and he immediately impressed his new teammates with his dedication and drive.

In practice, he's a perfectionist. A bad play is followed by a self-inflicted tongue-lashing, loud and fearsome and delivered in a pronounced British accent.

"He's a little different," quarterback EJ Manuel said. "But nobody ever kids him about it."

Defensive end Giorgio Newberry was a frequent adversary for Watson during summer drills, and he was astonished at how well the big man -- he's now up to 320 pounds -- could move.

"He does stuff a small guy does," Newberry said.

Watson is still refining his blocking technique, but his boxing background has made him a dreaded foe. Defensive end Cornellius Carradine, whom teammates refer to as "Tank," grimaces at the recollection of going against Watson in practice.

"I feel it," Carradine said. "It hurts, man."

There's a punching bag in the locker room at Florida State, and Trickett convinced Watson to give it a turn one day this summer. After a few smacks, the bag nearly flew off its hinges.

"It's a sight to be seen," Reggie Johnson said. "There's a lot of power hitting that black leather bag."

Watson's physical skills are obvious, but that's not what has endeared him to his coaches.

Jimbo Fisher praised Watson's work ethic and focus. Manuel said Watson's confidence and drive have rubbed off on everyone. Center Bryan Stork, the lone veteran on Florida State's offensive line, praised Watson's maturity, saying the man with just eight games of experience before this season has already provided valuable veteran leadership.

Watson has even reached out to Florida State freshman basketball player Boris Bojanovsky, a fellow product of Orellana's Canarias Basketball Academy, in hopes of easing Bojanovsky's transition to the United States. The two players speak nearly every day.

"The best thing that happened to Boris is that Menelik is there," Orellana said.

By the end of fall camp, Watson had won the right tackle job. Less than a year after he first stepped onto a football field, he was starting for a team picked by many to win a national championship.

On his way to class the next day, students offered congratulations. Watson was confused by the gesture, unaware the news was out. He doesn't read stories about himself.

For Watson, the details of his journey aren't important. His focus is always on the destination.

"Everything he's done, it hasn't been calculated. It's been out of need," Orellana said. "He could easily go back home and be a strong-arm guy. He could easily do that. But he's done everything the right way."

Fisher believes the NFL awaits his new right tackle, and that's the dream that pushes Watson, that helps him get through those long nights, 4,000 miles away from his fiancée and his daughter.

For everyone else who knows him, however, that dream is an afterthought. They've seen what he already has accomplished, witnessed the work he has put in, understood the depths of his determination.

For them, this isn't an unlikely story. It's exactly as they'd imagined it.

"He came to America with one duffle bag and a backpack," Rob Johnson said. "He's Superman to me, so whatever he does is no surprise."