With the NFL season about to start, fans across the U.S.A. are gearing up for the road to the Super Bowl. Among all the razzmatazz, there will be something unusual: British players who will be pulling on a helmet and getting ready for the first down.
Menelik Watson, 26, is one of a handful of Brits playing in the NFL, and he recently spoke to Mind The Gap about playing offensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders and adjusting to life in America.
Born and raised in Manchester, England – he still has a strong accent – Watson hadn’t even started playing football until 2011, yet he became a Raider when he was picked in the 2013 second round draft having started just 20 games – eight with Saddleback Community College in California, then 12 with Florida State.
Despite being so fresh to the game – and only the second Brit ever to be picked for the NFL – at 6ft 5in and over 300 lbs he had always created a buzz. However, back in his younger days his tough upbringing with his single mother Novlyn and three brothers meant some difficult times. His siblings have all been in jail, and Menelik skirted the laws too.
His earliest dreams were of playing soccer for Manchester City, but a badly broken ankle when he was 12 meant a change of direction, and playing semi-pro basketball saw him travel the U.K., something that made him think of scholarships and a life further afield.
A broken foot stalled things again, but over the next few years he was appointed captain of a basketball academy team in the Canary Islands, and his girlfriend back in Manchester gave birth to their daughter Orellana. Though a basketball scholarship in New York didn’t catch fire, Watson was encouraged to try out at Saddleback, and by the end of the year Florida State won out among the many offers he received.
Fresh out of training, Watson spoke about his fellow NFL Brits, including Lawrence Okoye, the Croydon-born former discus champion and 2012 Olympian who, with no experience in football at all, was signed by the San Francisco 49ers in 2013.
“We talk a lot, and we’ve built up a really good friendship – my fiancée and his wife are really close friends,” said Watson, adding that he’s texted good wishes to other Brit players including London-born Jack Crawford, currently with the Dallas Cowboys and a former teenage basketball opponent of Watson’s. “Every chance we get Lawrence and I talk about home, things you miss, and stuff like that,” he adds. “It’s kind of nice to have that around.”
Recalling his early days in the USA, Watson again talks of his determination to succeed – regardless of any distractions. “Football is a man’s game, and if anyone thinks that me being from England means I’m soft, then they are truly, truly, truly mistaken. I’m from Manchester, I’m from a working family, and we were fighting on school buses and fight to get anything we wanted. It’s not all tea and scones and crumpets – it’s about hard work, struggling and working your way from nothing to something. That’s a very American thing, and I think people can tell that from my attitude, my energy, and how I carry myself.
Even so, he laughs when he recalls how some people couldn’t pronounce his name. “They usually call me ‘Wats,’ but then I’ve been called all sorts of things in my life – some of them not so good!” He remembers how some fellow players reacted to his accent: “There was one time where a guy said: ‘‘Who the hell was that talking?’ He had looked round, and there were only black people – he didn’t know where the accent was coming from! It kind of shocked people a little bit at the beginning. But if anyone says anything, I tell them I speak real English, the Queen’s English – well, I’m from Manchester so not quite the Queen’s English! – but everyone thinks I’m from London anyway.”
There were other things to adjust to as well. Watson notes that when he first came to the U.S. in 2009, “The adjustment was mainly mental. I was in class with people a little younger, and less mature than I was. Back home you mature a lot faster, and I was 19 and they were 17-18, high school, only just getting their independence.”
There were also some cultural differences. “When I went out to the bars when I first got here, I wasn’t allowed to drink. Back home I could, but not here. When they asked for ID, I took it very personal!”
As for Brits thinking of coming to America, Watson – a big supporter of British American football fan site – has clear advice. “As an athlete, it’s important not getting caught up, and really understanding your purpose for being here. It’s a big sacrifice coming out to America, where everything’s different, and it’s important to stay focused.”
As for others, he says: “Embrace the culture. It’s different, but you’ve got to be open to it. That’s the best way to adjust – even though you speak the same language, they way they do things is different. Keeping your ways and keeping your values too. I always let people out here know I am an Englishman, and I’m proud of coming from England.”
Watson has been travelling back to England regularly: “My fiancée lives in London. She owns The Drury Club in Covent Garden and is also into real estate, and though she’s not very interested in sport, she’s learning about football!”
The back-and-forth isn’t a problem for Watson, who says he regularly has to travel four to five hours to football games with the Raiders, and says he has gotten used to living on the road. He adds: “And I respect and love the fact that she has her own thing going on. It’s a lot of fun trying to make time for each other.”
Even so, he does admit to missing some things about the U.K. “There’s the familiarity, sometimes. Being able to go out and get a nice little kebab, something like that. Chocolate, Walkers crisps, flavors of food and stuff – the feeling of being back home.”
Visiting friends will bring “packages” or his favorite crisps – Cheese & Onion, and Cadbury’s Flakes too. “They have a few English shops out here and I pop into them when I can,” he says, “even though the prices they charge are extortionate!”
Off the field, Watson likes to simply unwind, saying that he likes to “let my mind relax a bit, get into my thoughts. If I’ve got the energy I like to go walking, I love to go to the movies, but I just like to use time to unwind and put my mental burdens down.”
He’s also a fervent Manchester City fan. “I’ve been a “blue” from the days when they were at Maine Road. I was there when we were getting relegated! Now I’ve got familiar with some of the faces there as they’ve welcomed me into the stadium. I couldn’t afford tickets when I was a kid, but they let me experience a couple of games last year, and I’ll cherish that forever.”
As for the future, Watson has his eyes on the prize. “I want to win a Super Bowl, first and foremost. American football’s the ultimate team sport, but if I do my job and play to my best ability, then I know I’m doing my part for the team to be successful. You have your MVPS and awards, the Pro Bowl, and if accolades come with that then so be it, but first things first. It’s on me to do a job and play to my best ability as an Oakland Raider – and that’s all that matters.”
Despite agreeing that he can seem “big and intimidating,” Watson confesses to something rather softer: “I absolutely love cartoons! Always have, always will. Even now, at training camp, I unwind with cartoons – it helps me get to sleep at night, and when I wake up, first thing I do is watch cartoons; Adult Swim, the old school Tom and Jerry, SpongeBob, Top Cat – I love them all!”
He gets serious for a second: “With the sport I’m in, and the way life has been for me, I’ve often been a very aggressive person – it’s my Achilles heel. I had to grow up fast, but the only thing that kept me grounded was being able to unwind, be a kid and watch cartoons. It never goes away.”
The Oakland Raiders start the 2015 season on 9/10.Read More