Here’s the story they all love to tell about Sammy Watkins: A while back, Watkins was sitting in the office of Eugene Parker, his new agent. Watkins would soon be picked near the top of the NFL Draft and become a very rich man. “What kind of car do you want, Sammy?” Parker asked. “Any kind of car you want. We’ll have it waiting for you when you get off the plane.”
James McMiller, who is Watkins’ stepfather and helped raise him from birth, watched as Sammy sat quietly at the table, pondering the situation. What would he choose for his new wheels? A BMW? A shiny Mercedes?
“What came out of his mouth next blew me away,” McMiller said Friday afternoon as he stood on the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium. “He says, ‘I think I’ll wait on the car. I’ve got to pay you (Parker). I’ve got to pay taxes. I want to do some nice things for my mom. So once I do all those things and see what I can afford, then I’ll try to buy a car.’ ”
It was hardly the reaction you would expect from a 20-year-old, especially one who was about to become fabulously rich. But that’s one of the things the Bills liked about Watkins, along with his mind-boggling athletic ability. Their new star receiver can fly, but he’s also well-grounded.
“That shows you at 20 where his mind is,” said General Manager Doug Whaley, who has staked his reputation on Watkins.
With his first pick as a full-fledged GM, Whaley made one of the boldest draft-day moves in Bills history. So as much as he admired Watkins’ talent, he also has to be sold on his character and potential to become a solid pro and team leader.
In fact, after hearing Watkins address the media in person, and having met his parents, it struck me that he was already more mature than Stevie Johnson. It seemed unlikely that the Bills would put Watkins in a locker room with Johnson, who would have to relinquish his status as top wideout to a rookie.
They wasted no time. Less than 24 hours after welcoming Watkins to Buffalo, the Bills sent Johnson out the door, trading him to San Francisco for an undisclosed 2015 draft pick.
It was a necessary move and long overdue. So with Watkins coming on board and second-year wideouts Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin looking to emerge – not to mention Mike Williams – there wasn’t room for Johnson and his baggage.
This clears the way for Watkins to become a leader for the Bills at an early age. Manuel, Woods and Goodwin are all second-year players. Williams is in no position to lead after his dubious behavior in Tampa. So as a rookie, Watkins can quickly become a force in the passing game and a quiet leader within the team.
“The best thing I can do is stay humble,” Watkins said. “I don’t like talking about my game and my accomplishments. That’s what the media is for. A lot of what I’m doing is playing football, dominating the defense and being a great citizen. That’s what it’s about.
“That’s when you get more out of being a leader,” he said, “by being a figure to all the kids looking up to you. That’s what God put me on this Earth to do, and that’s to lead.”
Watkins had one well-publicized stumble along the way. Early in May of 2012, Clemson police pulled him over and found marijuana in his trunk. They found Watkins with two unprescribed ADHD medications. He got community service and a two-game suspension from Clemson.
As a freshman in 2011, Watkins had made first-team Associated Press All-American. Only three freshmen – Adrian Peterson, Herschel Walker and Marshall Faulk – had ever done that. He was 18 years old. Watkins has admitted the attention got to his head.
“I learn from my mistakes,” Watkins said. “I’m a guy that if it happened one time, it won’t happen again. I’ve definitely been blessed with the support staff I have, my coaches and my parents. That’s why I’m here today.”
McMiller remembers getting the phone call from Sammy after the arrest. It was evident that his son felt he had let other people down.
“Sammy’s main thing was disappointing us as parents,” James said. “He was really, really hard on himself. And he knew that the most important thing was that he hurt the little kids who looked up to him. I told him, ‘OK, son, there’s no tears for this. You have to be a man. This is where you take accountability and responsibility for your actions.’ ”
But it took time. Watkins lost time because of the suspension. He suffered a big drop-off in his sophomore year at Clemson, finishing with 57 receptions for 708 yards and three TDs. He knew he needed to recommit himself if he wanted to realize his NFL dream.
“We taught him if there’s anything you want, you have to work hard for it,” said his mother, Nicole McMiller. “He’s had that mentality since he was 5 years old.”
“It’s the mentality we instilled in our kids,” said James McMiller. He and Nicole have five children. “It’s always been a struggle. At times, it’s been hard to pay the bills. When you have to provide adequately for your family, you find ways. You cut lawns, do part-time jobs, whatever it takes to keep your family afloat.
“When you struggle, it builds character and resiliency,” McMiller said. “I think that motivates Sammy. He’s watched me and his mom get up, day in and day out, and go to work, bust our butts, and at the end of the payday we don’t have anything left after we pay the bills. But what we did have was love and happiness inside that home, and that’s what kept the family tight.”
Watkins told his coaches at Clemson to work him hard before his junior year. He said he didn’t expect to be their friends. He worked tirelessly on his route-running, running around cones to improve his cuts.
He responded with a tremendous junior year. Watkins had 101 catches for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns. He had 26 gains of 30 yards or more. By the end of the college season, he was regarded as the most dynamic offensive player in the draft.
“My mentality is to score every play,” Watkins said. “That’s my mentality, to catch every ball that touches my hands and create a problem for the defense, to make the defensive coordinator think hard, to make him double-guard me.
“That’s my job, to dominate cornerbacks, safeties, defense, linebackers – and that’s what I take pride in – scoring.”
The Bills say they had him rated as the best player in the draft. So they didn’t hesitate to go up and get him Thursday. The price was high, but they expect him to be a major force right away and help the Bills get to the playoffs this season. They also expect him to help EJ Manuel succeed in his second year. That’s a tall order for a 20-year-old. Does Watkins feel the weight of all that?
“Throughout my whole life, I’ve had high expectations for myself,” Watkins said. “So I’ll keep doing what I’ve been doing, and that’s working hard and being a great citizen and translate that to this team, to the Buffalo Bills. I’m 100 percent committed to the game and to myself.”