Before he was blazing past defenders on his way to becoming the No. 4 overall NFL draft pick, Sammy Watkins just wanted to beat his father at Madden.
Watkins and James McMiller, the stepdad who raised Watkins since he was young, played the popular NFL video game at their home in the Dunbar neighborhood of Fort Myers. Watkins quickly learned he could beat McMiller if he played as the Buffalo Bills and gun-slinging quarterback Drew Bledsoe.
Thanks to his unstoppable virtual offense, Watkins started cheering for the Bills in real life. This fall, the entire city of Buffalo will be cheering for Watkins as he dons the Bills’ blue and red jersey.
Buffalo traded up five picks from No. 9 during Thursday’s first round to select Watkins, a receiver from Clemson, No. 4 overall. A 2011 graduate of South Fort Myers High School, Watkins is the highest-drafted player to come out of Lee County, and ties Immokalee’s Edgerrin James (1999) as the earliest selection from Southwest Florida.
“Very excited,” Watkins said on a media conference call. “Just a blessing to be a Buffalo Bill. Just to get started with the young guys on the team — E.J. (Manuel), C.J. (Spiller), Robert Woods and Stevie Johnson. It is just a blessing.”
Watkins was one of 30 college players who attended the draft live in New York City. He waited in the green room of Radio City Music Hall with his parents, Nicole and James McMiller, former South coach Joe Hampton, and three Clemson coaches including head coach Dabo Swinney.
“We’re overjoyed,” McMiller told the Daily News in a phone interview from the green room at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. “Our family is just thankful and appreciative of the opportunity. It didn’t matter what team drafted him as long as he got drafted.”
Watkins never worked out for Buffalo or visited the western New York town, James McMiller said. However, the Bills had been in contact with Watkins leading up to the draft, and expressed interest in getting the 6-foot-1, 210-pound speedster.
The Bills swapped their No. 9 pick with the Cleveland Browns, and also gave up first- and fourth-round picks in 2015 to move up to No. 4.
“I did not really think that they were going to come up to get me,” Watkins said, “but I had my interview with them and (general manager) Mr. Doug (Whaley) just kept telling me he was going to come up to get me. I was just thinking it was all fun and games. Next thing you know, here we come May 8 and I am chosen to be a Buffalo Bill.”
Watkins even said he “partied it up” with former Bills receiver Andre Reed while in New York for the draft. Reed played for the team during its four Super Bowl appearances in the 1990s and is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Watkins was the top player selected in what was considered possibly the deepest position in this year’s draft. Three receivers were taken in the first 12 picks, and before the draft, some experts predicted as many as six receivers could be selected in the first round.
“This is the most exciting player in the NFL draft,” former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said on ESPN’s broadcast. “He’s the most dynamic player I’ve seen come out (of college) the last five or 10 years, give or take, because of his explosiveness. This is an awesome pick for (Buffalo).”
Longtime ESPN analyst Mel Kiper, probably the most well-known draft expert in the media, added: “He is a beast in the open field after the catch; one of the best I’ve seen in 36 years of doing this.”
Watkins and his parents planned to fly from New York City to Buffalo late Thursday on the Bills’ private plane, McMiller said.
Hampton, who coached Estero when it became the first and only Lee County football team to go to the state finals in 1998, was one of the first to see what Watkins can do. Hampton coached the freshman team at South Fort Myers in 2007 when Watkins played well enough at defensive back that he started a varsity playoff game that year.
What separates Watkins from other receivers, Hampton said, is his work ethic. Watkins’ former coach said the receiving stud works on improving his mind just as much as his body, which is why he’ll do well in the NFL.
“His biggest asset is his mental game,” Hampton said from the backstage area of Radio City Music Hall. “He learns, he picks stuff up that a lot of other kids don’t. When he got to Clemson, that’s what put him over the top. I think he’ll do that in the pros.”
Though typically humble, Watkins is honored to be the highest-drafted player from his hometown. Lee County currently has four players in the NFL — Philadelphia Eagles safety Nate Allen (Cape Coral), Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Terrance Cody (Riverdale), Indianapolis Colts safety Corey Lynch (Evangelical Christian), and Denver Broncos kicker Matt Prater (Estero).
“Sammy prides himself on trying to be the best,” McMiller said of his stepson. “He’d try to race you tying his shoestrings if he could. It means a lot to him (to be the highest-drafted player), and it means a lot to us to continue to be a fixture in Lee County.”
Watkins should instantly improve a Buffalo offense that ranked 28th out of 32 NFL teams in passing yards per game last season. He’ll pair with Manuel, a second-year quarterback that Buffalo drafted out of Florida State in the first round last year. Manuel missed six games due to injury.
“(Watkins is a) dynamic playmaker,” Bills GM Whaley said in a press conference. “This game is about making plays and surrounding our quarterback with playmakers. He’s automatically going to make our quarterback better and us better as a team.”
The Bills now have two of the best players in Clemson history. Running back C.J. Spiller set the Atlantic Coast Conference record for all-purpose yards and was drafted in 2010. Watkins set the ACC single-season records for receptions and receiving yards this past season, and is top 10 on the conference’s all-purpose yards list.
“Him paired with C.J. will be a beautiful thing,” McMiller said.