THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Fires rage all around him with no end in sight. Sammy Watkins is, quite literally, in the eye of a storm.
About 25 miles west, the Thomas Fire destroys 237,500 (and counting) acres of forest. To the east, 35 miles away, the Creek Fire scorches more than 15,000 acres. To the southeast, 40 miles away, the Skirball Fire shuts down part of Highway 405.
There's no rhyme, no reason, only panic. The scene here in So Cal is downright apocalyptic—horses sprint in terror, entire sides of mountains glow bright orange, and Californians are evacuated in droves.
Watkins wonders aloud if he's next.
"Nighttime is when it really gets raging," he says. "I live in Simi Valley, so it's going crazy over there."
Here at the Rams' practice facility, a haunting cloud of smoke hovers off in the distance.
"I'll know by 10 o'clock if we should go find a hotel or not."
But that's it. Watkins doesn't get hung up on the fires. Or on targets, or injuries, or anybody labeling him a bust. Go ahead and eviscerate him on social media—he won't see it. He strides into the team's training room, without needing treatment for once, and relaxes atop a table in a contagious state of serenity. Zen. Beneath the hood covering his head is a man who cannot stop smiling.
In other words, a completely different Sammy Watkins than the one I remember.
The first time we chatted, on Oct. 14, 2015, Watkins was fuming. In the corner of an emptying locker room, he dropped a series of grenades. Each one more devastating than the last.
He needed the ball: "When I have one-on-one coverage, go to me. I don't care what's going on over there. I don't care if he's open. When I get one-on-one, just target me."
And: "I need the ball at least 10 times—I need 10 targets."
He said he'd gotten his agent involved: "Like, 'Hey, I need my targets. You came up to draft me and I'm not getting targets—that's a problem. You're making me look bad, and you're making yourself look bad. Why not make both of us look good?'"
At the time, I was covering the Bills for the Buffalo News. Soon after the story was posted online, Watkins' anger turned toward me. "Grow up.. Sir," he tweeted. I tried calling his cellphone. No answer. And the next day in the Bills locker room, Watkins hurried out as fellow receiver Marcus Easley yelled, "Where's he at, Sammy!? Point him out!"
Time passed, time healed and, sure, Sammy and I did chat a few times later that season. Still, part of me wondered if he would tell me to shove it upon traveling 2,225 miles to see him here in Los Angeles.
Turns out, this Sammy loathes that Sammy.
This Sammy is at peace.
"I was more of a statistics guy then," he says. "That's what I was chasing. That's what I thought the league was about. I had to learn because when you're losing, things tend to creep into your mind: I should be getting the ball more. If I do get the ball more, we'd be winning. But half the times I did have two touchdowns and 170 yards, we're losing.
"I found out that, hey, the fun is in the winning."
I was more of a statistics guy [in Buffalo]. That's what I was chasing. That's what I thought the league was about. ... But half the times I did have two touchdowns and 170 yards, we're losing. — Sammy Watkins
Watkins' early-career volatility is, of course, completely understandable, even expected, given the position he plays. No position in sports produces more combustible personalities than the NFL wide receiver.
Your livelihood, your relevancy, is predicated solely on whether a quarterback throws you the ball. As a result, we have grown men whacking and then proposing to kicking nets, writing books entitled Just Give Me the Damn Ball!, wiping their butts on goals posts and throwing preschool-level temper tantrums.
But here's the thing: Most receivers never change.
And that's what makes Watkins' Point A-to-Point B turnaround so stunning. The inherent helplessness of his profession drove Watkins mad before. Injuries drove him mad. Expectations, too. The Bills mortgaged two first-round picks and a fourth to slide up five selections and take him. They passed on Khalil Mack, Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans and Aaron Donald, among others.
All of it ate away at his mind like a parasite. Burned at him like the fire now raging around him.
And yet now, sitting amid that fire, he is at peace. What changed?
Sammy Watkins has never been one to open up.
Today, he will.
"Nice to see you," he says.
The defining moment should've been a Super Bowl. It should've been Sammy Freakin' Watkins wasting a cornerback, plucking a one-handed catch in stride, crossing the goal line and exorcising the demons of Wide Right, the Music City Miracle and the longest playoff drought in pro sports with one cool bow in the end zone.
He has that talent.
But, no, his defining moment in Buffalo occurred in a practice before the 2016 season…in front of zero fans…in the worst pain imaginable. Today, Watkins stares down at his left foot in disgust and closes his eyes. When the pain was at its worst, that foot right there felt like it was dangling on a limb.
That offseason, Watkins had a screw inserted to mend a Jones fracture in the foot, and X-Rays indicated he was fine.
Watkins knew otherwise. He could feel that screw "shifting." It wasn't big enough.
So the Friday before Buffalo's season opener against Baltimore, yeah, that was rock bottom.
"Me and Coach were battling," Watkins says of his position coach, Sanjay Lal. "He's like, 'You're healthy!' And I'm like, 'I'm not healthy!' He's like, 'Well, run this route.' And I'm like, 'It's about to break right here.' I ran. I was like 'F--k it. I'm running full speed.' And I pfff…"
It felt like a harpoon drilled through his foot.
Watkins didn't say anything to the coaches and tried playing on. Usually, he'd switch sides with another receiver when a speed out was called to alleviate pressure on that foot. In the heat of the moment, one third down he couldn't, and that harpoon struck again. Finally, he elected to redo the surgery. Trainers are to blame. Coaches are to blame. But Watkins blames himself, too.
By the time a doctor took a closer look at that foot, he called it one of the worst he had ever seen. So, no, there never was a coronation in Buffalo. Only misery, slipshod quarterback play and those rib, groin, hip, glute, calf, ankle and foot injuries.
Looking back, Watkins speaks of himself then as the inebriated uncle at a family Christmas party.
He was selfish then. Immature. After he put his coaches and quarterback on blast in our first convo, in the Bills' next offensive meeting, one player says that LeSean McCoy stopped everything to speak up.
"We hear you need 10 targets a game," McCoy said aloud to Watkins. "Here you go." And with that, the running back handed the disgruntled receiver a manila envelope with 10 red targets printed out inside.
Many players laughed. Not Watkins.
"Sammy couldn't have taken it any worse," the player says. "He was so butt hurt."
Two weeks after this came an Instagram rant from Watkins, in which he called fans "losers" who should "continue working y'all little jobs for the rest of y'all lives."
He went through the motions then. Oh, there's a reason Lal wanted Watkins running full-speed at practice. He was fed up.
He was a loner then. Watkins refused to get close to anyone because the one time he did, the one time he lived with a teammate, that teammate (Caleb Holley) was cut. He was demoralized. He decided right then not to get too close to anyone because, poof, they could be gone just like that. Cordial with other players, Watkins was quick to resist that "real love" with anyone. He held those emotions in.
He was part of a circus then. No, it didn't help that the man running the show in Buffalo, Rex Ryan, might as well have been wearing face paint and a red nose.
The irony is that Watkins was proved 100 percent correct to demand the ball. After spouting off, he averaged 100 yards and a touchdown per game over a 10-game span. I remind him of this. C'mon Sammy. Demanding the ball publicly worked like a charm.
"That was probably the best thing that happened in my life," he says. "I got the targets I was looking for. We won two or three games in a row. So I should've spoken up at that time. I shouldn't have said most of the stuff I said, but it was a great way to speak up for myself. … It made me come out and play at that level by, hey, if you say something in the media, you better come out, step up and play."
It's as if an ego is bubbling to the surface and he needs to bury it away. That ordeal fed "stress," he says. Fed "emotion." He sees now how that mindset can poison a locker room.
"When you're losing, a lot of negativity can creep your way," Watkins says. "So for me it was like, 'If we're going to lose, why not go out with a bang? Why not go out with having two touchdowns and 180 yards? S--t, we're losing anyway.' That was my mindset.
"Back then, I looked at it like I was failing because I was up and down. Emotionally. Some days, I might come prepared for practice. Some days, I might be like, 'Man, my foot hurts.' Being that it probably was hurt and I was injured, I let it control my days."
In L.A., he repeats, he will never let this happen again. Even if he has yet to be targeted 10 times in a game.
Early on, he knows he could've spoken up.
"I could've easily said, 'Why the f--k am I not getting the ball?' Arguing. Or looking at the coach like 'What the f--k? I'm wide-open. Why am I not getting the ball?' It was a test for me, basically, to see how I was going to respond. And when I started handling it the right way mentally, I started playing harder. Blocking a little bit more. Getting guys open. I wasn't negative about the situation.
"I think that's one of the tests you have to pass, like [to prove], 'No, everything's going good.'"
So, do you believe him? He's in sunshine, not snow. He's catching passes from Jared Goff, not EJ Manuel or Tyrod Taylor. He's on a Super Bowl contender, not a franchise banished in a 7-9 blizzard for two decades. But do you honestly believe any flammable wide receiver can just…change at the snap of a finger? Remembering just how immature Watkins was inside the building, some former Bills roll their eyes at this narrative.
They predict Watkins will fan those flames again.
Not to mention, there's always another ligament to twist, another bone to crack. To most football fans, Sammy Watkins has been a humpty-dumpty bust.
But Sammy Watkins himself knows this: His story is not finished.
He stares straight ahead, as if recreating Rated-R scenes in his mind.
No, nothing will ever take him by surprise. Not wildfires, not any drama in football. Growing up in Fort Myers' Dunbar area—"Little Pakistan"—toughened him up for anything.
"I've pretty much seen everything that can happen in this world," Watkins says. "I think that's molded me and shaped me to understand bad s--t happens."
That's when his mind races back to Willie Fletcher, a quarterback everyone in Dunbar was convinced would be the next Michael Vick. Fletcher tore up the youth football scene—to this day, Watkins is convinced he would've starred in the NFL, too. But he didn't stick with the sport. And, on May 11, 2008, the 20-year-old Fletcher was chased out of a block party down the street and shot five times.
Four bullets connected. One other struck a five-year-old, who survived.
Watkins, then a sophomore in high school, heard the gunshots and ran outside in time to see the life leave Fletcher's body. Who killed Willie? Nobody's saying. It's still a cold case in Fort Myers. About 100 people attended that block party but, in fear of retribution, nobody cooperated with police.
"He could've been elite," Watkins says. "I feel like he was elite his whole life."
Such is life in Dunbar, a crucible of crime and violence. People used to fight dogs right outside Watkins' home. And the man who used to make him grilled cheese at the Speedy Two Sandwich Shop? Just last August, Angelo Ruth pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder of Mattie Henry in 1993.
Was Watkins immature? Sure. But was Watkins pampered? No.
Rather, he's been trying to figure out where to call home.
Dunbar isn't home. Buffalo isn't home. But L.A.? He hopes this can be. Since the Bills' new regime shipped him off to the Rams, Watkins has restructured his life. For one, he learned to say "no" to friends and family constantly in need of money. He also fired his financial advisors. Without divulging details, Watkins assures many non-football issues were cluttering his life in Buffalo.
"Family members are going to look at you wrong," Watkins says. "If you say 'no,' you're going to have all types of bad s--t coming your way."
But it's been worth it. Another reason he's so happy? "I don't have s--t going on outside of football."
Go ahead and lump social media into that "s--t" category, as well. He no longer cares, at all, what any trolls have to say on Twitter or Instagram, hardly ever tapping either app open on his phone. So ignore that huge Adidas banner on Watkins' Twitter background. His personal overhaul included dumping them as a sponsor for Nike.
Looking back, he knows he should've never signed with the company to begin with. Everyone kept telling Watkins it'd be more money, so he gave in even though he'd never worn Adidas growing up. They never felt right, and that foot injury eventually spelled his Buffalo demise. Says Watkins: "The Adidas cleats did it. I knew those cleats weren't for me the whole time."
Off the field? He's making a conscious effort to be more of a family man. Watkins is engaged now and would rather spend any free time playing with his two daughters than going to a party. And good luck ever finding him in Dunbar. He visits only sparingly now to see his relatives—in a rental car so nobody recognizes him—and then runs a go route the hell out of Dodge. He even moved his parents into a gated community about 20 minutes outside of Dunbar.
Violence still reigns, he says.
"It's gotten worse."
On the field? Through 13 games, he has 34 receptions for 549 yards and seven touchdowns. Watkins insists he's perfectly OK sharing the wealth on this pyrotechnic Rams offense. Playing with Goff has been an epiphany.
As Watkins explains, Goff often asks him in the huddle if he knows what he's doing on a certain play, a certain route concept and—eyes wide, shaking his head—Watkins will admit he does not. At which point, Goff explains everything. Right then. In real time. And Watkins' X's and O's encyclopedia grows. The duo has reached the point where they're seeing the same holes in defenses pre-snap.
"He's a leader," Watkins says. "He can feel a player. He can feel our energy. Knowing if we don't get something, he can correct it on the fly. He can look at certain looks and get us out of bad situations. Right away, I know, 'This is a bad look. Is he going to can it?' Certain times, if you don't have a smart enough quarterback, he might just call that play in that bad look and I get f--ked up. So he's always protecting us on certain passes."
And get this: He's even letting that guard down. Watkins is opening up to other players.
Cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman never chatted much at all with Watkins when the two were teammates in Buffalo. Now, they eat lunch together daily.
"There's a difference between being a boy in the league and then being a man in the league," Robey-Coleman says. "Being that boy in the league, yeah, you're getting those 15 touches, but you're getting beat 75-0. But now he's entered his mature phase. He's more a grown man now. He gets the sport. He gets that it takes a team to win a championship. And not one person.
"In Buffalo, he wasn't open with anybody. He wasn't talking to anybody. He was self-centered. Here, he actually really talks to people and tells people how he feels. He shares how he feels."
The key to all this was one look-in-the-mirror attitude adjustment. Most wide receivers never bother to change. For better or worse, they do sit-ups in parking lots, toss popcorn in their face, throw QBs under the bus and shout "I love me some me!" to the camera. Because, for an alpha like Terrell Owens, it's all fuel. All feeds the inner beast. Acting out is a virtual protein shake, a necessity.
Watkins promises he's changing for good.
He's grateful for his turmoil.
"It's good that I went through all the bad s--t first to get to where I'm at now," Watkins says. "I don't know if I'd be the same if I faced the bad s--t in my fifth year.
"Now I pay attention to everything I do—how I treat people, how I carry myself. All the way around the board, I pay attention to everything and absorb everything."
But, oh, one more thing.
Sammy Watkins still plans on being the best wide receiver in football.
Watch your step. Do not move. Like a pack of actual rams, players storm out of the locker room on a recent Thursday afternoon. Head coach Sean McVay fines players who are late to meetings, which explains why one player turns a corner so fast he slips, face-plants and loses his snack.
The team might as well have been stampeding off to Super Bowl LII.
The Eagles lost the league's MVP front-runner. Both Dallas (Ezekiel Elliott) and Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers) lost stars and oh-so-valuable ground in the NFC playoff race. New Orleans? The Rams took down New Orleans already. Seattle? Minnesota? Everyone's beatable.
So this is the reality that consumes Watkins now: Winning. He used to ignore the standings, used to read his own stats, then Odell Beckham Jr.'s stats, then Mike Evans' stats and shout "f--k!" aloud as the stress would build…and build…and build.
Not anymore. Watkins hasn't sifted through a box score all season, nor has he watched any of his highlights.
Wins, not yards, are on his mind.
But for the Rams to win a Super Bowl, chances are they'll need Watkins toasting corners. Regularly. They'll need the transcendent figure Buffalo once envisioned. And, hell yes, Watkins still considers himself one of the best in the game. He puts himself in the Odell/Julio/Antonio stratosphere.
"I honestly feel like I'm at the top tier," he says. "My numbers might not show it. But I'm pretty sure that if you put it on film, and watch any of my games this year, I compete at a high level. I get open all day. I block. I do just about everything you could ask from a wide receiver."
Pressed just how great he can be, what his ceiling is, Watkins zeros in.
"The sky. I feel like I can be the No. 1, No. 2 receiver in this league. I just feel like that takes time, especially coming to a new team. Guys have already been here, so, no, I'm not just going to take over this team.
"Todd Gurley has been drafted here. Jared Goff. Cooper Kupp. A lot of guys have already been established here. So my job is really just to keep getting better and keep perfecting my craft. If I can continue to do that, our fans and coaches will notice. Like, 'Hey, we've got to get this guy the ball.'"
And right then is when this Rams offense could reach another level, a Greatest Show on Turf level.
Because others agree that Watkins is rare. Receiver Tavon Austin calls him "a horse…a horse" with a knack for making the clutch catch. Robey-Coleman repeats four times in a row that "Nobody can stop him" and promises the world will soon see "the real Sammy." Meanwhile, those receivers Watkins used to agonize over in his historic 2014 draft class will be watching the postseason from home.
Beckham is on IR. Evans is on a Buccaneers team that flopped. Allen Robinson is on IR. Jarvis Landry and Kelvin Benjamin will likely be on their sofas.
Watkins, now, stays locked in.
"I used to be addicted to…angry if I didn't get 100 yards in one game," Watkins says. "I'm not going to take myself down that road again."
I used to be addicted to…angry if I didn't get 100 yards in one game. I'm not going to take myself down that road again. — Sammy Watkins
Don't expect any more 10-target PSAs.
Above all, Watkins is smiling because he's approaching the finish line of a season healthy for the first time in his career. And when he's healthy, Watkins knows he can dominate his sport with ruthless abandon—exactly as he did at Clemson. He toyed with corners then, embarrassed them. So, OK, he admits he does sneak in a Clemson video clip here and there before games.
Consider this his personal reminder to unleash the beast within.
With that, it's time to head home. Watkins steps outside into the pitch black where there's still a scent of smoke in the air. All iPhones in town blared the night before, warning everyone to stay on high alert. Nobody has a clue where the next fire would start.
Oh well. Watkins tucks his hands in his pockets and walks off toward his car, turning around for one final comment.
"I appreciate it," he says, making eye contact. "Thanks for coming out."
Hey, it's better than telling me to grow up.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.