(This is the first of four stories previewing Buffalo Bills training camp, which opens Thursday at St. John Fisher College)
The new cornerstone of the Buffalo Bills' offensive line is a 325-pound behemoth who has been known at various points of his football career as Big Friendly and Big Baby.
"Off the field I'd say I'm one of the friendliest people you'll meet," says Derrick Dockery. "I try to be friends with everybody. I've always been like that. People called me Big Friendly growing up. I always treat people the way I want to be treated."
It says something about Dockery that he doesn't feel the slightest bit sensitive about these less-than-menacing nicknames, even though he plays offensive line, one of the most brutal positions in sports.
The Bills' new left guard is a confident man, secure in his own self-image.
"I can play," Dockery says. "I've always been confident in myself. I believe I can be one of the top guards in the league. As a competitor, I don't think anybody should think any less of themselves. Why play the game if you're just going to come out here and be mediocre? I think the game is too hard to do that. You have to love it. You have to have a passion for it. I do."
That passion is part of the reason why the Bills rushed to make Dockery a rich man when the clock struck midnight on March 2 to signal the start of the NFL's free agency season. The fact the Bills went after an offensive lineman was no surprise. The fact they signed him to the biggest contract in team history -- $49 million over seven years -- was a stunner.
The highest-paid Bill of all time? Derrick who?
While he is far from a household name in the NFL, the Bills are convinced Dockery is on the verge of being recognized as one of the best linemen in the league.
The Bills love Dockery's confidence. They love his maturity, his attitude, his size, and most of all they love the way his 6-foot-6, 325-pound frame mauls opponents on Sundays. When Bills training camp opens Thursday in Rochester, the Bills think Dockery's presence will go a long way toward turning what has been the weak spot on the team for this entire decade -- the offensive line -- into a strength.
The Bills' new No. 66 is a 26-year-old native of Garland, Texas, a large, middle-class suburb of Dallas. He was a consensus first-team All-America guard at the University of Texas. He was picked by Washington in the third round of the 2003 draft, and he spent the last four seasons as a starter for the Redskins.
The fact Dockery is a massive man from the University of Texas and he was known as Big Friendly growing up just might send a shiver down the spine of die-hard Bills fans. Does the name Mike Williams ring a bell? Dockery was a year behind the former Bills bust at Texas. Williams, of course, was a nice guy who was remarkably soft as a football player. He's out of football now.
Williams, a 6-6, 380-pounder, was so athletically gifted and so massive that work ethic didn't matter in college. He never had to truly push himself. Friends and teammates say Dockery has been driven at every stage of his career.
"Dockery has the talent but he also has the discipline to make himself the best he can be," said Tillman Holloway, who played guard for Texas and roomed with Dockery. "It didn't just all come easy to him. Dockery was my workout partner in college. He studies film. He studies film on himself more than any person I saw on the offensive line. Derrick has a fire. He's extremely determined. He knew he was going to be successful and he was driven and focused on that goal."
"Dock has a way of showing he's fierce in different ways," said Bills tight end Robert Royal, who played with Dockery for three years in Washington. "He's a great person, a real religious guy. He doesn't believe in yelling and screaming and cussing people out. He leads by example. He's going to compete, believe me. He's going to finish plays. Those are the guys you've got to watch out for, the quiet assassins."
Dockery says his mother and father made sure he never was a slacker. His father, Larry, is a 6-4, 290-pounder who has spent 30 years working for a Dallas-based air-conditioning company. He's a production manager. His mother, Sheila, works for Southwestern Bell.
"They instilled a great work ethic in me, and that helped me be who I am today," Dockery said. "It helped me be disciplined in my life and make the right choices."
"We had a rule that if you made a 'C' in this house, you had to sit out the sports season the next semester," Sheila Dockery said. "So he always did his homework as soon as he came home from school, and once he finished he ran out the door to play as fast as he could."
Larry Dockery used to work out along with his son and said he never had to push Derrick much.
"A lot of kids came home from college after the school year and couldn't wait to go out at night and start having fun," Larry Dockery said. "That never was Derrick. He always wanted to work out. He'd always come home all soaking wet from sweat."
"Ever since I've been in elementary school, one thing I could always hang my hat on is I always worked hard," Dockery said. "That's one thing my dad instilled in me. I wasn't the best athlete or the most talented. But one thing I had going for myself is my work ethic."
Dockery realized right away he would need to work hard to prove himself when he got to the Redskins. First, he was disappointed about lasting until the third round. He had a bad cold during the NFL Scouting Combine before the draft and decided not to work out.
"They thought I was nonchalant and a guy who didn't care," Dockery said. "I was a top-20 prospect after the [college] season but I fell after that, and ever since then I've been trying to prove that I belong and I can be one of the best."
Second, he joined a line that had four proven veterans, including Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels. Hence the nickname Big Baby. They were not going to let him earn his stripes easily.
"He was brand new to the program and he came in smiling all the time, so we called him Big Baby," Royal said. "After he was in the program a couple years, he moved up to Big Junior. By his next year we moved him up to Big Senior. He matured, and so did his nicknames."
Third, his line coach was the great Joe Bugel, a gruff veteran who guided the famous Redskin "Hogs" and calls his troops "dirtbags." Dockery could not have had a better tutor than Bugel.
"I was the youngest guy," Dockery said. "If I made a mistake, [Bugel] was going to use me and teach everybody through my mistakes. If I was slacking at all or if he didn't think I was giving 100 percent effort he'd be quick to call me out. Some guys might have been doing the same things, but I just thought he saw the talent and the player I could be and he just wanted to bring the best out in me. I've never seen anyone as passionate about the game as he was."
Dockery was in the starting lineup by the fourth game of his rookie season and has not missed a start since. He remembers his third start, against Tampa Bay, as one that helped convince him he would succeed in the NFL.
"It was against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were coming off their Super Bowl year," Dockery said. "I was facing Warren Sapp. I see him lining up wide, and I'm thinking, 'Why is he lining up so wide?' He knew it was a pass and I thought, 'I better get ready.' It was tough but I did well for a rookie. Some people told me they thought I played the best a rookie guard has ever played against them."
Nevertheless, his development was a gradual progression. Due to his height, it took time for Dockery to become proficient at staying low with feet shoulder-width apart. Dockery spent many hours doing an exercise at home: sitting against a wall until his thighs burned.
His big breakthrough came last season. He had carried 345 to 350 pounds naturally on his frame. He never has been flabby. ("I always say if I was 3 or 4 inches taller I'd be playing basketball," he says.)
But Redskins coach Joe Gibbs convinced him he would be better if he lost weight.
"I came into camp in the best shape of my life," Dockery said. "I lost 25 pounds [down to 325]. It wasn't so much that it made me more explosive or faster, but I just felt a lot better. I felt fresh. I felt I could last longer in games. I was playing with a lot of confidence. I was trying to finish everything. I was trying to play more physical. My attitude was take no prisoners, try to hit everything moving and just have fun on the field."
The Redskins offense ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing, and Dockery developed into a road-grading blocker.
"He's a great player and he deserves what he's got," Samuels said. "He's come a long way from when we drafted him. None of us wanted to see him leave."
Dockery was not considered to be quite in the class of Minnesota's Steve Hutchinson or Cincinnati's Eric Steinbach entering free agency. Both of them also are $7 million-a-year men. So the size of his contract was a surprise to many.
"None of us expected him to get that kind of contract, and I know it surprised Dock," Samuels said.
But the Bills think he's on the cusp of the Hutchinson level.
"He hit it last year with the Redskins," Bills offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild said. "You could tell the difference in his game."
The Bills have been hurt by top bull-rushing defensive tackles for years. They think Dockery solves that problem.
"He's a real big-bodied guard who can really cover guys up," Fairchild said. "He gives you a physical element against teams that have the big tackles. It solidifies the left side, which we feel we can run behind no matter who we play."
Dockery says he is thrilled to be in Buffalo.
"When you think about the fans and the tradition, they're crazy about the team here," he said. "You want to go [to] a place where football is king."
Even though he grew up in Dallas, Dockery insists -- and his father backs him up on it -- that he was rooting for the Bills in Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII.
"I was never a Cowboys fan," he said. "My whole family was Cowboys fans except for me and my grandfather. . . . I was rooting for the Bills when they played the Giants. Then when they played the Cowboys I was like, I've got to root for the Bills again. I always rooted for Thurman Thomas, Jim Kelly, (Darryl) Talley, Bruce (Smith)."
Now Dockery is making more than those stars ever made. He insists it will not go to his head.
"My faith has really kept me humble and kept me grounded," Dockery said. "I believe God has put me here for a purpose. He's put me here to do great work on this earth. I never want to be one of those guys who squanders their chance. Now $49 million is a lot of money, don't get me wrong. But I'm still the same person I've been growing up. I still believe in hard work. I still believe in treating others the way you want to be treated. I still believe in doing the right thing.
"I don't think money is going to make me a better person, and it's not going to make me happy. It might help you live a better lifestyle. But money's not going to fulfill you. I look at [it] as a blessing. I look at it as people recognize your talent, and they believe strongly in you. Now it's up to me to show people they made the right decision."
NEXT: The offense.
>Dishing with Dockery
Favorite food: Barbecue.
Favorite TV show: "Martin."
Favorite hobby: Playing video games. Right now my favorite is PlayStation 3 NBA 2K7.
Favorite sportscaster: John Madden.
Favorite sport other than football: Basketball.
Favorite athlete: Shaquille O'Neal.
Favorite movies: "Gladiator." "Braveheart." "The Patriot." ("I'm a war movie guy.")
Favorite CD: The new Kirk Franklin CD.
Favorite scripture reading: "Everyone says Philippians 4:13. But I'd say Romans 8:37. It just talks about how God says you're more than a conqueror. If you do it because of him, you're able to succeed and conquer anything, as long as you put your trust in him."
Best player ever faced: Detroit's Shaun Rogers.
Favorite college course: Marketing. "We had a real cool teacher who made it fun."
Person with whom you'd most like to have lunch: Martin Luther King Jr.
-- Mark Gaughan