Trip to Philly gives Lions' Mike Daniels memories of home and glimpse of future

Paul Sancya/AP

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Many times Detroit Lions defensive tackle Mike Daniels can't help but think back.

Sometimes it’ll happen before a workout or a film session. And before every game, he reflects on these experiences that shaped him. Even though he’s a decade removed from growing up in Stratford, New Jersey, he has never forgotten where he has come from.

Daniels embodies Jersey to its core, the specific take-no-crap attitude the northeast is known for. It’s how he lives. How he plays. A weekly set of meditation and prayer brings him there, back to the mindset of coming from the suburbs of Philadelphia, where he’ll get to play for the second time as a pro Sunday against his hometown Eagles.

He channels that energy and emotion. He remembers how he was bullied in elementary school and middle school for being into anime, comic books and Dragon Ball Z before it became cool. Or how he received only one FBS scholarship offer -- to Iowa -- and how he heard he was too short and small to reach the NFL.

“Like OK, this is where I come from. This is what I went through,” Daniels said. “This is who I am. This is what shaped me. All right, man. I feel energized. Now let’s get to work.”

It’s an attitude born out of the wrestling mats and football fields of Jersey along with the influence of his parents, Michael and Carlene. For some athletes, these memories can be a distraction. For Daniels, it’s an added level of energy -- a way to make sure he’s going to be the stronger player every Sunday.

“It’s kind of like a guest. He lets it stay there because that’s what pushes him,” said his brother, Sean Daniels. “That’s what drives him. That anger. That fire. That rage. When he steps on that field and puts that helmet and shoulder pads on, it just all releases.”

Sean, a defensive lineman for the Philadelphia Soul of the Arena Football League, understands more than most. He knows why Daniels plays angry and what it gives him. He also knows when maybe the intensity isn’t there as much, something he has no problem reminding his brother about.

Sean will tell him. Then Mike Daniels focuses maniacally the next week, diving into film for hours and lifting weights even harder. He always has acted like someone was coming for his job. It’s a message he has tried to pass on, too.

Mike Daniels had been told good things about Next Level Greats, a seven-on-seven training program for high school football players in South Jersey, and its founder, Marcus Hammond, but he needed to check things out for himself.

So he called Hammond and said, “I hear you’re doing great things. I want to get involved.” Hammond had no idea what that meant. Would he be a money guy? Would he talk to the kids? Was it an empty statement or something with meaning behind it?

At the time, he didn’t know much about Daniels other than he was a Pro Bowl defensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers who grew up in the area. He didn’t know about Daniels’ immense Jersey pride.

The timing in 2018 couldn’t have been better. Within two weeks of their first, short conversation, NLG secured a last-minute invitation to the Adidas 7-on-7 National Championships in California. Still growing, and without major sponsorship, NLG had not played on the West Coast before. Hammond told Daniels about the invitation. He said if they went and played well, it could lead to a sponsorship and could help bring more visibility to football in South Jersey and Philadelphia.

Daniels donated thousands of dollars for the trip, paying for flights, hotel rooms, meals and transportation for the 26-person traveling party to the tournament. The team didn’t play well, but the commitment and investment from Daniels started a surge for the program.

While in California, they grasped the level of competition. They saw Snoop Dogg and Chad Johnson. Starstruck then, it focused NLG a year later in Miami -- when they finished pool play with the No. 1 overall seed. They didn’t finish well in that tournament, either, but later in the year won the national tournament at IMG Academy.

All of which led to a uniform sponsorship from Adidas earlier this year. The program was on a good trajectory before, but Daniels’ assistance helped.

“It’s something New Jersey has been lacking,” Daniels said. “We have so much talent, especially in South Jersey, and that program is doing great things. That’s what makes going back home so special, because it’s such a hard-nosed attitude, such a screw-you attitude.

“Just have to discipline it and get it going in the right direction.”

Hammond doesn’t always know when Daniels is going to show up. One day, Hammond arrived at the facility where NLG trains to find Daniels with his players, cleats on, ready to help train the offensive and defensive linemen.

Daniels went through all the drills himself, too, sweating along with the high schoolers. After practice, they all gathered around to listen to life advice from Daniels. He delved into different topics. He talked about his upbringing, the draft process and his routine.

By Daniels working next to them a handful of times when he’s home in Jersey, the prep players grasp what it takes to get there -- and then what it requires to stay there. It gives Daniels a chance to both give back and prepare for his post-football future -- one he says he wants to include training athletes at NLG himself.

When Kelvin Harmon, a wide receiver who played at NC State, entered the draft earlier this year, he spoke to Daniels about what to expect -- and became the first NLG player drafted, going in the sixth round to Washington.

Daniels also told players about the reality that their jobs will be under more pressure in college and the NFL, where teammates may be trying to take your job, too.

“It just shows kids you can never stop working. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Pro Bowler or in the NFL for eight or nine years, you always have to outwork the next guy,” Hammond said. “That’s what [Daniels] did. He tells our guys but he’s also showing them. I’m in South Jersey for two days, but I have my cleats, let’s get on the field and work.

“Having him around has been a huge, huge help, not just for our program but for our area as well.”

Mike Daniels is going to try to treat this weekend as normally as he can. He’ll alternate, saying it’s just like any other game while acknowledging this is special for him because he doesn’t know if or when he’ll get to play in Philly again.

He went to his first Eagles game at Veterans Stadium -- Ricky Watters’ first game with the Seahawks after leaving the Eagles in 1998 -- a game that he remembers wondering why fans were booing a player who once meant so much to Philadelphia.

As he grew up, he thought about what it would be like to play at home. He knows he’ll get booed like any other visitor -- but also he’ll have support. He felt it the first time he went back to Philadelphia, when he had a sack on Monday Night Football in 2016.

“It takes you back like you’re in high school all over again,” Daniels said. “Like, man, this is the air I was breathing when I first started playing football. I’m around my boys, you know. Now, some of these guys, we’re not just hanging out the night before the game and we’re going out there all together physically, but it’s like they are going to all be out there with me still.”

And on Sunday, Daniels will search the crowd for his parents and everyone else who helped get him to this point. Usually he can’t find them. They are often too high up. But he knows they are there.

And it does help. It does matter. For a few minutes anyway Sunday, Mike Daniels will be back at home and feel all the energy he needs in his home city.

“I’m so excited, man,” Daniels said. ”It’s a fun thing. And guys don’t really, it’s something that doesn’t get talked about a lot as players. But it’s a big deal when players get to come back home.”