Nonstop motor powers undersized Mike Daniels
Mike Daniels wasn't always built like this. Before he was 6 feet tall and 305 pounds, the Green Bay Packers defensive lineman was a small and somewhat scrawny kid growing up in Blackwood, N.J.
Forget about the biggest player on the field. Daniels usually wasn't the biggest kid in the classroom. Or the hallway for that matter. He was different. While most followed the popular path, Daniels typically veered in the opposite direction.
It led to bullying and name-calling in his formative years. He remembers enduring the occasional slap on the back of the head at his locker and even a few face-first dives into mud. The lasting image of his book bag smashing against the ground is something still engrained into his memory.
And it's something Daniels has never forgotten.
If you want to get to the core of the football player, you have to start with the person. The strong, boisterous lineman who stands before you today first underwent a metamorphosis at an early age.
He found the weight room in high school and channeled his frustrations between the school bells into his play between the hash marks.
"Whenever I got onto the field, I felt invincible," Daniels said. "I felt like this is my battlefield. This is where I can kind of let it all out."
Football was a safe haven even if he wasn't the fastest running back or largest lineman. In fact, he cut to 207 pounds his senior year at Highland Regional High School to avoid having to wrestle as a light heavyweight.
The school wasn't known for football, though New Orleans assistant coach Joe Vitt also is an alumnus. Daniels estimates the school won 10 games in his three years on varsity. That's partially a product of the more talented football players in the area usually bolting for a nearby private school.
Daniels stuck it out. He lived within walking distance of the school and his parents couldn't afford to send him elsewhere. He was under-recruited, receiving one scholarship offer from the University of Iowa, which came while on a visit to Villanova.
Daniels parlayed that ticket to the American Heartland into the opportunity of a lifetime. Since entering the NFL as a fourth-round pick in 2012, Daniels has been the heart-and-soul of the Packers' defensive line for the past two seasons.
He has his early years to thank for it, which taught him to fear nothing.
"If I'm not going to be physically bigger than the guy who's 350, then I'm going to play bigger than him," Daniels said. "If I'm not going to be physically bigger than the guy who's 6-4, then I'm going to play bigger than him. That's just my mentality. I'm just going to keep bringing it."
Daniels clenches his arms up and down to mimic how his father, Mike Sr., would gesture to him from the stands of a football stadium or the side of wrestling mat.
The translation: Suck it up.
Tired? You're not allowed to be tired. If you get beat on a play, be tough on the next one. If someone is giving you a hard time, don't let it affect your mindset.
The feeling of being disrespected is in essence what taught Daniels the meaning of the word. His insertion in the weight room was mainly a byproduct of not wanting to get picked on anymore.
Daniels pulls up a picture he found on Instagram. It's two figures laughing at another person, who's sitting back-turned in the fetal position. The two bullies have small white dots on their head, illustrating small-mindedness. In contrast, the other person has a large white outline inside his head, signifying intelligence.
The photo speaks to Daniels. He even texted it to his brother the other day. He laughs because as he got bigger, the tough guys conveniently started fading out of the rear-view.
"I don't ever disrespect anybody. When you learn how to respect other people, you learn how to garner respect for yourself," Daniels said. "You have to look internally and say, 'I got it. I got things I'm good at. I'm not the things that you say I am. You're not going to look at certain things about me and consistently pick at it. I'm somebody. I'm worth it.'"
Daniels still sees a few "dirt bags" creep up time-to-time in NFL trenches. That's one reason why Daniels made the comments he did earlier this offseason about the Packers needing to get meaner.
It's not about fighting fire with fire, though Daniels isn't afraid to speak up if he sees an offensive lineman take a cheap shot on one of his teammates. His edict was about shedding the "soft" label that was slapped on the defense after his rookie season in 2012.
In Daniels' opinion, the additions of defensive lineman Letroy Guion and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, along with the emergence of inside linebacker Sam Barrington, has helped change perceptions.
"That's what I was talking about that hard-nose, that dog, that grrr," says Daniels, growling. "Where is the beast, the wild animals, the guys who are out here to cause doom, death and destruction? Because that's just the way I am. That's the way I play.
"Those are three guys who perfectly exemplify the stuff I'm talking about. Those are the type of guys that when a chump comes up, slaps me on the side of the head when I'm a little guy, those are the guys I want with me."
Tramon Williams didn't waste any time laying the ground rules when Daniels first arrived in Green Bay in 2012.
The veteran cornerback understood how strange it can be when you jump into a new environment and could tell Daniels didn't know exactly how to express himself at first.
Williams' message? Be yourself.
"Mike came in with the right mindset the day he got here," Williams said. "One of the things I told him was, 'Be yourself. You have some guys who may have a problem with it. Some guys who may not, but at the end of the day you have to be yourself.' We let him be himself and that's all we can ask of him."
Daniels has 76 tackles and 14 sacks in his first 46 NFL games, no easy task playing in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' scheme where linemen traditionally take a backseat to outside pass-rushers.
Some scouts said Daniels was too small to be anything other than a rotational pass-rusher coming out of Iowa. However, Daniels has been in the conversation for the team's best run-stopping lineman in starting all 16 games for the first time in his career.
His 25 stops against the run are ninth-most in the NFL among 3-4 outside linemen, according to Pro Football Focus. As a pass-rusher, his 17 combined sacks and hits are the fifth-most by the same metric.
He's sawed-off, but a high-motor and ability to generate power out of his stance are difficult to combat. Teammates say he never quits on double-teams, and center Corey Linsley and left guard Josh Sitton admit they want no part of him in practice.
"Mike is like the perfect storm," Linsley said. "He's shorter in terms of defensive linemen, but he's so powerful so you can't get leverage on him. It's very, very difficult to get leverage on him. On top of that, he's stronger than an ox. It's kind of like what do I do against this guy?"
Daniels knows he won't win every battle, but his goal is to make offensive linemen remember him. Sitton certainly does.
"Mike's a son of a (expletive)," Sitton said. "He's a tough guy to block. He's got so much power. He's your typical never stop guy, but he's got some tools that he works with as well. His bull rush-to-yank frickin move that he does is extremely difficult to block. He's a hell of a player for us."
Williams' words set the tempo for Daniels' time in Green Bay. The ability to express oneself without judgment is what both players feel is the most distinguishable trait of the Packers' locker room.
Who is Mike Daniels? He's a son trying to tone down some of his antics. He wants to use less vulgarity and speak more like when he's in the presence of his mother, Carlene.
He's a father, who wants his son, Mike III, to play football and plans to coach him with the same "smash-mouth" style that he was brought up with.
He's also the backbone for the defense's resurgence since the bye week. Eligible for a contract extension after the season, Daniels says his only focus is on what's in front of him —next week's divisional-round playoff game at Lambeau Field.
"I try to smile and be cordial but when I get on the field…" pauses Daniels to snap his fingers. "That's when I turn on that switch of 'All right, it's go time.'
You can rest assured nothing is going to change his on-field mentality, though. With almost three seasons in the books, Daniels isn't going to settle for anything less than dominant.
Sure, he's no longer being bullied, but that fire never ceases.
"My thing is this. I'm here to work every day. That'll never change," Daniels said. "It didn't change when I got my scholarship to Iowa. It didn't change when I became a starter at Iowa. It didn't change when I got drafted. It didn't change when I became a starter here. I'm just here to work constantly every day until I can no longer do this."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod