Mike Daniels is a self-made star.
At Highland Regional High School in Blackwood, N.J., Daniels was a three-year letterman but a zero on the recruiting trail. There wasn’t much interest in a 225-pound defensive linemen who cut weight to wrestle in the 215-pound class.
Daniels, however, refused to take “no” for an answer. He sent his highlight tape to major-college programs around the country. With the 2005 season in the books, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz got back from the Outback Bowl and found, among other things, Daniels’ highlight tape on his desk.
“Only school that looked at me,” Daniels said on Monday after signing a four-year, $42 million contact extension with the Green Bay Packers. “I swear they were the only school that even looked at me.”
What kept Daniels going even while all the doors seemingly were closed? It was that one voice saying “yes” — the voice within Daniels.
“I always wanted to play in the NFL, ever since I was a little kid,” he said. “Once I got into high school and saw how work — lifting in the weight room and running on the track, wrestling on the mat — translates over to football and how I was getting bigger and stronger and faster and tougher, I just saw how every year I made massive, massive improvements. I said, ‘Wow, it is possible that I can get a scholarship.’ By my senior year, I said, ‘I belong at the Division I level’ and that’s where I ended up. Same thing with college.”
At Iowa, Ferentz is famous for turning overlooked talent into standout players. Daniels is a poster child for his program. Ferentz couldn’t do anything about Daniels’ height limitations — he’s just 6-foot 1/2 — but he could do something about Daniels’ size and strength. That 215-pound wrestler grew into 291 pounds of muscle and desire. Daniels started his final two seasons, earning second-team all-Big Ten honors with nine sacks as a senior.
“Year after year, I was seeing — first, it was guys that were team leaders,” Daniels said. “I’m just some first-year freshman and you see them go to the NFL. Then the next year, you see some guys a little close to you go. Then the year after that, you see guys you're pretty close to go. Then the next year, you see close friends of yours, even guys that came in with you as freshmen, get drafted. And now it's like, 'There's no reason why I shouldn't get drafted, either.'”
Fast forward to the run-up to the 2012 Draft. Daniels tore his labrum before the Hawkeyes’ bowl game. He played against Oklahoma, anyway, then had surgery. At the Scouting Combine, he had a formal interview with just one team: the Packers.
Green Bay selected Daniels with a fourth-round compensatory pick. Daniels was the 132nd player off the boad. In other words, teams found 131 players better than Daniels. That seems laughable in hindsight. Daniels is one of the best in the NFL, the rare dual-threat defensive tackle that are about as rare as unicorns.
“I’m still pissed,” Daniels said, even though he had about 42 million reasons to not be upset. “That’s never going to change. It’s just how I approach the game, it’s how I play. The fact that I signed a contract doesn’t change the fact that I got overlooked in high school, doesn’t change the fact that I was consistently called short coming out of the draft. I’m not strong, I can’t play the run and all this other stuff. It doesn’t change the fact that I had to grind to get to where I’m at. Success is just a product of the work I’m doing. I’ll just keep on working.”
Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton has been a witness to Daniels’ growth as a player. Daniels went from earning modest snaps as a rookie to emerging as a key situational pass rusher in 2013 to vaulting into the starting lineup in 2014.
“I’m certainly glad that he re-signed here and didn’t become a free agent and go to the Bears or the Lions or something,” Sitton said. “He’s a pain in the ass to block. He’s a very, very good football player.”
Added coach Mike McCarthy: “Mike has always been a buzzsaw. His play style was definitely that at Iowa and he brought that energy to the table. I think he’s just matured in every way. His work ethic is at the highest level.”
Given Daniels’ road to stardom, given how he’s had to fight for every accolade along the way, it’s hard to imagine he’s going to slack off. His opening comments on Monday quickly turned to the big plays allowed the day before against Dallas and the upcoming challenge against Oakland.
“I’ll just continue to find ways to improve on my work and work harder each and every week,” Daniels said. “When you work hard every day, you get better every day, you get better every week, month, year and so forth and so forth. It’s just about getting better.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.