GREEN BAY – Twenty years ago, nobody in the Daniels household was thinking about the best way to build an NFL defensive lineman.
Mike and Carlene Daniels simply wanted to find a sport that would allow their son, Mike Jr., a chance to burn off some energy like any other 4- or 5-year old.
So Mike Sr. signed his son up for wrestling.
“I thank him to this day for it,” said Mike Jr., now in his fifth season with the Packers. “Because it builds character.”
Before Daniels was a football player, he was a wrestler.
He stuck with the sport even after he started to flourish on the football field. His accolades piled up in both sports, becoming a three-time letterman on the Highland Regional (N.J.) High School wrestling team.
However, Daniels wasn’t a 312-pound nose tackle back then. In fact, he actually cut down to 207 pounds as a senior, so he didn’t have to wrestle at a substantial disadvantage in the heavyweight division, which maxes at 285 pounds in most states.
Wrestling didn’t just allow Daniels to release energy – it showed him a different way of life. It made him cognizant of his diet and emphasized the importance of discipline.
When Daniels finally picked up football, he quickly noticed how the two sports relate to each other, particularly when it came to securing leverage and proper technique.
Daniels’ shorter stature caused many college scouts to overlook him out of high school. He accepted his only Division I offer to Iowa and the rest was history.
Now a fifth-year NFL veteran who received a contract extension in December, Daniels feels his size and wrestling background helped open the door that eventually led him to the pros.
It also underscored a crucial rule – the low man wins.
“I can still draw from some of my teaching until today. It’s unbelievable,” Daniels said. “It builds up a certain type of toughness. It’s a combative sport. A lot of the techniques translate over to football, the mentality being the biggest thing.”
When the Packers drafted Kenny Clark in the first round this year, Daniels already was familiar with the UCLA defensive tackle’s background as a former high-school wrestler.
Hours after Clark’s selection, Daniels sent a tweet to his new linemate.
Unlike Daniels, Clark first started wrestling as a sophomore at Wilmer Amina Carter High School in Rialto, Calif., at the insistence of friends and football teammates.
Clark remembers getting manhandled the first time he stepped onto the mat, but he stuck with it and eventually “fell in love” with the sport.
After his sophomore year, Clark won a national freshman-sophomore invitation tournament in Idaho and later went on to make two state appearances in California.
He spent countless hours in the school’s wrestling room with his younger brother, Kyon, who doubled as his partner. While two years Kenny’s junior, Kyon actually was bigger than Kenny with gumby-like flexibility.
Clark could pick up things wrestling when drilling against guys who were lighter than him, but trying to take down Kyon was grueling, especially in the sauna-like conditions of the wrestling room.
“That’s the most flexible guy I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Clark of his younger brother. “I’m working with him all day, picking up a 330-pound guy every day, so I’m going to get strong and picking up those 285 guys (became) easy.
“Just me picking up my brother’s legs or trying to single-leg him or double-leg him, it was so hard because he was so flexible. I could lift up his leg and he wouldn’t go down.”
Those sessions, mixed with his actual matches, taught Clark leverage and body control. It made him a better wrestler, and in the process, a better football player.
The things that made him successful on the wrestling mat – flexibility in his ankles and explosion in his hips – are also what made him thrive on the football field.
It also challenged him mentally, whether it was getting through long workouts or understanding how to counter a 285-pound wrestler exerting pressure on you.
“The biggest thing I’d have to say is it helps you out with leverage and being able to be flexible, to bend,” Clark said. “There aren’t a lot of defensive linemen who (can) really stay low, bend, get off the ball, and be physical. Not often do you find a defensive lineman who can do all those things.”
Clark’s wrestling background was easy for Mike Trgovac to spot when the Packers’ defensive line coach began working with the first-round pick earlier this summer.
Right away, Trgovac noticed how combative he was with his hands and able to secure leverage in battles with offensive linemen.
Daniels and Clark are entirely different players with contrasting skill sets, but Trgovac sees a common thread between the two as a former state champion heavyweight himself.
“With both those guys and myself having a wrestling background, I can talk a certain language to them and they understand,” Trgovac said. “Both of them do a very good job getting their hands inside and working nice and tight hands. Again, they understand leverage very well.”
Daniels still applies many of the same training techniques in his offseason routine, including MMA and combat workouts.
No, Daniels’ father didn’t know his son would one day become a top interior rusher in the NFL, but Mike Jr. remains grateful that he signed him up for wrestling all those years ago.
“If you’re a bigger kid, don’t waste your time playing basketball – go wrestle,” Daniels said. “More than likely you’re going to be a football player – if you so choose to seek athletics in college or professional level. Wrestling is going to get it done for you. That’s just how I view it.”