It's July 2003 as a 14-year-old boy walks a half-mile from his home to the high school he'll be attending in September. He's headed to the weight room, something foreign, but something he approaches eagerly as football season gets underway. It's these initial footsteps of desire and dedication that would set the foundation for a promising future.
Mike Daniels' strolls to practice are a tad different now. He's traded fiddling with a combination lock on his light blue locker at Highland Regional High School in Blackwood, N.J. for a spacious, stately wooden locker at Lambeau Field in Wisconsin. The once slender 145-pound high school freshman is now 6 foot, 310 pounds and the starting defensive tackle for the Green Bay Packers.
However, Daniels' path to the NFL wasn't exactly paved, especially playing high school football for one of the most putrid programs the state has to offer. The Highland Tartans compiled a record of 11-29 during Daniels varsity career and haven't had a winning season in over 20 years.
Yet, you'll still hear him claim Highland Regional High School during primetime introductions. Why?
Why not the University of Iowa, where he earned All-Big Ten Conference recognition twice and played in four bowl games? A school that took a chance on an undersized two-star recruit when no one else would.
"We've been one of the bottom tier football programs in the state, but I say Highland Regional High School because I want the kids that are going to Highland now, the kids who are going to Lewis or Glen Landing, or even Mullen, that may end up at Highland, I want them to know take pride in where you're from," he said matter-of-factly.
At Highland, Daniels was a three-sport standout. He was a four-year letterman in track and field, and lettered three times in wrestling. But, it was football that always seemed to be the sport attached closest with his name.
He was a team captain twice and lettered three times as a defensive lineman and running back. His nearly 100 tackles and 12 sacks, combined with 1,029 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns as a senior, helped earn him first-team all-conference honors.
There were opportunities for Daniels to play at some of the bigger high school football schools, which some athletes choose to do hoping the added exposure translate to added scholarship offers when college recruiters come calling. But he stuck with the Tartans and diligently worked on perfecting his craft.
"Don't go running away just because, 'oh it might be easier for me there,'" Daniels said of switching schools. "Because if I can do it, and I was far from the most athletic guy on the team, regardless of what anybody says. Every year I was not the most athletic person on that team, but I just outworked everybody."
And outwork them he did.
Daniels, a then sophomore, was the first player new coach Frank Plefka met when he took over the head-coaching job at Highland, and it was no coincidence their first encounter was in the weight room.
"Here's the one thing Mike always was, he was the model of what you expect a student athlete to be," Plefka said. "He put in the time. I know its sort of cliché, but he's a kid that was the first one in the weight room and the last one to leave. I kind of disagree with him about his athleticism because he was a stud wrestler for the school, a district champ."
The frame Daniels brought to Highland might not have carried much mass, but it was long and begging to be filled out.
"When I had an opportunity to get into the weight room, I just took full advantage," he said.
The walls of Highland's weight room were once filled with the record lifts of former athletes. The school has since taken them down, but Daniels numbers would definitely have been on display. He recorded a 365-pound bench press, a squat in the low 500s and a clean press around 250 pounds – as a teenager.
"I might have to go talk to someone up there to make sure those things go back up man, and give the kids something to shoot for. I know I used to stare at that thing the whole time when I was lifting like, man, I'm trying to catch that guy," he said.
"I used to get hollered at for benching too much," he added with a laugh.
Upon graduating high school in 2007, Daniels bulked up to a lean 215 pounds, but even that was still a far cry from the 310-pound behemoth he is today. He credits the Hawkeyes' strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, who he called "the best in the business," for building up the defensive lineman to his draft day weight of 293 pounds.
While at Iowa, the fourth-round draft choice in the 2012 NFL Draft discovered a new style of fitness. Seeing it as a way to add another wrinkle to his budding professional repertoire – mixed martial arts and boxing.
"It goes with the mentality of playing in the trenches. It's you versus him. At the end of the day, it's a fight. What better way to improve on a figurative fight in a sense, than literally training to fight? The more violent, explosive, powerful and efficient your hands are, the better player you'll be," Daniels said.
After being selected by the Packers, he began training at Titletown MMA in Green Bay with instructors Eric Chang and Mike Biddle several times a week. He says their coaching has certainly helped elevate his game on the field.
"I always feel as though I've made a significant improvement after every training session. It's never S-O-S, same old stuff. It's always something new," he said.
In a few short weeks, football camps around the country will open – Daniels' Packers included. His commute to practice won't be much different from those summer days of 2003.
In a Green Bay tradition that dates back to at least the 1960s, Daniels and his teammates will each borrow bikes from local kids and ride them to practice.
If you're a kid preparing for your own team's camp, he has some advice for you.
"Be yourself and work as hard as you can. Don't let anybody influence you to not be yourself. Keep working and stay dedicated to the craft," he said.
Daniels couldn't help but reminisce once more on his time as a Highland Tartan.
"I can honestly tell you, I can look at the things I did in high school and I can see how they positively affect me today."
Without further ado, trainer Eric Chang explains the boxing-style workout he puts Daniels through:
At the Titletown MMA Academy, we focus on cardio and hand speed with Mike Daniels. He, along with a few other players, usually come right from their workout with the Packers, so we focus less on the legs and more on the core and hand aspect of their game.
When doing the warm-up footwork portion, we as coaches need to be diligent and critique everything. If your heels touch the ground, the spacing isn't right. When we start to add a jab with each step, make sure the elbows are in and not flaring out.
The bag work is basically a pitter-patter drill. I'm not looking for power, or extreme speed, but more so a constant motion for three minutes while maintaining proper technique.
When moving on to the core workout, we constantly mix things up so the players don't get used to a workout. We need them constantly pushing instead of coasting, and we set it so they can barely ever finish, that way they always have a goal to shoot for. After that they stretch out and call it a day.
3 minutes walk forward and backwards in fighting stance
3 minutes walking forward with jab, then backwards in stance
3 minutes walking forward with jab cross, then backwards in stance
3 minutes jab, cross drill on bag
3 minutes double jab cross drill on bag
3 three-minute rounds of focus mitt work with a 30-second burn out at the end (If you aren't able to work out with a partner, you can substitute the mitt work for more bag work or shadow boxing, although a good pad holder is impossible to replace because they set the pace and prevent you from slacking.)
5 total minutes of core work. Every 30 seconds we'll switch the exercise.
30 seconds sit ups
30 seconds crunches
30 seconds V-ups
30 seconds alternating V-ups
30 seconds bicycles
30 seconds Russian twists
30 seconds penguin crunch – Lie on your back with your feet on the floor and pick your shoulders off the ground. From there, try to reach through the other leg with the opposite hand and go back and forth.
30 seconds alternating sit up
30 seconds alternating sit ups (opposite side)
30 seconds planks
Bonus: 30 seconds planks
Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.