By Gabriel Stovall
FAYETTEVILLE – As Matthew Daniels took the microphone from his former Fayette County teammate – and now fellow NFL player – Brandon Boykin, he flashed a bright, wide smile as he began to talk.
Both Daniels, now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Boykin, a Philadelphia Eagle, gave remarks to a packed Fayette County gymnasium that came to see the schools only two NFL players have their high school jerseys retired.
Except Daniels unapologetically took a little more time to speak than Boykin.
“I know I’m talking a lot, but this is my time,” Daniels said, drawing a laugh from the students, former students, former coaches, faculty and alumni from the school.
And if you know Daniels’ story, you couldn’t blame him for his boisterous demeanor.
Just like Boykin, Daniels was an elite high school defensive back during the Tigers’ first and only unbeaten regular season.
Just like Boykin, Daniels parlayed his high school successes into a Division I scholarship. Boykin went to Georgia were he became an all-SEC performer, and Daniels found his way to an emerging Duke Blue Devils program.
Daniels also garnered all-conference honors. In 2011 he was a second-team all conference player, and an Academic All-ACC choice for Duke. But this is when the similarities of the two players’ young careers stop.
Boykin has shown flashes of promise during his first three seasons with the Eagles. Meanwhile, Daniels – undrafted out of Duke – has been unable to show such flash, thanks to the pesky injury bug that hampered his progress with the St. Louis Rams.
The first injury was a torn ACL and MCL in Week 8 of his rookie season. The second injury, a broken ankle in the Georgia Dome, in front of family and friends, in Week 2 of his second season, was even more crushing.
That’s why his smile last Saturday was so noteworthy. And his story, the reason why no one complained over the length of his speech.
Daniels has a lot to be thankful for with a chance for a fresh start in Jacksonville right at the top of the list.
“I’m definitely grateful,” Daniels said. “After all the injuries, I was just devastated, but I began to look at it as God taking me through trials and tribulations, and I just keep on overcoming them and proving how much I love this game.”
It’s that love for the game that kept Daniels from quitting when it seemed like the convenient – and maybe even smart – thing to do.
“I just kept working and working, and God’s given me another opportunity down in Jacksonville,” he said. “So I just am going to try and make the best of it.”
After the 6-foot, 211-pound safety was released from St. Louis, he was snagged quickly by a rebuilding Jaguars team under second year coach Gus Bradley. He joined the team’s practice squad in October of 2014, and showed enough to cause the Jaguars to promote him to the active roster just one week before Christmas.
It was the ultimate early Christmas present for a football player who had to start feeling some of the nagging doubts of his ability to play at the highest level start to creep up again.
However, Daniels said he’s assuaged those doubts with the help of a close-knit circle and a little divine intervention.
“Man, I’ve just got a lot of support around me,” Daniels said. “And it’s huge. Because, you know, you get down on yourself so much. When I tore my ACL my rookie year, I was heartbroken. But I look up to the man above and I know he’s got my back and he’s taking me through these things for a reason.”
And perhaps part of that reason was to come back and give an important message to up-and-coming athletes at his alma mater, or anyone in his home town who would lend their ear to his words.
“You know, I think sometimes people get too high on themselves,” Daniels said. “So me going through (the injuries) grounded me and made me realize I’m not as big as I think I am, and it brought me back down to the humble person I usually am.”
And that’s why he’ll tell any promising athlete to be careful not to get caught up in impressing or being impressed. He wants the football standouts of today and tomorrow to stay grounded and make decisions for the right reasons.
“The first offer I got was from Duke, and that’s the one I stayed with,” Daniels said. “People say it’s a four-year decision, but it’s really a lifetime decision. I’m glad I went to Duke University for the networking and getting to know people in addition to getting a good education. Those networks set myself up for life after football.”
But for those who still have only football on the brain, he says this:
“It’s not about what school you go to that gets you into the NFL. It’s about talent. If you’re about developing your talent, working hard and being dedicated, you can go to John Doe University and the NFL will find you. It’s not like, ‘oh I went to UGA or some big school, and I’m just going to go to the NLF automatically. It doesn’t work like that.
“Go out there and get your education and get what you want and grind for it.”