Daniels's Will to Play Again Drives His Furious Comeback

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On the bus ride up to Baltimore last Thursday night, stuck with his teammates in traffic on I-95, Phillip Daniels watched a thunderstorm come and go. "Then, all of a sudden, I just remember getting emotional," the Washington Redskins' aging defensive lineman said. "Emotional about a preseason game."

Fourteen-year veterans, it should be noted, don't cry over exhibitions; they try to get out of them. Make an excuse about their tight hamstring. Complain of tendinitis. Use anything to escape the drudgery of another training camp and preseason.

But as Daniels sat quietly in the middle of the bus, as the rain pitter-pattered against his window, as he listened to gospel music, he felt his insides percolating -- feelings coming up he didn't know were there.

"Because of faith, I have a brand new day

"The sun will shine -- and I will be okay

"That's when I told the storm!"

Tears formed in the corner of Daniels's eyes as the words of Greg O'Quin 'N Joyful Noize played in his headset. The strongest man on the roster -- able to squat 722 pounds in one of those must-click YouTubes -- let it go.

"Every time the rain hit the window, it made me think of a teardrop," he said. "After everything that happened a year ago, I just felt so much joy -- joy that I was back."

Playing in the NFL again.

At age 36, a year after he lay in agony on the first day of training camp, clutching his left knee.

Waiting for a motorized cart to take him away and his career to end.

Wasn't it supposed to end that way for Phillip Daniels?

"If you want the truth, I honestly had some doubt he could come back," said Greg Blache, the team's defensive coordinator. "I knew his will would be there, but there comes a time when life and age just trumps you. I only knew if anybody had the will, Phillip had the will."

His wife, Leslie, had to drive after surgery because he couldn't straighten his leg. When he would flip on the radio, he would inevitably hear, "He won't make it back. He's too old."

"I heard that everywhere," said Daniels the third-oldest player on his team and the fourth-oldest active defensive lineman in the NFL. "Once I heard someone say, 'He's 35. He'll be 36 next year. There's just no way he plays again.' "

Especially after the severity of the injury, how pained his left knee felt and looked.

What a gruesome flashback: July 20, 2008, Jim Zorn's ominous first day of training camp, first hour of practice. First play of 7-on-7 drills and a mass of bodies dropped like dominoes at the line of scrimmage.

As players began untangling limbs from one another and started to get up, Daniels stayed on the ground.

The team originally hoped the knee was hyperextended, but Daniels knew. "I went to put weight on that leg on the way to the shower, and it almost folded in half," he said. Then he saw the face of Christopher Annunziata, the team physician who bore the bad news.

Torn anterior cruciate ligament, the end to most athlete's seasons and often aging players' careers.

Reggie Kelly, an 11-year tight end, broke down on HBO's "Hard Knocks" last week when he realized his season with the Cincinnati Bengals was over because of a ruptured Achilles' tendon. There was no film crew following Daniels around last year when the cart parked outside the training facility doors in Ashburn. But Daniels said his day of reckoning was much the same.

"Once he told me, I pretty much cried from that point on," he said. "I came up to Dan Snyder's office, Vinny [Cerrato], Coach Blache, all the coaches came in. I couldn't stop crying. I wanted to be out there for my team so bad. I think I cried probably that night and a little bit the next day.

"A very, very difficult moment for me. I didn't wish that on nobody."

Determined to get back, he underwent rehabilitation in Chicago, where he has a home. He spent his own money to travel to every game and remain part of the team on Sundays.

He also had one key element helping him through rehabilitation: a surreal work ethic in the weight room. The man is Bunyanesque, beginning with power-lifting competitions after his second year in the league. He found a group in Chicago and began adding bumpers anew, dead-lifting 660 pounds, bench-pressing 460 -- shocking gyms full of men with V-shaped torsos who could not believe he had major reconstructive knee surgery last July.

"Three times a day, sometimes 10 hours a day, I rehabbed," he said. "Weights. Cardio. Physical therapy. Anything that could put me out there."

"I just wanted people to stop looking at the age thing as an excuse not to bring me back or that I can't play," Daniels said, a few months after the Redskins gave him a one-year deal. "Look at me as a player and what I can do for the team. People say I can't rush the passer anymore. I'm going to prove that thought wrong too."

He pressured the quarterback on Thursday night and nearly intercepted a ball batted down by Andre Carter. Daniels was one of the last to leave the locker room at MT&T Bank Stadium.

There is a real optimism in his mind, about rookie Brian Orakpo, another weight-room disciple creating havoc in the other guy's backfield -- a player "who reminds me of myself coming up, a young me," Daniels said.

And there is optimism over adding a talent like Albert Haynesworth. "Hands-down, this is the best defensive line I've played on," he said. "Saying that, we have to prove it."

But the reason he cried before last week's preseason game, why all the emotions came out, was because Daniels incredibly did the work to step on that field and start, to end his career on his terms.

"I felt real emotional driving up on the bus, knowing that I'm back," he said. "All that I had went through, all the work I had put in."

When someone told him most people in this town didn't believe he would play again, he shrugged his shoulders.

"There were a lot of people in this country who didn't think I would play again," Daniels said. "The important thing was, I never felt that way."

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