Akron's Jeremiah Danielson isn't your typical backup offensive tackle. For one thing, he's 27 years old, making him the sixth oldest player in Division I-A. For another, he spent seven years after high school away from football.
When Akron meets Navy today at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Danielson will be facing a team he had once dreamed of playing for and a branch of the armed services he spent four years in as an enlisted man.
Part of his Navy tenure was spent as a member of the prestigious Presidential Honor Guard, during which time Danielson was a pallbearer at the funeral of former president Richard Nixon, met top government officials and even appeared in a movie starring Harrison Ford.
Such varied experience sets him apart in the eyes of his teammates.
"He's a grown man," said Zips quarterback Butchie Washington. "He's older and real mature, and everybody respects him. He's shown a lot of leadership."
Born and raised on the Pacific island chain of American Samoa, Danielson, one of seven children, moved with his family to Seattle at age 14. A highly touted lineman coming out of Seattle's Evergreen High School in 1990, he received several scholarship offers, including one from the University of Hawaii.
But in a move he now calls "the biggest mistake I ever made," he turned down all of them "because I was tired of school." Instead, he took a job as a furniture mover to help support his family. After three years, he enlisted in the Navy and was sent to boot camp in Great Lakes, Ill.
It was there that Danielson's life took a fortuitous turn.
One day, recruiters from the Presidential Honor Guard--a group of enlisted personnel from all branches of the service that participates in many traditional military ceremonies--came calling, and Danielson, along with many others, submitted his name for consideration.
After a series of interviews and background checks, Danielson was accepted and spent eight weeks training at the Anacostia Naval Station. There, the emphasis was less on combat and more on marching, caring for his uniform and, essentially, looking sharp in the public eye.
"I wasn't really used to that kind of stuff," he said. "I just basically did whatever they told me."
His first assignment was helping carry the casket at a funeral for an enlisted man in Washington. It was his first time serving as a pallbearer, and one he said he'll never forget.
"It was an experience," he said. "I was so nervous afterward that I was shaking."
Soon, though, he became a regular at funeral ceremonies. Six men carried the caskets, three on each side, and each had a specific assignment. As the most junior among them, Danielson started in the back. Once he mastered that position, however, he worked his way toward the front, until eventually he became the one leading the rest of the troop, directing the caskets and issuing commands.
He participated in Nixon's 1994 funeral and in ceremonies everywhere, from the White House to the Tomb of the Unknowns. In the process, he met such luminaries as former secretary of defense William Perry and the king of Morocco. His unit even appeared in Ford's movie "Clear and Present Danger."
It was fun. It was exciting. But all along he missed football.
In January 1997, he allowed his military contract to expire and enrolled at City College of San Francisco, a junior college that is a football powerhouse. Within months, he was suiting up for football for the first time in seven years, hoping to land a Division I scholarship and make amends for the decision he had made as a high school senior.
"I knew there was going to be an opportunity for me," he said. "I was going to earn a scholarship. I was way ahead of everybody as far as age, I had my priorities straight and I knew I was doing well on the field, as well."
During his sophomore year, Akron Coach Lee Owens heard about Danielson from City College Coach George Rush.
One day while showering after practice, Danielson was summoned to meet the Akron coach.
"I just came out with my towel on," he recalled. "I had never heard of Akron in my life. He told me it was a Division I school, and I told him I was interested."
Now, as a member of the Zips, he is three years older than any of his teammates. And he still has a year of eligibility remaining.
Many teammates look to him as a big brother, often seeking his advice with personal problems.
"He's pretty responsible being that he's older than about half the guys on our coaching staff let alone all the players," Owens said.
The 6-foot-2, 270-pound junior usually plays in every third series for the 5-2 Zips of the Mid-American Conference, who have won three in a row. He backs up a fifth-year senior at offensive tackle. Next season, the starting job is his for the taking, according to Owens.
"Whenever I get the chance, I just want to prove to them that I can handle the job," Danielson said. "I want to show them that I can play. It's the opportunity I've been waiting for."
CAPTION: Jeremiah Danielson's football career took a seven-year detour that included time spent moving furniture, carrying caskets and appearing in a major film.