Leader Blues

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

SPORTS >>Tank’s latest dream-come-true

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

No one has had more pinch-me moments over the past year and a half than Tank Daniels. And each one seems to require a little firmer pinch.

From earning a spot on the Philadelphia Eagles to recording four tackles — two for losses — in the Hall of Fame Game in his first NFL action; to making a tackle the very first time he set foot on the field in a regular-season game, the former Harding University All-America linebacker has lived one dream after another.

But even had the 245–pound Clarendon native begun to take his fortunes for granted — which he certainly has not — he could never have imagined the latest euphoric twist. The former Eagle-turned-New-York-Giant is heading to the Super Bowl.

What’s next? An MVP award in Sunday’s game and a trip to Disneyland?

Probably not. Daniels, after all, is a special teams player, one who has parlayed his talent and dedication to a dream into one improbable and thrilling ride.

“I’m embracing it all,” said Daniels, whose voice still exudes a boyish, wonder-of-it-all enthusiasm. “It’s kind of crazy when you think about it. God has blessed me and my family so much. God has a purpose for all of us.”

Daniels was questioning that purpose a bit after being cut from the Eagles’ roster in August just before the regular season began. This, after a rookie season in which Daniels became a fixture on the Eagles’ special teams and a coaches’ favorite because of his attitude and work ethic.

A couple of tryouts with Dallas and Tampa Bay came up empty, despite the praise he received from both clubs.

“Not making that final cut with the Eagles, my world was kind of tossed up in the air,” said Daniels, whose wife and two young children still live in the Philadelphia area, about an hour-and-a-half from the Meadowlands where the Giants play. “I thought, ‘What’s going on? Will I ever play again?’

“Then I get workouts with Dallas and Tampa Bay and things were going well. It’s tough when teams say they like you but it’s just bad timing. That they don’t have a roster spot for you.”

It turns out that Daniels’ old linebackers coach with the Eagles, Steve Spagnolo, had gone to the Giants as a defensive coordinator and gave Daniels a call. Spagnolo told Daniels that, while the Giants didn’t have a roster spot for him, they could sign him to the practice squad.

“He told me, ‘I know you’ll work your tail off and you’ll work yourself on to the team,’” Daniels said.

Spagnolo had been a big fan of Daniels at Philly precisely because of Daniels’ work ethic — the same one that still has his former Harding coaches shaking their heads and gushing with admiration.

“We are all so excited for Tank and his family,” said Harding head coach Ronnie Huckeba, who coached Daniels from 2002-05. “He has just worked so hard. The thing about Tank is he was a kid from Clarendon, Arkansas, who was really an unknown as far as being a college football player.

“He was talented, but honestly, a lot of his success has come from his desire to be a great player. He was a great weight room guy, a great summer guy as far as preparation for the season. He had such a strong desire to improve.”

Daniels said that, while he thinks he probably would have landed with another team eventually, it sure didn’t hurt to have Spagnolo’s influence.

“It helps to have a defensive coordinator in your corner,” Daniels said. “He has been a great inspiration to me and I love being around him. I love everything he stands for. Every week, we’d hug after each victory and he’d tell me he was so glad to have me here.

“That works both ways. I appreciate that he thought enough about me to have me here. Coach Spagnolo is the hardest worker I know. I want to be more like him.”

Daniels was finally activated to the 53-man roster on Nov. 27 when running back Patrick Pass was cut.

The run with the Giants this season has shown remarkable parallels to the Eagles’ run last season. Both teams were all but written off before late-season surges propelled them into the playoffs.

The parallel ended when the Giants beat Dallas to reach the NFC championship game. Last year, the Eagles lost to New Orleans in the second round of the playoffs after beating, ironically, the Giants in the wild card game.

In that game, Daniels drew the kind of attention no rookie wants: He was called for a block in the back that negated Brian Westbrook’s punt return for a touchdown. This season, Daniels went from potential goat to potential hero when he forced a fumble on the opening kickoff of the second half of the wild card game against Tampa Bay. That set up a Lawrence Tines field goal that extended the Giants’ lead to 10 on their way to a 24-14 win.

“Everybody wants to make the big play like that,” Daniels said. “That was huge because that could have been a make-or-break play. At halftime, the coaches were telling us we needed to go out and make a big play. By no stretch of the imagination did I think I would go out there and do that.”

Daniels, who embraced the Church of Christ faith while at Harding, figures there might have been more at work on that play. Dr. J.D. Yingling, Daniels’ swimming coach at Harding, told Daniels after the game that he had said a prayer at halftime that Tank would make a big play.

“I heard that and I thought, whoa, that’s just unreal to me,” Daniels said. “If that doesn’t do something to you spiritually, I don’t know.”

Daniels said he noticed that Buccaneer return man Michael Spurlock was carrying the ball a little loosely and saw that he had the angle on him.

“That felt so great,” Daniels said. “That is the biggest play by far in my NFL career. It felt awesome. I had my chest poked out a little bit after that.”

While Daniels still occasionally is overcome with the wonder of it all — he was driving in New York City recently and asked himself, “Whoa, what am I doing here? I’m from Searcy, I’m from Clarendon” — the stars leave his eyes when he talks about the Giants’ doubters and naysayers.

“Here I am making a run with these guys — Michael Strahan and Plaxico Burress and all those guys — and every week all the commentators on FOX and ESPN are picking people over us,” he said. “They’re saying there’s no way the Giants can win. I just love being part of coming together as a team when no one else has any faith in you.”

Daniels says no outcome in the Super Bowl can detract from the experience, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think the Giants can beat 18-0 New England, especially after New York nearly ended the Patriots’ perfect season in week 17. The Giants led by two scores before falling 38-35.

“Definitely, we can win,” he says. “We’re all paid to play and anyone in the NFL can beat anyone else. By no means are we intimidated. We’re going to go out there and embrace it.

“Talking with the older vets, they say when you get your opportunities, you have to give it all you got. I want to hold that Lombardi trophy, to be part of all that history.”

Daniels, who signed a three-year deal with the Giants, says his future remains uncertain. He says he’ll do all he knows to do: return to camp next season and “fight my tail off to make a roster spot.

“I feel like I’ve learned more and I know more and I’m better equipped,” he said. “I don’t take anything for granted. Shuffling players around is part of the business. I don’t necessarily like that. But I’m just going to continue to live the dream of being an NFL athlete and providing for my family.”

Huckeba said there are watch parties being planned around Harding.

“We’re obviously all interested,” he said. “Tank’s the main reason I’m watching it. Everyone fell in love with Tank from day one here because of his personality and the smile he always had on his face.

“He’s such a positive person. And he made it clear to me really quickly that he not only wanted to improve as a football player, but as a person. He wanted to get his priorities right. It was a real blessing for us to have him at Harding. I’d really love to see him get that ring.”