The State – Jan 7, 2007 – Kent Babb – One mistake is all it took to send Tony McDaniel’s life and football career into a tailspin. Now the former Keenan High standout is seeking forgiveness, and a way to silence the whispers ruining his life – JACKSONVILLE, Fla.- Tony McDaniel closes his eyes and opens his ears. His headphones are on, and the rap CD is blaring.
He cannot hear the whispers.
McDaniel, a reserve defensive tackle for the Jacksonville Jaguars, takes 20 minutes before each game to prepare his mind for competition. Sometimes, he visualizes running through the Alltel Stadium tunnel and onto the field. Other times, he imagines an offensive guard underestimating McDaniel’s speed, trying to compensate … and making a mistake. It clears the way for the 6-foot-7, 295-pound Columbia resident to do what he does best: Get the quarterback and pound him into the turf.
McDaniel’s pregame routine is a time he has come to love, and depend on, for emotional balance.
“Your body feels warm, and you feel real excited, like you want to jump around or something,” he says. “Your body feels all loose. That’s how I know when I’m ready. I start sweating. I sweat real easy. I know I’m really loose then. It’s a great feeling. It’s like some type of high or something.”
When McDaniel is here, there are few interruptions. When the headphones come off, anything can happen and the same things will be said, the same words – thug, criminal, dangerous – used to describe him.
McDaniel is known less for his football career and more for a mistake in January 2005 that nearly cost him everything. McDaniel lost his temper during a pickup basketball game at the University of Tennessee and delivered a devastating punch to a student nearly half his size, breaking four bones in the man’s face. The victim, DeShaun Goodrich, was knocked unconscious; the injury required facial surgery, and parts of Goodrich’s face remain numb.
McDaniel was suspended the first two games of the 2005 season, and Goodrich’s $800,000 lawsuit forced McDaniel to enter the ’06 NFL Draft – despite starting just one game in three seasons at Tennessee.
McDaniel has spent the past two years trying to overcome his mistake. And it is one that has compelled bystanders to talk and solidify McDaniel’s bad reputation. When the whispers get too loud, McDaniel turns up the volume on his CD player and tries to squeeze back into his comfort zone.
He does not understand why one mistake – one he has apologized for, both in person and in a handwritten letter to Goodrich – earned him such a reputation. It is a flaw that caused NFL teams to pass on McDaniel because the stain of violence was too deep to ignore.
Worse, McDaniel does not understand why, after spending the first 19 years of his life avoiding trouble, he allowed himself to lose control.
Then again, he has spent most of his life as a football player. McDaniel learned at Keenan High and at Tennessee that the best defensive linemen ignore thought and method and instead surrender their bodies to impulse. Don’t think, coaches told him. Let your body act on its own.
He did. And McDaniel, who has spent his life creating collisions and violence and harnessing their side effects, allowed his body to act before his mind could stop it. And because it spilled over outside the arena, he continues to pay.
When the headphones are on, McDaniel tells himself what few others will: He is not the violent man his reputation would suggest.
Before we can understand McDaniel, perhaps we should examine his environment. Before thoughts became whispers and whispers became jabs, communication came in the form of men in uniform barking orders at other men in uniform.
The coach-player relationship, at least during their time together on a team, is one-dimensional. A coach’s job description is to disregard feelings and tell players what to do. The players are foot soldiers; if they question orders or, worse, disobey them, there will be consequences.
Coaches understand their positions, but some admit it is difficult to stay in character. They offset the unusual dynamic by blending their at-home families with their football families. In the case of Tennessee defensive line coach Dan Brooks, he often invites Volunteers linemen to his home for meals. It is a way to both encourage communication and bond players and coaches off the field.
Brooks admits the invitations also are designed to fill “dead hours” in between practices, classes and meetings – time players might otherwise spend in front of televisions, wandering around campus or staggering into troublesome situations.
It was during a dead time that McDaniel found his way into trouble on Jan. 12, 2005. Several days after Tennessee’s 38-7 win against Texas A&M at the Cotton Bowl, players returned to campus several days before classes began. McDaniel had little to do, so he agreed to play basketball with teammates at the Tennessee Recreational (T-Rec) Complex around 6 p.m. DeShaun Goodrich, who played pickup games often, joined the game.
About 90 minutes later, several of McDaniel’s football teammates watched as the 297-pounder drove toward the basket, lost his footing and fell to the hardwood. He got up and saw Goodrich’s face first.
“He acted like he tried to do it,” McDaniel says, referring to his theory that Goodrich tripped him. “I jumped up, and I seen he was still there. The first thing that came into my head was hit – hit him.”
The next day, McDaniel told Brooks what had happened. McDaniel was hopeful, but Brooks was devastated. The 30-year coaching veteran had seen it before: A player makes a mistake, and coaches must make an example of him and, indirectly, put his future in doubt. It is something they never could do to their own families, and it underscores what the player-coach dynamic is at its core. It also was a decision that remains a sore subject for Brooks.
“They’re not a number. I grew up on a farm; they’re not brutes,” Brooks says. “They’re young men, and they come here (to college) very much as adolescents. As much as they don’t like to admit that, you realize that it’s a fact of life. In order to have sanity as a parent or a coach, you have to be able to deal with different things. Life goes on. You have to be able to put it in perspective and realize that none of us is perfect.”
So, what went on inside McDaniel’s mind during the split second after his body hit the hardwood and before his fist connected with Goodrich’s face? If it was not, as McDaniel maintains, deeply rooted anger and the manifestation of a violent temperament, what was it?
Could it have been football?
Dr. John Murray, a sports psychologist based in Palm Beach, Fla., said McDaniel’s moment of misbehavior was similar, physiologically speaking, to what happens when a player reacts to a snapped football.
One thing triggers the behavior – in this case the foul McDaniel sustained – and the brain, having been trained to react to similar triggers, reacts. Murray said that, particularly among defensive players, who often are graded on a quick first step and their instincts, learning to leave violence between the sidelines is an underrated challenge.
“Violence and aggression are taught from Day 1,” Murray says. “You’ve got to want to punish your opponent. How you turn it off is the big question.
“I don’t think we should be surprised at this.”
Murray said McDaniel’s football training has taught his brain to ignore inhibition as it pertains to explosive reactions. Defensive linemen have less than five seconds to get to the quarterback before he releases the ball; there is little time to think about a succession of actions. Instead, the best linemen react, deliver a blow and ignore potential consequences.
Ask McDaniel about the feeling that came over him before he punched Goodrich. It was similar, he said without prompt of Murray’s theory, to delivering the perfect tackle. But unlike a clean hit during a football game, the punch had devastating penalties.
“As soon as I hit him,” McDaniel says, “I was like, ‘Man …’ After that, everybody was like, ‘You should leave, you should leave.’ Everybody made me leave and go home. That’s all I remember.”
Former NBA player Kermit Washington has dealt with the same consequences in the 29 years since he delivered his own devastating punch to an opponent during a game.
Washington swung at Houston Rockets forward Rudy Tomjanovich and caught him by surprise; the blow fractured Tomjanovich’s jaw and skull. Doctors said the injuries were life threatening.
Tomjanovich, who went on to become a successful NBA coach, recovered. Washington, however, continues to deal with the lingering effects of his mistake.
“All of a sudden, I was ostracized, and I can understand that,” Washington told USA Today in 2002. “People hated me, which I understood. They really hated me. You could sense that. Their eyes were looking at you like, ‘I’d like to kill you.’
“But I understood that. I dealt myself a certain hand. I had to live with that hand. I couldn’t turn it in.”
Washington, whose NBA career declined after the incident, has been unsuccessful in business and in pursuing a coaching position. No general managers or athletics directors seem willing to take a chance on Washington and incite a PR backlash. Aside from one season as an assistant coach in the NBA’s developmental league, Washington’s ambition has been overshadowed by his punch, which was the subject of a 2002 book.
The State left messages with a spokesman for Washington, who now runs a charity organization, requesting that he explain how McDaniel might learn from his mistakes. Perhaps he could advise McDaniel how to begin scrubbing the stain that already has slammed doors in McDaniel’s face – the same doors Washington has been trying to break through for nearly 30 years.
Washington did not return the calls. Perhaps 29 years of whispers has crushed him. Perhaps they were enough to have Washington close his ears and seal his lips on the subject once and for all.
Take a look. Everyone else has. A surveillance video at Tennessee’s T-Rec Building recorded Tony McDaniel’s pickup basketball game on that January night and turned it into a marquee attraction.
In the months after the incident, the video reached the Internet and was posted on message boards as both a disturbing piece of visual evidence and an even more disagreeable piece of grotesque humor.
The video did two things: It gave Goodrich a solid piece of evidence for his lawsuit, and it allowed McDaniel to prove what really happened.
“A lot of people ask me, like, don’t I wish there wasn’t a tape?” McDaniel says. “In a way, I’m kind of glad there was a tape. When they (lawyers) were telling it, they made it seem like I was a monster, and I just go around hitting people for no reason.
“I’m the biggest, strongest, most athletic guy on the court. There was a lot of trash talking, a lot of fouling, like, personal fouling against me. What I wish I would’ve done was stop playing. Then, on the tape, right before that play – it even shows on the tape where I start talking loud and saying, ‘The next person (who) fouls me, I am going to hit him.’ Then, they gave me the ball right back. Like, daring me, almost.”
What follows is a blur of grainy footage and a cluster of bodies. McDaniel took the ball at the right wing and dribbled four times before charging past a defender and toward the basket. Before he could attempt a layup, McDaniel tripped and fell; he sprang to his feet, saw Goodrich and delivered a hard punch with his right hand that sent Goodrich sprawling to the hardwood.
The other players – most of whom were McDaniel’s football teammates – scattered within seconds. McDaniel stood over the fallen Goodrich for a moment and walked in one direction before turning to walk a different way.
A police report stated Goodrich lay unconscious for several seconds but was awake when an ambulance arrived. A friend drove him to a hospital where X-rays revealed four broken bones in his face.
The subject of the surveillance video began a series of ripples through the lives of Goodrich and McDaniel, who was charged with felony aggravated assault. McDaniel later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and was sentenced to supervised probation.
“I know for sure, if he could take that punch back – not now but when he first did it – he would take it back and then some,” says Walter McDaniel, the football player’s father. “I can hear it in his voice.”
Goodrich sued McDaniel last January, asking for $800,000 in restitution. The suit, which is pending, could be the latest in a long list of checks McDaniel’s family has written on behalf of Tony during the past two years.
Walter McDaniel, who is one of 21 children, asked family members to contribute what they could to help offset his son’s legal fees. Walter contributed his entire $5,000 tax refund, and he plans to give this year’s refund to the fund.
The most difficult thing for the family, however, has been the talk that McDaniel’s reputation is permanently soiled – and has no possibility of parole.
“You make mistakes. You pay for them,” Walter McDaniel says. “He continually has to pay for that mistake. He’s making something out of himself. They haven’t had anything else bad to say about him, so they keep saying this.”
In the NFL, image is not everything, but it accounts for plenty. The specter of a violent past is not something most general managers will ignore.
McDaniel announced last January that he would skip his senior season at Tennessee and enter the NFL Draft. It was the only way McDaniel knew to raise anywhere near the $800,000 Goodrich sought – even though family members and coaches pleaded with him to remain in school.
Last April, McDaniel and two friends, Jamal Hayes and Chris Lindsay, gathered at Walter McDaniel’s home and waited for McDaniel’s name to be called. Officials from several teams called McDaniel’s cell phone, telling him they planned to draft him in the late rounds.
When those teams’ picks came, McDaniel and his friends pointed cell-phone cameras toward the television and prepared to click the shutter when Tony’s name flashed on the screen. They waited for two days and seven rounds. They never got their photograph.
Jacksonville Jaguars player personnel director James Harris said last month that, considering McDaniel’s size and potential, the only plausible reason he was not drafted was because of the incident during the basketball game.
Hayes, who grew up with McDaniel in Hartsville, says that should not have been enough to overlook his friend.
“That one punch changed everything,” says Hayes, who plays receiver at USC. “Everybody we’re cool with, they’ve either got a criminal record, they’re in jail or dead. It’s one of those three. For Tony not to get his chance (in the draft) after all we’ve been through, that’s just a shame, man.”
Shortly after the draft, though, McDaniel’s phone rang. It rang again and again. Teams wanted him. About 10 NFL teams, McDaniel says, offered free-agent contracts. Less than an hour after the Oakland Raiders took Maine wideout Kevin McMahan with the final pick of the draft, McDaniel agreed to a free-agent deal with the Jaguars worth $275,000, the league minimum.
The previous two days had been exhausting. McDaniel and his friends left a relative’s home in Hartsville and went to the drag strip at Darlington International Speedway. The racecars’ loud motors were soothing to McDaniel’s restless mind. For the first time in days, he could not hear his cell phone. The whispers had no chance.
There is someone else who wants to speak, of course. Only, he does not know if he should – or what he should say.
He speaks in a timid voice, barely louder than a whisper.
“I don’t know if I should say anything,” he says. “You know, the case and all.”
It is DeShaun Goodrich, the man who suffered most from a hard right jab and the talk that came with it. Goodrich was a reserve basketball player at Columbia (Tenn.) State Community College before he transferred to Tennessee. It was at Columbia State that he learned to be a defensive specialist who played when coach Rod Connors needed a smart player with no fear – and one willing to sacrifice his body for the team.
It was Goodrich’s experience that attracted him to games with Tennessee football players, men larger and stronger than the 185-pound Goodrich. He wanted competition, and those games offered it.
Goodrich had enough, though, on the evening of Jan. 12, 2005. He was tired, and he wanted to go back to his apartment for a quick shower before heading to Thompson Arena to watch the Volunteers basketball team play Mississippi State. Goodrich looked at the clock and saw it was 7 p.m.; he had time for one more game.
Twenty-nine minutes later, Goodrich was on the floor with no one around him. His teammates had fled, and he had suffered fractures to his left orbital bone and jaw.
Goodrich admits the game was intense, but he denies fouling McDaniel. He says his face was the first target McDaniel saw.
“It really could’ve been anybody,” says Goodrich, who did not guard McDaniel. “I was just going for a rebound. That’s my side of the story. I didn’t think I made any contact.”
Goodrich, who needed surgery to have a metal plate inserted to hold his jaw in place, says he still feels numbness in his left cheek. But it was the mental agony that has hurt most; he says Tennessee fans ridiculed him after McDaniel was suspended. Goodrich says he still plays pickup basketball, but he first watches to gauge the game’s intensity. If there is too much trash talk and fouling, Goodrich cannot bring himself to play.
He already has constant reminders of what happened two years ago.
“Any time anything happens at UT, they always revert back to that,” Goodrich says. “I understand how the world is. But when you get asked about that, day after day, it wears on you. That’s really all I can say about it right now.”
Two years after McDaniel punched Goodrich, the reverberations of the incident remain. McDaniel’s career, which took an upturn when he signed with the Jaguars, remains unstable.
When the Jaguars lost to the Kansas City Chiefs this past week, Jacksonville was eliminated from playoff contention; that left McDaniel with an offseason to think about another training camp in which he must again prove himself. Such is life for free-agent signees – particularly those who register 16 tackles as a rookie and do not play in the team’s final seven games. McDaniel knows he is replaceable, and one mistake during the dead hours of the offseason could be enough to bury his career. He will return to Columbia, where he must avoid trouble at all costs.
Goodrich, now 28, admits he does not trust people as he once did. He works in retail sales and lives with his parents in Lewisburg, Tenn. Goodrich says he has considered dropping the lawsuit, but he thinks McDaniel’s punch has not elicited “any punishment at all” and plans to see the suit through.
McDaniel says he has tried to make peace, and he is confused why Goodrich does not acknowledge his apologies. Goodrich says he is “willing to talk to anybody,” but lawyers have encouraged him to keep quiet.
McDaniel says he wrote a letter to Goodrich this past year. He was sorry, McDaniel says he wrote, for all the trouble he caused Goodrich. After McDaniel put down the pen and sealed the envelope, he took a deep breath. He felt refreshed, as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
“After I did it, I wished I could give him anything,” he says. “I wanted to be his friend after that; I wanted to show him that it wasn’t me. I felt good about doing it because I felt like I was doing something right, something that God wanted me to do.”
McDaniel maintains he is not a violent man. Goodrich even admits he does not believe McDaniel is a bad person; he simply made a mistake – but it is one he must pay for.
It is a mistake McDaniel might spend the rest of his life paying for. The stain he carries is deep and dark, and the whispers that follow make it difficult for McDaniel to live his life without the assistance of headphones.
“He has been good. That’s the thing I want to add to this,” Jaguars player personnel director Harris said. “He hasn’t had any problems here. He has come to work. He did a good job in the preseason; he made the team. He has been good since he has been here. He has represented the state of South Carolina well. We can just stop having the conversations about it. We can stop talking about it now. Let’s just judge him on how he goes forward. Then, we can all go forward.”
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.