No. 100: Randall McDaniel

An image comes to mind whenever I think of Randall McDaniel, an image that always makes me smile. From 1995 to 1999, the Minnesota Vikings played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 10 times. That meant that on 10 different occasions, McDaniel — as the Vikings left guard — went up against one of the all-time great defensive tackles, Tampa Bay’s Warren Sapp.

Here’s the thing about Sapp: He wasn’t just a freakish combination of size and quickness. He was a talker. He was an instigator. He was an irritator. Sapp was not like other defensive tackles who exist to take up two or three blockers and set up their linebackers and defensive backs to make the plays and get all the glory. No, Sapp was a rare thing, a big-play tackle. He played to get by you and get to the quarterback, get to the running back, change the game.

And he would do anything — or, more directly, say anything — to make that happen. He would talk all game long, throw out insults, faint praise, non-sequiturs, anything at all to get into the heads of the people trying to block him. Most offensive linemen barked back at Sapp, and he loved that because it meant that he was setting up a chair and umbrella on the beach in their heads. Some offensive linemen would pretend to ignore Sapp, and he loved that too because he could see on their faces that they were just pretending.

But Randall McDaniel — he was different. He never said a word. He never showed the slightest sign of irritation or frustration. On the rare occasions that Sapp beat him, McDaniel would go back to the huddle, step back to the line, and act like nothing happened.

‘All day!” Sapp would remind him.

“You’re getting old, my man,” Sapp would taunt him.

“You can’t block me,” Sapp would tell him.

And McDaniel acted as if he didn’t exist. And on the next play and the next and the next …

“Randall McDaniel,” Sapp would say. “would just block the mess out of you.”

Randall McDaniel was a sprinter at Agra Fria High School in Avondale, Ariz.; he reached the state final by running a 10.64 hundred-meter dash, making him almost unquestionably the fastest future NFL offensive lineman ever. He might have won that state final too, except that — and this is true — he came out of his shoes on the start.

How does a sprinter come out of his shoes? Well, McDaniel was so big even then that none of the sprinting cleats fit him. So the coaches had to “modifty” those cleats, and by that, I simply mean they cut into the shoes with a knife to give McDaniel’s feet more room.

He was just a remarkable athlete. That part never changed. He played tight end on the high school football team and averaged 28 yards per catch. He did basically everything in track — 100 meters, 400 meters, threw the shot put, whatever was needed. He went to Arizona State as a tight end and might have become a great one, but he saw an opening to play right away and make a real impact as an offensive lineman.

So he naturally put on 50 pounds and became an All-America guard.

I use the word “naturally” there to leave no doubt; in addition to his otherworldly offensive line play at Arizona State, he was twice champion in the 275-pound division of the American Drug-Free Powerlifting Association.

The Minnesota Vikings took him in the first round of the 1988 draft, and from the start, McDaniel was about as fast as the team’s running backs. On film, it is still electrifying to see Terry Allen or Robert Smith get the ball, and then try to keep up with McDaniel on the sweep.

McDaniel also had extraordinarily strong hands … which he used liberally. No great offensive lineman got called for holding as much as he did. This was just part of the Randall McDaniel package. Sometimes referees wrongly called him for holding simply because they could not believe how easily he maneuvered defensive linemen with those powerful hands.

And sometimes, yeah, the referees got it right.

“I admit it,” he told Minnesota columnist Jim Souhan after he was elected to the Hall of Fame. “I held.”

All of it — his speed, his hands, his athletic brilliance — made McDaniel great, but what made him special and unique and one of the greatest players in NFL history was the equanimity and joy with which he played with every single game. People always said he was too small at 275. People always said he couldn’t hold up to the constant pounding. People were wrong. “I’m just a big kid out there playing this kid’s game,” he used to say, and he played like a big kid.

Remember that glorious and weird stance of his? It was a wild thing the way he would stick his left leg out there, and turn it so his ankle was basically on the ground. He would drop his butt way too low. It did not seem possible for him to get out of that stance fast enough to block the greatest defensive tackles in the game.

“Worst stance of anybody that ever played offensive guard in pro football,” his old college coach John Cooper would tell the South Bend Tribune. “He didn’t do anything right in his stance.”

Do you know how that stance started? It was 1989, McDaniel’s second season with the Vikings, and after a play in Pittsburgh, a teammate rolled up on McDaniel’s knee. McDaniel had to come out of the game, and doctors said he would miss a month, at least. But after missing two games, McDaniel felt good enough to dress for the game in Green Bay. He still had this giant knee brace on, and he wasn’t supposed to play, but his replacement was having a miserable game and the coaches sent him in.

He couldn’t really set up right with that knee brace. He already had a less-than-textbook stance, but now he pushed that left leg straight out and turned it inward … and it immediately befuddled the defensive lineman he was blocking. “I have no clue if you’re pulling, passing, coming at me,” the lineman said, and McDaniel thought, “Huh, he probably shouldn’t have told me that.”

The Vikings won big, Herschel Walker ran for 148 yards, quarterback Tommy Kramer was sacked just once, and McDaniel had his trademark stance.

He then started 202 consecutive games.

McDaniel tells a story from his childhood — when he was eight years old, he ran away from a fight. When he got home, his father Robert handed him a baseball bat and sent him back.

“If you run once,” Robert told his son, “they’re gonna be after you all the time.”

Now, you will have a reaction to that advice. But it’s fair to say that it hardened Randall in a way that allowed him to push through his tough environment. The family moved around a lot as his parents tried to make ends meet. He remembers going with his mother to food drives so they could have something for dinner — a memory that has inspired him to dedicate much of his time to help combat hunger. He saw many friends go down bad paths. “Nobody on my side of town made it out,” he would say sadly.

But nobody messed with him. He wouldn’t stand for that. He didn’t just try to avoid trouble; he took a baseball bat to trouble. He told columnist Dan Barreiro something incredible: When people on the bus would offer McDaniel drugs, he would take what they offered and immediately — right in front of them — throw the drugs out the window.

“Do that today,” he said, “and somebody pulls a gun.”

The point is that he fearlessly went after the life he wanted. You often hear about people who grow up surrounded by gangs and violence and temptations and yet overcome, but I’m not sure we hear enough about the strength and fortitude and confidence it takes to overcome. McDaniel — picking up from the strength of his parents and his high school athletic director O.K. Fulton — seemed to know exactly what he wanted, and he was not going to let anything stop him.

That’s the way he played football too. There are no compelling statistics we can see when it comes to a pulling guard, but I can tell you that Vikings’ backs had five 1,000-yard rushing seasons in McDaniels’s career, mostly backs just trying to keep up with him. The 1998 Vikings put up some of the greatest offensive numbers in NFL history with McDaniel as the anchor of the team — that was when 35-year-old quarterback Randall Cunningham came out of nowhere to have by far his best season. McDaniels’s teammates worshiped him.

And he was so incredibly athletic that later in his career, the Vikings and Buccaneers would use him as a fullback — he got a couple of carries in 1996 and he caught a touchdown pass in 2000.

“He epitomizes greatness,” Hall of Fame tackle Gary Zimmerman says.

“The ultimate professional,” Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter says.

“A great player,” Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy says. “A better person.”

On the day that McDaniel retired, that very day, he got licensed to work as an educational assistant. And that’s what he still does now in Minneapolis — he works as an educational assistant. He has spent his post-football life working with kids who, like himself, need a strong voice.

“I love seeing the lightbulb moment with kids in the classroom,” he says. “That moment when they figure something out, when they really understand something for the first time. Their eyes light up. It’s really special.”

There are not many important positions in professional sports as anonymous as offensive guard — heck, let’s just say it, there aren’t ANY positions in professional sports as anonymous as offensive guard. Some of the greatest football players who ever lived went almost entirely unacknowledged as offensive guards. It takes a special sort of mindset to thrive in that world, where you rarely get praise and barely get noticed and even your fans don’t know exactly what it is you do.

That’s why I love that image of Warren Sapp trying to get into Randall McDaniel’s head, and McDaniel just silently blocking the mess out of him and everyone else. He just didn’t need any of the other stuff. Randall McDaniel knew who he was.