Athletes are creatures of habit, and Mike Daniels, the Pro Bowl defensive tackle for the Green Bay Packers, is no different. During the NFL season, he preps before any given Sunday with a very specific routine: walkthrough, team meetings, dinner, and watching anime.
"Anime is part of the process," Daniels says. "My favorite thing is we play on Sundays, and Saturdays are Toonami. I get to watch some of the best series I've seen in recent times. JoJo's Bizarre Adventures, it took a long time for that to get animated because the old-school animation wouldn't have the glorious nature of JoJo justice. Watching shows like that and Super Kia, Black Clover, Attack on Titan, being able to watch some anime the night before the game definitely helps relax me."
Daniels is a lifelong fan who had his interest piqued as a kid when he watched Pokémon and Sailor Moon, then got hooked when he laid eyes on Dragon Ball Z — especially once he got pirated episodes from Japan from the dude behind the counter at his local comic book shop in Voorhees, New Jersey. But as the 28-year-old star tells The Fandom Files, he is far from the league's only otaku. When he presented on stage at Crunchyroll's Anime Awards earlier this month, he got jealous DMs from players across the league, wondering how he got on stage with their favorite voice actors and creatives.
Listen to Mike Daniels talk about anime:
As Daniels describes it, NFL locker rooms are now filled with guys who grew up rooting on Vegeta and getting hooked on other long-running Japanese imports; you could put together a Pro Bowl-caliber roster with athletes who have Crunchyroll subscriptions.
"I know Geno Atkins is a big anime fan, Cameron Jordan, Larry Warford, my boy Adam Gettis is a big anime fan," Daniels says, just beginning to rattle off some of the guys who would have opinions on the great dubs vs. subs debate. "I know Gerald McCoy watches some anime. Kevin Zeitler, who plays for the Browns, he watches quite a bit of anime. I know Dez Bryant is a big Dragon Ball fan, and Nick Perry, one of my teammates, is a really big anime fan. Me, Eddie Lacy, and Chris Banjo — they play on two different teams now — we all went to see Battle of Gods when it came out in the theaters."
In fact, the genre has gotten so popular among NFL athletes, the New England Patriots — seen as a monolith of no-bullsh** professional killers by football fans and America at large — have their own internal anime club. It's run by Lawrence Guy, a defensive end who, no surprise, played with Daniels during the 2011-12 season. Other players trade hyped messages on Twitter and text about new episodes of their favorite shows, creating a sort of backchannel network for pro athletes to discuss the latest adventures of animated Japanese warriors.
Daniels admits that it may seem incongruous, a legion of "big tough football players," as he says, obsessing over a cartoon genre that's generally been associated with… well, not big tough football players. But there's a bit of irony there, given the actual subject matter of the shows, and how athletes connect with them.
"A lot of Shonen Jump anime, you see a lot of battles, a lot of aggression, and it's very relatable to players," he explains. "There's a hero, and he has to go through a lot of rough training, put his body through the unthinkable so that he can save the world or do his task. His or her challenge is saving the world, our challenge is winning the game. Different stakes, but nonetheless we understand, ‘I need to get ready for this big deal going on in front of me.'"
Plus, it really should come as no surprise that anime fandom has become so ingrained among NFL players, given the pure demographics. This is a league that thrives on youth, and the average age of players on NFL rosters last fall was 26.6 years old. That puts their childhoods firmly in the post-Pokémon and Dragon Ball era, when Cartoon Network began running its block of imported cartoons. When you're in grade school, being a pro athlete is way more of a fantasy than coming home to watch some cartoon heroes kick ass on a daily basis.
A whole generation of young kids, unbiased by perceptions of what's cool or what they'd do for a living, got hooked on the genre, and long before they developed into pro athletes. That's how NBA forward Johnny O'Bryant got obsessed, and now he moonlights as the owner and creative head of his own manga and anime production company.
Granted, few are quite as devoted as O'Bryant and Daniels. The NFL star does more than binge-watch and hype up new series in the locker room. He went in full Naruto cosplay to San Diego Comic-Con last summer — it was both a personal thrill and a message to geeky kids that they're not alone — and rattles off his favorite series like someone else might name their children: Hunter X Hunter, Fist of the Blue Sky, My Hero Academia, Sword Art Online, and many more. Daniels lights up when talking about meeting voice actors like Caitlin Glass and Christopher Sabat, and suggests he'd like to get into the anime field when his playing days are over.
Until then, he's going to continue to bring anime to the playing field. If he scores a touchdown this season, Naruto fans can expect a significant nod that'll confuse literally everyone else. His teammates, of course, will definitely understand it.
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