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Lions' Daniels puts experience to use as player, coach

The Brookstone middle-school football players don’t want to know about their assistant coach’s state title. They don’t quiz him about his time playing at West Georgia. And they don’t ask what it’s like to earn a paycheck playing football for the Columbus Lions.

They just have just one question for Damian Daniels.

“Every kid I coach asks me if I’ve ever flipped someone over the wall,” the Lions defensive back said. “That’s the one thing everyone wants to know.”

It’s a simple question that may be key to a successful coaching career for Daniels.

“Think about what playing (for the Lions) does for Damian,” Brookstone varsity head coach Blair Harrison said. “They respect him because he’s actually playing. You can’t have a guy just roll in and start coaching. Kids are smart and they know who you are. They give him their respect faster because of that.”

Daniels spent last season as the middle-school team’s defensive coordinator and as a special teams assistant for the varsity squad. He helped lead the Cougars’ middle school team to its league championship game and the varsity team rolled to an undefeated regular season before falling in the second round of the Class A state playoffs.

Harrison served as a defensive backs coach for the now-defunct Columbus Vipers where Daniels first played after returning from a year at the University of West Georgia. The Lions replaced the Vipers in 2007 after only a season, and Daniels kept a roster spot in Columbus with the new organization.

Then Harrison called up Daniels and asked him if he would like to study under him again, this time as a coach. He jumped at the offer.

Next season Daniels will leave his role with the middle school team to focus on assisting Brian McCluskey coach Brookstone’s defensive backs. It’s unlikely it will be his last promotion as a coach, Harrison said.

“I think Damian sees a light at the end of the tunnel,” Harrison said. “He would not be successful as a coach if he didn’t. He looks at it and I think he sees this is what he’d like to do. And I’m sure one day he’ll get a chance to coach his own team and I’m sure he’ll succeed.”

Prep for success

Many cities get fired up for Fridays in the fall, but few do it with the intensity of Columbus, according to Daniels.

“Playing here was kind of like ‘Friday Night Lights,’ ” Daniels said. “Maybe it’s not as big as out in Texas, but it’s big here. The atmosphere was so great and it was always a lot of fun to play in front of everyone.”

And even fewer cities see a team as successful as Shaw was during Daniels’ four seasons. The boost the team got from fans was a part of its success and something Daniels said influenced his decision to give back to the prep-football community in Columbus by coaching.

“We always had big crowds and a lot of support from the city,” Daniels said of his time at Shaw. “Especially in the playoffs, people supported us. It didn’t matter what school you went to, you went to the (Georgia) Dome to see Shaw.”

Shaw was a force during Daniels’ time, going perfect in the regular season three straight years. As a junior in 2000, Daniels was part of the team’s 15-0 run that finished with a 30-0 victory in the Class AAAA state championship game under coach Charles Flowers. It was the school’s first football title.

In just the 2000 season, 11 of the 15 seniors inked letters of intent on national signing day, with five going to Alabama State, four to Grambling State and one each to Auburn and Georgia. The team also had many impressive underclassmen, including sophomore Philip Wheeler, who became a three-year starter at Georgia Tech and now plays for the Indianapolis Colts.

Despite the state title, Daniels had plenty left to prove after high school, and it’s what motivates him as a coach.

“I just think back to when I was in high school and I wish I knew some of the small things,” Daniels said. “I could have been such a better player, and that’s my biggest thing. I try to coach all the small things that can make the kids better players.”

Going pro

Daniels did not waste any time earning his roster spot. From his first season with the Vipers to his two with the Lions, he has impressed coaches and become a fan favorite in a game geared toward high-speed offenses.

He may be the best athlete on the team, Gibson said, and Daniels himself credits his success with the Lions to his passion for coming to work.

“I fell in love with the game,” Daniels said. “My first year, I really just fell in love with the game and everything about it. It was intense and the style of play was so fast. I loved being so close to the crowd.”

Daniels has made his mark as one of the program’s biggest names in his three seasons. He has 28 interceptions in his last 28 games, led the league in picks the last two seasons and was the WIFL Co-Defensive MVP two seasons ago.

“A lot of people like to throw it his way. They see he’s only 5-9 and they want to test him,” Gibson said. “They find out he’s good, and more often than not when he gets an interception, he takes it all the way back on them.”

Last season he led the Lions in tackles (49.5) and interceptions (12 for 187 yards) and was named a first-team All-AIFA selection. This season he hopes to build on the foundation he’s built in the Lions’ defense and bolster his statistics.

But the most important stat for Daniels isn’t officially tracked. He’ll keep counting, though, because he knows it might be the one that makes the biggest difference for him on Friday nights.

“Oh yeah, I’ve flipped some people over the wall,” Daniels said.

Contact Chris White at (706) 571-8571