Who knew? NFL players love Dragon Ball Z

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  • By Grant Pardee
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When you picture an anime geek, the figure that comes to mind probably isn't a 6-foot 310-pound football player. Except that's exactly who Mike Daniels is -- and he's one of many NFL players subverting stereotypes of "nerd" and "jock."

Last week, the Packers DE posted a video of him going "Super Saiyan," a reference to Dragon Ball Z.

Myles Garrett, the first overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, was quick to match Daniels' nerdery, replying "But did you reach ultra instinct?"

Another defensive lineman, Bengals rookie Carl Lawson, said in a pre-draft interview that Dragon Ball Z was actually part of his inspiration to play football in the first place.

Eagles guard Chance Warmack is a noted anime fan, as well. In 2014, when he was playing with the Titans, his team happened to share a hotel with an anime convention, and Warmack surprised his teammates with extensive knowledge of Naruto and Dragon Ball Z. "Believe it or not, I love anime," he told ESPN. "To all my anime lovers out there, Chance Warmack watches that."

For those who rely on lazy stereotypes to interpret the world, this doesn't make any sense. Athletes and geeks are supposed to be completely separate cliques! This is cats and dogs living together! Mass hysteria!

Except... the connection makes more sense than you'd think.

We asked Mike Daniels to tell us why he and so many of his fellow NFL athletes seem to be drawn to DBZ.

"In Dragon Ball, the characters have a challenge," he told The Checkdown. "They know they have to push their bodies to the limit in their training so they can make sure to defeat their opponent, much like professional football players."

To a casual observer, Dragon Ball Z might initially seem juvenile. It's a show built around super-powered battles and, because it's an anime, there's a LOT of time spent on sweaty grunty faces making proclamations about their power.

But it's the show's themes of resilience and humility that reveal DBZ's appeal to NFL players.

The show's main hero, Goku, is a super-powerful fighter, but his goals are all focused on self-improvement through practice and discipline. According to the Dao of Dragon Ball, "Goku does not fight to defeat others, he fights to defeat himself."

Through each battle, Goku continues to train to get stronger so he can always defend his friends and family, and he learns as much from his losses as his victories. The show also repeatedly demonstrates that there is always someone better, someone stronger.

For Daniels, the best example of the show paralleling the football mindset is Piccolo, a character that initially challenges Goku and loses, then teams up and becomes his trusted ally. Piccolo even trains Goku's son, Gohan, as a fighter.

It's exactly those qualities of humility and resilience that resonate with Daniels.

"The guy meditates. He's always acquiring new knowledge," Daniels told us. "He pushes his body really hard. He keeps his mind, body, and spirit all in sync. As football players, we do the same thing. Whether you're praying, meditating, you're getting silent, relaxing your mind... and you definitely want to train hard, in the weight room, on the track. You need to do all of it. Just like Piccolo."

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Linemen aren't the only group in the NFL to express Dragon Ball Z fandom.

Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster celebrated a touchdown earlier this season with a "Kamehameha Wave." The following week, he wore DBZ-themed cleats.

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Daniels has successfully converted many of his teammates in Green Bay to DBZ -- including TE Martellus Bennett, LBs Nick Perry and Clay Matthews, and SS Morgan Burnett. When Eddie Lacy was with the Packers, he tweeted about celebrating victories by watching DBZ. Even Cowboys star Dez Bryant is into it.

"We're the geeks who can finally take your lunch money," Daniels joked to The Ringer last year. "We are a new wave of nerd who can beat you up."

Daniels is as serious about anime as any otaku fanboy.

This summer, Daniels fulfilled a lifelong ambition when he attended San Diego Comic Con for the first time. He went dressed as Raikage, a character from Naruto, a cosplay he spent $3,000 to realize, and cited Hunter X Hunter, Attack on Titan, and Tokyo Ghoul as other shows he enjoyed.

"This kind of stuff, it wasn't the cool thing when I was growing up," Daniels told ESPN. "Now, pop culture is comic books, superhero movies, anime, manga, and I've been doing it for a long time."

Football players have often been referred to as modern day gladiators. They perform athletic feats for glory and entertainment.

But everyone needs a hero. Little girls walk around in Elsa dresses; their dads wear Aaron Rodgers jerseys. For Mike Daniels and others to look up to characters defined by their determination and honor as much as their physical strength not only makes perfect sense, it's entirely admirable.

"It's not just a show," Daniels said. "It's a way of life."

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