How the Vikings are helping assistant coach Matt Daniels through tragedy
The 33-year-old special teams coordinator lost his father during training camp. He’s leaned heavily on his players ever since
EAGAN, Minn. — The hardest part of the day for Matt Daniels is the 22-minute drive home.
He can keep himself busy with workouts in the morning. He can fully immerse himself on the practice field in the afternoon. He can grind hours upon hours of film study in the evening.
Still, no matter how the day goes, no matter how busy he gets, no matter how tired he is when he leaves his office, the 22-minute drive is always waiting for him. He turns out of TCO Performance Center in Eagan, hops on the highway toward Minneapolis, and for the first time, he’s alone.
“All I’m thinking about is my father,” Daniels said. “Sometimes it’s really, really hard, man.”
The 33-year-old Daniels is coaching with a heavy heart in his first year as the Vikings special-teams coordinator. He lost his father nine days before the preseason opener. He attended the funeral in Atlanta a week later and immediately hopped on a plane so he could be there when the Vikings traveled to play the Raiders in an exhibition game in Las Vegas. He needed his players in that moment more than they needed him.
“I was back Saturday night and ready to go Sunday morning,” Daniels said. “The only thing I wanted to do was be around them.”
The dichotomy of the situation isn’t lost on Daniels. His career is taking off and his biggest fan isn’t around to witness it.
That makes Sundays incredibly tough for him nowadays. He used to always be able to expect a text message from his father on game days. That doesn’t come anymore.
“Now every Sunday I wake up and it’s triggering for me,” Daniels said. “It’s also like a start button that gets me going because I want to make him so proud. I know he’s still watching over me. That’s what makes me go.”
A shared passion
Bruce Daniels was born on April 20, 1959. He died on August 5, 2022.
Though he may have only gotten 63 years, he made the most of his time. As a husband who loved his wife so much and always remembered the little things. As a father who would drop everything for his sons at a moment’s notice. As a teacher who gave back to his students without a second thought.
The world is a dimmer place without Bruce Daniels in it.
His light shines on, however, in the people he left behind. In the love of his life, Swannette, with whom he shared more than 35 years of marriage. In his sons Bruce Jr., Will and Matt, who pride themselves on taking after their father. In the countless others he impacted throughout his life.
If it’s true what they say, that grief is the price people pay for love, then it makes sense that the Daniels family is still grieving.
After living with a disease called pulmonary fibrosis for several years, Bruce was due for a double lung transplant this summer. The surgery was supposed to give the Daniels family more time. He never made it to the operating table.
“The last conversation I had with my father was, like, ‘Alright, we’ll talk after the surgery,’ ” Daniels said. “My brother called like 10 minutes later, like, ‘Yo, Pops went into cardiac arrest.’ ”
The moments that followed felt like a lifetime as Bruce remained in a coma at a hospital in Madison, Wis. As soon as the Vikings had a day off during training camp, Daniels made the four-hour drive with his wife Tiffany and their 3-year-old daughter Yara. They returned to Madison a few days later as Bruce’s health continued to decline.
“We knew he was slipping away,” Tiffany said. “We were playing for a miracle.”
As family members filed in to see Bruce for the final time, Tiffany couldn’t bring herself to do it. She had visited with him a few days earlier. She got to give him a hug and read a note she had written for him. She wanted that to be her lasting memory of the man she affectionately referred to as Pop.
Matt stayed by Bruce’s bedside, waiting there until he took his final breath. It happened late at night, after Tiffany had already taken Yara back to the hotel for bedtime. After sending Tiffany a text message to let her know, Matt took a few minutes to himself, then returned to the hotel and cried himself to sleep.
“My father was the person who got me into football,” Daniels said with pain in his voice “Now he’s gone.”
As much as Daniels loved basketball as a kid growing up in Atlanta, it wasn’t long before his father got him hooked on football. He was about 10 years old when he put the pads on for the first time.
“I remember I was like, ‘I don’t want to play no football,’ ” Daniels said. “I’m out there and I didn’t even get through warmups. I quit. I was crying and went to go turn the pads in.”
That night Bruce sat him down. “You can’t quit,” he told his son. “We’re going back tomorrow.” They returned to the field the next day.
“We were doing this drill and I ain’t got a clue what the hell I’m doing,” Daniels said. “I took off and I swear I ran this little boy slap over. I was standing there after thinking to myself, ‘Oh, I love this feeling.’ As soon as that happened, football kind of took over my life.”
Like father, like son
You’d be hard pressed to find someone with as much energy as Matt Daniels. He can light a room up with his swagger — much like the way Bruce could back in the day — and he’s figured out how to be himself no matter the circumstances. That’s something his father instilled in him from a young age.
It wasn’t until he got to Duke University that Daniels started to struggle with his identity. Though he had a 4.0 GPA in high school, and deserved every bit of the scholarship offered to him, Daniels felt an immense pressure stepping on campus in Durham, N.C.
It was a complete culture shift for a kid that grew up on the southside of Atlanta. He found himself trying to fit in so that he didn’t stand out.
“I almost felt like I had to change who I was to fit what that narrative was at the school,” Daniels said. “Then as I started to work my way through school, I was like, ‘This ain’t it.’ I realized that I’ve got to be myself and people are either going to love it or hate it. That’s on them, not on me.”
After finishing up his football career at Duke, where he picked up the nickname “Hat” because of a thunderous hit in practice, Daniels signed with the St. Louis Rams as an undrafted free agent. He played for special-teams coordinator John Fassel, who started as a mentor and has since turned into a very good friend.
“He has such a unique personality,” Fassel said of Daniels. “He’s such an authentic person, and he never tries to be someone he’s not.”
That authenticity is what attracted Tiffany to Matt. The meeting happened at Ballpark Village right outside Busch Stadium in St. Louis. They were both out with friends, and while Tiffany admitted to being a little standoffish at first, it wasn’t long before she let her guard down.
They dated for a couple of years as Daniels battled through injuries and continued his playing career with the Jacksonville Jaguars and the San Diego Chargers. He proposed to Tiffany at her mother’s 50th birthday party shortly before retiring from the NFL for good.
They got married on July 1, 2017 and moved to Boulder, Colo., a couple of weeks later as Daniels accepted a coaching position as a graduate assistant at the University of Colorado.
The next few years were a blur as Daniels got hired as Fassel’s assistant special-teams coordinator with the Los Angeles Rams and Dallas Cowboys. Not surprisingly, Daniels flourished in that role, and Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell hired him as his special-teams coordinator on Feb. 21, 2022.
As his coaching career has taken off, Daniels hasn’t lost sight of what’s important in life. A life lesson from Bruce that he takes with him wherever he goes.
“I never get the sense when he’s home that we aren’t the most important thing in his world,” Tiffany said. “He’s able to drop everything else and be present. He makes family a priority. Just getting to know Pop (shows why) his boys turned out the way they did.”
It’s clear how much Daniels loves being a father to Yara. He beams with pride when he talks about her.
“She’s been working on this Mickey Mouse puzzle that has like 24 pieces,” Daniels said with a smile. “Now, me being me, I’m up there, like, ‘I’m going to start clocking her.’ I’ve got a stopwatch out and I’m seeing how fast she can do it. We break (the puzzle) up after she finishes it, and I’m like, ‘Let’s see if we can do it faster.’ ”
When that story came up in conversation, Tiffany couldn’t help but laugh. That’s the man she fell in love with.
Making him proud
The mutual respect between Daniels and his players is palpable. He rides for them, and they ride for him. That bond is personified each Sunday when they step on the field.
“I’d go to war for that man,” linebacker Troy Dye said. “We would do anything for ‘Hat’ because we know he’d do anything for us.”
That relationship has grown through unspeakable tragedy. As soon as Daniels returned from his father’s funeral this summer, he opened up to his players about what happened, and vowed to give them everything he had. His players have responded by doing the same.
All the while Daniels has focused on keeping things light. He plays music in the meeting room and hosts a weekly competition where the winner gets to take his parking spot. He also has about a dozen nicknames for different players on the team, including “G-Money” for kicker Greg Joseph and “Sir Po” for long snapper Andrew DePaola.
Some days are harder than others for Daniels. Not a moment goes by that he doesn’t think about his father. He has relied on his players to get through some of those moments of immense sadness.
“That’s why we build this environment,” O’Connell said. “It’s as much for coaches sometimes as it is for players.”
As much as she appreciates the healthy distraction the Vikings provide on a daily basis, Tiffany wonders how her husband is going to handle the down time.
“I think he’s feeling a bit numb to it all because he’s so consumed with everything,” she said. “It does help knowing how proud his dad was of him. He wants to continue to make him proud. That helps push him forward.”
In the future, Daniels hopes to become a head coach. He’s well on his way to doing that. In the meantime, though, he needs this particular group of players.
“They’re helping make me whole again,” Daniels said as his voice started to crack. “I can’t thank them enough. They have really allowed me to come into this building with high energy and keep giving it my all. I know that’s what my father would want for me.”
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