Former Iowa center and current Chicago Bear James Daniels is the true definition of student-athlete

James Daniels on graduation day.

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – When I grow up, I want to be just like James Daniels.

I jokingly said those words to myself after seeing on social media that Daniels had earned his degree from the University of Iowa with a bachelor of arts in Health and Human Physiology, and with a 3.24 grade-point average.

Daniels accomplished that in four years while also playing three seasons for the Iowa football team and one season for the Chicago Bears.

He was a second-round NFL draft pick at the age of 20, and an NFL starter and college graduate by the age of 21.

Daniels epitomized the true meaning of student-athlete. He made the best of both worlds while at Iowa and was fortunate to be good enough to play in the NFL as an offensive lineman.

But even if Daniels wasn’t good enough to play in the NFL, he had a fallback plan thanks to his dedication to academics.

He took advantage of the many perks that come with being a student-athlete at Iowa and prepared himself for life after football.

It wasn’t easy, but nothing worthwhile comes easy.

The grind is part of the reward because it teaches you to persevere and to perform on a consistent basis.

Daniels returned to Iowa City shortly after his rookie season with the Bears had ended to finish his degree and to train with Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle.

It was important for Daniels to walk across the stage and celebrate with his fellow graduates for a job well done.

Daniels wore his No. 68 Chicago Bears jersey under his graduation gown and flashed it proudly while walking on the stage.

It was a dream come true for Daniels and he was bursting with pride, and deservedly so.

Daniels is now thriving in a man’s world as a highly paid professional football player, but he is also just a 21-year old kid who still is finding his place as an adult.

Daniels reportedly wants to get a master’s in Public Health, and that just shows that he has big plans for life after football.  

Daniels is hardly a solo act, though, as many Iowa football players have excelled on the field and in the classroom under Kirk Ferentz, and long before that.

But to have accomplished all that Daniels has accomplished at the age of just 21 makes him unique and interesting.

That was apparent just from having interviewed Daniels multiple times. He always had a unique perspective and chose his words carefully.

In one of his first interviews as a Hawkeye, Daniels refused to talk about anything in the past, saying over and over that he was focused solely on the future.

There was also the time when Daniels refused to say that the Nebraska players had quit during Iowa’s 56-14 beat-down in 2017 in Lincoln, Neb.

That was one of the narratives being suggested during the post-game interviews, but Daniels dismissed it because he felt that it was disrespectful to the Nebraska players.

And that really made an impression.

So did Daniels’ answer when asked why Iowa is so successful at developing players for the NFL under Kirk Ferentz.

Daniels talked in great detail about the structure and culture at Iowa, about the attention to detail and about Chris Doyle's far-reaching impact.

It was the perfect promotional pitch and his words went viral on social media.

“I really wish recruits would realize that if you come to Iowa and go through the program and realize how structured it is, you’ll be at a huge advantage when it comes to coming into the NFL,” Daniels said.

I was so capitivated by what Daniels said at that weekly press conference that I spent almost all of the time that we had to interview players interviewing him. He just had a way with words and his words were always fueled by deep thoughts.

Iowa was fortunate that Daniels’ older brother, LeShun Daniels Jr., was a Hawkeye football player before James because that helped pave the way for little brother to follow in big brother’s footsteps. LeShun Daniels Jr., played running back for Iowa from 2013-16 and was two years ahead of James in school.

LeShun Daniels Jr., finished with 1,888 rushing yards as a Hawkeye and he seemed to really enjoy his experience at Iowa.

That obviously had a positive effect on James, who was a highly coveted four-star recruit from Warren, Ohio.

James Daniels would ultimately turn down his home-state Ohio State Buckeyes where his father had played in the 1990s to be a Hawkeye.

You probably could count on one hand the number of Ohio natives who turned down a scholarship offer from the Buckeyes to play football for Iowa, or two hands at the most.

It just doesn’t happen very often, but it’s hard to argue with the results where James Daniels is concerned.

In addition to earning his degree, Daniels also started in 37 games at Iowa and played in three bowl games, including the 2016 Rose Bowl.

James Daniels used college to change the course of his life, both on and off the playing field, and that makes him a true role model and somebody worth trying to emulate.