Football has always been more than just a sport for Mike McDaniel.
“There was a human connection with me that has to do with even more of my upbringing,” McDaniel said on the 49ers Talk podcast.
McDaniel, 37, the newly titled 49ers offensive coordinator, forged a career in professional football as part of his unique journey that began nearly 30 years ago.
McDaniel often was on his own during the summer months in Greeley, Colo., while his mother, Donna, worked to provide for her only child. McDaniel would ride his bike daily to the University of Northern Colorado campus, where the Denver Broncos staged training camp from 1982 to 2002.
McDaniel, through a bizarre series of events, introduced his mom to then-Broncos video operations assistant Gary McCune. They ended up getting married. That led to summer work for young McDaniel, whose eagerness and work ethic caught the eye of coach Mike Shanahan.
After playing football at Yale, McDaniel accepted an internship with the Broncos in 2005. The next year, Gary Kubiak left the Broncos staff to become head coach of the Houston Texans. He took McDaniel with him as an offensive assistant.
Now, many years later, McDaniel clearly can see he was drawn to the meritocracy and inclusiveness of the sport because of his upbringing and family history.
"Your world is kind of changed when you consciously start to understand what race is in general,” McDaniel said. “I’m also a kid watching the only thing going, the Denver Broncos, and you’re seeing in the game of football, all these people having success that are various shades of color, that are from different socio-economic backgrounds — that are just different. And that was like an equalizer.”
McDaniel said he had an epiphany at an early age when he was visiting his grandmother on his father’s side of the game. When he looked at the photos around the house, he realized he looked different than other members of his family.
“It is surreal when I think about it, but I remember one particular day, walking around and all of a sudden noticing that, ‘Hey, I’m the only fair-skinned person in all these picture frames,’” McDaniel said. “My grandmother on my dad’s side is Black. My dad’s Black.
“I can honestly say up to that point, I hadn’t noticed that I was different in two fields. I was different in that I was multi-racial to the world. But even within my own family, I was different from them. I was just kind of a unicorn.”
McDaniel said he found comfort in his ability to assimilate in any racial setting. And he believes that likely contributed to him being drawn to the sport of football.
“Where you came from didn’t matter,” McDaniel said. “What people thought of you to be, perceived you to be, didn’t matter. It was a melting pot, so to speak, from its core.
“And that for me was a trajectory of ‘OK, there’s my avenue; football is really cool.’ Here are these people I could kind of identify with. Because, mind you, it was hard for me to identify. I was different, as I understood it.”
McDaniel said his family background comes up from time to time with the players he coaches. He believes sharing such personal information helps build stronger coach-player connections.
“It is a cool thing to watch players process it,” he said. “And in all actuality, it doesn’t matter what necessarily you are telling players. Whenever you’re ever telling personal stuff about yourself to them, you are invested in them by giving them a piece of yourself.”