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Meet the Geeks Who Can Take Your Lunch Money

The Green Bay Packers are fierce and focused on football — when they’re not nerding out about ‘Dragon Ball Z’ and other anime, that is

Jarrett Williams
Jarrett Williams

Mike Daniels is a vital part of Green Bay’s defense. He signed a $41 million extension last season, appeared on the NFL Network’s Top 100 players list, and serves as an enforcer for the Packers’ front, destroying the opposing offensive lineman and creating space for his linebackers on most plays. “My job is: Get a hand on a player, you slam him to the ground hard, and then you tell him about it,” Daniels said.

When he’s not on the field, though, the 27-year-old defensive end focuses on a job that’s nearly as important: leading the NFL’s only known anime ring.

“OK, it may be for nerds,” said Daniels, “but we are a new wave of nerd who can beat you up.”

Anime, the Japanese animation characterized by flashy graphics and crazy plotlines, is wildly popular in some circles. Thanks to Daniels and his crew, those circles apparently now include the Green Bay locker room. Dragon Ball Z is the team’s collective favorite, and in case you’re not aware, it’s based around a character named Goku fighting everything from alien princes to a bubble-gum-colored flesh blob in baggy pants called Majin Buu.

While some non-Packers certainly love this stuff, they don’t assemble en masse to talk about it in the locker room. Tennessee Titans guard Chance Warmack, for example, fell in love with anime while living in Detroit at age 5. He loves Dragon Ball Z and other series, like Inuyasha and Naruto, a story about a kid ninja. Warmack said he’s met one other player who liked anime, but the player was cut shortly after minicamps in 2015 before the two had ever really discussed their shared passion. “A lot of guys don’t like talking about that in the locker room,” Warmack said. “There’s a stigma attached because you wouldn’t expect an athlete to like this stuff.”

There are no such reservations in Green Bay, where Dragon Ball Z plot discussions and training-camp anime movie trips abound.

The anime bond began to form in early 2013, when Nick Perry’s now-wife, Audrianna, and Daniels’s wife, Heaven, were chatting on the phone. When Heaven mentioned to Audrianna that Daniels was watching his “Japanese stuff,” Audrianna noted that Perry does the same. The next day in the locker room, Daniels said, Perry approached him. “Naruto?” Perry simply asked.

An anime-based bromance was born.

Daniels started watching anime when he was 10. He began with popular programs like Pokémon and Sailor Moon, a series about a school girl searching for the “Legendary Silver Crystal,” and became enamored with how visually arresting and unique the shows were.

That love has lasted a lifetime, and it’s not hard to spot. In the fall of 2013, Eddie Lacy started noticing Daniels and Perry talking about anime on social media. “And I’m all about Dragon Ball Z,” Lacy said this training camp. Lacy’s half-brother Donovan Grayson, who’s about seven years older than Eddie, put on an episode when Lacy was in elementary school. Soon after Lacy’s first viewing, he said, came a turning point in the franchise: “I got really into it when Vegeta and Goku were fighting — [Vegeta] threw a moon into the sky and turned into a Great Ape,” he explained. He was hooked.

“It just looks really cool,” Lacy said. “Guys flying around, disappearing, then reappearing real fast. It was a violent, cool carton.”

When Lacy realized that some of his teammates shared a similar passion, he spoke up, and shortly after began benefiting from Daniels’s trademark recommendations:

In 2014, Lacy and Daniels decided to go to a theater to see Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods during an off day of training camp. Teammate Chris Banjo found out and told them he wanted in. “So all of the sudden we find out [he’s] into it,” Daniels said.

Though there’s a core cluster of anime fans on the team, the group can claim many other Packers for an occasional conversation on the topic. During one Pokémon discussion in the locker room, for example, linebacker Sam Barrington started detailing the differences between certain generations of characters, outing himself as a fan for the first time. Daniels also named linebackers Clay Matthews and Datone Jones as well as safety Morgan Burnett as players who can “nerd out” among teammates.

Perry relies on the “crucial” connection among teammates, noting that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with all of the new releases, particularly when it comes to manga graphic novels. He credited Daniels with keeping everyone connected and informed by sending links via group text to great scenes or new series that look cool. Perry does much the same, but tries to taper that sharing during the football season. Still, it’s hard to keep the passion under wraps.

During the team’s Oakland trip last year, Perry discovered that a live-action version of the manga series Attack on Titan was available for viewing on the team plane, and promptly and excitedly told his teammates. Sometimes, though, love of manga and anime can only go so far: They were flying back after a West Coast game, and fatigue prevailed. “I’m still mad we didn’t all watch it,” Daniels said, noting that Perry was the only one who could stay awake.

Daniels already has his next tip lined up for training camp, which started in late July: He’s about to hard sell his teammates on One Punch Man, which his hard-core anime friends from back home in Jersey told him is the current best TV series. Daniels has seen only one episode, but he plans to dig into it more and get his fellow Packers involved.

Daniels has the team’s most expansive collection of DVDs and VHS tapes at his home, including a huge collection of tapes imported from Japan, recorded off of television and subtitled in English by fans. Almost all of those were purchased at Daniels’s hometown comic book shop, Hall of Heroes, which he started frequenting in middle school. But his teammates only want links to streams. “It’s disheartening,” he said, since he has so much tangible anime and manga to share.

It’s not all about watching something on a screen, though: Daniels and Perry tried again this year to arrange a group trip to San Diego’s massive comic book convention, Comic-Con, but failed because the July convention is too close to NFL training camp. “We have tried so, so many times,” Perry said.

They’ll likely keep trying, because the environment in Green Bay is particularly conducive to this sort of bond. For one, the team is obsessed with keeping the players it drafted — only two players on last year’s team were drafted by another franchise — so friendships can be longer-lasting. “Guys can more easily find their niche here,” said Banjo, who has been with the Packers since 2013 after a stint that offseason with the Jaguars and a few tryouts elsewhere in 2012. There’s also the little matter of there not being as much to do in Green Bay. “The city of Green Bay brings a lot of people closer,” Lacy said. “If you’re in New York or Miami you’ll have a certain group of friends and go different ways because everyone is different. When you get here, everybody — practice squad, whatever level of play — you see there are no mean people on this team.”

That doesn’t mean all cartoon-related culture is instantly embraced by the group, though. Daniels said that he’s deleted the insanely popular Pokémon Go app from his phone because it’s too popular, and he prefers more obscure endeavors.

Lacy and Daniels are by far the most open about their love of anime, regularly wearing Dragon Ball Z hoodies or T-shirts around the locker room. Daniels recently got a fourth anime hoodie: a Naruto “Hokage” hoodie to go along with his Goku hoodies. That’s nothing compared to the waves he made on the internet in June, when he photographed himself wearing a Dragon Ball Z “scouter,” a type of computer in the universe that measures a person’s power levels.

When discussing the photo, Daniels started ranking the best moments of his life: his marriage, the birth of his children, getting drafted, and becoming a Christian.

“So the fifth-best moment of my life is being photographed in my Packers uniform while wearing a scouter,” he said.

Of course, not everyone is a fan. This training camp, Daniels was walking around the locker room asking teammates if they liked anime. A group of younger players like cornerback LaDarius Gunter and linebacker Jayrone Elliott looked puzzled. “I think maybe my brother maybe watched it a little bit,” Elliott told Daniels from his locker, with a half-smile.

Daniels laughed at the reaction, then kept walking through the locker room. He knows he’s not going to get everyone’s approval, but he doesn’t need it.

“We’re the geeks,” he said, “who can finally take your lunch money.”