DONNA MCDANIEL HAD BEEF to sell and no money for daycare. So she found the perfect place to drop off her 10-year-old son, Mike, every morning in 1993: Denver Broncos preseason camp.
She was a single mom, raising Mike by herself in the Greeley, Colorado, area as she tried to sling filets and ground chuck for a local meat company. She was damn good at it, too, but she had to work six and a half days a week to make ends meet for her and her son.
Mike loved the Broncos, so running loose at Broncos preseason camp was the greatest idea he had ever heard. He had some bumpy times growing up, constantly getting picked on as one of the smallest kids his age. Broncos practices were an escape, a fun place at a time when life wasn’t very fun.
Donna went to work around town, hustling from store to store, and then duck back in around midday with some McDonald’s for Mike. She’d check in on him for a few minutes and then go back to work till 7. John Elway and Steve Atwater were the best babysitters in town.
As he ate his lunch, Mike always talked about the same thing: The Rope. There was an area for fans to converge just a few feet away from the lane where players came and went onto the field. The team had a rope up to keep these two groups close together but apart. For Mike, The Rope was a barricade between two worlds. There was his world, and then there was the world of professional football, behind The Rope. He wanted under The Rope so badly.
He’d chase after players and coaches with football cards to sign during practice. Sometimes they would stop. Sometimes they wouldn’t. But The Rope kept him where he was, and the NFL was where it was.
Over that month, though, players began to recognize him and realize the truth that we have all come to know now: Mike McDaniel is relentless. Most eventually gave in and signed something for the kid. Players and coaches got to know him, and Mike spent that August as the team’s unofficial mascot. One day toward the end of camp, Atwater walked off the field, saw Mike and handed him his preseason cleats.
“Mom, he gave me his shoes!” Mike said later. “And they even have gum on them!”
But then a crucial piece of the legend of Mike McDaniel happened. One day, while trying to get a second autograph from former Broncos running back Robert Delpino, he took his hat off and hoped Delpino wouldn’t notice that he’d already signed something for him earlier. But Mike’s hat got lost, and he became so distraught that some of the coaches and players noticed. Broncos video coordinator Gary McCune felt bad for Mike, so he brought a replacement to camp and gave it to Mike a few days later.
When Donna picked up her son from practice that day, he told her that a coach had given him a new hat. “What kind of weirdo is buying my kid a hat?” she said. “I want to meet that guy tomorrow.”
What happened next changed the course of 10-year-old Mike McDaniel’s life. This is the story of how a lost hat led to a 10-year stretch that shaped the most unlikely coaching prodigy in NFL history.
THERE IS A PLAYFUL TWINKLE in Mike McDaniel’s eyes, and it has always been there. In third grade, his teacher wasn’t much of a sports lover and once sent home a note that said, “Mike reads too many football books. He needs to expand his horizons by reading other things.”
Donna scoffed and thought, At least he’s reading.
When she told Mike what his teacher said, Mike didn’t respond. But he had that twinkle. His next writing assignment asked students to use their imaginations to write a fictional story about dinosaurs using everything they’d learned in class. Mike had a great idea for his story.
He sat down and wrote an incredibly detailed story about different types of dinosaurs playing football against each other. The story had it all. He put faster dinosaurs at skill positions, and the brontosauruses blocked. He even addressed how some species would have been more fumble-prone because of their shorter arms.
Looking back, Donna laughs about the ingenuity of him showcasing what he learned while flaunting his favorite topic to the teacher who’d told him to tone it down. The teacher had no choice but to give him an A. “That showed her,” Donna says.
That summer, right around the time of Broncos training camp, Donna began to wonder if she should move and start over. Mike was struggling in Greeley, and Donna had restarted before. She’d gotten married in her early 20s and opened a hair salon with her first husband. But he died in a car accident when she was 25, and she had to start over for the first time.
She got a job at a farming equipment store and worked for a year before she dipped her toe back into the dating pool. She met Mike’s dad at a dance, and they got married a few years later. But the marriage didn’t last, and Mike has had very little relationship with his dad since. She had to start over again, this time with a toddler.
Suddenly Donna was divorced in her early 30s, living in a predominately white area with a biracial son. She felt like she needed to move to a more diverse area for her son as he got older. But Greeley had been home to her forever, so she stuck around as Mike went into elementary school.
Then Mike lost his hat at training camp. The next day, she went to Broncos camp and introduced herself to McCune. They had a pleasant conversation, and he asked her if she wanted to grab a beer. The beer was pleasant, too, and then there was a second date and a third, and within a year, McCune and McDaniel got married — and Donna started over again, this time near Denver in the mid-1990s and with a backdrop of stability she hadn’t had before.
Mike started school at Smoky Hill in 1996 as a seventh-grader, and there were so many reasons to like the new kid. For one, word spread quickly that McDaniel’s stepdad was a coach with everybody’s favorite team, the Broncos. For another, he wore new Griffeys at a time when all the other kids had Jordans on their feet. And then there was his meticulously-organized hip-hop CD collection that was the envy of the entire school.
But the biggest reason why the new kid had some instant friends was the best Super Nintendo setup known to mankind. McCune had given him the unfinished section of their house’s basement and put his video coordinator skills to great use. He hooked up the SNES to a projector and a big-screen TV for Mike to play Madden and Tecmo Bowl. This was Mike’s corner of his new neighborhood as he went through middle school and high school from 1996-2001, and he commandeered it as he tried to make connections with other kids.
One kid, Dan, especially needed a best friend. His parents had split, with his dad moving to San Francisco, and he didn’t get along well with his mom’s boyfriend. Dan and Mike liked the same things — football, pro wrestling, video games, comedy — so they hung out and ate crappy food all night. Dan hadn’t had much fun in his life for a while, and Mike wasn’t breezing through life, either. But together, they turned the McDaniel house into a sanctuary for fun — 100 percent not-from-concentrate fun. There was joy every time Dan walked through the front door, and it was the kind of joy Mike needed, too.
They even ventured out of the basement once in a while. Right after beating the Packers in the 1998 Super Bowl, the Broncos had a watch party at the team facility to screen the NFL Films recap of the win. Donna had the flu, so Mike asked Dan if he wanted to come with him. They went and sat right behind Terrell Davis. “One of the most fun nights of my life,” Dan says now.
Within a few months, Dan basically moved into the McDaniel house every weekend. He stayed there on Friday and Saturday nights, minimum, and sometimes stretched his stays even longer. He was a prankster who amused Donna to no end, and he noticed right away how rigid she could be when it came to her house. She had gotten a job as a home decorator for JCPenney, and she knew every inch of her own home.
So Dan would wait till she wasn’t looking, then rearrange a piece of plastic fruit from the bowl in the middle of her kitchen. Donna would turn around and see the boys with ear-to-ear grins and know something was up. They were waiting for her to notice that the orange had been swapped with the apple. Mike knew his mom well enough not to try that himself, but Dan always got away with it, and Mike found it hilarious.
To this day, Dan considers the McDaniel house to have been one of the most significant parts of his formative years. He needed Mike, and Mike needed him. Dan felt like an underdog, and so did Mike, and nothing beats the magic of two underdogs finding one another at the right moment in time.
Dan feels tremendous gratitude toward Donna McDaniel and Gary McCune for opening their doors to him. The McDaniel house was a place to retreat from everything else and just smile. He considers McCune to be the first great male role model he’d had, and Donna was his first hype person. She constantly told him he was funny, that he belonged on “Saturday Night Live” and that he should believe in himself. “We always built up Dan,” Donna says. “He needed to know that he wasn’t just funny — he was abnormally funny, and that was his calling.”
After all the fruit shuffling, the boys would inevitably end up back down in the basement. Mike and Dan played lots of Madden, but they really went at it over Tecmo Bowl. Dan liked football a lot — he was a lineman on the junior high team and was the school renegade for rooting for the 49ers instead of the Broncos. But he didn’t inhale football like Mike did. He’d watch Mike get a new batch of old NFL media guides from the Broncos team facility and shake his head about how much his friend geeked out memorizing player names, uniform numbers and statistics.
That passion played out during their video games. Mike played as the early 1990s Falcons and had figured out an unbeatable strategy. On defense, he’d use Deion Sanders and drop deep into the secondary, wait for Dan to throw a pass, then swoop in and intercept it for a pick-six. With that twinkle in his eyes, Mike would lean close to Dan and say “Priiiiiiiime Time” in his ear.
At 11:30 p.m., they’d turn off the video games for an hour and a half to watch SNL. At 1 a.m., they would play a few more games before they went to bed.
Actually, they never really said good night and went to bed. They’d turn the game off and lay down in the basement, but they would keep talking. Often they’d imagine their futures. Mike was all football, all the time, but even then, he had enough self-awareness to know he was probably too small to have huge dreams about a career as a player. Dan would go through his favorite sketches from SNL and why he thought they were funny. He did unbelievable impressions, so he’d make Mike laugh in the wee hours with a pitch-perfect Rodney Dangerfield impersonation. Mike would always say he should be a comedian someday.
Eventually, one of them would drift off, and the other would follow. It was just too much fun to ever purposely go to bed.
Dan would always wake up to Mike already watching NFL pregame coverage. He’d launch into a preview of the day’s games at breakfast upstairs, and Dan was the perfect friend to listen. Dan thought it was a little much — what other 12-year-olds had takes about offensive line depth charts? — but loved to see Mike riff.
Then the boys would transition into telling Donna about the best parts of SNL from the night before. She’d laugh as the boys jabbered on and on about their two favorite things, football and comedy. She thought Dan had come along at the absolute ideal time in Mike’s life, and the same could be said for Dan. “He had a friend,” she says. “A really good friend.”
Thirty years later, Mike McDaniel has made a life in football as one of the brightest, most unexpected coaching whiz kids in NFL history. And Dan Soder is touring all over the country, has specials on Comedy Central, Netflix and HBO, plays Dudley Mafee on “Billions” and hosts his own podcast.
The wildest possible ending to this story is also within reason. There’s a scenario when someday in the near future, Donna and Mike McDaniel are sitting with Soder at a table on a Sunday morning, discussing the SNL from the night before, and they’re laughing about the host: Dan Soder.
NOT LONG AFTER Donna McDaniel met McCune in 1993, Mike asked him if he could be a Broncos ball boy. McCune said sure but that he had to apply for the job like everybody else. “You need to earn it,” he told Mike, and Donna agreed. She didn’t want him to get the job because of his stepfather.
So Mike wrote a letter to coach Mike Shanahan, making the case for himself as a ball boy for the 1995 Broncos. Shanahan — and pretty much everybody else in the Broncos organization — knew Mike and seemed to get a kick out of his training camp exploits. Mike got the job and found out the other two ball boys were owner Pat Bowlen’s kids.
For the next decade, Mike worked Broncos camps, usually as a ball boy. That detail is part of almost every Mike McDaniel profile. It’s the easiest shorthand way to explain his coaching acumen, that he was a kid on the sidelines observing an NFL dynasty in the late 1990s, and it seeped into his pores.
But the actual origin story is deeper and more nuanced. McDaniel played multiple sports himself, including baseball, football, gymnastics and several years of competitive dance. He started playing flag football when he was a first-grader, and by the time he was a ball boy on the Broncos, he was already running over and grabbing other peewee wide receivers from behind and correcting where they were lined up. Maybe he absorbed some coaching strategy from the Broncos, but he applied it with other PeeWees.
By the time his mom married McCune, McDaniel was playing full-contact football on the junior high team alongside Soder, a lineman, and they’d added another good friend, Chad Harter. When Soder was hiding plastic grapes in the dining room, Harter was now among the giddy audience watching for Donna to notice.
One of the first things both Harter and Soder say about meeting young Mike McDaniel is how stylish he was. Donna bought him the nicest clothes possible at JCPenney and Target, and when he really wanted Griffeys, she got them for him. That might sound like she spoiled her son. But that’s not how she sees it. She says they had long periods when it was just him and her making their way together, and he would come home broken-hearted after bigger kids picked on him in elementary school. She would always tell him that the world could be a harsh place and that she wanted him to leave the house feeling good about himself. She constantly told him as he left, “Remember, you are all that.”
When Mike turned 16, Donna bought him a red Mustang. It was the first new car she’d ever had, and it wasn’t even for her. She’d told Mike since he was a little boy that if he got all A’s she would buy him an awesome new car when he hit 16. She followed through, and if the goal was for him to feel like he was all that, mission accomplished. “The Mustang was the coolest thing to ever happen to us,” Soder says.
Donna remembers when she left Mike home alone for the first time. She thinks he was probably 16 when she and McCune decided to go to Las Vegas for the weekend. She told him no parties, and Mike said not to worry, that Soder was coming over and they were going to just play video games and chill out. “I really didn’t think Michael would have a party,” she says.
Oh, he didn’t have a party — he had the party. When she got home, she walked into the house and was impressed by how tidy everything looked.
“Did you have fun?” she probed.
“Yes, Dan came over and we had a good time,” he said.
Then she noticed that one of her lamps was plugged into a different outlet than usual, and Mike fell apart. “We had a party,” he admitted. “God, we spent the whole day cleaning up. We were so close.”
Donna couldn’t help but laugh, and she let Mike off the hook. “He was a good kid,” Donna says. “I didn’t give him too much of a hard time about it.”
Harter, McDaniel and Soder all played on the Smoky Hill High School football team from 1998 to 2001. Harter ended up being the best player of the bunch, earning a scholarship to FCS Northern Colorado, where he still ranks among the best punters in school history. Soder was a decent linebacker and tight end but knew he wasn’t going to play football at the next level. He’d become best known at Smoky Hill for crushing in the school’s “Activity Hallway,” a long corridor with benches where students were encouraged to convene. “Dan would borderline be doing standup there,” Harter says. “You could tell he needed to be doing it for a living.”
McDaniel started to develop a plan for himself as his high school career neared its end. He wanted to play college football, hopefully at the Division I level, and he had a dream that he’d get a scholarship to Colorado. His mom told him she and McCune were splitting up around that time, so he imagined a future where he’d bring her to Boulder to live.
But Colorado never came calling. Smoky Hill wasn’t a great program, and McDaniel’s senior year in 2001 is still remembered as one of the best teams in recent school history. (They went 5-5 that year). McDaniel was a 5-8, 140-pound receiver who was the team’s most improved player as a junior. But he looked like a Division 3 level player, tops.
McDaniel did end up getting some college interest, but it was mostly because his grades were phenomenal. One FCS school, in particular, came after him the hardest — Yale. Or was it the other way around? “Mike probably recruited us more than we recruited him,” says former Yale defensive coordinator Rick Flanders, who handled Colorado prospects for the school.
He’d applied there on a whim, mostly just hoping for an Ivy League education. But he came to believe maybe he could walk on with the football team, and he sent letters, emails, faxes, you name it. The coaching staff didn’t see a scholarship player, but the admissions office considered him a five-star addition and pushed hard to get McDaniel to New Haven. “He said all the right things, and had reasonable expectations for what he could do for the team,” Flanders says. “So we let him walk on. Mike was one of those guys who wouldn’t go away.”
His mom was ecstatic for him but also so unbelievably sad. When McDaniel told her he wanted to go east and live somewhere he’d never been and meet new people, she told him how proud she was. But when he wasn’t home, Donna would go into his room and sit at the end of his bed and cry. She still doesn’t think he knows how scary it was that her little boy was going 1,800 miles away. Some part of her was proud that he developed that muscle of bravery, and another part wished she had it herself. “I was so glad that he was secure in himself,” Donna says. “But I thought my life was absolutely over.”
By the time the summer of 2001 rolled around, Harter, McDaniel and Soder all went their separate ways. Harter was going to punt at Northern Colorado. Soder was going to study journalism and political science at Arizona, and McDaniel was going to major in history and be an invited walk-on at Yale
For Soder and McDaniel, this would be their version of starting over. They’d both leaned on each other so much through high school, and now they’d be three time zones apart. They said all the things high school buddies say, that they’d stay in touch, that they’d hang out as much as possible during breaks. They’d found fun together as struggling kids, and they would always have that.
Deep down, they thought this was probably the final paragraph of that chapter of their lives. And as the months rolled by, they did indeed drift out of touch. Around the holiday break, they got together. But they had other friends, in other places, and it sure did seem like this was the end of the road for what was a really nice high school friendship.
Turns out, it was just the first paragraph of a new chapter.
ON FRESHMAN CHECK-IN DAY at Yale, Donna went with Mike to New Haven. There was some initial confusion about his dorm room, and almost immediately, they realized it was because the Yale football team now had two guys named Mike McDaniel. One was a 6-foot-4, 300-pound lineman; the other was a tiny wide receiver from Colorado. So coach Jack Siedlecki and the Yale staff started calling the lineman Big Mike McDaniel and the walk-on receiver Little Mike McDaniel.
It wasn’t long before Little Mike McDaniel realized how far off the radar he was as a player. That’s about when McDaniel knew that his mind was going to take him places that his body never could. Defensive backs had 25 pounds and three or four inches on him. He struggled in practice to get separation against pretty much everybody he went against. But man, he worked his ass off. He asked quarterbacks and corners to stick around after practice for more reps. And during water breaks at practice, McDaniel pestered people to throw to him. “Oh my god, this guy won’t s top practicing,” teammates would groan.
McDaniel was about to endure every stage on the Rudy scale: Scrappy walk-on admired for his grit… then annoying pest… then extremely annoying pest… then finally a beloved underdog who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
For the first three years of his career, he practiced with the scout team, which put him somewhere in the fifth-string range of Yale’s receiver depth chart. He showed up every day and didn’t take practice reps off. He became perhaps the team’s strongest pound-for-pound guy in the weight room, at one point firing off 50 pullups at a time. And slowly but surely, he began to develop the early seeds of a future star coach.
As a sophomore, McDaniel had developed a rep within the receiver group as a brilliant mind at crunching film. He watched so much that other players felt guilty if they didn’t keep up with him, and that definitely impacted true freshman Chandler Henley. He hit it off immediately with McDaniel, and they ended up joining the same fraternity at Yale. By mid-season in 2002, coaches began noticing the close bond between the two.
But they also recognized what an interesting dynamic they had. Henley looked up to McDaniel, even though Henley had the potential to be a star receiver and McDaniel might never see the field in a varsity game. They were very close off the field, and then McDaniel shifted into a hybrid coach/backup receiver role with Henley. He didn’t have the skillset his friend did, but Henley followed his lead on work habits.
Siedlecki still chuckles when he thinks about his pregame ritual for Yale road games, where he’d go over to the stadium at an obnoxiously early time to get a feel for the field, the stadium, everything, before anybody was there.
Except, he’d often find Henley and McDaniel there doing the same thing, stretching out, running routes, mapping out their day. The difference was that McDaniel never had a catch in an actual game at Yale, and Henley became one of the best receivers in school history (115 catches, 1,633 yards, 11 touchdowns). He’s now on McDaniel’s staff in Miami as an offensive assistant quarterbacks coach. Both McDaniel and Henley declined interview requests for this story.
Between semesters, Soder and McDaniel would come back to the area and often found themselves hanging out. Soder says he thinks the farther they traveled, the more they felt close to home and close to each other. Donna cherished those times as much as they did. She looked at Michael-she calls him Michael, not Mike — and she couldn’t help but notice how much going away had benefited him. Maybe she should expand her universe someday, too, she thought.
McDaniel never did get much run at Yale. Coaches and teammates all vaguely mention that they think they remember him playing in JV games — yes, that’s a thing in the Ivy League — for his first three years, then maybe getting into a few series down the stretch of his home season. But there wasn’t an actual Rudy moment where he got in a game and made the sidelines erupt after a spectacular play.
Almost everybody interviewed for this story had a few anecdotes that, in retrospect, explain how Little Mike McDaniel was actually Little Future Coach Mike McDaniel. Siedlecki says one time he was talking to McDaniel on the sidelines, and he had to scrunch up his eyebrows in disbelief at how McDaniel was able to discuss what just happened on a play for all 22 guys on the field. “It’s rare for a player to know more than his position and be able to digest a game that way,” Siedlecki says. “Mike had incredible recall where it almost seemed like he had watched the game tape of the play that just happened 10 seconds earlier. He saw it all.”
Current Yale coach Tony Reno, McDaniel’s receivers coach for his junior year, remembers once watching as McDaniel worked with a bunch of underclassmen after practice. McDaniel ran them through a few intricacies of specific routes, then talked them through some of Yale’s drills to catch balls at their high point. The reason that has stuck in Reno’s brain all these years later is that he was blown away at McDaniel’s willingness to coach up all the new guys who were going to keep McDaniel off the field. Most players would have seen young receivers as competition; McDaniel saw opportunity. “Really cool stuff to see an older guy teach the younger guys like that,” Reno says.
For McDaniel’s senior year, he pulled aside his receivers coach, Matthew Dence, and told him about a good drill he saw the Broncos doing that summer. It involved a receiver lying on his back, and someone throwing a football at him. The idea was that there are times when receivers must make catches either on the ground or heading for it. Dence told him to give it a shot, so McDaniel lined up all the receivers on the ground and started throwing footballs at them.
The drill looked as goofy as it sounds, and pretty soon, other Yale position groups were complaining to coaches. While linemen busted their butts on the blocking sled in the hot sun, the receivers were lounging on the ground practicing 1-in-1,000 catch scenarios. “Everybody was whining about how lazy the receivers were,” Dence says. “But I thought Mike’s drill was pretty effective.”
McDaniel’s football brain was noticed by other players, too. Yale had an offensive package called “Check with me,” which essentially allowed the quarterback to call whatever he wanted for an entire series. It was every quarterback’s dream — basically a snow day from being micromanaged by the coaching staff.
Quarterback Alvin Cowan, a two-year starter, remembers coming up with a fantastic “Check with me” plan full of exotic pass plays for himself before one of his last home games. But as he walked toward the line for the first play of his “Check with me” drive, he heard someone screaming “Ohio! Ohio! Ohio!” Ohio was a basic package of running plays that Yale ran, not a sexy throw, and it irritated Cowan that somebody on the sideline was interrupting his drive. “Who the f— is yelling at me?” he mumbled to himself.
He threw an incompletion on the first play, then called another spicy passing play on second down. But as he broke the huddle, he heard the same voice screaming, “Kansas!” Kansas was another set of standard-issue running plays. This time, Cowan paused and gawked over to see who it was. There stood McDaniel, hands cupped around his mouth, trying to get Cowan’s attention.
And he got it all right. Cowan threw another incompletion on second down, then another on third down as McDaniel continued yelling from the sidelines. By the time the punt team ran onto the field, Cowan was making a beeline for McDaniel.
“I can’t focus when you’re yelling like that, man,” Cowan said, and he wasn’t gentle with his irritation.
McDaniel nodded his head and said he understood, and Cowan crossed his arms and stood beside McDaniel.
But as the defense took the field, Cowan heard McDaniel start yelling “Toss right!” as the opposing team’s offense came to the line. Sure enough, the first play was a toss to the right. On second down, McDaniel yelled again what he thought was coming, and he was right again. “He was predicting plays better than Tony Romo back there,” Cowan says, then he starts laughing. “I should have listened to him and called Ohio.”
Cowan likes that story because he believes it underlines a misconception about McDaniel’s offensive wizardry. Cowan thinks McDaniel’s playcalling brilliance is less about triple reverses and complex audibles, and more about masterfully finding space for some of the speediest players in the NFL with what is mostly simple, effective plays. Almost all of his old Yale coaches and teammates made similar comments marveling about how McDaniel’s offense has lots of motion and fake outs… but it’s still not overcomplicated with its mission: Stockpile very fast skill guys, get very fast skill guys space, get the ball to very fast skill guys. Rinse and repeat.
It’s worth directly saying that calling up old coaches and teammates of a star athlete or coach can be a tricky proposition. Oftentimes, consciously or not, the people from the past lives of big-time sports figures have a motive. They’re looking to draft onto that success and claim some small part of that person’s rise, or at the very minimum, say they saw it coming. Zero sources did that with McDaniel. There is humility and reverence in the way that they discuss him that feels different, like they believe that he is where he is because of him. His drive. His people skills. Him.
“I wish I could say I knew,” says Siedlecki. “But none of us did. We just knew he was a super smart, nice kid who worked really hard. He’s had to convince everybody of everything about him for his whole life, and he’s done it.”
His mom didn’t know, either. Toward the very end of his Yale career, Donna started asking him what he wanted to do when he finished school. She knew he loved football more than ever, but thought maybe he’d stay in the New Haven area with his history degree and teach and coach at a high school there. He’d also mentioned maybe going to law school, with an eye on pursuing a front-office job in football.
But right as he graduated, in May of 2004, McDaniel told her that he finally knew what he wanted to do next: “Mom, I’m coming home, and I have to be a football coach.”
IN 2005, MIKE SHANAHAN hired McDaniel as an intern for McDaniel’s beloved Broncos. He moved back to the Denver area, and suddenly found himself hanging out again with his old friends, Chad Harter and Dan Soder.
Harter and Soder lived together in Arizona for a while around that time, and McDaniel would come down and visit in the offseason. Harter was working out and hoping for an NFL punting opportunity (he eventually got his mortgage license and started his own company). Soder had begun to dabble in the thing people had been suggesting to him since he was a kid: comedy.
McDaniel and Harter would come to his open mics and be the loudest laughers in the room. Soder says he wasn’t great back then, but he felt great. He enjoyed making people laugh, and he loved figuring out what worked and what didn’t in front of crowds. He eventually grew into a comedy generalist, talking about anything and everything, with a masterful ability to leverage his 6-foot-4 frame and deep, commanding voice into laughs. He makes several fantastic impressions, ranging from Dangerfield to the world’s most hilarious Randy “Macho Man” Savage. It’s almost humanly impossible to not start laughing before he even finishes his first “Ohhh yeahhh.”
The stage was where he belonged, and he became the comedy equivalent of a gym rat at local clubs. At one point, he introduced McDaniel to a good friend of his, an unknown young comedian named Nate Bargatze, and Bargatze quickly became an honorary member of the friend group. When Soder did Conan for the first time in 2011, McDaniel and Bargatze were in the audience.
McDaniel and Soder were a little surprised at where their friendship landed. It’s pretty rare for high school buddies to take such divergent life paths… that all keep coming back to where they began, with each other. They had cell phones by that point, and they traveled enough that they found themselves passing through each other’s neighborhoods frequently.
There was one moment that Soder specifically points to as the time he truly realized Mike McDaniel had gotten inside The Rope. McDaniel had gone to the Texans in 2006 as an offensive assistant, and Harter and Soder were talking to him about the 2006 draft that spring. Soder was pumped that the Texans had the No. 1 pick and that Houston could take their choice of Vince Young or Reggie Bush.
“We’re drafting Mario Williams,” McDaniel interrupted.
“Whooo?” Soder asked him. “What the f—, dude? How could you not take one of those two guys?”
McDaniel just shrugged his shoulders and said he probably shouldn’t talk much more about their draft plans. As Soder tells that story now, he emphasizes that McDaniel swore them to secrecy and he probably shouldn’t be saying it. When reminded that he had told that story publicly before, Soder laughs and says, “I am a loudmouthed liability as a friend.”
From there, the McDaniel path has become folklore. Fired from the Texans for being unreliable (2006-08). Struggles with alcohol before eventually getting sober. A two-year stint in the now-defunct UFL (2009-10). Then back into the NFL with stints in Washington, Atlanta and San Francisco (2011-21) before getting the ultimate call in 2021: the Miami Dolphins wanted him to be their head coach.
Donna couldn’t believe it — she was already living in Florida. Mike constantly had begun telling her he understood more every day the sacrifices she had made for her, telling her at one point, “Geez, Mom, I had no idea we were poor when I was a kid. Thank you.” But now she began to tell him what he’d done for her. She’d been empowered by watching her son leave Colorado and go out in the world. She left JCPenney when she realized people didn’t shop at box stores the way they used to. She still loved helping people fix up their homes, though, so she came up with a wild idea. What if at age 59, she moved to Florida and opened up a Budget Blinds franchise?
She went for it and built the business up over the next few years before eventually selling it at a very nice profit. Then suddenly, Mike was coming to Miami, about an hour away from her home in The Villages. He was married, with a kid on the way, and chasing his dream as an NFL head coach.
As she thinks back on the way it all played out, she smiles on a recent Zoom.
“We’re down here in Florida, and we got a chance to start over together,” she says. “Again.”
BACK IN SEPTEMBER, three days before the Dolphins famously routed the Broncos, 70-20, Soder went to Miami. He was there to do standup and also to go to the game. He made plans to go to McDaniel’s house on Thursday night to watch the Giants-Niners game.
The entire weekend was a testament to how the McDaniel of 2023 is closer than ever to the McDaniel of the mid-1990s. Harter came to Miami with his wife. Donna was there, too, to watch grown-up Mike roll up the score on child Mike’s beloved franchise. McDaniel had gone to Yale and made a bunch of new friends, then started coaching and made a bunch more friends. But he’s also told his inner circle that the pinnacle of his success has made him more grateful than ever for the launch of it, and that centered around his mom and his best friends from that 10-year period through his teenage years. That happened in Smoky Hill, in a basement and then a Mustang and then as a walk-on 1,800 miles away. Now he’s taken everything he learned to Miami.
When Soder arrived at McDaniel’s house, they did the thing they usually do when they get together. They look at each other and they shake their heads at how far they’ve come from that basement in Colorado. “Can you believe we’re doing it?” one of them will say.
But as the game kicked off, McDaniel said that he wasn’t sure how long he was going to make it, and he was right. He had to get up at 2:30 a.m., his usual wakeup time to get on the road to the team facility. “I’ll try to make it to halftime,” he said.
He had no chance. In the first half, Soder kept catching McDaniel’s eyes rolling back in his head. At one point, Soder looked over and saw McDaniel was out cold.
“Are you having fun?” Soder asked.
McDaniel didn’t answer, and Soder assumed his friend was out for the night. He couldn’t help but think back to those late nights in the basement, watching SNL and then talking about football and comedy until one of them just stopped talking. Thirty years later, here they were, both of them inside The Rope, and McDaniel was the first to drift off.
But as Soder turned back to the TV, McDaniel answered his question without opening his eyes. “So much fun,” he said in a whisper.
Soder laughed quietly at his friend, who was barely conscious yet somehow declaring how much joy he’d found in his dream job.
Then, even quieter than the first time, McDaniel said once more, “So much fun.”