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Interview: Jordan Dangerfield’s Year-By-Year Mentality Has Led To A Long NFL Career

Jordan Dangerfield

Looking back on it, there were countless times where Jordan Dangerfield’s football career could have ended. Times where it probably should have. His college’s football program was cut months after he arrived. He went undrafted, released more times than he could count, and missed one whole year after suffering an early-season injury.

But he never counted himself out. Never gave up. He’s made it eight years in the league. And he doesn’t believe his journey has come to a close yet.

Dangerfield wasn’t a blue-chip, can’t-miss prospect coming out of high school. There was no recruiting frenzy. He had three offers: Florida International, UMass, and Hofstra. And quickly, that list narrowed down to two.

“I had an offer from FIU,” Dangerfield tells me in a recent interview. “FIU, they wanted me to play corner. I guess I took too long to actually make a decision to go there. So they ended up pulling the scholarship actually, like right after my senior season.”

That left UMass and Hofstra. He settled on Hofstra. Though he grew up in Florida, he was born in Elmont, New York, and Hofstra was just a short drive from there.

The chance to play immediately, too, was enticing. And he did play. Dangerfield appeared in eight games, making one start, and finished the year with 23 tackles. Not a season to write home about, but a solid start for a freshman.

Then, he got a text. The whole football team did.

Urgent team meeting.

He and his teammates went to their football facility. Out of nowhere, they were informed Hofstra was disbanding its 73-year-old football program.

“They pretty much said, instead of canceling six or seven programs, they just chose to cancel football program for money purposes. And that they’re going to end the football program.”

Players were given two choices. Stay with Hofstra and finish out their academics, or they could transfer and be on their own. In that moment, Dangerfield thought his football career was over. It was hard enough to find a college coming out of high school. Now, at the last minute, he had to start the process all over. But with some college experience, he actually had more options this time around. Towson University pushed the hardest to bring him in.

“They literally had a coach there at least every other day, driving up from Towson to Hofstra. Which had to be anywhere from a four to five-hour drive.  So they had somebody here. They had somebody talking to me everyday or calling me everyday. They actually came in and picked me up by car and drove me back to Towson. They were just moving the fastest and talking the most business.”

Towson was looking for a safety. Dangerfield was looking for a home. So he committed.

They were a program in transition. In the three years prior to his arrival in 2010, the Tigers went a combined 8-26. Things weren’t better in his first year on campus. In fact, they were worse. The program bottomed out in 2010, winning just one game.

But Dangerfield was an immediate starter. And, he helped create a quick turnaround. The next year, they won nine games and made the FCS playoffs before narrowly losing to Lehigh. In 2012, his final season, Towson went 7-4. The year after he graduated, they beat UConn, defeating their first ever FBS team, and ended the year in the FCS Championship Game.

By then, Dangerfield had eyes set on playing professionally. Despite solid testing, including an eye-catching 41.5-inch vertical, his small school status worked against him, and he went undrafted. Buffalo signed him as an undrafted free agent and carried him through camp before releasing him at final cutdowns. He wasn’t offered a spot on the practice squad, making him a street free agent, waiting and praying for a phone call that may never come. But if it did, Dangerfield knew he had to be ready. He worked out twice a day, five days a week, for the entire fall and winter in case a team wanted to bring him in.

It took until January 2014. But Pittsburgh gave him a shot.

“I was scared. I was in shape. I was working out every day, Monday through Friday, two times a day, pretty much the whole season. So I was prepared for the moment. Which [looking back], I really appreciate that. If I would’ve said, ‘Nah, I’m trying to move on,’ I might not have been prepared. I had a great workout and they ended up signing me.”

Dangerfield was back in the NFL. But the hard part was just beginning. He was inked to a futures deal, one of 90 players on the roster, with no guarantee he’d be on the roster the next day. The Steelers could sign another free agent to push him off the roster. A draft pick could take his job or football business and politics could have him back on the street.

That’s what Dangerfield quickly found out. The next 18 months was a series of turning in his playbook and getting it back. Here’s how it looks in the transactions log.

January 10th, 2014: Signed
August 26th, 2014: Released
November 5th, 2014: Signed
December 9th, 2014: Released
January 8th, 2015: Signed
July 24th, 2015: Released
August 8th, 2015: Signed
September 5th, 2015: Released
September 6th, 2015: Signed

It’s not quite Ross Ventrone levels of roster yo-yo’ing. But that feeling of never being secure weighs heavy, too.

“It’s hard. It’s definitely a mind game. I think a lot of folks will tell you that when they get to the NFL. The whole thing is more mental, honestly, than physical. It’s more of a mental game. Even playing in the game. Everything is more mental.”

Dangerfield finally found traction in 2016, making his first NFL appearance and starting two games. He ended the year with 16 tackles and began carving out his path on special teams. Though 2017 became a lost season after suffering an ankle injury, since then he’s served as a backup safety and situational player, often the third safety in goal line packages. His greatest value has come as a core special teamer. From 2018 to 2020, he’s logged 911 special teams snaps, by far the most of any Steeler over that span. In 2020, he was named a special teams captain. His most important role there is serving as the personal protector — PP, the Steelers call it — on the punt team. Call him the quarterback of that unit.

“We’re making the calls and we’ll call out the play before we snap the ball. So I am the quarterback. I’m looking at how many guys are coming to rush. How many guys they’re bringing or if they have a different type of return. I gotta have my eagle eyes. Same thing as the quarterback.”

Sometimes they’re the trigger man for calling out fakes, too, though Dangerfield said that responsibility can vary week-by-week.

“It could be gameplan. It changes up, but it definitely runs through the PP. But like I said, it could be gameplan. It could be from a look to maybe the coach is calling it. So it’s a game plan thing.”

What makes for a quality special teams player? Dangerfield says you have to be “a little crazy,” combined with an unstoppable work ethic and love for the game.

In Pittsburgh, Dangerfield played for one of the most fiery coaches in football. Danny Smith. He’s been the Steelers’ special teams coordinator since Dangerfield arrived. And as Dangerfield says, Smith handles just about everything.

“Danny Smith changed my life. That’s my guy.  I definitely want to have a relationship with him no matter what happens. He changed my life. Gave me the opportunity to play the game I love and to do what I love. He saw something in me. He’s smart. Hands down one of the smartest coaches I have played for. He knows what he’s doing. It’s just him. A lot of these teams have two, three, four special teams coaches. And I mean, it’s not just Danny. But he’s the main guy.”

Special teamers are like offensive linemen. If no one is talking about them, they’re probably doing their job well enough. If they get noticed, something’s probably gone wrong.  Fly under the radar, do the grunt work, and put the stars in position to make the highlight reel. But Dangerfield’s favorite Steelers’ memory came in one of those “gone wrong” moments. Last year, the Dallas Cowboys pulled off a brilliant trick play on a punt return, throwing across field to another punt returner. It should’ve been a touchdown. But Dangerfield had the angle and hustle to prevent the score.

“I ran down that trick play. I feel like it got overlooked. But it saved the game, honestly. During that whole play, I just felt like it showed my whole journey and my whole career in one play.”

Take a look for yourself.

 

It felt like a disaster of the play for Pittsburgh. But Dangerfield prevented from the outcome being worse. Not only did he make the tackle, he drew a block-in-the-back call, pushing Dallas back 15 yards. They ultimately settled for a field goal, a crucial four-point swing in a game the Steelers won by five.

It’s easy to agree with Dangerfield’s assessment. That play sums up his career. Counted out, but rallying and getting the job done.

Dangerfield currently remains a free agent, despite the value he’s added to the team. The Steelers have kept in contact with him, he says, and other teams have shown interest as well. But with the draft just weeks away, he might be playing the waiting game.

“It’s been a crazy situation with them just business-wise. We have had contact. The door’s not closed yet.  We’ll just stay positive…I would love to stay. I just want to play football.”

That’s been a main driver of his journey. Dangerfield loves playing the game and never wanted to wonder what if he gave up on his dream. Another is a belief he was going to kick down all the doors that were never opened for him.

“That’s the first part of it. Having confidence in yourself. You can’t doubt yourself. I feel like that’s the first step.”

In his early days, seeing reports that he was just a camp body, that he had no path to the roster, put a chip on his shoulder.

“I see things. People sent me things back in the day in 2014 when I first started. How I wouldn’t make it. So that motivated every year. And I just took it one year at a time. One year, one year, one year. I’m not taking it for granted.”

He’s taken it year-by-year. Eight years in a row. Whether it’s in Pittsburgh or somewhere new, Dangerfield has earned a ninth.

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