Big brother, best friend

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Iowa running back LeShun Daniels and offensive guard James Daniels horse around during the Iowa football media day fields on Aug. 8. The Daniels are brothers. (The Daily Iowan/Joseph Cress)

Jordan Hansen, [email protected]

Iowa running back LeShun Daniels Jr. is a big brother to the very core.

He’s long been a guiding force to his younger sibling, James — also on the team — and it has helped shape both of them. There’s an incredible amount of respect between the two brothers and on Saturday, it will be on full display.

Against Miami (Ohio), the brothers are set to start for Iowa together. LeShun will line up at running back with James blocking for him at center.

It’s a moment that has been a long time coming and stretches back to the very beginning of their lives. The brothers have done almost everything together since they were small, and LeShun has always answered his parents, teachers, and coaches calling to not only show James the right way to do things but anyone else around him as well.

“He really tries to set a good example — especially for people in our community — but also everywhere he goes,” his father, LeShun Daniels Sr., said. “He knows he’s representing our family name.”

•••

The Daniels — LeShun and wife Alicia — added their first child to the family on June 4, 1995, in Columbus, Ohio, when LeShun Daniels Jr. was born.

Two years later, the couple brought another baby boy, James, into the world. The brothers have been inseparable since.

“They’re friends; they’re best friends,” Alicia said. “He’s a great big brother. He always makes sure everyone is taken care of so no one gets put to the wayside. He’s very responsible and very caring and very loving.”

LeShun and James have been tremendous athletes since the early days of their lives, and looking back, it really isn’t a surprise both ended up playing for a Division-1 school.

The senior Daniels played offensive guard for Ohio State and made the Minnesota Vikings regular season roster in 1997, so it was obvious there were some good genes in the family. At an early age, LeShun was fast, to the point where it shocked his father, who realized he might have inherited a special talent. Unsurprisingly, James developed quickly in his own right, and soon their parents got them both involved in a variety of sports.

Tae-kwon-do and wrestling took up their time long before football came into the picture. The brothers also got involved in track and field, getting quite good at it in the process.

James threw shot and discus, while LeShun ran several different events. It was a sport they loved through high school, and both got deeply involved with U.S. Track and Field. The brothers also traveled with AAU teams and played a little bit of baseball as well.

“We used to travel pretty much across the country with [U.S. track] or AAU,” the senior Daniels said. “They used to compete against a lot of the kids they’re playing against now or are practicing at schools across the country.

“They realized, and I realized, they were really talented and could pretty much do whatever they want.”

Still, football entered the picture at an early age and never left. LeShun was a bit heavier than most kids his age and wasn’t able to play running back when he began playing in first grade. In fact, he wouldn’t have that opportunity until he was in middle school.

James started his football career in third grade, a little later than LeShun, but picked up the sport quickly. As the brothers grew older, the buzz around them started to build, and their parents started to realize just how talented the two actually were.

“When they were really young, you could tell that they wanted to be something extra once they got out of high school,” the senior Daniels said. “They were always competitive in everything that they did.”

The pair liked to wrestle and play basketball when they were younger, but playing against each other wasn’t limited to games of physical strength. Video and board games sometimes sparked intensity, but those arguments rarely got physical because as the senior Daniels put it, “LeShun was a lot bigger than James.”

While that’s certainly not the case anymore (James is listed at 6-4, 285, while LeShun is 6-0, 225), it still makes his parents chuckle a bit.

“I think we have pictures where James was always shorter, a little smaller. Then he just passed [LeShun], and you were like, ‘Man this kid is going to be huge,’ ” the senior Daniels said. “He still looks at LeShun as his big brother and is going to do everything he says.

“James just has to live with it, I think.”

There is a place where James likes to think he has the edge, and it’s on the virtual soccer field. Both brothers have a deep love for the soccer video game FIFA.

It’s the first thing that came to mind when offensive lineman Ike Boettger was asked about the brothers and their parents are well aware of the intense European soccer battles. Their mother started laughing when asked about it, while their father simply said it was a way to live out their dreams, because to his knowledge, neither of them has much in the way of soccer talent.

If there is one thing LeShun will argue about with his brother, however, it’s who is actually better at the game.

“Oh, my goodness,” LeShun said with a smirk when asked about their battles on the pitch. “Naw … I wish we had videotapes of me like beating on him, because he’s never beating on me. Don’t let him lie to you.”

•••

LeShun’s older-brother tendencies don’t end with James.

He’s put special effort into mentoring younger players, which his father says is something he reminded him to do over and over. Both find it an important duty, and for a running-back group that has to do a lot of sharing, it’s helped immensely.

“LeShun has just kind of been really steady from Day 1, very mature, kind of acts like he’s 35 in some ways, and he’s got a real steady approach to things,” Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s very businesslike, and it’s really impressive. To have him back there with the backs was a good thing.

“Not just the offense — for our whole football team.”

The lessons he learned with his brother growing up come out nearly every day.

Iowa has three running backs with serious chances at playing time, and finding time to work them all into the rotation can be tough. It’s fine in practice situations (running-back coach Chris White said he is actually thankful for it, because it puts less wear and tear on them) but in games, things could get sticky.

It is not an easy thing to keep a bunch of running backs that want touches happy, but the brotherhood in the group is obvious.

“You have people in your same position that want you to do good,” LeShun said. “It makes you feel more relaxed, that you can just go out there and play your game, not worry about doing too much.”

Jordan Canzeri took the role last year, LeShun has existed just out of the spotlight: the quiet and unassuming but personable teammate who unassumingly takes the role of someone who knows how to do things right.

It’s how he was raised, and the lessons learned have helped build up one of Iowa’s strongest areas on the depth chart.

“We all got different things we provide,” Wadley said. “Sometimes, it’s frustrating when you want that extra rep. We do our best to help each other out, but we all know we’re good. We’re all competing at the same time, and there’s definitely respect and all that.”

•••

Before LeShun signed with Iowa, he was actually set to play at Boston College.

He committed to the school in 2012, and he was set to play under head coach Frank Spaziani. However, Spaziani was fired after the season, LeShun opened his recruitment back up, and Iowa offered a scholarship in November of that year.

After visiting in December with his father and brother, the decision didn’t take long.

“My husband said that when he was there, he just looked like he belonged there,” Alicia said. “He instantly clicked with everyone he was around and my husband knew at that point that was where LeShun was meant to be.”

With head coach Kirk Ferentz and offensive-line coach Brian Ferentz as primary recruiters, the message of working hard for an opportunity clicked with them. It was a similar message the senior Daniels had given them all their lives, and finding a school with similarly aligned philosophies was a big deal.

By that point, James was starting to get plenty of interest in his own right. Recruited by nearly every school in the country, the race ultimately came down to Iowa and Ohio State.

Obviously, Iowa won, and he became one of its earliest recruits, but it wasn’t a situation in which LeShun tried to persuade James to join him. He wanted him to make his own decision, a classy older brother move.

“James kept asking LeShun, ‘Where should I go; what should I do,’ and he told him like everyone else was telling him, ‘It’s your life and your decision; you need to think carefully about where you want to go,’ ” Alicia said. “They both wrote down their pros and cons lists, but at the end of the day, Iowa was the one they felt had the most pros.”

•••

When Iowa’s offense takes the first snap against Miami (Ohio), the Daniels will be the first pair of Hawkeye brothers to start in a game together since Kent and Kevin Ellis in 1980.

Both LeShun and James are excited about playing together for a long time, and the itch to get on the field is strong.

James missed much of the off-season with an injury, and he just wants to get back on the field. He spent a little time at Iowa’s media day explaining how he was getting mental reps and made sure everyone knew he was going to be ready to play.

With LeShun now ready to go as well, both parents wish for a healthy season for both of their boys. But they’re also excited about the season starting, and as you can imagine, it’s just a slight point of pride for their parents.

“They worked for this their whole lives,” Alicia said. “James knows all these statistics about how many people actually get to play at the next level with their brother specifically on the same team; it doesn’t happen that often.

“As a mom, I know it’s corny, but it warms my heart to see them working together on the same goal.”

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