PITTSBURGH—The man with the Herculean hands isn’t interested in the regular menu sitting at the edge of the table. Instead he’s poring over the SkinnyLicious selections with foreseen disappointment, like a Sommelier surveying the wine selection at Walmart. He’s been here once before, when his girlfriend came down from Chicago upon his arrival in Pittsburgh last week. “Do you want to go to the Cheesecake Factory?” she asked. “No,” he responded in his low tenor, having never eaten there. “I don’t want any cheesecake right now.”
“Well,” she said, “they have other stuff.”
His hands aren’t noticeably big, until you shake one of them. Fingers as thick as prescription drug bottles envelop your baby-man grip and you understand that they could probably turn your carpals and metacarpals into sawdust if he really felt like it. But he doesn’t get pissed off easily or, really, at all. He doesn’t speak much either. This will be the longest interview Daniel McCullers has ever given.
At a Cheesecake Factory.
Over a SkinnyLicious flatbread.
They call him Big Dan. He’s 6-foot-7 and about 360 pounds at the moment, making him the largest player selected in the 2014 NFL draft. He has the next-tallest man beat by 60 pounds, and the next-heaviest man by six inches. Here’s the scary thing: Big Dan does not have a gut. You can see his trapezoid muscles bulging through the back of his loose-fitting black t-shirt. Upon arriving at Pittsburgh’s rookie minicamp as a sixth-round pick last weekend, Big Dan’s body fat measured 20%. At 21-years-old, he’s what a physician would call “healthy,” a percentage point shy of “overweight” and far south of “obese.”
“I’m just big-boned,” he says, echoing his maternal grandma as he accepts, with considerable disdain, a smaller-than-expected sheet of dried bread, dull white cheese and sausage. The aproned waiter senses the urgency of the moment and asks if that will be enough for Big Dan.
“Can I also have a Caesar salad… with chicken?”
Growing up in North Carolina Dan didn’t always have this kind of control, ordering low-calorie options at calorie-swamped restaurants. At Southeast Raleigh High there was a time when he weighed over 400 pounds. Before that, he was a 270-pound 12-year-old. He went out for the North Garner Middle School football team and was turned away after the first day of tryouts with no explanation other than “our team is already set.” Dan knew the real reason: “I couldn’t run a sprint without dying.” That year, says Dan’s older sister, Deonica, the football team kept a girl on the roster.
“No one gave him a chance until high school,” says Deonica, 23. “He tells me not to tell anyone that, but look at where he is now.”
The gridiron rejection compounded the bullying Dan experienced in elementary and middle school. Once kids figured out he wasn’t inclined to slug them over an insult, they poured on the fat jokes. His support system in Raleigh was an unorthodox one. His mother, Phyllis McCullers, spent much of the 1990’s on probation for separate cases: larceny and possession of drug paraphernalia. His father, Marcus Sanders, has a rap sheet covering the better part of three decades. Sanders’ first run-in with the Raleigh Police, a DWI in 1987, was followed by 15 more convictions, culminating in a felony conviction for cocaine possession in late 2011. Both of them, say Dan and Deonica, were addicts. Deonica recalls the time that, as a teenager, she learned of her mother’s location at a drug den and stormed the premises on a rescue mission.
“My mom’s struggle really affected my brother,” Deonica says. “I don’t judge. God puts people through different battles. That was my parents’ test.”
Deonica tried to hide the realities from Dan and his younger sister, Dakita, but the siblings understood why they lived with their grandparents.
“Sometimes I’d think, Why can’t I be with my father?” Dan says. “But they were going through their problems, so I stayed with my grandparents and I was cool with that.”
The McCullers were a tight clan. They kept mom and dad at a distance, and mom recognized she shouldn’t be around her children in her condition, Deonica says. The household grew emotionally dependent on Deonica, an honor roll student and a self-described “strong black woman.” They went to school together and prayed together. And they ate together. A lot.
A recent graduate of North Carolina Central’s political science program, Deonica is model thin (Dakita too). As kids though, it was more obvious that Deonica and Big Dan were brother and sister. Their grandfather, Donnie Ray, weighed 400 pounds when he was younger. The grandparents were wise enough to keep the parents away, but no one in the McCullers home had a firm grasp on proper nutrition. Grandma fixed three meals a day. There was fried chicken, baked chicken, candied yams, turnip salad, boiled potatoes, collard greens, squash, macaroni and cheese, turkey, lasagna, spaghetti, chicken, steak, chicken-fried steak, bread rolls, pineapple cake, chocolate cake, sweet potato pie… Between meals, Dan snacked on potato chips and fruit gummies.
There was a feast every Sunday, and lunch was nothing like the chicken Caesar salad Big Dan picks at at the Cheesecake Factory. Or the “nothing but greens” meals his girlfriend whips up when they’re together.
Donnie Ray has a pig smoker in the backyard. He would cook a pig whole and eat everything, even the eyes. The kids ate the chitlins (intestine) and feet until they found it gross.
They didn’t want for anything but the attention of their parents, who are now sober, Deonica says. Donnie Ray, a former prison guard, didn’t want Dan playing football. But Deonica the cheerleader insisted he try out again as a freshman. Dan showed up on the first day and all but refused to speak to his inquisitive coaches.
“We’re like, who is this big ol’ kid,” says former Southeast defensive coordinator Marvin Burke. “Daniel wouldn’t say a word. Finally he told us where he went to middle school and that his sister went to the high school. Then we went and asked the sister questions.”
Dan had been picked on so much, Deonica says, “he felt he needed to be quiet to avoid attention.”
Burke rode him for the next three years, running him and two other big boys into the dirt at every opportunity. Before he was Big Dan or Mount McCullers or Man Mountain, he was Burke’s “Big Baby.” When Burke wanted Dan to rise to an occasion in practice, he’d tell him he was “softer than baby tissue.” Dan would get upset, then he’d get a tackle for loss. In a game against rival Garner High, the offense ran a trap play at Dan with an interior blindside block. Dan stuffed the swinging lineman, stuffed the ballcarrier, then reached in and tore the ball out of his hands. He secured the loose ball with one hand. Upon jogging to the sidelines with teammates hollering congratulations, Burke went to get in on the fun.
“I’m trying to chest bump him and he’s looking at me like, Coach, no,” Burke says. “He just went and sat down. But you could tell he cared.”
If they couldn’t get him fired up, they planned to at least help him slim down. He would make progress, then return after a break with 20 extra pounds. At one point during senior year he weighed 420. College programs dismissed him for the most part, figuring he was sloppy big and unmotivated. Then they saw him get in a stance and blow off the ball. Even at 400 pounds, he could dunk a basketball.
With a 1.8 GPA, he landed at Georgia Military College on scholarship. The summer and early-fall heat was oppressive, the danger of passing out very real. Dan drank a lot of water and ate a lot of baked chicken and flavorless white rice. The pounds melted off again. Derek Dooley’s staff at Tennessee welcomed him in January 2012 and plugged a 360-pound McCullers into their 3-4 defense at nose tackle. After the season, he earned a third-round grade from the draft advisory board. Only then did he think he might have a future in football.
“I was thinking the NFL was such a high level,” Dan says. “Then I saw that third-round grade and I figured somebody liked me.”
He returned for his senior season to add a little polish. But Dooley was fired, and new coach Butch Jones installed a 4-3 defense that required defensive tackles to get significant penetration. Big Dan is a roadblock, not a panzer. Beyond that, coaches had a difficult time understanding his demeanor. That spring, players and coaches were shocked to see Dan step in for a teammate in a one-on-one hitting drill, drive the man back 25 yards and dump him on his back. The teammate had previously punked one of Dan’s friends, says UT defensive line coach Steve Stripling.
“He never said much,” Stripling says, “but you would hear that he was very much one of the boys, clowning around with his peers.”
Spend an hour with Dan and the jokester shines through.
His death-row-last-meal request: “Everything from KFC.”
I ask him if he’s any good at Madden. “Yea, I’m probably the best,” he says. At Tennessee? Of the Steelers’ rookies? “In the game… like, in the world.”
A UT assistant coach once asked Dan if he ever gets pissed.
He relays one laugh-out-loud combine anecdote: While most of the questions from teams were cookie cutter and repetitive, the Browns tested prospects’ problem-solving abilities. With the camera rolling, the question was: You have one minute: Name all the different things you can do with a brick.
Dan hesitated for a moment. Well, you can build a house, and you can build a mailbox…
“And then I kind of froze up, and I just stared at the camera. I didn’t know what to say. I was trying to keep it normal. I didn’t want to say smash somebody in the face or smash a window.”
There were more serious questions too, coming from several teams that wondered if Dan actually loved football. Tennessee coaches could testify to flashes of on-field brilliance. They knew Dan but they didn’t really know him. Coaches and scouts asked him, “Do you love the game?”
“I got that a couple times from certain teams,” Dan says. “My agent would tell me, teams were kind of iffy because they thought I didn’t have the passion for the game. But I do love the game. I love being around my teammates. I love playing football. I wouldn’t be out there killing myself for no reason.”
On draft day he fell past the third, all the way to the last selection of Round 6, pick 215. But he wasn’t angry. All he wants, he says, is an opportunity.
Today he’s got a locker, team-issued clothes, a room at the Spring Hill Suites down the street from the team facility and a brand new driver’s license, his first. His locker is across from Troy Polamalu’s, leaving him in awe on Day 1. At lunch he finishes all the Caesar salad he dare, leaving half of it for the amused waiter to take away. He remembers his biggest transformation to date—when he arrived in Knoxville for his senior year at 347 pounds, 13 fewer than he was a few months back. He spent that summer eating alone in what had been his cholesterol mecca, Grandma’s house. Within sniffing distance of her buffet, he prepared the plastic bag, pre-made salads they sell at the Food Lion down the street. Torture.
“It was worth it,” he says.