April 10, 2006
58, Number 26
April 10 , 2006
Larger than life
by david raney
The acronyms NFL and Ph.D. don’t generally appear in the same sentence. Common stereotypes insist that the athletically and intellectually gifted inhabit different worlds: Some rush the pass, some rush to class.
Pellom McDaniels III wrecks stereotypes in much the same way he wrecked quarterbacks’ protection as a defensive end. At 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds, a 10-year professional football veteran, he hardly calls to mind stock images of the library-dwelling intellectual. But as a poet, artist, teacher and doctoral candidate in the Institute of Liberal Arts (ILA), McDaniels is a far cry from the cartoon dumb jock.
In fact, much of his work at Emory is directed at just such divisive illusions. McDaniels is a scholar of the role African American bodies play in society—as athletes, yes, but also as symbols and screens onto which we project various cultural assumptions. His dissertation investigates the influence of race, class and sports participation in African American masculine identity.
Having made his living using his body for a decade, McDaniels can speak with authority on these questions. He has a quiet voice but strong opinions. In reviewing a book of photographs of black athletes, for example, he suggests that such “fetishized” black bodies, while seeming to offer images of beauty and power, actually “do more harm than good” by opening an uncrossable “chasm” for African American boys and men.
In 1999 McDaniels wrote a book, called So You Want to Be a Pro?, to help young people understand not only the odds against reaching the level of their sports heroes (roughly 10,000 to 1) but the value of shaping athletic skills into job skills. As McDaniels puts it, “I tell kids, ‘I’m not going to say don’t try to reach your dream. But let’s say you make it. Then what?’”
McDaniels’ scholarship, like his life, looks past football. He has written and lectured on jazz, art and film. A recently published essay, “We’re American Too: The Negro Leagues and the Philosophy of Resistance,” ranges from baseball to Nietzsche, from movies to the blues, from novelist Ralph Ellison to poet Sterling Brown. Brown, one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, is an especially apt reference; McDaniels’ first book, a volume of poetry called My Own Harlem, explores memory, music and culture in the historic 18th & Vine district of his adopted Kansas City.
McDaniels arrived in Atlanta via San Jose, where he grew up, and Oregon State University, where he studied fine arts, political science, and finally, communications. (“I learned that I like to talk,” he said, “A lot—about everything.”) A football star at Oregon state, he decided to give the pro game a try and spent two seasons with the Birmingham Fire of the World League of American Football, then eight years in the National Football League—six with the Kansas City Chiefs and two as an Atlanta Falcon—before hanging up his pads in 2000 after an injury.
Even amid the physical rigors of professional sport and the various temptations of fame, McDaniels had his eye on bigger things. He “wove himself into the fabric of Kansas City,” in the words of Chiefs teammate and NFL immortal Marcus Allen, by hosting a television show and devoting countless hours to charitable activities. Higher education was definitely part of his plan.
“It was always evident that Pellom was going to go for another degree,” said Pro Bowler Will Shields, who lined up at guard opposite McDaniels during six years of Chiefs practices. “He believes that education is the key to success, and he was always so animated in whatever he did, on and off the field. If I had to describe him in one word, it might be ‘determined.’”
That determination, plus a passion for the arts, led McDaniels to make his mark in another field: philanthropy. When two Kansas City public schools dropped their arts programming, McDaniels approached a local community foundation about starting a nonprofit. The result was Arts for Smarts, an after-school program, designed to help disadvantaged children of all ages “cultivate a voice” through art and community involvement. Elementary school kids, for instance, painted a mural at Crispus Attucks School, helped out by college students from the nearby Art Institute. Older children meet at city libraries for reading groups and creative writing, and high school kids visit job sites (law offices, hospitals, businesses) to begin visualizing life after school.
“The arts are important in helping children grow emotionally and learn about themselves,” McDaniels says. “I always ask kids, ‘What makes you feel free?’ Then we work toward finding that.”
For this and other projects, USA Today named McDaniels one of the nation’s “Most Caring Athletes” in 2000. And despite their move to Atlanta, he and his wife Navvab (a master’s student in the Rollins School of Public Health) remain active in Arts for Smarts, which in 1998 won recognition from the President’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities as a national model.
“Pellom is a treasure,” said Harriet Mayor Fulbright, the committee’s executive director. “He thinks about how to make the world a better place for children with the same energy and discipline he brings to football.”
McDaniels now has two children of his own, Ellington (4) and Sophie (1), and if this weren’t enough to keep any one person busy, he plays a bit of piano, has tried designing clothes, dabbles in art and even holds a patent. An uncomfortable trip to the dentist one day yielded an idea for a lubricant to make both patients’ and dentists’ experience smoother. (It goes by the brand name Dr. Brizzly.)
However long his list of hobbies and interests, though, McDaniels is at Emory to earn a Ph.D. in the arts & sciences. (He’ll be the first ex-NFL player since the 1960s to do so.) His scholarship continues to flow—this year he’ll publish biographical sketches of photographer Gordon Parks, poet James Weldon Johnson and Joe Louis, among others—and so does the praise from his professors and students.
Associate Professor Irene Browne, who taught McDaniels sociological methods, lauded his “great enthusiasm and love of learning” and “professionalism and poise.” Said ILA Director Kevin Corrigan, “Pellom has the kind of academic vision you’d want in any department, plus enough human warmth for several departments.” Professor Dana White, one of McDaniels’s dissertation advisors, calls him one of the hardest workers he’s known and “an incredibly fast learner.”
On the other side of the desk, students are equally impressed. Monique Ducille said McDaniels is “one of the top three instructors I have ever had: friendly, engaging, with an extensive knowledge of his subject. I really can’t say enough about him.” Chaim Nelson agreed, adding, “He challenged my ways of thinking. He knows how to keep class discussions vibrant, open to controversy, but still on topic. A great teacher and person.”
This kind of praise tends to embarrass McDaniels, who is as self-effacing as it’s possible to be for a man of his stature. But it seems part of his nature to make an imprint wherever he goes. “There’s nobody like Pellom,” Corrigan said, with a words-fail-me smile. “He’s larger than life.”
This article first appeared in the Spring 2006 Quadrangle and is reprinted with permission.