SANTA CLARA, Calif. — He remembers, of all things, the plastic pads.
Reaching the Super Bowl for the first time at age 33 makes a man think about his career. Owen Daniels went all the way back — to the Naperville Youth Football League.
It was the first day of football, the start of a weeklong training camp for kids who wanted to try the sport.
“I remember I went to go get equipment and put my helmet on for the first time, putting on shoulder pads on for the first time,” said Daniels, raised a Bengals fan, not a Bears fan. “I had those plastic ones — you know, those fake ones back in the day.
“I fell in love right away.”
That carried the tight end to Naperville Central and then to Wisconsin, which got him drafted in the fourth round by the Texans in 2006. He won a playoff game in 2011 and 2012 there, and in 2014 with the Ravens, but never got further.
Daniels made sure the Broncos would finish higher this season: in the Super Bowl on Sunday against the Panthers.
He caught both of the team’s touchdowns in the AFC championship game – a 21-yarder halfway through the first quarter and a 12-yarder 74 seconds into the second.
“Really why I’m still playing football right now is to get to this opportunity to play in this game,” he said. “Ten years is a long time to wait, but its 100% worth the wait to be in this and have this experience …”
Twice during Super Bowl week, Peyton Manning held Daniels up as a joyous example of the achievement. The Broncos quarterback — who has reached the Super Bowl four times — sits behind Daniels on the team charter, and knows just how excited he is.
“Seeing other people enjoy the moment,” Manning said, “reminds me that I need to enjoy the moment as well.”
Gary Kubiak certainly will. The Broncos head coach and Daniels, professionally, have been inseparable for a decade.
The Texans drafted him in Kubiak’s first season as their head coach, and he left in 2013 when they fired his boss. He followed Kubiak to the Ravens, where he served as offensive coordinator for one season, and then to the Broncos when he replaced John Fox.
Daniels’ versatility is a must in Kubiak’s zone run and play-action offense, and the coach knows how to limit his snaps as age — and knee injuries — have taken its toll.
“I knew he’d be a great guy in the locker room,” Kubiak said. “I told (Broncos GM) John (Elway), ‘You watch the film, but I’ll stand up for him as a person.’
“They watched the film, and the good news is we got him with us. Very proud of him.”
Daniels has stopped to consider the decade of work he’s put in with his coach, who had reached the game as a backup quarterback and assistant coach.
“We wanted to make it to this point a lot sooner than we have,” he said. “But I think it has made it that much more special for both of us that we are at this point in our careers right now.”
Daniels’ experience helped another tight end, Vernon Davis, learn the system after being acquired midseason. Even offensive linemen turn to him.
“He’s damn near a coach himself,” guard Louis Vasquez said.
But he was once a kid in plastic pads running around Naperville. As he approaches the biggest game of his life, he remembers that, too.
“I know a lot of people from back home are supporting me and are proud of me,” he said. “I just want to show my respect for them by going out and playing well and doing everything I can to help this team win.”
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