SHEBOYGAN FALLS, Wis. -- Mike Daniels still remembers being a college sophomore at Iowa when he saw the Green Bay Packers take defensive tackle B.J. Raji with the ninth-overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft.
Like Daniels, Raji was only a shade over 6-foot. And like Daniels, he’d grown up in New Jersey, which both men would credit in part for their born-and-bred toughness.
"He was a guy who, when I watched him get drafted, I said, 'Wow, I’m 6-foot-nothin', 250 pounds. This guy’s only 6-foot tall. All I have to do is put on [weight] and then I’ll have a chance, too," Daniels recalled Tuesday night after winning Professional Athlete of the Year at the fifth annual Wisconsin Sports Awards. (The Packers officially list Daniels at 6-foot and listed Raji at 6-2.)
Three years later, the Packers drafted Daniels, too, and he and Raji spent four seasons together -- before the 29-year-old Raji, an unrestricted free agent, decided last month that he would not play in 2016. Whether Raji’s decision is a one-year hiatus or a permanent retirement remains to be seen, but he gave Daniels no indication that he was even considering such a thing.
"I got blindsided," Daniels said, echoing the surprise that Packers team president Mark Murphy felt, as well as others in the organization. "It’s tough, because B.J. and I developed a really good relationship, friendship. I kept tabs on him [after he was drafted], and then I got to line up with him for a few years. To hear him, a guy I look up to, tell me, 'You push me to get better,' that just made me want to continue to work the way I work.
"It’s just really tough to see him step away, but whatever’s best for him, God be with him. We’ll just have to work around it."
Raji was one the Packers’ most respected veteran voices on defense, and when he missed all of the 2014 season with a ruptured biceps tendon, he stuck around all year to serve as the team’s de facto assistant defensive line coach. Daniels, who has always been a more vocal-style leader, knows he’ll have to add to his leadership responsibilities this year without his big brother.
What Daniels doesn’t know is whether he’ll ever get to play with Raji again.
"I’m not sure," Daniels said. "He’s a guy who loves the game. If he is [done], he’ll probably end up being a coach or working in the front office somewhere or be a scout. He loves football, and I know he’ll be around football whether he comes back or not."