By Dustin Dopirak for DKPittsburghSports.com
The words “Everything Happens For A Reason” are tattooed in cursive at the peak of Jordan Dangerfield’s left shoulder.
Just below on his left bicep is tattooed a picture of the man who taught him that life philosophy, his father, David.
Right below that are tattooed an acronym and a word that would give him every right to doubt that philosophy. It says, “RIP Dad,” because David died of a heart attack in 2009 at the age of 51.
But Jordan has never let his father’s death shake his faith, because his father didn’t let anything destroy his. David was a New York City firefighter for 18 years. He lost friends and co-workers when the World Trade Center was brought down by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, and he worked at Ground Zero after the attack.
“It’s something I live by,” Dangerfield said after the Steelers practice Friday. “Everything happens for a reason. It’s something my dad lived by. I just got it from him.”
For that reason, Dangerfield said he believes his father would be proud of him now.
Almost four years after Dangerfield’s final game as a collegian at Towson, he is on the active roster of an NFL team for the first time.
And now, after being cut in his first year out of school in 2013 and spending the past two seasons on practice squads, he will likely start at strong safety for the Steelers at 8:30 p.m. Sunday against the Chiefs at Heinz Field. Starter Robert Golden is out with a strained hamstring, and backup Sean Davis is dealing with a back injury.
“I can just picture his smile, looking down right now, his feeling,” Dangerfield said. “Probably bragging with his little smile on. I know he’s excited.”
David Dangerfield was off work that morning.
He had been part of Squad 270, based in the Richmond Hill section of Queens, and he had finished a shift not long before the first plane hit Tower 1. He was getting ready to leave his home in Elmont on Long Island to respond when his wife, Erica, a member of the New York Police Department’s Crime Scene Division at the time, stopped him.
“He was getting himself ready,” Erica said. “I said, ‘We’re on mandatory recall, we’re not going down there.’ He said, ‘We have to go.’ I said, ‘We’re not both going down there at the same time. We gotta stay home and wait for one of us to get the phone call.’ I got the phone call that day.’ ”
She was still home to see his reaction when the towers collapsed and he realized that hundreds of people he had worked with at multiple New York City fire stations had passed.
“His spirit was crushed,” she said. “There were so many people he had just got off work with. He wasn’t really ready to go down there.”
David later went to the scene to help dig through the rubble with FDNY’s ground operations team. She was there to recover and photograph the bodies of the fallen.
The attack and their work with the recovery team shook both of them, but she could tell the experience was different for him.
“There’s a difference between firefighters and police officers,” Erica said. “If we could all choose the way that we would go, most of us want to die of old age. They want to die in the line of duty, going in there, doing the job that they love and saving lives. My husband loved his job. So it took a lot out of him. … Out of the 300 firefighters that died that day, he probably knew at least half of them.”
For a while, David dealt with survivor’s guilt, wondering why it was that he lost so many friends and why his life was spared. But he fell back on his old philosophy to guide him through it.
“Sometimes everything happens for a reason,” Erica said. “He realized it wasn’t his time. He asked himself, ‘Why wasn’t I there?’ But he realized, ‘because there’s more for you to do.’ ”
David took a medical retirement from the fire department in 2002, but he remained active in public service. He was appointed by then-Governor George Pataki as the coordinator of Bioterrorism for New York State in the Department of Health, Emergency Management, coordinating drills and protocols for disasters for vulnerable sites throughout the state.
And when he wasn’t working that job, he was working with children, not only he and Erica’s seven kids, but others throughout Elmont, N.Y., and then in retirement in Palm Beach, Fla., when the family moved there in 2005. He was known in both towns by the nickname “Papa D.”
“He was always a very big mentor,” Erica said. “… And he always taught people that if something doesn’t go your way today, that doesn’t mean it never will. He kept encouraging people to continue following their dreams.”
That approach to life had a profound effect on Jordan, because his dream didn’t come easy.
Erica first saw Jordan’s bravery on a football field when he was 18 months old.
Jordan’s older brother Anthony was about 10 at the time playing for a youth league team called the Elmont Cardinals. Jordan saw players trying to tackle his brother, so he ran out on the field and ended up in a pile of players in full pads and helmets.
“All I could do is go, ‘Oh, my God, my baby is dead,’ ” Erica said. “But he comes out from the bottom of the pile. He’s not crying but he said, ‘They bust my head.’ There wasn’t anything actually wrong with his head. But I just said, ‘Are you kidding me?'”
He put his own pads on to begin his own football career at 7 years old. He played baseball, as well. His mother said he was just as good a shortstop as he was a defensive back, and he might have been more physically suited to that sport. He was always on the short and skinny side, and even now he is listed at 5 feet 11, 199 pounds, but he had good instincts and he relished contact.
That was what stood out to Darren Studstill, the former West Virginia quarterback who was head coach at Royal Palm Beach High School for Dangerfield’s senior year.
“Just fearless,” Studstill said “He was fearless to stick his nose in there. And his enthusiasm was infectious. He was one of those kids. … I don’t think Jordan was super fast, but he would make up for the speed factor with effort. And he would knock your head off if he got two feet from you.”
Dangerfield recorded a total of 18 interceptions in three years at Royal Palm Beach, earning second-team All-Florida honors as a senior in 2008 and helping the school to three consecutive district championships.
He received some recruiting interest from Football Bowl Subdivision schools but ultimately no offers. The Football Championship Subdivision teams were much more interested, and ultimately gave him a chance to go back to his childhood home. Hofstra, located on Long Island, close to Elmont, offered him a scholarship, and he accepted.
David was ecstatic.
“He was just excited for me coming out of high school getting a scholarship to an FCS school,” Jordan said. “He was excited and bragging right before I went to college.”
But he didn’t get to see it happen.
David Dangerfield had a heart attack Aug. 1, 2009, just six days before Jordan was set to go to Hofstra for preseason practice. He had been a part of the Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Harlem, and even though he had attended “Christ Fellowship” in Royal Palm Beach, according to his obituary, his body had to be buried within 72 hours according to Jewish traditions.
Three days after the burial, Jordan was in Hempstead.
“At Hofstra, they were concerned it was too soon because he was still grieving,” Erica said. “I said, ‘No, he needs it to keep his mind off of it. It won’t be as impactful or as detrimental if you’re doing something you love.’ He was putting that emotion into it and it made his drive even that much more. Wanted to fulfill his dreams for his father because of all of the time his father had invested in him.”
The Pride eased him into action slowly as a freshman, but he ended up playing in eight games and starting one, recording 23 tackles and an interception.
But everything was thrown into limbo on Dec. 3, 2009, when he learned that neither he nor anyone else would be playing at Hofstra the following season. The school had decided to discontinue the program.
“That was very devastating for him,” Erica said.
But Jordan felt his father guiding him on his next step. Towson, a school that was in Hofstra’s conference, the Colonial Athletic Association, was the most interested. When he drove to visit the school in suburban Baltimore that winter, he heard a song on the radio that reminded him of as father. Everything else he experienced during the visit told him it was the perfect fit.
“One thing he does is he looks for certain signs,” Erica said. “… I remember he said, ‘We were looking at it and I could feel daddy’s presence. He does go by a lot of his gut feeling. Certain things just feel right to him. And given those signs and his thought that everything happens for a reason, he decided he belonged there. He was always an underdog growing up, and he wanted to help build up a program.”
That’s exactly what he did.
Dangerfield recorded 258 tackles and was named first-team All-CAA twice in his three seasons at Towson. The Tigers were 2-9 in the season before his arrival and 1-10 in his first year at Towson, but they were 9-3 in his junior year and 7-4 in his senior year, claiming the CAA title outright in 2011 and winning a share of it in 2012.
To some extent, Dangerfield had already overachieved, but he wasn’t yet finished.
‘IT’S A BEAUTIFUL THING’
Dangerfield was signed by the Bills as an undrafted free agent shortly after the 2013 draft, but he was released Aug. 30 of that year, just before the end of training camp.
No calls to join a practice squad followed. He had seen his first college football program fold, but he had never before had to go through a fall without playing on a football team.
“That was the worst feeling,” Dangerfield said. “Being without something you love, watching football every weekend, NFL Sundays, ‘Monday Night Football’ and all of that and just knowing you could probably be out there playing, but I just had to be patient, wait for my opportunity.”
Dangerfield didn’t begin to consider the possibility that his career would be over. He went running every morning and lifted weights in the afternoon, doing footwork drills in between. He didn’t even look for a job that fall because he refused to believe that he had reached life after football.
“He still had that strong attitude,” Studstill said. “He wasn’t like, ‘Oh, what am I going to do, I’m not in the league.’ He had that attitude of, ‘I’m Jordan Dangerfield, and I’m going to make it somewhere somehow.’ I knew if he would get into camp, he would stick somewhere.”
He didn’t get a call throughout the fall, but the Steelers called to offer him a reserve/future contract in January of 2014, which meant a shot at training camp. He didn’t catch on at first, but the Steelers gave him better feedback than he had received the previous year, and they signed him to the practice squad in November. He was released after a month, but then signed again when the season ended in January in 2015. That time, he stuck with the Steelers on the practice squad throughout the 2015 season.
The rest of the Steelers saw Dangerfield keep coming back and gained respect for him as they saw his game evolve.
“It’s a testament to his work ethic,” linebacker Arthur Moats said. “He’s a guy, I want to say in the past three years, he’s had the most transactions with the Steelers in terms of being picked up, being released, practice squad, not on practice squad, things like that. We understand his story, we know how hard he works. Even on a personal level, I know how much he cares about this game and cares about this team in particular.”
The Steelers weren’t necessarily hoping to see him starting at this point in the year, because it comes at the expense of Golden, himself a grinder who had to make his name on special teams before becoming a defensive starter. However, in Dangerfield, they see a player who has earned a chance.
“When Jordan first came to us, he was an OK player,” free safety Mike Mitchell said. “That’s why we put him on practice squad. To see his growth and development over the last two to three years, him actually making the team and now getting an opportunity to get his first start, it’s football justice. It’s a beautiful thing. I know everyone’s happy for him.”
Along with his tattoo, Dangerfield has a photo of his father in his locker room stall above the words of Psalm 91, which tells the reader that if he says, “The Lord is my refuge,” no harm shall overtake him.
Dangerfield looks at that photo every day and imagines David smiling, proud of what his son accomplished by maintaining his faith.
PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Sunday / DKPS