Former Iowa star Danan Hughes spoke with The Spun on a wide variety of topics.
Danan Hughes grew up in Bayonne in Northern New Jersey, but made his mark on the gridiron in America’s Heartland for the Iowa Hawkeyes (1988-1992) and Kansas City Chiefs (1993-98). We spoke with Hughes recently about his background, playing career and more.
The Spun: What was the recruiting process like for you in the late 1980s?
DH: It wasn’t as crazy as it is now. It didn’t seem like as much of a business as it is now. You didn’t have any of the three-star, four-star, five-star stuff. It seemed like if you were an athlete, or a specific position, they found you. I was a product of [former Nebraska linebacker] Ernie Beler being an all-state linebacker and running back, and people coming to see him. They found me. I kind of fit the mold of what I think a lot of the schools were looking for athletically and size-wise–6-foot-2, 195 pounds, three-sport athlete. When I was being recruited, every school told me I could come in and play whatever I wanted to: wide receiver, defensive back or quarterback. I chose wide receiver; I had never played wide receiver but I chose that position. Iowa and Nebraska were the furthest west schools I had. Everything else was up-and-down the East Coast: Penn State, Syracuse, Maryland, Rutgers, Boston College. It wasn’t as crazy from a business perspective and the exposure perspective but it was still a scrambling time trying to squeeze in visits and talk to coaches and still play high school basketball.
The Spun: Ultimately, what made you feel that Iowa was the place for you? Was there any adjustment coming from Bayonne, in North Jersey, and being out in Iowa?
DH: Well the biggest adjustment is that I didn’t have any really good Italian food or pizza. That was a major adjustment. But one thing I knew is that I wasn’t going to be as successful as I needed to be if I had stayed closer to home. I know that sounds kind of crazy, but because of the social lifestyle of New York City and the friends and all the stuff I had, I just kinda knew that I needed to get away and be my own person and mature and grow on my own. That’s what was a draw to me out to Iowa.
When I got to the campus on my visit, obviously it’s out in the middle of nowhere. It’s 11 miles from the airport to the city, so you’re driving through cornfields and cow pastures and then all of a sudden you’re in the middle of Iowa City. I was a little bit thrown off my first time out there, because it was the first time I was on an airplane and the first time I was in Iowa. But I was brought right from the airport to Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and it was for the No. 1 vs. No. 2 Iowa-Iowa State wrestling match. I didn’t know much about wrestling. I didn’t know how big it was in the state of Iowa, didn’t know about Dan Gable and all those guys. It was jam-packed, standing room only, 18,000 people. I remember they walked all the recruits down to the mat side on the floor, and I leaned over to one of the other recruits and said ‘If they get this crazy for wrestling, I can only imagine what they do for football.’ I was pretty much sold right there. It was then just about completing the visit and convincing my parents that it was the right place for me.
Also, my recruiter, Bernie Wyatt, he was from New York. He recruited Ronnie Harmon, Andre Tippett, Dwayne Williams, Jerome Rowan. All the guys from the East Coast that went to Iowa, he was the guy that recruited them. He spoke like us. He talked like New York. I just felt like I could be at home here.
The Spun: Earlier, you mentioned choosing to play wide receiver. In high school, you played quarterback and safety. Why did you ultimately pick a position you had never played before in college? Was it a tough adjustment?
DH: What made me choose it was that, one, it was a challenge. I knew I could throw the ball. I knew I could be a smart enough quarterback, but I didn’t feel like I wanted to be a college quarterback. And then defensive back, I was kind of a character and I wanted to score a lot of touchdowns. I didn’t feel like defensive back was going to open that door for me. Receiver just kind of intrigued me. The first time I lined up at wide receiver was the first day of camp at the University of Iowa. But I knew I could always catch, I always had good hands, and it just kind of elevated from there. I was fortunate that the offensive coordinator at Iowa was Bill Snyder. The great coaching that he imparted to me in my first year–attention to detail, knowing what your responsibilities are, being where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there, not fooling the quarterback, offensive schemes and all the terminology–that was the best coaching I ever received in my entire life, even through the pros. I was very fortunate that my initial indoctrination into the wide receiver position, I was able to be coached by a Hall of Fame coach who was able to mold me.
The Spun: At Iowa, you set a lot of records and won a lot of games. You even played in a Rose Bowl. But the one thing everybody remembers and talks about is the ‘Snow Angel’ celebration after the touchdown against Minnesota your junior year (1991). How did that come about?
DH: (Laughs). That was a crazy day because the snowstorm came on. We were in a team hotel in Cedar Rapids, and we didn’t even know if we were going to make it to the game. That’s how bad it was. We got to the game and the field was covered. You couldn’t see the yard lines. It was natural grass so you couldn’t really sweep off the field. All they did was use a snowblower on the yard lines. The first downs were approximate. Before the game, getting off the bus, I said ‘If I score a touchdown, I’m going to do a snow angel.’ I scored two touchdowns that day; after the first one, I did the snow angel. To this day, twenty-something years later, every time I meet an Iowa person or go into the state of Iowa, somebody always brings the snow angel up. It never fails. I would have never thought it would have had this type of reaction.
The Spun: Leaving Iowa and going to the Kansas City Chiefs as a rookie, you arrived at the same time as Joe Montana. What was that like to begin your career as a wide receiver playing with a legendary quarterback?
DH: Well, it was calming because he was so down-to-earth. He wasn’t cocky or arrogant. He wasn’t anything that you would expect a superstar to be. I also came in the same year Marcus Allen came to the Kansas City Chiefs. I was fortunate that that first year class consisted of myself, Marcus Allen, Joe Montana and Will Shields, who was drafted with me. That’s three future Hall of Famers. Joe was just a really cool, down-to-earth guy. One of the funny stories about Joe is that on the first day of camp, everybody is kind of walking on eggshells. It’s Joe Montana, and we’re wondering what kind of person he is. We had a team meeting, and he lit a stink bomb in the meeting and we had to evacuate. That just kind of tells you his personality. He just wanted to be one of the guys. He didn’t want people to think he was better than anybody else.
The Spun: Playing in Kansas City when you did (1993-98), what stands out? You were there during a time of a lot of success for the franchise. What was it like playing in front of that fanbase?
DH: I always tell people, up until the new NFL stadiums were built, I played in I think every stadium except for five. There’s no other atmosphere even close to Arrowhead back in the 1990s. The crowd noise, the involvement, the barbecue, the tailgating. It was just insane. We had a lot of Monday and Sunday night games back then because of the star power we had and the types of teams we had. We didn’t lose at home very often. We always felt like we were ahead 7-0 before we even came out of the locker room. It was kind of an attachment onto college and what I had experienced at Iowa. It was just like Iowa 2.0. It was like another college atmosphere in the NFL.
You’re playing on Monday Night Football, and you’ve got Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith bracketing at the outside linebacker positions and Joe Montana throwing touchdowns and Marcus Allen running the ball. It was a star-studded type of event. I was fortunate to be a part of it.
The Spun: What is it like now? How often are you back in Kansas City at the games and what has it like seeing the franchise have a resurgence in recent years?
DH: I go to every home game. I’m part of the Chiefs Ambassadors program, and I also do the Chiefs’ post-game show from the stadium. It’s a similar atmosphere. It is a little bit different because they did some construction on the stadium and now there are indoor areas in the stadium. Back in the 90s, you were there in the stadium. You had nowhere to go. Now, they can go inside to different areas and not be a factor as far as crowd noise. It’s a little bit different, but it’s still an amazing place to play. The fans are faithful, they’re rabid. They love their Chiefs and their Royals. It’s still a special environment.
The Spun: Going more into your broadcasting career, what has that been like for you? You mentioned you do Chiefs games. I know you’ve worked with the BTN. What are all your broadcasting responsibilities? How did you get involved in that?
DH: I went to college at Iowa and my major was Broadcasting Communications. I didn’t know that I wanted to be in that field quite honestly. I felt comfortable with the media. I had a radio show for two or three years while I was playing with the Chiefs. It was kind of a natural transition going from a one-hour radio show every Monday to doing post-game shows and keys to victory type of shows. I never had an agent or anybody marketing me. I just kind of did word of mouth and availability. Opportunities just kept arising. Right now, I do college football for ESPN3. I do college baseball for the BTN and some college football for the BTN as well. I do college basketball for ESPN3. I do the Chiefs pre and post-game shows, and I do radio in Kansas City four times a week on different radio segments about the Chiefs. I do a lot of public speaking with the Chiefs ambassadors and autograph sessions an meet-and-greets. The broadcasting has been a blessing because it allows me to keep one foot in the locker room and talk about the sports I love.
The Spun: How important is giving back to the community for you? I know you’ve been back to Bayonne recently to speak to the baseball team and you also went back there when you were playing. I know you had some involvement in the local community when you were with the Chiefs and even now as well.
DH: It’s huge. Lamar Hunt, the former owner of the Chiefs, he really instilled [that] early on. If you go back and look at photos of Arrowhead Stadium in the early 1990s, you’ll notice pictures of the players all around the ring of the field and all the foundations that each player was involved in. He really instilled in every a player a passion of giving back to the community. I’m still able to do that through the Chiefs Ambassadors.
As far as Bayonne, I was raised in a way that you don’t forget where you come from. That’s where I came from. I want the best for those kids. I didn’t have any college kids or pros coming to speak to us at assemblies. When I went to work out, I just worked out and did what I thought I was supposed to be doing. I didn’t have anybody that was doing drills with me or showing me techniques. That’s something that stuck with me. As I was going through my career, even when I was in college, I wanted to be a part of the high school program and show kids certain techniques and ways to do things…I still do that to this day. It’s definitely a priority to me. I don’t do it for any kind of acknowledgement. I do it because I feel like it is my obligation when I go back home.
The Spun: Lastly, you were a three-sport star (baseball, basketball, football) in high school and you were also drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers. How important is it that young kids play multiple sports in an era where specialization is becoming more commonplace? Did being a multi-sport athlete help you when it finally came time to focus on one sport?
DH: Well, you touched a little bit of a nerve there because this is one of the subjects that really gets under my skin. I could go on for hours on this. I truly believe one of the biggest abominations of college sports or athletics in general is the specialization. The idea that kids that are 14, 15, 16 years old are supposed to know exactly what they want to do, what they are really good at or what they are able to do well enough to get a college scholarship is insane. High school coaches that preach it or pressure kids to do it are out of their minds, and it’s ridiculous. Joe Paterno recruited me at Penn State, and he used to say he didn’t want to see the football film. He wanted to come see me play basketball. And the reason why he wanted to come see me play basketball was because he wanted to see what I looked like, what my physique looked like, how physical I was, if I was a crybaby, what my facial expressions looked like, how I acted and interacted with players on the court. You can’t see that in a helmet and shoulder pads. So you have that aspect, but then there’s also the fact I wouldn’t have been a good punt returner if I hadn’t been able to go back on fly balls in the outfield. I was on the hands team on onside kicks because I knew how to field a ground ball. Being able to use your body in different ways and leverage and physicality in basketball in the paint helps you in football. So I’m a strong proponent of guys playing multiple sports and figuring things out as they go along. I hate it when I hear coaches or some parents talk about specialization or the pressure on kids.
Note: Danan Hughes’ interview is part of a series of Q&As we’re doing with former college standouts. You can read our recent interviews with Terrance Howard here, Ron Bellamy here, Eric Devendorf here, Kenny Guiton here and Jared Zabransky here.