McDaniels, the former NFL defensive lineman who's now a history professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, was a guest speaker Tuesday night as the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum provided its own salute to the legacy of Robinson, 61 years to the day after he broke Major League Baseball's color barrier. McDaniels' academic pursuits after football have included extensive research about Robinson, and his remarks on Tuesday focused on Robinson's childhood, which provided the foundation for shaping Robinson into the man who would ultimately have such a profound effect on American history.
"When you bring your kids to the game, tell them, 'We have Jackie Robinson Day because we weren't always perfect,'" McDaniels said. "This man gave up himself so we can understand what it means to be part of something great."
Through his research, McDaniels came to fully appreciate just how influential Jackie Robinson's mother, Mallie, was in setting a course that would result in her son becoming an American hero.
Jackie Robinson was born in Cairo, Ga., but his mother soon thereafter moved the family from the sharecropper South to Pasadena, Calif., where he experienced the life lessons that would prepare him for what was to come in his adult years.
"Mallie Robinson is one of the most important people when it came to the integration of baseball," McDaniels said.
By the time Brooklyn Dodgers' general manager Branch Rickey met with Robinson regarding the prospect of breaking the color barrier, McDaniels believes those childhood experiences had steeled Robinson for the task ahead.
"In this meeting that lasted more than three hours, Robinson would soul search for the right answers to the questions Rickey would pose to him," McDaniels said. "Robinson had been answering these questions every day of his life, especially as a child growing up in Pasadena, Calif."
McDaniels, 40, grew up in the Bay Area and his athletic talent led to a career in football. He played defensive end for Oregon State and later played for the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons. After retiring from the NFL, McDaniels earned both a Master of Arts and PhD in American history from Emory University. His publications include "We're American Too: The Negro Leagues and the Philosophy of Resistance."
"My grandfather always pushed baseball, but it wasn't until I was an adult that I recognized why baseball is so important," McDaniels said. "Jackie Robinson and all the players from the Negro Leagues helped pave the way for our society."
With each passing year, McDaniels is hopeful that Jackie Robinson Day will help enhance social awareness for everyone.
"There is so much there," McDaniels said. "Not just the fact of what he did, but how he became the man to do it. One can only imagine the weight Jackie carried and the things he had to keep inside. Jackie Robinson was a living martyr who knew exactly what he was doing. He did it because he cared that much about humanity."
Robert Falkoff is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.