The idea of transitioning from a successful seven-year NFL career to a teaching position at one of the country’s most prestigious universities doesn’t fit the archetype of the retired athlete struggling to find his niche in the real world.

But Pellom McDaniels is simply continuing to strive for what he set out to achieve as a child.    

“I had three goals when I grew up,” McDaniels said. “I wanted to be a professional football player, I wanted to be a prolific discus thrower and I wanted to be a college professor. Education has always been a part of who I’ve been while I was developing.”

Although stardom in the discus throw wasn’t in the cards (he competed for two years in college), McDaniels persevered to turn his other two goals from dreams to realities. After playing for the Birmingham Fire of the World Football League for two seasons, he broke into the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993, playing six seasons with the Chiefs before finishing his playing career with the Atlanta Falcons in 1999.

By the time his playing career was coming to an end, McDaniels’ interest was piqued by what he perceived as management’s and the media’s uneven treatment and portrayal of African-American players.

“Black athletes were treated differently in how they negotiated their contracts versus how white athletes did,” he said. “I thought, ‘There’s something here that’s not being disclosed. A tension that we don’t discuss publicly.’”

McDaniels pursued that interest by earning his master’s degree and Ph.D. in American Studies at Emory University in Atlanta. Around the same time, the short-lived, albeit popular, television show Playmakers was offering the public a purportedly realistic look at the inner workings of an NFL locker room. Having spent over a decade with elite college and professional teammates, the chasm between McDaniels’ experiences and those of the fictitious Cougars couldn’t have been wider.

“One of the things that has to be clear is the media is in the business of telling stories,” he said. “When Playmakers was on TV there was an interview with one of the producers of the show, and he said, ‘We have to make it this really preposterous scenario because, in reality, athletes’ lives are boring. They come home from work, wash their cars, go to the grocery store with their families. We have to make it interesting.’”

McDaniels, meanwhile, was in search of a more nuanced account of black athletes’ contributions to 20th century America. In order to find what he was looking for, he followed history to the late 19th century, when the world’s top jockey was Isaac Burns Murphy, an African American from Lexington, Kentucky, who became the first jockey to win three Kentucky Derbys. After reading through glowing newspaper stories about Murphy’s talents, McDaniels realized nobody had written a biography about the man who was abruptly cast aside when African-Americans were banned from the track.

Last September, McDaniels penned The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy, which details Murphy’s promising childhood, his mother’s untimely death that nudged him toward his career as a jockey, and the surrounding cultural and political circumstances that contributed to his downfall.

When he’s not busy with his day jobs as an assistant professor of African American Studies and the faculty curator of African American collections in Emory library, McDaniels is either working on one of his five book projects – “They’re all in the 70-80 percent range, and I just need some time to finish up,” – or having dinner with notables including the author Salman Rushdie.

Having now spent more time in academia than he did in the glamorous world of pro football, McDaniels appreciates the contributions of both in molding the person he has become, declining to crown one as more fulfilling than the other.

“It’s all good,” he said. “All of it. I have had the most wonderful opportunities, and I think it will continue to evolve that way. It’s been a wonderful life. I’m still doing what I enjoy, and that’s what makes it all worth doing.”