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2012 SEASON PREVIEW: Panthers’ defense boosted by ‘Columbus Connection’

Despite leading the SIFL in picks last year with 18 and earning Defensive MVP honors the last four years, Damian Daniels didn’t feel appreciated by the Columbus Lions, so he left to join their biggest rivals, the Albany Panthers. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Despite leading the SIFL in picks last year with 18 and earning Defensive MVP honors the last four years, Damian Daniels didn’t feel appreciated by the Columbus Lions, so he left to join their biggest rivals, the Albany Panthers. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

ALBANY — Damian Daniels has landed in Albany, right there in the middle of the Panthers’ secondary — and in the heart of the enemy.

It’s true.

Albany’s Panthers not only signed the best player from their biggest rival in one of the strangest twists in arena football this offseason, but Daniels couldn’t be happier to be in the Good Life City and playing for the team that he once hated — a team that won the Southern Indoor Football League title a year ago.

“I’m a winner, and that’s one of the reasons I’m here,’’ Daniels said.

The league is new (Albany is now playing in the Professional Indoor Football League) and there are a few new faces for the Panthers, but none bigger than Daniels, a defensive back who is a four-time Defensive MVP.

He won it two years in a row in the American Football League in 2008 and 2009, and then won it the past two seasons in the SIFL, playing with Columbus all four seasons.

That’s right, Columbus, Albany’s biggest rival.

Irony lives in the arena football leagues.

Columbus and Albany have battled the last two seasons in the SIFL, where Columbus won the title in 2010 after finishing in second place behind Albany in the regular season. But the Panthers won it all a year ago after battling Columbus all season long in a rivalry that became as heated as any in the indoor league.

Daniels, who was born and raised in Columbus, was the face of the Columbus franchise, but he left the Lions because he said he felt they had let him down.

“It’s a long story,’’ Daniels said after Panthers practice this week. “It was a pride issue, and a lack of communication. That’s what it boils down to. They failed to communicate. I felt there was no point in staying there.’’

But it wasn’t just an issue about Daniels. He said he felt the franchise didn’t treat his teammates and other team leaders well.

“The same guys who were the veterans there, they turned their backs on them,’’ Daniels said. “It seems like they wanted to start over and go in a different direction. I didn’t agree with some of the moves and decided to go elsewhere.’’

Albany made sense in every way for Daniels, who is a high school coach at Brookstone in Columbus, where he is the football team’s defensive coordinator and an assistant basketball coach. He still lives in Columbus but makes the 90-mile drive to Albany three or four times a week for practices and games.

“Either I was going to be playing here or no place,’’ he said. “I’m from Columbus, and I know some of the guys on this (Panthers) team.’’

Panthers quarterback Cecil Lester and Daniels are friends, and when Lester found out Daniels might be leaving Columbus, he did his best to recruit him.

“Cecil would call me and talk to me about coming here. We kept in touch,’’’ Daniels said. “I didn’t make the decision until the week before I signed.’’

Lester said he wanted Daniels for a couple of reasons.

“It’s a blessing to have him on our team. And it will help my stats,” said Lester, laughing at the obvious.

Last year, Daniels had four interceptions in one game against Lester in Columbus.

“He probably has six or seven against me over the last two years,’’ Lester said.

Daniels picks off everyone. He is always leading the league in interceptions and last year he had a career-high 18 interceptions to win his fourth MVP award in a row.

“His numbers tell you what kind of player he is,’’ Panthers coach Lucious Davis said. “He’s a player. He’s smart. He knows what’s coming. He knows the game. He knows the angles (of arena football).”

The Panthers lost one of the top defensive backs in the league when Demetrie McCray left to play for another league, but they found the perfect replacement.

“He’s on my team now,’’ said Panthers receiver John Harris, who had to compete against Daniels the last two years. “When you go against him you have to bring your A game. He’s a four-time MVP for a reason.’’

Harris said Daniels has the lethal combination of intelligence and speed that all great defensive backs have.

“He’s a ball hawk,’’ Harris said. “The thing that makes him so good is his quickness and he’s smart. He’s tough and he knows the game. He’s been playing so long. He understands what you are trying to do to him. When he got here, we welcomed him with opened arms.’’

There is so much scoring in arena football that defensive backs who can pick off passes and end drives are at a premium.

“He has an uncanny ability to seek out the ball,’’ Lester said. “He’s as quick as a cat. He’s one of the best players for the past four years. That’s not hard to see.’’

It was a natural fit.

“I talked to him (about coming here),’’ Lester said. “I told him, ‘Hey, if they don’t want you, we’ll be glad to have you.’ ”

It was a win-win situation for everyone in Albany.

“I felt comfortable here the first day,’’ said Daniels, who is now in the same secondary with Levance Richmond, one of the top defensive backs in the league.

“When we were on the field together the first time, we connected,’’ Daniels said of Richmond. “It felt right from the beginning. I felt accepted. They welcomed me with opened arms.’’

Now there’s nothing left to do except beat Columbus and win another title.

“I’m here for the same reason everyone else is here — to win a championship,’’ Daniels said. “I know what these guys can do. I respected them when I played against them. And now I’m playing with them. We want to win a championship.’’