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‘He was a superstar’: Southern Miss players, coaches reflect on loss of MJ Daniels

MJ Daniels
MJ Daniels was 21 years old when he passed away last week after a fatal shooting in Hattiesburg (photo courtesy of Southern Miss Athletics)

In the week following the fatal shooting of MJ Daniels, a standout Southern Miss defensive back and former Ole Miss Rebel, Golden Eagle players and coaches reflected publicly on the man and teammate Daniels was.

Fourth-year head coach Will Hall described the difficulty of losing an enthusiastic, competitive student-athlete who was months away from getting his college degree.

“We lost a great young man who had a beautiful smile – unbelievable competitive nature,” Hall said. “He was growing as a leader. We always talk about living with the end in mind, and if MJ wanted to be remembered as a competitor, who lifted others up and brought joy to people, then he lived well. I love him. We’re hurting as we go through this. I miss him every day.”

Daniels arrived at Southern Miss ahead of the 2023 season after a pair of years playing for Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss. Ahead of a move to the safety position in 2024, he was already drawing attention as a star defensive back, such as being listed as an NFL draft “prospect to watch” by Athlon Sports. But while his talent was glaring, his coaches and teammates remembered him chiefly for his personality.

“He always had a million-dollar smile on him,” Dylan Lawrence, Daniels’ second cousin and teammate in the Southern Miss defensive backfield, said. “He was always ready to uplift people. This tragedy is crushing me, and I think it’s crushing the team, but we’re trying to get through this together.”

Lawrence said he followed Daniels to Southern Miss after transferring from Mississippi State, making him one of at least three who said Daniels was the reason they ended up in Hattiesburg. The same goes for Elijah Sabbatini, a roommate of Daniels at Ole Miss during their freshman year. Sabbatini explained that he was always being challenged by his old bunkmate to be the best version of himself.

“That was the type of person he was,” Sabbatini said. “He always wanted to get the best out of somebody. He always wanted to push you and let you know he had your back.”

Fellow safety Hayes Puckett and wide receiver Chandler Pittman echoed the sentiments of Daniels’ character and natural capacity for leadership. After moving to the safety position group in the spring, he was already the known leader in the room.

“A lot of people called him ‘superstar’,” Pittman said on Tuesday. “He really was. He lived his life like a superstar.”

Daniels, a Lucedale native, was named a “prospect to watch” by Athlon Sports ahead of the 2024 season (photo courtesy of Southern Miss Athletics)

Pittman and others went on to outline the difficulty of processing a loss like those who knew Daniels have been forced to experience. While it’s far from over, the tragedy has resulted in one thing Daniels had become known for by those in the program during his short time at Southern Miss: bringing people together.

“He had a passion for people,” Puckett said. “Every time I ran into him it made my day better.”

Pittman added that the team has been given no choice but to “grab hold of a brother” in order to wade through the grief of losing their teammate. Will Hall explained that team chaplain Mitch Williams has been instrumental in providing support to the team, along with Dr. Portia Granger, the team’s sports counselor.

“These kids are handling hard so well right now,” Hall said. “That doesn’t mean we’re not leaning on each other and carrying each other’s burden – this is extremely hard. Every Southern Miss fan out there can be proud of these kids, because they’re handling hard as well as any group I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Hall gushed about Daniels’ talent but smiled biggest when describing who the young athlete was off the field. Pictures of the fruit of Daniels’ hunting and fishing labors were constantly texted to Hall, and the pair had developed a tightly wound bond of trust. The final conversation between the two was the day Daniels passed away, in which Hall reminded Daniels that the challenges from Hall were born of affection.

“I texted him and said ‘Man, I know I’m on you hard about this schoolwork, but you know I love you’,” Hall remembered. “He texted me back and said, ‘I love you too, it’s gonna get done.’ And he had done what he was supposed to do that day. He was a guy you could count on. You could depend on him.”

“I could sit here and talk about him all day – a lot of the same stories,” Hall went on to say. “He never made your day worse, and you could always count on him when the going got tough. That’s something I think we all hope people say about us.”

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