NFL dream no longer pie in the sky for Lions lineman Dan Skipper

Detroit News

Allen Park — Four years ago, the Sunday before Thanksgiving was just another mile marker on an endless highway of dessert. But this past Sunday, Dan Skipper’s work day ended with the National Football League’s leader in rushing touchdowns stopping his postgame press conference to shout him out.

“Hi, Skippy. Love you, man. That guy right there…” Lions running back Jamaal Williams said. “I love Skipper. He’s so great.”

Skipper, a 28-year-old offensive lineman, was out of the league in 2018. He prepared for Thanksgiving as a member of the service industry. He baked pies — lots and lots of pies, enough to the point where he’s sworn it off forever — at the Sky High Pie Shop in Frisco, Texas, owned by the parents of his wife, Mackenzie.

His daily tasks included working two batches of pie crust (85 crusts to a batch, he said) and helping out with whatever else the bosses needed.

“The week before Thanksgiving, we knocked out 2,000 pies or something,” Skipper said. “So I don’t eat pie anymore. You’re mixing 35 pounds of pumpkin, nine pounds of cream cheese. Nah, I’m good.”

His preparation for this year’s Thanksgiving is hardly more glamorous, but it is, if nothing else, a dream come true. With the status of Detroit’s typical starting guards — Evan Brown (ankle) and Jonah Jackson (concussion protocol) — up in the air, Skipper is tracking toward making his fourth start of the season on Thanksgiving Day, as the Lions (4-6) look to extend a three-game win streak in welcoming in the Buffalo Bills (7-3).

Taking the hard way

In Week 2, Skipper had his moment in the sun. Formerly an undrafted free agent out of Arkansas, he made his first career start as the Lions handled the Commanders for their first win of the season. The Lions sent him to the podium. He spoke about struggle — the ups and downs of signing his first tryout deal in 2017, getting cut on his birthday, signing to countless more practice squads after that.

It was a nice story — the burly, 6-foot-10, 330-pound lineman visibly overcome with emotion by the success that followed a lifetime of labor. But believe it or not, these stories are common, especially in the NFL, where next-man-up mentality rules with an iron fist. Longtime grinders and practice-squad members getting their shot because of a sudden injury? Happens all the time.

But if he never ends up spending that holiday season at the bakery, it’s possible — maybe even likely — that he never would have gotten back to the league.

“Getting a shot after that — I got signed to Denver, I think it was Week 12 that year, kind of lit a fire under my ass, honestly,” Skipper said. “Just to get another opportunity — I thought I was done. You get back in there, go from there to New England and really get coached up at both places … (it) was unbelievable to get that experience. Change my body and do all those things.”

It’s common to see players like Skipper — no matter how well they play — either immediately get demoted when the starter gets healthy, only for a new draft pick and middling free-agent signing to steepen their climb up the depth chart. They just as often suffer an injury themselves, only for their lack of long-term value as an asset to become an obvious target when shrewd decisions need to be made.

As the football world celebrated Skipper and the viral videos of his triumph, in the back of his mind, he couldn’t shake the feeling.

“At the end of the day, like, every year, there’s 30 of them that come in. As much as you think you’re in the NFL, you’ve got one foot in, one foot out. You gotta go. You don’t have time,” Skipper said. “You can’t be making mistakes and mentals and things like that. Like, you have to go.”

As much of a challenge as that is physically, it’s just as tough mentally. Imagine interning at your dream job for five years, only to walk in the building every day wondering if this is your last day on the job. Imagine your co-worker getting sick, and wondering if the company will have to cut you without notice in order to find a replacement.

“He’s been here a lot, and then we’ve let him go and he’s come back, but he hasn’t given up,” starting veteran tackle Taylor Decker said. “Then, he got an opportunity, played well, so now, if we have guys out, we trust him. So, that just says a lot about him and his resolve and kind of not giving up, because he definitely could have given up multiple times, plenty of times.

“I mean, he just wants to play.”

Turn of the tide

Within those comments from Decker may be a revelation that the luck in Skipper’s life, as it pertains to simply sticking around, may have turned. Skipper is right about the fragility of his mistakes — how a few bad practices or one bad game can collapse months of steadiness.

He got his first start 10 weeks ago and is still here. He got his first NFL contract five years ago and is still here. And yet, at the age of 28 years old, he’s still trying to shake that U-word and the stigma it carries: “Undrafted.”

“Just cause you’re undrafted doesn’t mean you’re expendable. I looked up to Julian Edelman a lot, undrafted guy — Danny Amendola did the same thing. Seeing those guys work, how they carried themselves, like, yeah, they were undrafted, but the amount of value that they brought to that team throughout — you don’t always have to stick with (the undrafted label),” Skipper said.

An extended tenure in Detroit has, however, earned him one thing he hasn’t found anywhere else, the thing that’s kept him from being on the right side of tough decisions at every previous stop — trust. He started and played 100% of the offensive snaps in Weeks 2, 3 and 4 before stepping up with an 81% snap share at right guard on Sunday when Brown got hurt.

“Nobody would give more effort or play harder than him, and everybody plays hard and gives effort. He just cares a lot, and it means a lot to him. I think the coaches might have said it, like, they put him out there because they trust him, and I think that meant a lot to him,” Decker said.

“(Lions quarterback Jared Goff has) said it before. He was like, ‘As long as the guy’s trying’ — even me, like if I get beat — like, are you trying? Do you care if you get beat? Fine, it happens. Every guy gets beat.”

“It goes a long way to care, play hard, invest, give effort. And that’s him.”

All of those positive virtues his teammates throw on him — he doesn’t have to look far for inspiration. Mackenzie and his one-year-old twin boys, Jones and Sam, provide plenty.

While Skipper forges a lane in football, his wife Mackenzie has started multiple companies back at the family’s home base in Dallas. She’s the owner of Alpha Lit Marquee Letters, a company that provides large marquee lettering for event decoration and was spawned off an idea that she had while preparing for her own wedding, and the owner of Lit Photo Studio in Dallas.

“She’s really the rock. We lived with her parents for a year and a half, and there were some days in there where, you know, I was trying to find a purpose,” Skipper said. “You go from, ‘Hey, we think you’re gonna get drafted here,’ to, ‘You’re not playing football.’”

“You go through all that, just having her to put food on the table for a while there — we’ve got some businesses and stuff, and watching her be a mother, be a CEO, do all this stuff, she does some badass things that, just watching her grow into that and pull me along half the time and be there for each other has been awesome.”

No matter what role Skipper plays or how well the team plays in Week 12, Thursday will be another monumental moment in what has been a monumental year in his life. For the first time, being a regular contributor on an NFL team is not pie in the sky — even if it is the result of powering through some 2,000 pies back in Dallas four years ago.

For what it’s worth: Skipper may have sworn off eating the dessert forever, but if he had to — “I could whip up a pie.” His residence in Detroit is much closer in proximity to the Ohio-based ice cream shop owned by his in-laws called Handel’s, which, for self-control reasons, he has given a self-imposed ban.

“I love ice cream, so I can’t ruin ice cream,” he said.

nbianchi@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @nolanbianchi

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