What's the old saying about defensive backs proverbially "being on an island" when they're one-on-one versus receivers or tight ends? Well, former Cowboys safety Danny McCray is literally on an island this fall competing in the 41st season of the CBS smash hit Survivor.
McCray, still an important part of the team as the Dallas Cowboys Youth Academies manager, played in the NFL for six seasons, from 2010-15. He becomes the fourth former Cowboy to compete on Survivor, joining Gary Hogeboom, Jimmy Johnson and McCray's former teammate, Alan Ball.
McCray took time to share with Cowboys Nation what it's like trying to outwit, outplay and outlast the competition.
What was your motivation to join the cast of Survivor?
McCray: "I was trying to find a way to satisfy this craving to compete. Survivor is a show I was binge-watching after I retired from the NFL, and I was imagining myself competing better than some of the guys I'd seen before me on the show. Better specifically than the Alan Ball-types (laughing). I figured I could do it. My wife gave me the OK, and I sent in an audition tape and they accepted me. That's how I got started."
How do you compare competing in an NFL training camp with competing on Survivor? After all, you're trying to outlast the others and secure your spot each week.
McCray: "There's a comparison when it comes to competition. Going through my first training camp as an undrafted rookie free agent, every day I was trying to make a play so I could survive to the next practice. That's essentially the same attitude you've got to have on the show. So I was doing the same thing on Survivor that I was doing in training camp.
"But it's different from a physical standpoint. In training camp, they make sure we get three meals a day and everything is set for us to perform at our maximum ability. Survivor is totally different. They strip you down to nothing and they see how your body and mind can hold up. It's a complete 180. It's really, really hard.
"In preparing for the physical demands of the show, I worked out with [former Cowboys strength and conditioning coordinator] Mike Woicik. I was supposed to go on the show in 2020, so I originally started preparing in late-2019 when he was still with the Cowboys. Coach Woicik told me what I needed and gave me a plan. He allowed me to come to the weight room to work with him and [Cowboys strength and conditioning coach] Kendall Smith. But the pandemic delayed the taping of the show until April 2021. I had an extra year to prepare, so he wrote me a sheet on how to stay in shape and be ready for what I was about to get into."
In football, there is competition but also camaraderie. You're competing for roster spots, but you're also building a team. Is reality TV similar? Or is it every man for himself?
McCray: "There honestly is a similar type of team-building facet in Survivor. Oftentimes the cast members are split into teams at the beginning of the season, and no matter what, you want your team to win so that you don't have to face the tribal council and eliminate somebody from your squad. So yes, it's twofold in that it's competition and camaraderie. But at the end of the day, if your team loses, you want it to be a teammate who is sent home so you can survive another day on the island."
There seems to be a pipeline between former Cowboys and Survivor. Why the connection?
McCray: "One of the biggest NFL fanbases is the Cowboys and Survivor has a huge following as well. It's great to marry those two. I always enjoyed seeing former Cowboys on the show, especially Alan Ball since he was my teammate. It was interesting to see how he did. He told me the physical stuff was easier than the mental part of the show. Living on the beach and finding wood to make fire and finding your own food, that was easier than dealing with the people. If you watch his season, you'll see it rings true for how he was eliminated from the show."
What's more cutthroat, competing with reality show cast members or defending NFL receivers and tight ends?
McCray: "Survivor is tougher because when I was one-on-one against a tight end or receiver or running back, I knew exactly what they were trying to do. They're trying to run past me, run me over or shake me so they can get into the end zone. On Survivor, you have no idea what people are trying to do. Sometimes they are lying to your face, saying they will have your back, but they're really trying to get you out of the game so they can win the million dollars. I would say Survivor is more cutthroat."
The show was filmed in the Mamanuca Islands of Fiji. Tell us about the setting. Would you ever return there for vacation?
McCray: "Fiji is absolutely beautiful. There are so many islands and the water is so blue. The views are amazing. You see the boats and the waves. But it's totally different when you're having to build a shelter to sleep on the beach as well as find your own food. That takes some of the beauty away from it. I don't know that I ever want to return to Fiji for vacation. It's in my memories now and I can explain to my wife how it looks without ever having to return."
OK, so a different location for your next vacation, right?
McCray: "Yes, preferably someplace with a buffet. That sounds a little better. But seriously, Fiji was great and if I had an opportunity to go back on vacation, I would go because it would be a different experience and fun to see it in a new way."
In addition to being a new star of reality TV, your fulltime gig is serving as the youth academies manager for the Cowboys. Why return to the team to take over that role?
McCray: "Growing up around football and being involved in youth sports, coaches I respected helped get me to where I am now. Being able to do that for the Cowboys by managing the youth academies is huge for me.
"One of the best things is the impression I get to make on the kids that come through our program. There's nothing like seeing one of those kids in the grocery store or seeing them come back the next year and they give you a big hug and start telling you how their season went. That they were better because of something you taught them. I love to hear them talk about how well they're doing in school because you helped teach them lessons about leadership and accountability. That's a great feeling.
"It's truly satisfying to see the kids that come back year after year. It's amazing to see how much a kid can grow in a year. Some of these kids might be 4-feet tall and then they come back after a growth spurt and look ready for high school. That feeling of helping kids reach their potential is something you can't buy."
Honesty is the best policy, so tell the truth: What's harder? Competing on Survivor or organizing 300 kids during a youth academy?
McCray: (laughing) "I will say that running the Dallas Cowboys Youth Academy helped prepare me for Survivor because getting all those kids who range in age from first graders to eighth graders – getting all those campers organized – it prepared me for the show because there are different personalities and different backgrounds. Yet we're working in one accord for a common goal. It really helped me. But I've got to tell you, it's pretty hard to get the young first and second graders in line and doing things the correct way!"
The Survivor season began Sept. 22 and viewers won't know the results for almost three months. And you can't discuss the show between now and then. Is it hard to keep the secret?
McCray: "It's understanding the rules but also respecting the game. It's the same as football, really. In football, your game plan is your game plan and you don't give it out until you line up on Sunday. That's because you respect the game and you respect your teammates. With Survivor, it's about respecting the people who work so hard to put the show together. It's also respecting the fans of the show and giving them the excitement of experiencing what's going to happen next."
You're part of a turning point for the show, right?
McCray: "Yes, this is the first Survivor season in which half the cast are people of color. Going into this season, there were social issues like George Floyd and other political issues, so to be a part of the most diverse cast in the show's history is really huge. I'm really proud to represent what Survivor is moving forward."