Toward the end of Bunting Lane in Naperville, Ill., where the cul-de-sac curves and gives way to an expansive yard, Jerry Daniels built his children a playground to rival anything they'd find in a city park.
A paved basketball court with hoop, a football field marked off by orange cones—complete with a field goal post constructed from PVC pipe—and off in the corner, a small patch of grass cut close to the ground, so the kids could work on their putting. Friendly games often turned into shoving matches, which resulted in tears and usually ended with some version of:
"I'm telling mom!"
"No, don't tell mom!"
And then the Daniels children would go back to competing, the oldest tossing spirals while the younger ones jockeyed for position in the makeshift end zone. No wonder all four kids grew up to become collegiate athletes.
Hayden Daniels, 22, is the youngest of the four, a senior tight end for undefeated Houston, which hosts No. 25 Memphis this week in an American Athletic Conference clash. He is the first true tight end the 16th-ranked Cougars have had since 2009. When new coach Tom Herman arrived on campus in January, he was surprised to see Daniels listed as a receiver. Herman ordered Daniels, an Illinois transfer, to the weight room, asking that he pack on as much muscle to his 6' 4", 205-pound frame as possible. Daniels did—he tips the scales at 225 now—while reaching out to his oldest brother for advice.
As luck would have it, tight end Owen Daniels, had a few tips. A decade in the NFL makes you an expert of sorts.
Daniels, then playing for the Houston Texans and now with the Denver Broncos, invited his little brother over to train and set Hayden up with a diet and regimen that would help him add pounds. Like most brothers, the Daniels boys exchange plenty of friendly barbs, and trash talk at the dinner table is a given. But when it comes to football, Owen pulls rank—and Hayden is happy to let him do so.
"I feel like he's won that battle, as a 10-year NFL vet and two-time Pro Bowler, so I kind of keep my mouth shut," he says with a laugh.
Owen opened his home to his family—middle brother Harrison, a former Princeton defensive back, works for a wealth management group in Houston—and shared tricks of the trade with Hayden. Get your hands on guys early, Owen told him, and don't let them get into your body too much, because it's tough to punch off when they're all the way into your chest.
It helps to have siblings that understand the grind of college athletics (sister Meredith, second oldest of the four, played water polo at Brown and is considered the toughest of the bunch). Hayden had seen Owen achieve great success at Wisconsin, and initially tried to follow in his Big Ten footsteps with the Illini. But when a new coaching staff took over in 2012, he headed to Houston to reunite with his brothers. He figured if he was going to go anywhere, it might as well be someplace where he could get an occasional home cooked meal and nonstop support. Daniels refused to whine about his role as a walk-on, aware—partially because of his brothers' experiences—that "being part of a Division I program is tough, whether you're on scholarship or not."
Plus, he had already made the transition from high school quarterback to college receiver, so how hard could transferring be?
Owen watched the Cougars' 2015 spring practices, encouraged by what he saw from his youngest brother. Yes, Hayden was lean and lanky, and at first glance, seemed to be only marginally fast. But Owen says that Hayden's "long, heavy strides eat up ground, and he moves really well." Impressed by Hayden's athleticism, Owen didn't offer much criticism after watching him run routes. Owen insists he was minimally involved in Hayden's success, and instead worked with Harrison to act as more of a cheerleader and sounding board than personal coach.
The Daniels' family has a running text message thread that includes jokes, news and "Throwback Thursday" photos. On Aug. 19, the thread flooded with updates. But only after Hayden had fallen victim to his coach's prank.
During a team meeting that day, Herman started hollering about guys who don't do the necessary work, and called Daniels and walk-on cornerback Tyler White, a Utah transfer, to the front to supposedly serve as public examples. The day before, Daniels's and White's position coaches had warned the two if they didn't take care of semester fees, they might not be eligible to play in the fall. Both players rushed to fill out the appropriate paperwork. But in the meeting, Herman set it up as if they'd let everyone down.
"It is a privilege to be here, not a right!" Herman boomed, asking Daniels if he'd followed through and gotten the "holes" in his paperwork filled out.
"I thought I … took care of it," Daniels offered timidly.
Herman didn't miss a beat. "Well, we're taking care of it for you," he said. "You guys got full scholarships."
"There was definitely an element of, What the hell is going on?" Daniels recalls. "I fell for it totally. Being embraced by my teammates, that meant a lot."
The video from the meeting quickly went viral. Owen celebrated when he heard the news. Their mother, Bridget Daniels, cried when she learned what had happened. Harrison shared the link on Twitter, and "sent it out on blast text message to anyone who might be remotely interested." Says Jerry, a former walk-on quarterback at Illinois in 1977, "We knew how hard [Hayden had] been working, but we didn't expect anything. I think we were more surprised than him."
Herman has worked in college football for almost 20 years, but is in his inaugural season as a head coach. He says rewarding scholarships to players for the first time is something that he'll "remember forever." He loved the video so much he took a screen grab of the joyous moment, printed it out and stuck it in a frame in his office. "It's a crummy little picture," he says, but one he'll treasure.
"Just talking about it, the memory of that, it gets me choked up."
The scholarship was validation for Daniels, who had turned down MAC offers out of Naperville Central High, and twice taken a chance at a bigger stage. He and White had never become frustrated enough to contemplate quitting, instead providing each other with support. "We had both come from schools on scholarships," says White, who walked on at Utah before earning aid and ultimately transferring. "For us it was never, What are we doing here? It was always, We're gonna get back to that here."
The end of Daniels's days as a walk-on was also a nod to his resiliency: During training camp he pulled his left hamstring and, in the process of rehabbing the injury, wound up hurting his right knee. He had surgery to get it scoped, and was still back on the field in less than a month. "It's tough to prove yourself to a coaching staff in that short a period," Owen says. "I think we all understood the hard work on his end that went into it."
White thinks that Houston has been "a light" for Hayden, a place where he's come into his own. When it finally came time for Daniels to shine in high school, Bridget felt bad that there were no siblings left to sit in the bleachers and cheer him on. But instead of feeling lost in his brothers' shadows, Hayden now shares his successes with them. He and Owen trade pre-kickoff motivational texts on game days, and offer constructive criticism when necessary. Off-field bonding means even more. On June 22, Owen and his wife, Angela, welcomed their first child, Henry Raymond Daniels. One of the first photos Bridget received of her newborn grandson showed all three of her boys crowded around the newest family member.
As a late bloomer, Hayden isn't sure what will come next. Owen, who caught six passes for 102 yards and one touchdown in the Broncos' 27–24 loss to the Indianapolis Colts last week, can't help but wonder how things might have been different if Hayden had been converted to tight end sooner. He has caught just two passes for 47 yards so far this season. Still, Hayden believes the best highlights await. "The big moment, that hasn't happened yet," he says.
It's possible it will come after his collegiate career. Owen returns to Houston in the off-season, and hopes to spend this spring working out next to Hayden. Maybe they'll both be training for the pros at that point. It's not exactly like the backyard setup of their childhood.
In fact, the grown-up version might be better.
Know a good walk-on story in college football? Lindsay Schnell wants to hear it. Email her at SIwalkon@gmail.com.