Today being national signing day for football, it might be too late for Darren Daniel to offer advice to this year's high school seniors. But juniors and younger players would be well advised to listen to someone who has been there.
"Make the decision for more than just one reason. Don't let football be the only reason you choose a school," the former Central High standout said. "You need other reasons. Maybe the city is a place you want to live in the rest of your life. The degree is a six-figure degree. Make the decision about more than just football. You should have at least three key reasons why you chose that school, other than football, because all that can change."
If there's anything Daniel is an expert about, it's change. He's only 23, but he has already been through as many changes as Forest Gump.
Let's see. So far, he has played for Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw, thrown passes to Doug Baldwin, Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz, caught passes from Andrew Luck, fought with Richard Sherman, emulated the likes of Oregon's Darron Thomas, Notre Dame's Michael Floyd and Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor in practice -- and all of that was just in a little more than a year at Stanford.
Plan B? Daniel zoomed past that a long time ago. Now he's on about Plan G. After leaving Stanford for personal reasons, Daniel played a season at Itawamba Community College before finishing his football career at Alabama State. Then came a chance to play professionally for the Columbus Lions, where he helped them win a championship.
Now, thanks to an odd turn of events, Daniel is starting as a wing player for the Columbus State Cougars basketball team.
"It was a blessing, no doubt," Daniel said. "I really thought it was over for playing any college ball."
Daniel's unlikely journey took an unexpected turn last summer. The Lions' season was over. He had been invited to a combine for the Canadian Football League. As he had been doing since he was a child, Daniel went to 29th Street gym off Veterans Parkway to play some hoops. CSU coach Robert Moore had a scholarship available and went to 29th Street to watch someone play, someone he had heard about.
"We didn't like the kid, but we liked Darren Daniel," Moore said. "I remembered him playing football at Central, but he was a pretty good basketball player, too."
Moore did some checking, went back to CSU's compliance director and discovered that Daniel had one more season of eligibility for basketball. In Division I, the eligibility clock is determined by calendar years. But in Division II, it's determined by semesters as a full-time student. Twelve or more hours attempted is considered full-time. A player has 10 full-time semesters of eligibility. Daniel had two semesters remaining -- just enough to let him play this season.
Moore knew he could
play. He just wondered how quickly Daniel would pick up the system. That's no longer a concern.
"He's a coach on the floor," Moore said. "He picked up everything really quick. He's just a bright kid. He played quarterback. He's just a leader. He's one of those guys who really likes scouting reports. A lot of guys just ball them up and throw them in the trash can. He really studies it. He was just a perfect fit for what we're trying to do."
Daniel has been a bit of a school yard legend in Phenix City. He started playing football when he was 7. He was a quarterback who had some 200 plays on his wrist band.
"Coach would call out a number and I would tell everybody where to go," he said.
Daniel never lost a game from his first year through his ninth grade season. He started on the varsity his next three seasons and was recruited by several schools, including Auburn. The Tigers were after another quarterback that year -- Cam Newton. Harbaugh saw his tape and flew here to watch one of Daniel's basketball games. He sat with Daniel's mother and yelled at an official when a call went against Central.
His recruiting visit to Stanford sold him. The recruiting process was a life lesson itself.
"It's fun -- very fun. It's exciting. But it can be scary also," Daniel said. "You just don't know what's going to happen when you get to the school, how you're going to fit in. The coaches are trying to impress you on your visit, especially if you're a highly recruited guy. Not to say that they have ulterior motives. But you don't know what you're going to get when you get there, going away from home, getting outside your comfort zone. They're not your home boy coming to sit in your living room. I like that out of a coach. I want to be pushed. I need to know exactly what you want. Tell me exactly what you want and I'll do it."
Daniel's athletic ability led Harbaugh to use him on the scout team as both quarterback and receiver, depending on the opponent. That led to some dust-ups with Sherman, then a senior cornerback who was honing his skills as a trash talker. They now stay in touch occasionally, but the relationship didn't start off too friendly.
"My and Sherm didn't get along," he said with a smile. "Just egocentric, I guess. Everybody knew that Sherm was Sherm. He had been there five years, but I was new and I wasn't as used to it. We just kind of bumped heads a lot."
Stanford's only loss that season was to Oregon, 52-31. The Cardinal led 21-3 in the first half and 31-24 at halftime. Had Stanford won, it would have faced Auburn in the BCS championship dame -- and Daniel almost certainly would have portrayed Newton on the scout team. Or he could have been Newton's teammate and backup.
"Yeah, but could have been a lot of places. I don't really think about that," Daniel said. "I just move on and try to make the next best decision. I feel like there's a lot of what-ifs. I could have chosen here, I could have chosen there. I enjoyed my experience at Stanford winning the Orange Bowl."
On the field, he was progressing quickly. He was moved to receiver during spring practice and quickly emerged as one of the top players. But his heart was pulling him back home, and it wasn't just freshman homesickness. Daniel's son Brayden was born. The strain of being a new father, plus Stanford's academics, became too much to bear. He was suspended by Shaw, who had taken over from Harbaugh, and decided to move back closer to home.
"I probably wasn't mature enough for it at the time," Daniel said. "I probably should have stayed closer to home with my parents there to help me a little more. Now that I'm older I can say that. But at the time, it was California and it seemed (glamorous)."
After a year at Itawamba, Daniel played at Alabama State, where he was united with an old hometown friend, Isaiah Crowell. He stayed another year at Alabama State after football, but came home and took a job to support his children. Brayden is now 5. De'Anna is 4 and Zoe is 2.
The chance to play basketball is more than just something for fun. He's on scholarship and will have a chance to continue pursuing his degree after the season.
"I felt like it was another opportunity. I just have to take advantage of it," he said. "I always felt like I could compete against anybody in basketball. That's my favorite sport.
"As far as being able to compete, I always wanted to do that. I just didn't think I had any eligibility left or I probably would have pursued them. This was just a great education to further my education and go on and get my degree, especially being on scholarship."
He wants to coach, whether it's football or basketball, high school or college.
"I feel like they will listen to me, especially being able to relate. I've been on both sides.
"I know how to handle it when you're up and when you're down."
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.