Sept. 4, 2014
By Todd Burlage
To say it has been an eventful year for University of Notre Dame running back Cam McDaniel is as grand an understatement as saying his Irish team's meeting with Michigan tonight is just another game on the schedule.
Let's see: in the last 12 months, the Notre Dame senior emerged as the go-to running back for the Irish football team; he was recognized as the most "ridiculously photogenic" college football player of all time; he became a worldwide Internet sensation and a television star; he married his Texas sweetheart, Stephani, last May; and as an encore?
"We are expecting a child probably around April," McDaniel says with unmistakable pride. "We are having a hard time believing it, we are so excited. I firmly believe that this child was a miracle from God."
And "miracle" is the perfect word to describe McDaniel's remarkable journey to this amazing point in his life.
Rewind back about 17 short years and it would have been impossible to imagine the remarkable transformation Cam and his family were about to undergo.
Living with his wife, Diane, and sons Cam and Gavin, patriarch Danny McDaniel was racking up debt in graduate school and struggling to make ends meet as a football and track coach at Prosper High School near Dallas. Money was tight and the house the McDaniel family rented was infested with rodents, Texas-size cockroaches and hopelessness.
"We lived in a beat-up old house and I drove a beat-up Ford Taurus station wagon that I found out later my players called `Old Smokey' because so much smoke came out of the engine," said Danny, who ended up in Chapter 13 bankruptcy and $35,000 in debt. "We were never around money, so I knew nothing about finances. I got us in trouble. And on a coach's income, you can't get out of that."
Everything changed in 1997 when Danny and Diane scrounged up their last $130 and invested it in a budding business called AdvoCare, a health and nutrition company that continues to blossom into one of the most successful direct sales operations in the United States.
Through tireless work, a desire to do right for his family and a gift for sales, the elder McDaniel has parlayed that modest investment into a lucrative income as one of the top national distributors in the AdvoCare network. R.I.P. Old Smokey.
"Nothing came easy for us," Danny said of his rats-to-riches story. "But through a lot of sweat equity and a belief in the products I was selling, we eventually made it work."
Today, Danny qualifies as one of the most successful businessmen in the Dallas area, and that reality has turned around his family circumstances. In a generation full of instant gratification and excess, Cam stays grounded through faith, family and football, even with every opportunity to do otherwise.
"It would be easy to take advantage of my situation than remaining focused and steadfast in the vision that you have for the long term," Cam said. "It's counter-cultural, and it can be a tough thing sometimes, but it's worth it."
Be it in football, academics, marriage or just everyday life, faith is what drives Cam, and his coaches and teammates take notice. Through word and deed, McDaniel has become one of the most respected players and leaders on the team.
There are no shortcuts.
"Cam wants to lead by example" said Irish running backs coach Tony Alferd He's a team guy who has very high expectations for himself, as a person, he tries to do things the right way and he wants to be seen as a leader. Right now, he would be the leader in my room without question."
Following his father's example, the leadership and dedication qualities come naturally for Cam, as they always have.
As a standout prep player at Coppell High School in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, McDaniel claimed more than his share of career awards and records, but he had to work for each one.
At 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds -- and with a modest 40-yard dash time of 4.5 seconds -- McDaniel wasn't blessed with all the natural physical gifts. But through self-belief and a commitment to excellence, he managed to become the big-school Texas Player of the Year in 2010 in a state loaded with football talent.
McDaniel finished his Coppell career with 6,247 all-purpose yards, 76 touchdowns and a long list of all-state honors.
But don't call him an overachiever.
"That wouldn't be in line with my mindset," he says. "I came to Notre Dame to win a national championship and to win the Heisman Trophy. Those goals haven't changed. Some people might think I'm crazy, but that's the vision I have for myself. That's the kind of individual I am."
Rated as a three-star player and only the No. 50 running back in his high school recruiting class, McDaniel didn't get a chance to fulfill his dream of staying home and playing for his beloved Texas Longhorns.
Scholarship offers came from Cincinnati, Iowa State, Minnesota and Tulsa, not necessarily perennial football powers. A few higher profile coaches took notice, including then-Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh. In fact, during a campus visit to Palo Alto, Calif., Harbaugh all but begged McDaniel to come and play for him.
Staying true to his convictions, McDaniel knew there might be something more and decided to delay his decision and let a higher power guide his choice. His prayers were answered when a scholarship offer came from Notre Dame in 2010. And four years later, Cam McDaniel has become the cornerstone of this Irish team.
"He's our best overall running back," Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said, celebrating McDaniel's work as a blocker, pass receiver, ballcarrier and heady player. "Now, is he going to break that (big run) and get the oohs an aahs from the crowd and go 80 yards? Probably not. But Cam is efficient at everything that he does for us. He's invaluable from that perspective."
As steady, reliable and unassuming as McDaniel has been for the Irish, unexpected notoriety hit like lightning after a 14-10 win over USC last October at Notre Dame Stadium.
Just days after rushing for 92 yards in the victory, an angelic picture of McDaniel running the football through a pile of Trojan defenders after his helmet popped off -- perfectly showcasing his beefy biceps, perfect hair and calm smile -- spread over the Internet, social media and on international television.
One writer posted on Twitter, "This pic of Cam McDaniel is like Jesus riding a Harley through a ring of fire."
Another Twitter follower said, "Cam McDaniel is really handsome at football."
A star was born. And almost overnight, McDaniel's Twitter following went from about 2,000 to more than 10,000.
"Every news station was calling my cellphone, my parents, my fiancé," said McDaniel, who even appeared on NBC's Today Show to talk about the photo. "It was nuts. That was an interesting experience."
The unsolicited attention caused by one memorable photo is ironic because McDaniel's good looks are balanced by a sincere humility developed during his upbringing. In fact, the only reason McDaniel agreed to do the Today Show interview was so that he could bust up the dumb-jock stereotype.
"I wanted to show people that I wasn't just your average college football player that was going to use all the attention to my advantage," he says. "I just wanted to do the interview so people could understand my perspective and find out what kind of person I really am. I wanted to send a positive message."
Even Cam's fiancé thought all the attention was funny, at least to a point.
"I was definitely proud of him because I knew that he was going to carry himself very well even after having so much Internet exposure all at once," says Cam's wife, Stephani. "But at the same time, there was a little period of time where I felt like I went from having him all to myself to sharing him with the rest of the world, so there was a little bit of an adjustment there. But it was fun."
Ask Cam where he sees himself in a couple of years and the answer shouldn't surprise.
He has every intention of enjoying a long and distinguished career in the National Football League, all while doing right for faith, family, wife and his beautiful new baby to come.
"I have always been a firm believer in backing up the individual who you profess to be," he said. "I try to do that with my actions on the field and off the field."
Truly a Notre Dame man.