Former Notre Dame WR DaVaris Daniels finds career renaissance in CFL

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

DaVaris Daniels sprinted 76 yards down the left sideline, simultaneously shedding years of frustration like Forrest Gump ditching his metal leg braces with each increasingly confident stride.

The 6-foot-1, 207-pound wide receiver had just breezed by Hamilton’s helpless cornerback on a double move, before outrunning its overmatched safety and crossing the goal line with relative ease. He whipped the football at no one in particular and unleashed a primal yell.

In Calgary, Alberta, Canada, of all places, Daniels scored his first touchdown in nearly three years. In between, he was suspended (twice) at Notre Dame, overlooked in the NFL Draft and discarded by three separate NFL franchises.

This touchdown — and the eight that followed — were far from guaranteed.

“That moment was so big for me,” Daniels said on Friday in a phone interview from Calgary, where he’s preparing to begin his second season in the Canadian Football League with the Calgary Stampeders. “It was amazing. I got the game ball, and I can’t even explain what I was going through. It was, by far, the best feeling I’ve ever experienced.”

The high, for DaVaris Daniels, was made sweeter — and perhaps, made possible — by an extensive list of preceding lows.

After redshirting his freshman season at Notre Dame in 2011, the Vernon Hills, Ill., product compiled 80 catches, 1,235 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 2012 and 2013. He led the Irish with 115 receiving yards in the BCS National Championship Game at the end of the 2012 season, and finished second on the team in catches (49), receiving yards (745) and touchdowns (7) the following year, in his junior season.

But a promising collegiate career capsized under the weight of academic scandals. He was dismissed from the university for the spring 2014 semester due to academic shortcomings. Then, three months after Daniels was readmitted, he was one of five Notre Dame players suspended for the 2014 season as a result of an academic dishonesty investigation.

Only safety Eilar Hardy, of the five, returned to play at all in 2014, then took a grad transfer to Bowling Green in 2015 for his final college season.

Notre Dame may be forced to vacate its 21 wins from the 2012 and 2013 seasons because of those NCAA violations, pending an ongoing appeal.

Linebacker Kendall Moore's eligibility was exhausted during the suspension, but he already had his ND degree in hand. Cornerback KeiVarae Russell, though, did return to play for the Irish in 2015. Ishaq Williams was reinstated as a student in 2015, but the NCAA banned him from even practicing with the team.

Daniels never did return — not that he didn’t want to.

“It was not an option for me,” Daniels said on Friday. “If I had the option, I definitely would have come back. That’s the thing that a lot of people don’t really know. I didn’t have the opportunity to come back. It was frustrating, and that’s not the path that I wanted to take … to miss a whole season and go into the NFL Draft.”

Daniels was not selected in the 2015 NFL Draft. Short-lived stints with the Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles all ended in disappointment.

By May 2016, he hadn’t played a meaningful football game in more than two years. Daniels’ confidence was cracking as he sunk ever deeper into the couch.

“I thought I was done,” he said. “I had a few workouts with some teams, and nothing was happening for me. My last film coming out of college was my junior year, and people didn’t really want to take a chance on me. It was really tough, even to think about what I was going to do with my life.

“It was a tough time, but I’m happy everything worked out and Calgary gave me a call.”

The call came, and Daniels signed with the Calgary Stampeders on May 9, 2016. Soon after, he booked a flight — but where would the airplane take him?

“To be honest with you, I’ve heard of Calgary before, but I didn’t know it was in Canada. I thought it was in Europe or something,” Daniels said with a laugh. “When I got the call, I didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t know much about the city. I’d never been to Canada. It was scary, but it was well worth it.”

After languishing on the practice squad through the first seven games of the 2016 season, Daniels made his debut by catching four passes for 66 yards in a 37-9 victory over the BC Lions on Aug. 19. A week later, he blocked a punt and made five catches, including that 76-yard sprint to paydirt against Hamilton, effectively establishing himself as a legitimate option on one of the league’s most explosive teams.

“My first couple touchdowns, it was like a whole bunch of weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” Daniels said. “I kind of got lost in the moment and threw the ball all crazy (in celebration), just because I had been so frustrated.

“It was amazing, just the feeling of being a part of something again — being part of a team and a culture and being brought into a system where everybody loves everybody and we’re all family. That’s exactly what I needed at that time. I’m just happy to be here.”

There’s no doubt that the Stampeders are happy to have him. Daniels led Calgary with nine touchdown catches last season, adding 51 catches, 885 receiving yards and 17.4 yards per catch in only 11 games. He helped lead the Stampeders to a 16-3-1 record and a berth in the 104th Grey Cup (the CFL’s championship game) as well.

Following the season, the 24-year-old wide receiver was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie.

He had to go to Canada — not Europe — to rediscover the confidence he once carried to Notre Dame.

“There’s always a plan. You just have to take your punches,” Daniels said, when asked what the last few years have taught him. “No matter what anybody else is saying or what’s going on in the outside world, you’ve got to know yourself. You’ve got to know what you have.

“Honestly, there were a lot of points where I was breaking down confidence-wise. People were breaking me down. It was like, ‘Man, should I even be doing this?’ You just have to keep believing that whatever goals you set for yourself are attainable.”

As Daniels prepares for Calgary’s first preseason game, on June 6, his feelings toward Notre Dame are exceedingly complicated. He’s thankful for many of the people the university allowed him to meet — teammates and friends like Will Fuller, Jaylon Smith, Cam McDaniel and Cierre Wood, who continue to share what he calls “a brotherhood that really can’t be broken.”

He wishes, of course, that his college career had ended differently.

But he also knows that adversity propelled him and prepared him for a future he didn’t expect.

“I needed all of that to fuel me,” Daniels said. “Especially last year, with winning rookie of the year and scoring touchdowns and making plays for my team, that all came from all the frustrations that came out of that situation.

“Off the field especially, it definitely built me to be a better person and not really judge people. That’s what happened to me, and it was breaking me down. I just grew as a man, and I’m better for it now than I was then."


Twitter: @mikevorel

Former Notre Dame wide receiver DaVaris Daniels was named the Canadian Football League's Most Outstanding Rookie in 2016 (photo courtesy Calgary Stampeders).