When Florida and Cincinnati play in the Sugar Bowl on Friday night, Alex Daniels might be the happiest player in the Louisiana Superdome. Behind the broad smile and the gregarious personality is a 23-year-old senior defensive lineman who has led a life that took him from a college scholarship at Minnesota to sleeping in his car to college football star again. He has lived to tell about it. And in the hopes his story will inspire other young people, he readily tells anyone who'll listen. "You've got to struggle to succeed," Daniels said. His struggles have led to the success he has enjoying. Daniels was a four-star recruit and ranked the 11th-best athlete in the nation by Rivals.com as a high school senior in 2005. He and two other friends chose to attend Minnesota. He played in all 14 games as a freshman, then in 2006 moved to running back and was the team's second-leading rusher.
But in 2007, Daniels was dismissed from the team along with three teammates after an incident involving a night of binge drinking and allegations of sexual assault on an 18-year-old woman. Daniels was never charged in the case.
That incident led to consequences that changed his life — for the worse and better. Daniels moved back to his "rough" neighborhood in south Columbus, Ohio. It wasn't long before he realized he couldn't give up.
"I grew up overnight," he said, the only time his booming voice goes soft. "Just imagine a 19-year-old kid being put out on the street and really having to figure out what you want to do in life. I went home for a month and a half. It was the first time I hadn't been playing football since I was 7. I was gone from the game, and I was really depressed, crying, emotional, didn't know what I was going to do."
Through the help of friends, then-Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly was contacted. Daniels was told that if he paid his way through school for one year and stayed clear of trouble, there might be a scholarship for him.
For the next year, he did everything he could to survive and live up to the rules Kelly laid out for him. He took out student loans, began school and worked odd jobs, which included selling cars at a used car dealership.
For a while, when gas hit $4.95 a gallon in Ohio, the drive back and forth between Cincinnati and Columbus wasn't feasible, so he slept in his car. In the cold. Later, future teammates let the 6-foot-4, 270-pound Daniels crash on an air mattress in their small dorm room.
He struggled. Then he survived.
"It made me more of a leader, more of a person that can step up and take on the challenges," Daniels said. I think it was the best thing that could happen to me."
It's that type of attitude that impresses his teammates.
"He's persevered through a lot," cornerback Brad Jones said. "He's made some bad decisions in the past, but he's really matured. When I first met him, he was like an immature little boy. But now he takes care of his business both on and off the field. He's a great guy to be around. And he's very animated. He isn't putting on a show; that's really how he is."
It was the animated Daniels who became the angry face of the Cincinnati football program after Kelly abruptly announced he was taking the Notre Dame job and would not coach the Bearcats in the bowl game. Since then, he has had time to calm down and said his angry comments reflected the love he feels for Kelly.
"If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have had a chance to play again," Daniels said. "So I felt like he was more of a father figure, a role model, somebody that was in my life that was pushing me to be better. And once that happened, I felt like I lost a father because I never had one growing up. And that's why it hurt me so bad."
While Cincinnati has had its share of adversity this season, Daniels said the opportunity to play Florida and against quarterback Tim Tebow on a national stage is the dream of a lifetime. He calls this game "my national championship" but insists he's playing for more than just a victory.
"I want to change the cycle in my family," he said. "I want to be the one that everybody looks up to in my family. I want them to say, 'He was the same person that I grew up with, but he made a different decision to be a better person and not let the streets take over his life.' "
"Nothing really bothers me anymore," he added. "After being through what I've been through, nothing really bothers me."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.