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Kahzin Daniels doesn’t let loss of sight kill NFL dream

The Bucs undrafted free agent from Division II Charleston wants to be an example of overcoming a disability.
Free agent Kahzin Daniels (41) runs drills during the Bus' rookie minicamp on May 10, 2019. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published May 11
Updated May 12

TAMPA —Though seeing is believing for most people, just believing is enough for Kahzin Daniels.

At age 5, he lost the sight in his right eye. He was riding his scooter down the block by an abandoned house on a clear summer night in Orange, N.J. He hopped up on a sidewalk and tumbled into a fence, his face striking a metal pole.

“A couple months afterwards, I had to wear an eye patch,” said Daniels, an undrafted free-agent defensive end from the University of Charleston at the Bucs’ rookie minicamp this weekend. “And growing up, kids teased me and things like that. But … I really think it cemented who I was from an early age and really created a person that was introverted and really focused.”

So focused that until a story about Daniels in February confirmed he was blind in his right eye, most NFL teams — most people, including his girlfriend — didn’t know.

“I don’t really withhold it,” Daniels, now 23, said. “If I’m asked about it, I’ll definitely detail what happened. But for the most part, it’s not something I go shout from the rooftops.”

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Daniels’ story has become one of the more inspiring in football. Daniels was walking the halls of Barringer High School in Newark, N.J., when coach Ashley “Smoke,” Pierre saw the tall, skinny kid and asked him if he had ever played football. Yes, Daniels said. But just one year of Pop Warner.

“When I first met him, he was a quiet kid,” Pierre said. “In the city where we were living, it can be tough. He wasn’t one of those guys where people knew who he was, and football brought a side out of him that started attracting people to want to be around him. It was a flip in personality, and he was able to use football as one of his release points.”

Said Daniels: “It created a different side of me that I didn’t even know was there. It was just excellent. It was just great for me.”

Pierre was unaware of Daniels’ blindness. Early in Daniels’ career, Pierre questioned his effort on some plays but chalked it up to inexperience.

“At first we didn’t know,” Pierre said. “But at 14 or 15 years old, I started seeing some things on the football field that looked a little different. First I thought he wasn’t hustling and giving max effort. ... We were studying tape and figured this was the first time for the kid playing the sport, it’s going to be a little awkward. But you become family, and then he told me what happened.”

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Daniels’ left eye, which has 20/20 vision, has compensated for his loss. He has developed a keen spatial awareness, and when he has to look to his right, a slight turn of his head is all it takes.

Daniels was a good prospect in high school. He wowed college recruiters at Nike camps and eventually received a few scholarship offers, including from Temple.

“But test scores are hard for a lot of our kids up here,” Pierre said.

To continue his career, Daniels enrolled at Milford Academy, a prep school in New Berlin, N.Y. Charleston coach Pat Kirkland, who used to be a recruiter at West Virginia, had a good relationship with the coaches there.

“I don’t think (Daniels) weighed 218 (pounds) Kirkland said. “But even when he messed around and played basketball, he moved really well. He had quick feet. Once he came here, he had some structure, and he just didn’t have the resources before that.”

In time, Daniels flourished at Charleston. As a sophomore, he emerged as the team’s top pass rusher with 11 sacks. The next year he had 12. He finished with 341/2 sacks for the Division II Golden Eagles in West Virginia.

Kirkland played him on both sides, unaware at first of the disability.

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“He didn’t try to hide it. I don’t think anyone saw it was a big deal,” Kirkland said. “Early when he was on campus, he said, ‘I have some issues in one eye.’ But we hadn’t seen it, and it never became a topic of discussion.

“When you find out about something like that, you just watch the tape. If it’s a disability or obstacle, he’s been dealing with it. It’s all he knows.”

After the NFL Network profiled Daniels, his story garnered lots of attention, from parents who have children with disabilities to athletes who overcame their own obstacles. He heard from a lot of them.

Seahawks linebacker Shaquem Griffin, the former Lakewood High and UCF standout who had his right hand amputated at age 4, sent Daniels a video message on the league’s Twitter page.

“Not long ago, I was in your shoes,” Griffin said. “They would say, ‘Football ain’t for people like you.’ ‘They would tear you apart,’ they said. ‘You don’t have what it takes,’ they said. I wanted to play in the NFL. They thought I was joking. … And now, here you come, Kahzin, playing half-blind, reading offenses and hitting three times as hard as anybody else. So you made it this far. What are they going to say next?”

What the Bucs are saying is that Daniels has a chance. At 6 feet 3 and 244 pounds, he has moved to outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.

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“He was impressive on tape, and he has a heck of a get-off,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “He was coming off the edge pretty solid (Friday), so … I’m anxious to see him grow as a player. I don’t think he has any limitations.”

When Charleston strength coach Conner Freeland learned of an elementary school student who had lost sight in his right eye, he summoned Daniels to talk to the class. The visit was captured by the NFL Network.

Zane Triplett wore a patch over his right eye, just like Daniels had as a child. To help his classmates understand and empathize with the struggle, Daniels passed out eye patches to all the students. Before the talk ended, the class engaged in a group hug of Triplett.

“People reach out to me, letting me know about their kids and how they’re getting into sports and overcoming challenges that they’re facing every day,” Daniels said. “There’s tons of kids that are inspiring by going out and achieving their goals.

“I have a platform now, and I look forward to reaching out to more kids and just inspiring more kids and people in general to just do what they want to do. Don’t let a disability stop you from doing anything you want to do in life.”

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLSTROUD.

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