UB quarterback Tony Daniel relies on family, hometown and teammates to cope with father's death

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Tony Daniel wanted to unwind after the long 2014 football season – it had been a strenuous one.

The Bulls now senior quarterback and his teammates had dealt with everything, from a freak snowstorm canceling their final home game to the termination of their head coach.

The everyday rigors of a Division-I college football player – even for a backup like Daniel – had come to an end in November of 2014. There were no more worries, no more stresses. Life was finally carefree again.

Or so Daniel thought.

He relaxed for about two days after the season, until those thoughts were replaced with worry, tension and fear.

On Nov. 30, 2014, Daniel received a frantic phone call from his sister Carley telling him their father Jack had suffered a heart attack earlier in the day and was rushed to the hospital.

Forty-five minutes after the phone call, Jack passed away at the age of 65.

Daniel’s world became a “foggy daze.”

“It didn’t really register at first,” Daniel said. “At that time, nothing’s going to make you feel better or worse. Nothing really helps, except knowing that he was at peace.”

There’s not much to do in the wake of a lost loved one, especially for someone like Daniel. He values family more than anything. And the fact he’ll never see his father again was the most devastating news he’d ever heard.

Daniel is the one of leaders for the Bulls, despite passing the ball just 27 times in his four-year career. He is the type of player who will stay with a teammate for that extra five minutes after practice or go over game tape. But being the backup quarterback for the football team may be something Daniel is least known for.

He can be found cheering on other UB sports teams at games across campus when he’s not playing football. He ran for a SUNY Delegate position in 2014. He’s one of the few, if not the only, 6-foot-5 Division I football players you’ll ever see holding a toddler’s hand while walking around campus, as Daniel spent time volunteering at UB’s Early Childhood Research Center last year.

During the past 10 months, slowly but surely, Daniel has learned how to cope. He stands proud as a senior quarterback for Buffalo, but he’s even prouder to call himself Jack’s son. He’s found family can be anywhere and can come from anyone, like when his Buffalo teammates drove 14 hours to attend Jack’s funeral during finals week. Even though he lost one family member, Daniel knows he has many more.

It’s his family affair.

Small-town beginnings

The Daniel household prides itself on being from a small town.

Hiram, Georgia – roughly 30 minutes west of Atlanta – has a populace of about 3,600 and its small-town hospitality is what makes living there so appealing. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone went to the same schools and churches. People in Hiram attend elementary, middle and high school with the same people.

And Daniel loved it that way.

“Everybody has a small town mentality,” Daniel said. “My best friends’ parents are like my parents. Our parents feed all of us, like their own children.”

Carley said when Daniel received his scholarship offer from UB, the family couldn’t keep it private for long.

Within days, the entire town knew and was celebrating for him. There was always town camaraderie, but above all, there was town competition.

One event each week in particular took over Hiram: high school football.

There wasn’t much notoriety about Hiram, except that football was valued highest. In some towns, it’s all people have to look forward to. Newspaper clippings about the local high school teams filled coffee and barbershops.

There were five schools in Hiram and all of them had a varsity high school football program. Football players were the stars of the school. And every Friday night was their moment. On any given Friday, the bleachers at any school would be packed with thousands of people chanting and screaming from beyond the sidelines.

Even thinking about it today gives Daniel chills.

“It’s a different feeling,” he said. “You’ve grown up with these guys your entire life. When you go into Friday night, you still get butterflies. You’re going to play for your family, friends and classmates.”

Above the competition and the results, football games were an event. Everyone got involved, from concessions to tailgating to even helping work the games from the sidelines.

That was Jack’s job.

It wasn’t until Daniel’s senior year that his father finally sat down and watched one of his football games. Daniel begged Jack to sit down and “just watch a game” instead of running amuck around the stadium, working the chains and concession stands and even commentating for a local radio show up in the booth.

He sat down and just watched all five of Daniel's home games that year.

So when Jack passed away last year, the entire town came together in support of the Daniels. That was the nature of Hiram. And Daniel couldn’t believe the outpouring of support in the following days.

Family is everything

At first, Jack’s death didn’t feel real to Daniel.

He felt numb. He felt heartbroken. He felt pain. But the shock of the situation had not settled in yet – for only a couple of minutes.

Soon after he received the call from Carley, reality settled in and he realized what his sister had told him. And he wasn’t alone. Carley said it was “the worst day of [her] life.” Carley, like Daniel, is studying early childhood development. Her mission after she graduates from Tennessee Temple University this year is to teach.

“As a teacher, I’ve seen what it’s like to not have a family,” Carley said. “There are students that do not know who their father is. It devastates me.”

It’s never easy for children to wrap their heads around the thought of losing a parent. It will always be there. But it can get easier. People have different ways of coping. And at the time, Daniel and Carley needed family and faith.

And of course, the comfort of a mother.

Rose admits she’s a standard southern mother. She’s a natural protector who always thinks her children are right. Daniel said if she witnessed him beat someone up in a fight, she would tell the police she didn’t see a thing. It’s natural instinct.

Not that she’d ever expect her kids to do that anyway.

“The kids never gave us trouble,” Rose said. “They never got into drinking and drugs. We never wanted to take vacations away from them. I didn’t do ‘ladies night out.’ I never tried to get away from my kids. We always wanted to do things together.”
But don’t let her nurturing exterior fool you – she’s a competitor at heart. She was a basketball and volleyball player at Georgia State University from 1975-79 and one of the first athletes to be a part of Title IX, which gave men and women equal scholarship.

She’s a southerner at heart. She treats Daniel’s friends like they are her own children. She would always have a home-cooked meal ready to go or a box of bait waiting for Daniel’s friends when they went fishing.

“She keeps us together, especially during these times,” Daniel said. “She keeps us strong, grounded in our faith and makes sure we’re doing all right.”

Soon after Jack’s death, word spread around social media via various condolence posts and photo sharing. Within minutes, people knew about it and started “pouring in love and support.”

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – you name it. Wherever there was a social media platform, there was news about Jack’s passing from people who knew him. Daniel and Carley received calls from people they hadn’t spoken to in years.

While the news was breaking about Jack’s death, Daniel was still in Buffalo. Carley was in Tennessee and their mother was at home in Georgia. It was finals week, but school didn’t matter at that point to Daniel, even though his teachers gave him the necessary time off before returning to tests.

And it didn’t matter it was test week to his Buffalo family. Its first concern was Tony.

‘A southern thing’

It never even crossed Joe Licata’s mind to miss Jack’s funeral.

The Bulls’ starting quarterback has known Daniel since the two were freshmen. The same applies for fellow seniors Ron Willoughby and Matt Weiser. The four of them have been best friends since they came into the program as redshirts in 2011. They were Daniel’s Buffalo family. And when Jack passed away, they treated Daniel as such. Licata, Weiser and Willoughby were going down to Hiram no matter how challenging it would be.

“Anyone who knows Tony knows he puts everyone before himself,” Weiser said. “For such a difficult, heartbreaking situation, we knew we had to be there.”

And it wasn’t an easy process getting down there. They looked into flights and train schedules, but there were no times that worked with their schedules. Their only hope was a last-second plea to their former Buffalo teammate Jake Silas to borrow his car.

It worked.

The trio took the 14-hour car ride down to Georgia to make it in time for the funeral. They didn’t even have time to stop and change into their suits before entering the funeral home. And to say they were surprised about southern hospitality is an understatement.

“When you meet Tony up here, you know what kind of guy he is,” Licata said. “You wonder how he became such a nice guy. Then you walk in and everyone is the nicest person you’ve ever met. Then, it started to all make sense. This is where Tony gets it.”

They couldn’t even see Daniel until 25 minutes after their arrival. The funeral home was fully packed. Cars wrapped around the area for miles and streets were even cut off to alleviate traffic jams. It was the second-biggest funeral the home ever hosted.

Licata, Weiser and Willoughby stood around without knowing anyone other than Daniel as everyone around them sparked conversation. But it didn’t take long to adjust to the Hiram norm. Within five minutes of their arrival, about three mothers who they’d never met before came up to them and asked if they wanted food or a drink.

Nothing out of the norm.

“It’s more of a southern thing,” Rose said. “For them, it was a culture shock. They’re all from the north.”

Licata, Willoughby and Weiser said they had never been to a funeral like Jack’s. Licata said it reminded him of his family reunions, where everyone talks and “eats on repeat.” For hours, the trio heard stories about Jack and his experiences. And everyone had a story that had the whole funeral home “cracking up.”

“Funerals are such crappy situations,” Willoughby said. “There’s nothing enjoyable about a funeral. But that group of people, that community, made it an enjoyable time. The positive stories, the amount of laughs shared. And like Tony, Mr. Daniel was involved in everything. He had something to do with everything.”

Jack’s legacy

Tony Daniel is experiencing some firsts.

Last December was his first Christmas without his dad. This past March was the first time he couldn’t celebrate his father’s birthday. June was the first time he wasn’t able to celebrate Father’s Day.

But Daniel doesn’t mind it. Of course, there was sadness on those days, but he didn’t let them get to him.

“Those days are important because society makes them important,” Daniel said. “Live those days because you should treat your family with the same kind of respect everyday.”

Jack was a person that always put other people in front of himself. He would come down to practice when Daniel was in high school and cook hamburgers and hot dogs for the team “just because.”

In a small town, feeding the masses was important. In a community such as Hiram, a lot of people can’t go home and have a properly cooked meal. Like Rose, Daniel's friends were Jack’s kids as well. He looked out for the whole community. Daniel loved the kind gesture.

“Reflecting back, I was able to see the impact my father had,” Daniel said. “You see it when he’s alive and you see how much people loved him and the trickle-down effect he had on our community.”

And it would never go unnoticed. After his death, the community set up fundraisers to help the Daniel family with bills. Daniel’s high school created a spur-of-the-moment 3-point contest in the days following – a competition Jack used to run during halftime at high school basketball games. The fundraiser allowed people to shoot a 3-pointer for a dollar. If made, the shooter won a $5 gift card to places like the local arcade.

The community raised $300 in minutes.

But to really understand his value, his award says it all. He is now the namesake of Hiram’s Jack Daniel Community Service Award for his efforts ensuring the health, wellness and happiness to the people of Hiram.

That legacy and spirit lives on in Daniel now.

He regularly attends church. He is one of the most active students on campus. His personality shines through the most – he’s the type of person that puts on a clown nose and a cowboy vest just to cheer up a crying 2-year-old.

He studies hard on and off the field, even though he’s just a backup. His All-Mid-American Conference Scholar accolades speak for themselves. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a talented football player. Albeit a small sample size, Daniel passed for two touchdowns and even ran one in for a score in 2014.

But Daniel prides himself on being a family man – the values he got from his father.

“What makes a person memorable and makes a person stand out? For me, I think he exemplified everything that I want,” Daniel said. “He treated his family with utmost respect, made sure we were taken care of and he tried to make my teammates and friends have everything I have and more.”

It takes a memorable person for a funeral home to be packed. It takes a special person for an entire town – and an entire Buffalo football team – to grieve over his death. It takes a family man.

“Family means everything,” Daniel said. “Family is everything.”

Jordan Grossman is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at jordan.grossman@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jordanmgrossman