the OSU QB coach about three years ago. This is an update on him and his condition. He is a really amazing guy.
Sticking to his game plan
Despite what his cancer doctors told him 2 1/2 years ago, Joe Daniels still coaches the Buckeyes' quarterbacks
Sunday, November 16, 2008 3:39 AM
By Mike Wagner
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Neal C. Lauron | Dispatch
Neal C. Lauron | Dispatch
Doctors had just told Joe Daniels that he probably wouldn't live past Christmas. The cancer from the tumor on his kidney already had spread to his liver and lungs.
His wife hugged him and prayed, his friends offered encouragement, and doctors shuffled in and out.
Shortly after Jim Tressel arrived to visit his Ohio State quarterbacks coach, Daniels asked everyone but his boss to leave his hospital room.
Daniels looked up at Tressel on that June day in 2006 and clasped his hand. Both tried but failed to fight back tears.
If Daniels had only half a year left, he knew what he wanted to do with it.
"I want to coach, Tress," he said.
"Absolutely," Tressel told him. "You are going to coach."
Daniels, his wife, Kathy, son Matt and daughter Kaitlin put together a game plan. It was based on sound medical advice from Ohio State's doctors, overwhelming love from family and close friends, and unyielding support from Tressel.
Most of all, it was built on their collective faith in God and the belief that he has healing powers for those who trust in him.
The plan has worked not only to keep the 66-year-old coach alive longer than most expected, but also to allow him to stay in the coaching world that he has craved for nearly four decades.
Many credit Ohio State's championships and 32-5 record the past three seasons to leaders such as Troy Smith, James Laurinaitis, Chris "Beanie" Wells and Tressel. But inside what players and coaches call their Buckeye family, they point to another.
The soft-spoken, white-haired quarterbacks coach -- the one who hates the limelight and ducks recognition -- is considered the team's soul.
"The thing I didn't know would occur is the day-to-day inspiration he would bring to our team," said Tressel, who lost both parents to cancer.
"You don't think, 'Well, if he keeps coaching, he can inspire the kids,' but that's what has happened.
"Some days, the fatigue saps Daniels, who has shed 25 pounds from his once-solid frame. He looks pale and weary some days, but he has missed little time with the team in the past three years.
He received help this season from the NCAA and Tressel, who arranged to have 33-year-old Nick Siciliano assist Daniels with his coaching of the quarterbacks. In practices, Siciliano directs drills with the quarterbacks under the close watch of Daniels, who typically travels the field in a golf cart.
Ohio State had to receive approval from the NCAA for the quarterback-coaching plan because rules say that only one can be on the field conducting drills.
Daniels is a native of Bethel Park, Pa., near Pittsburgh, and he graduated from what was then Slippery Rock State College. There, he earned a degree in physical education and played running back on the football team.
His coaching resume, which spans 39 years, includes stints with Boston College, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, the Cleveland Browns, the Buffalo Bills, the New York Jets and the University of Cincinnati before he joined Tressel's staff in 2001. His pupils have included players such as all-time great Dan Marino and Smith, who captured the Heisman Trophy at Ohio State in 2006.
Joe and Kathy, who live in New Albany, have been married 28 years.
Their son, Matt, 22, is a graduate of Ohio State and now works with his dad as an intern coach. Their daughter, Kaitlin, 21, is a senior cheerleader at Ohio State.
The children are fiercely protective of their father, who would prefer to keep his ordeal private. By now, it's no secret that he has cancer, but few are familiar with what he has endured. Those who know say it's a life lesson that goes far beyond Ohio State.
"What's happened there at Ohio State with Joe and Coach Tressel is an inspiration for all of college football," said Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who coached with Daniels at West Virginia and was in his wedding. "It's one thing to say you're a family, but it's quite another to prove it when there is turmoil. It says so much about their strong character."
Daniels was in good health as he paced the field coaching at an Ohio State youth football camp on June 16, 2006. But sudden chest pains turned into a light heart attack. It set in motion a chaotic five-day span in which doctors discovered his cancer. His health declined dramatically two weeks later, and he teetered on the brink of death.
But he recovered, endured and has been following that game plan ever since.
Matt Daniels lunged for the remote control just as the word cancer rolled off a TV commentator's lips.
Troy Smith was already impressing Heisman voters and shredding the Texas defense with another touchdown pass when the announcer began talking about Joe Daniels' illness.
Matt shot a frightened look at his uncle, Tony "Duke" Daniels, and both held their breath. Tony's dad and Matt's grandpa, then-86-year-old Ray Daniels, didn't hear the announcer. He kept rooting for the Buckeyes from a seat in his assisted-living community outside Pittsburgh.
"That was close," Matt said softly to his uncle.
Ray didn't know that his son had cancer, and that's the way Joe and Duke wanted it.
At the time of the diagnosis, their dad was dealing with his own health problems, and their mom, Carmella, was in a nearby hospital battling severe medical conditions. The sons feared the couple, married for 67 years, couldn't bear the news that doctors had told Joe: He probably wouldn't live past Christmas.
The brothers agonized over the decision, but Duke was convinced it was the right thing to do after visiting his parents' home in Pittsburgh and realizing how frail they had become. They moved into the Paramount Assisted Living community soon after, and Carmella was in and out of the hospital and a rehabilitation clinic throughout the summer of 2006.
"Not telling them about Joe -- it was one of the toughest decisions we ever had to make as a family," Duke said. "And that's what Joe has always done -- put others' needs ahead of his own."
At Duke's urging, the Paramount staff did what it could to shield Joe's parents from any news about his illness.
On the night that Ray almost heard the news on TV, Joe was smiling in the OSU coaches' booth in Austin. The Buckeyes defeated Texas 24-7 in a game that would eventually help Smith capture the Heisman.
Four days later, Carmella Daniels passed away at age 83.
Ray Daniels remains in the assisted-living home, where he continues to root for his son's team.
He still doesn't know his son has cancer.
The surgeon removed part of the tumor and right kidney that, combined, were the size of a football. He also took a baseball-size cyst out of Joe Daniels' belly.
The major surgery had been scheduled around Daniels' recruiting trips to visit prospects such as Terrelle Pryor.
Two days later, Joe's recovery was going smoothly as he listened to his daughter debate whether she should leave his hospital room and go to a party with her date.
"Go be young," he told Kaitlin.
She went to the party wearing a new black dress and red shoes.
Kathy Daniels persuaded other relatives and visitors to go home and rest, leaving her and Joe alone.
At about 9 p.m., she was eating a sandwich when Joe sat up.
"Something isn't right," he said. "I don't feel right. I can't breathe."
About two hours later, Joe asked for Kaitlin, so she dashed from the party to the hospital to curl up with her dad. By morning, cardiologists determined that Joe had had a slow, massive heart attack.
Doctors discussed last-resort procedures later that day. They considered placing Joe on a respirator, but he and Kathy refused. Kathy told doctors to try whatever procedure they thought would save her husband.
She ducked into his bathroom, knelt and prayed.
A short time later, before they had begun any procedure, Joe's condition improved dramatically without medical explanation. Eventually, he recovered from that episode.
"We knew that was our faith working," Kathy said. "We don't force-feed our faith on anyone, but we believe through the blood of Jesus that there is healing power. We saw the power of prayer at work."
Among the many calls Joe received in his hospital room were a few from the quarterback whom every school wanted.
"I love Coach Tressel and wanted to play for him, but I felt a connection with Coach Daniels right away," Pryor said. "I didn't care that he had cancer. I knew he was a great coach and was showing the kind of toughness I wanted to have."
Joe was recovering at home about three weeks later when he abruptly announced to Kathy that he was going back to work the next day.
"I think Terrelle is going to announce tomorrow," Joe said. "And if he's going to be a Buckeye, I want to be in the office."
Kathy drove Joe to the OSU training center the next day, and she wept as he hobbled down the long, narrow hallway toward the team he loves.
A short time later, the fax arrived.
Pryor had chosen to play quarterback for Ohio State.
Joe Daniels chugged down two bottles of a chalky liquid so a machine could take pictures of the cancer lingering inside him. He gulped and grimaced slightly, but that was the closest he would come to complaining about anything.
Kathy slid her hand over her husband's and squeezed as they waited for another CT scan in OSU's James Cancer Hospital. Kathy gently interrogated her husband about the turkey sandwich he'd had for lunch and wondered whether the fatigue brought on by chemotherapy was too much for him.
Joe swallows brown chemotherapy pills nearly every morning and deals with the side effects that turn his hair snow white, upset his stomach, leave blisters on his hands and feet, and drain his body's energy.
He reassured his wife that he was fine and smiled at the woman who worries enough for both of them.
This was a one-hour break in another 15-hour coaching day for Daniels. He came straight from the practice field dressed in his scarlet-and-gray sweats. His day typically begins around 7:30 a.m. at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, where he works until about 10 p.m. dissecting game film, attending meetings with players and coaches, and helping oversee practice.
The medical technician told Joe it was time for his scan, and the coach kissed his wife before leaving her in the waiting room.
Joe lay perfectly still on his back for five minutes while the doughnut-shaped scanner moved back and forth three times, producing images of his chest and abdomen for doctors to review.
Five minutes later, he was telling Kathy, "It will be OK. I'm doing fine."
The next morning, the doctor gave them good news: The cancer hadn't spread.
Kathy was ecstatic.
To Joe, it was almost an afterthought.
The football season kicked off in less than two weeks.
A smattering of early-arriving fans cheered their favorites -- James Laurinaitis, Beanie Wells, Terrelle Pryor and Coach Tressel -- as they strode into the sun-baked, nearly empty stadium about two hours before the season's second game, against Ohio University.
But it was the last person in the Buckeye entourage who received the most recognition and the loudest shouts.
"Go, Joe!" one woman screamed. "Beat cancer!"
"Keep going, Joe! You make us all proud!" a man yelled.
Daniels waved politely and flashed a half-smile as he walked toward the locker room.
An hour later, he was on the field beside his son, Matt, a former walk-on fullback at Ohio State who once got to run the ball twice. His dad called it the best 4 yards of his football life.
They closely watched two of Joe's football sons, Todd Boeckman and Pryor, throwing the ball. One quarterback, then the other, put his arm around his coach during warm-ups.
Their unity would be tested, but never broken, in the coming weeks.
The Buckeyes beat Ohio University but were slaughtered the next week by Southern California with Boeckman, the sixth-year senior and co-captain, taking much of the blame from Columbus' angry football mob.
Daniels wasn't spared by the critics. Some questioned why Tressel would allow a man with terminal cancer to continue coaching his high-profile quarterbacks.
"That's the nature of our business," Tressel said of the criticism.
Daniels said there was no meeting among coaches to switch quarterbacks after the USC game. But Pryor said he was told by Coach Tressel to "be ready" at Monday's practice.
"He had fire in his eyes," Pryor said. "I knew he was being for real."
Pryor threw four touchdown passes in the victory against Troy.
Boeckman threw one pass, bouncing it into the ground.
Daniels cringed as boos rained down on Boeckman. He later would blame himself for not allowing Boeckman to warm up properly.
"I was so upset for Todd," Daniels said. "The booing was just brutal."
The following Monday, Boeckman was still hurting. He wondered whether he had officially lost his job as the starting quarterback. No one had said anything to him, so he sought out Daniels, who he said has been like a father to him.
In their meeting, Daniels explained to Boeckman that there had been no meeting or discussion about replacing him. It just happened.
"In the middle of a game, coaches do what gives them the best chance to win," Daniels said. "There are some things Terrelle can do that Todd can't, but there are also things Todd can do that Terrelle can't."
On the day of that meeting, Boeckman, Pryor and third-string quarterback Joe Bauserman said they supported one another no matter who was starting. They also credited Daniels as an inspiration on and off the field.
Daniels fretted far more about his quarterbacks than the disease inside him.
"It's been very, very difficult for me with this whole thing surrounding Todd and Terrelle, especially for Todd," he said. "I just love these kids."
Joe Daniels hugged his freshman quarterback in the locker room full of sullen players, but tears continued to drip from Terrelle Pryor's eyes.
Pryor blamed himself for the stinging loss to Penn State after a fumble and interception late in the game, but it might have been worse for Daniels. He didn't sleep that night and couldn't talk about the game the next morning, even with Kathy.
"It was so hard watching Terrelle take the blame for that game," he said later. "You want to do everything you can to help. I wish I could do more for him, for all of our kids."
Daniels was at home a week later, trying to enjoy OSU's bye week on his first Saturday off since July. He still sputtered about the Penn State game as he ate eggs and toast, but Kathy reminded him of the good news he had received that week.
"Oh, yeah, the latest scans have been good," he said. "There is still some tumor in there, but this is the first time the doctor said it was a bit smaller. I know I'm not 100 percent healthy, but I just wonder when all this cancer is going to get out of my body."
Some will continue to question whether Tressel should allow a man with kidney cancer to hold such an important role.
Tressel scoffs at such questions. He believes we are all terminal. "I think we have handled this in the best way for Joe and everyone," Tressel said. "None of us know what tomorrow will bring."
Daniels already has lived two years longer than most thought he would. Despite hearing no change in prognosis, or maybe because of it, he remains upbeat, mainly because of his faith.
"We believe God has a purpose and a plan for Joe's life," Kathy said, "and it's not just about coaching football."
Still, each morning, no matter his aches or weariness, Daniels rises early. He drives to the university he loves, coaches his quarterbacks and prays that if he is dying, there are many seasons left to play.
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