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Cam McDaniel’s dedication stands out on field

| Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cam (3), 20140927, 2014-2015, 09272014, Football, Kevin Song, McDaniel, MetLife Stadium, vs SyracuseKevin Song | The Observer
He runs angry.

It’s the first thing you notice about Irish senior running back Cam McDaniel as soon as he receives the handoff. He runs straight into the breach with an audacious approach. Rather than dance away from contact or attempt to outrun an opponent, he seems to actively seek defenders out, almost as if he is daring someone to bring him down. It’s less like watching a running back and more like watching a cannonball fire. And even then, it’s hardly a victory for the defender to make the tackle: McDaniel might have been brought down, but he will have made you regret it.

“I’ve just always tried to be aggressive when I run the football,” McDaniel said. “I mean, early on, I used to watch old highlights of [NFL Hall of Fame running back] Earl Campbell because I was a big Texas fan.”

Has he ever been told of his running style?

“I’ve had a few people tell me that before,” McDaniel said with a little smirk on his lips.

Still, it can be jarring to watch the 5-foot-10, 205-pounder launch himself into the fray, absorbing contact with a terrific crack, doing whatever he can to get a few yards for the Irish and wear the defense down at the same time. Yet those who know him know that that’s just how he’s always been — full speed ahead.

“My family and friends, I think they have a deep understanding and appreciation of my passion for the game,” McDaniel said. “And they just try to support that in whatever way possible. I know that my mom and my wife in particular get a little bit nervous watching me play, but you’re always going to have that.”

For the longest time, it looked like McDaniel was going to carve a comfortable niche in the Irish program as a dependable power running back. Then a funny thing happened during his junior year: he got famous.

The first moment was captured on video. The camera focused on the Irish running back corps as they prepared to run through the “gauntlet,” the machine used by running backs during fall preseason practice. The “gauntlet” is an ominous-looking station with rubberized pads, intended to simulate defenders’ arms swatting at the ball in close quarters. It looks more like a painter’s scaffolding than a running back drill, yet it is something that running backs like McDaniel have gone through countless times in their careers.

But there was one problem as McDaniel prepared to run through this one. It was set up backwards.

“We were in the middle of fall camp, [and] it’s really hot, it’s humid, and I’m the first one up in line,” McDaniel said, a grin slowly forming on his face at the memory. “I didn’t even notice [that it was backwards]. You can’t really tell unless you look at it close.”

The coaching staff made the call for McDaniel to begin the drill, and he ran forward.

“I’ve never really run through one that only goes one way,” McDaniel said. “So I go to run in it, and access denied.

“Next thing you know, you’re an Internet sensation.”

McDaniel’s teammates immediately worried whether he was alright. Once it was clear that he was fine, if slightly dazed, they started laughing. McDaniel, true to form, simply shook it off and got back to work. (“Now we have one that goes both ways,” he later said.) But his bout with Internet fame wasn’t quite finished yet.

The second moment occurred during the USC game on Oct. 19, 2013. Though the Irish won the game 14-10, what everyone remembers is a particular photo. There is McDaniel in mid-carry, holding the ball in tight to his chest as he hops over a pile of bodies behind him. A Trojan defender is trying to bring him down. His helmet has been knocked off, and instead of catching a grimace of concentration, the photographer captured a most inexplicably perfect shot. McDaniel’s hair is slightly tousled, and on his face is a slight smirk. He looks less like a Division I running back and more like a Calvin Klein model.

Thus, the “Ridiculously Photogenic Running Back” meme was born.

“I got [the photo] right after the game,” McDaniel said. “The original photographer forwarded it to me and was like, ‘Look at this awesome shot I got during the game.’ I didn’t think anything of it, really. I kind of looked at it for a second to make sure that it was real, and then I showed it to my mom and dad, and they were like, ‘That’s really funny.’”

Little did McDaniel know, things were about to explode.

“My friends and family started getting calls from everybody,” McDaniel said. “Just random places and news broadcasters from all over the world, wondering, ‘Who is this kid?’ And it just ended up being a freak thing. Gained like 10,000 followers on Twitter.”

Through it all, McDaniel keeps a rather Zen approach to the fact that he will be remembered, in addition to his play on the field, for what amounts to lightning striking twice. After all, what are the odds of becoming an Internet sensation twice in one season?

“It doesn’t bother me; it’s just part of the experience,” McDaniel said. “I always told people that hopefully I’ll make a SportsCenter highlight reel where it’s not having to do with something that’s absolutely outlandish. It may not be here; we’ll see.”

But all of these things that happened to McDaniel last year pale in comparison to one very important moment in his life this past offseason: he got married.

“I met Stephani going into my senior year of high school, that summer,” McDaniel said of his now-wife. “She was … she was just an amazing girl. We were friends at first, and soon after that, I realized that she was something special. She went to Texas A&M, so we did long distance for two-and-a-half years. Then after I proposed to her, which was May 18, 2013, she ended up transferring to Bethel College, which is like 10 minutes away [from Notre Dame.] She finished there in three years. We got married May 17, 2014, back in Dallas.”

McDaniel said he looks to the future with anticipation. Off the field, he and Stephani are expecting their first child. Considering the fearless way he has approached life so far and the success he has found, it is little surprise that he continues to dream on the field.

“I’m looking to extend my football career and go on to play in the NFL,” McDaniel said. “At least to give it a shot and see how it turns out. And so that is taking precedence for me right now.”

Attending Notre Dame as a student is hard enough. Balancing that with being a member of the football team is harder. Juggling that in addition to being married and soon to be a father is almost more than one can fathom handling.

It isn’t something McDaniel said he takes lightly.

“It’s sometimes overwhelming,” McDaniel said. “But you kinda just take it as it comes, and when you sign up to be a student-athlete at Notre Dame, you sign up for a huge obligation. Sometimes you don’t realize just how big an obligation that is when you get into it. But you figure that one out pretty quick. And I did. There were times that were really tough, you know? But it’s just something that takes a lot of diligence and discipline, and if you stick to it, it’s possible.”

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