The valedictory speech of the 2017 class of St. Augustine High School, New Orleans, La., was delivered with conviction. The valedictorian, adorned in purple and gold, spoke of a brotherhood attained at this storied high school for young men. He asked where his brothers saw themselves in five years, 10 years, 15 years. He quoted Harriet Tubman: “Every great dream begins with a dreamer.” He talked of tools obtained within those walls, from discipline and motivation to aspiration and determination.
The speech was a search for highest ground, with no stumbles.
“I remember how nervous I was before delivering it,” Caleb Daniels said this week, thinking about how he practiced what to emphasize, where to show a little emotion. “I’d put in so much time. I wanted to make it perfect.”
Where would Caleb Daniels be in five years? In one sense, maybe right where he expected, preparing for his next basketball game. He just couldn’t have charted the journey, crosstown to Tulane, two seasons, top scorer as a sophomore, then a transfer to Villanova, another quest for higher ground. After scoring 15 points against St. John’s, Daniels will be out there Wednesday night at Marquette.
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First … some real mountains and valleys, his mother telling Caleb, “Take it one day at a time. Slow your thoughts down. Don’t try to rush ahead. Just be in the moment.”
None of that had to do with taking a jump shot. Instead, a phone call last April, Daniels in his dorm room, about to find out he’d need every ounce of discipline and motivation and aspiration and determination he could muster.
“I literally, like, fell to my knees,” Daniels said of that phone call.
He already knew he had gotten COVID-19. This next diagnosis was far scarier … myocarditis.
“Heartbreaking,” Daniels said.
Was this it for his basketball career? Daniels knew about a college football player who had died from this. There was all the disbelief you’d expect, Daniels telling himself, “I’m one of the healthiest guys. I take good care of myself.”
But maybe an ounce of relief — they’d spotted it. Myocarditis is an inflammatory condition of the heart muscle. These kinds of words are found with basic research: “The clinical presentation and course of myocarditis is variable.”
For Daniels, the bottom line, he was told, no basketball … maybe for three months, maybe for up to nine months.
“I took the approach, this is my situation, I’m going to have to deal with it, be a man about it,” Daniels said. “I knew I had to take a small step away from basketball.”
He could perform one basketball act.
“Literally, shoot free throws,” Daniels said. “I couldn’t get my heart rate up. In order for your heart to heal … not to exert it too much.”
Even at the foul line, his heart being monitored, there were a couple of times, he said, “naturally as a ballplayer, you get riled up, you want to do more.” That heart rate was creeping up. Step away. Take a couple of breaths.
Into the summer, his symptoms started easing. His chest wouldn’t hurt as much.
“I just felt good — I felt alive,” Daniels said.
MRIs and stress tests marked the improvement. September showed no abnormalities.
“A burden lifted off my shoulders,” Daniels said. “I felt like it was all God, honestly. I didn’t expect to recover as fast.”
Getting himself back in basketball shape was a steady process, as everyone at Villanova made sure to separate Daniels from his teammates in terms of conditioning work. This wasn’t a competition. You’re trying to jump on a moving train, in terms of all the work required of being a Division I athlete. Still, those words from his mother still resonated. Take it day by day. What’s the next progression?
Villanova, you may have heard, came into this season with high expectations. Daniels, too. Although he started all but one game last season, he saw the offseason progress made by teammates, understood he’d have a new role, joining a smaller fraternity within Villanova basketball of sixth starters, coming off the bench almost as soon as the game began.
It required a little bit of an adjustment, Daniels said. He needed to have a mindset coming in: “Set another tone. Increase the intensity level. How can I be effective? What do they need me to do?”
Always a scorer, Daniels this season is making more defensive plays. He’s focused more on that end, he said. His shooting percentages are all up, from two-point and three-point and the foul line. His overall offensive efficiency is the highest of his college career.
Still, more hurdles. Even another COVID-19 positive early last month. Maybe we couldn’t print what his words were for that one? Daniels let out a big laugh.
“I was just like, wow,” he said. “Lesser symptoms, thank God. It felt honestly like a slight cold.”
Is it possible that Daniels is college basketball’s comeback player of the year just from his lost offseason?
Back to that speech given by the 2017 valedictorian, St. Augustine High School, talking about a foundation put down, and embracing the challenge of manhood.
“Oh, and one last thing,” Daniels told his classmates. “As your journey gets tough, just remember where we are from and who we are. … As Purple Knights, we have no fear. We conquer any and everything.”
What Daniels remembers most about that speech?
“Once it ended, I remember my family being so loud,” he said. “It made my heart smile.”