As renowned as Juan Daniels became on the football field, it’s kind of hard to imagine that his career as one of the most prolific receivers in the history of programs at Norcross High School and the University of Georgia almost didn’t happen because of one tiny shortcoming.
“I couldn’t catch the ball,” Daniels admitted about his early career in youth football and at Norcross. “I’m just thankful (Blue Devils) Coach (Theo) Caldwell took a chance on a kid who couldn’t catch.”
Daniels eventually overcame that to star for both the Blue Devils and Bulldogs and enjoy a brief professional career in the World League of American Football and Arena Football League and an opportunity to attend training camp with two different NFL teams.
Still, without the chance taken by Caldwell, as well as a couple of prominent mistakes Daniels’ spot in the 2016 Gwinnett Sports Hall of Fame — which he will be inducted into along with four others Friday — might not have happened.
“My freshman year (at Norcross), I actually played tackle,” Daniels recalled. “But I was also a punter. One day in practice, the center snaps the ball over my head and after I went back to get it, I see all these guys coming after me. But then I faked out the entire B-team and scored. Coach (Caldwell) looks at me and says, ‘I think we’re going to move you.’”
And once Daniels overcame his drop problem, he became one of several centerpieces in a Blue Devils offense that was very much ahead of its time.
Then known as the run-and-shoot, Caldwell’s pass-happy early version of what is now known as the spread offense was somewhat of anomaly in a high school football landscape filled with run-heavy sets like the wing-T.
“There were a lot of wing-Ts and I-formations back then,” Daniels said. “For us to come out in the a four-wide (receiver) set was really unusual. I think we were about 65 percent throwing the ball.
“I talked to Theo Caldwell the other day and told him it was so hard to believe the offense we ran back then is the same one I’m coaching with my 12-year-old (son) in little league. To see that now and see (a lot of wide-open sets) in the NFL is amazing.”
Daniels’ production turned out to be pretty amazing as well.
He still ranks third among all GCPS school receivers with 262 yards in a single game, as well as second on the county’s all-time single season receiving yardage list with 1,237 in 1991.
He spent the next four years at Georgia as part of a high-scoring offense that included such stars as Eric Zeier and Garrison Hearst.
Daniels remains 10th on the Bulldogs’ all-time receiving list with 1,975 career yards and 16 career touchdowns.
That career, as well as brief stints with the AFL’s Nashville Kats and the WLAF’s Amsterdam Admirals, and invites to training camps with the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals, has helped forge his way into Gwinnett’s Sports Hall of Fame.
However, it won’t be the first Hall of Fame he will be a part of. He was inducted into the National Flag Football Hall of Fame in 2010, following a 10-year career in the United States Flag and Touch Football League.
“That was pretty cool because the whole idea of playing was not to relive past glory,” Daniels said. “It was just to go out and have fun. I didn’t even know they had a Hall of Fame until somebody called me and told me. That was pretty cool.”
That also sums up the attitude towards the upcoming induction into the Gwinnett hall for Daniels, who works as a pharmaceutical representative for AstraZeneca and lives in Buford with his wife, Buford High School volleyball coach Hadli Daniels, and their three children.
“It’s amazing,” Daniels said. “Not just being included, but how much Gwinnett County has grown. When I was in high school, there were only about 10 schools. A lot of great athletes have come through after me. I don’t know if I’d be in if I played today.”