It was an award he never tried to get, even one he didn’t think would ever make him happy. And yet, there it was.
Legendary NFL quarterback Peyton Manning standing behind a podium, opening an elegant white envelope the Oscars would die to have, pulling out a name card and reading the name: JT Daniels.
Daniels, 18, was named the Gatorade Male Athlete of the Year, a title given to the best male high school student-athlete in the nation across all sports.
Standing behind center for Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) the past three years, Daniels has been an offensive weapon even Manning wished he could have been. Eclipsing 12,000 yards– including a school-record 4,123 during last season– all while throwing 152 touchdowns to a mere 14 interceptions, Daniels decided to reclassify in order to graduate early and enroll at USC.
Though he may be a college student, his sharing the stage with professional athletes like Minnesota Timberwolves forward Karl-Anthony Towns (POY winner in 2014), Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, former USC and current New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold and former USA women’s soccer captain Abby Wambach was not lost on him.
“I was just like, damn that’s Karl-Anthony Towns and the name tag next to me— I took a picture of it the first thing I did when I sat down,” Daniels said with a sprinkle of awe in his voice. “It was just cool to be around them.”
While Daniels’ trophy– shared by the likes of Matt Barkley, LeBron James and Andrew Wiggins– stood a few feet from him, the 6-foot-1 bullet thrower explained why it was an honor to be mentioned amongst some of the best to play their games, but not something he puts too much emphasis on.
“I’ve always had the same kind of outlook, it doesn’t really affect much. I never played for the awards or to be great or anything like that. I just love playing the game. So when you win those kinds of awards, it’s not that big of a deal because you weren’t really trying to win those awards. If it was all I was trying to do, I would go crazy and what not. Of course I’m incredibly honored and this is crazy cool for me, but that wasn’t what I was trying to do when I put the pads on, I was just playing the game because I loved it.”
Turns out, he is pretty dang good at playing the game he loves.
During his third and final season as Mater Dei’s QB1, Daniels led the Monarchs to their third national title, their first CIF-SS title since 1999, a CIF State title and a perfect 15-0 record. In fact, Mater Dei never trailed for a single second all season.
“I couldn’t be happier with the season and just the relationships that I made,” Daniels responded to a question about what it meant for him to earn a personal accomplishment. “It was just so much fun. No body was even worried about winning or any of that stuff. It was literally just a team of best friends going out playing football.”
Daniels, who carried a 3.89 GPA over the course of last year while balancing 10 courses during the season, will have his image on the cover of the next Sports Illustrated along with fellow Female Athlete of the Year winner, Katelyn Tuohy out of New York. Tuohy was the first student-athlete in the history of the Gatorade award to win a National Player of the Year award in two sports (cross-country and track) before being named the paramount female winner. Her accomplishments shattering national records on both track and dirt paths was not lost on Daniels.
Former Mater Dei, current USC QB JT Daniels up for Male Athlete of the Year
“She probably deserved my award too to be honest,” he said with the utmost certainty. “Two sport athlete to win both National Player of the Year awards at age 15. I’ll tell you, when we were doing our Amazing Race and we were running across the whole beach, she would go back to do the optional challenges and then beat us to the next spot. If I’m considered in the same award as her then I’m doing alright.”
Daniels will take his team-first mantra and free spirit he developed on the fields in Santa Ana to South Central this fall to compete for a starting job at USC as a true freshman. After winning the award, Daniels concluded a forced impromptu acceptance speech the way any Trojan fan loved to hear: “Fight on!”
While it may take time for the highly-touted Santa Ana slinger to come to grips with the honor he received– or maybe it never will– he realizes nonetheless he will forever be mentioned among some of the greats. And that, that’s just cool.
“It’s an incredible honor. Just to have that recognition and be in that fraternity.”