Defying the odds

Published 9:04 am Saturday, October 3, 2009

In a football season that has given University of Virginia fans in the area few reasons to cheer, here’s one: the feel-good story of Daniel Childress.

The former Franklin High School standout, in his fourth year as a walk-on, is a mainstay on the Cavaliers’ special-team units this fall. When Virginia takes on the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill this weekend, the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder is likely to line up on kickoffs, kickoff returns and punt teams.

He wears No. 27 and, due to the unsung nature of special-teams play, is unlikely to have his name called on the television broadcast of the game.

That matters not a bit to his father, Richard, who couldn’t be prouder, even if his oldest son were a scholarship running back scoring touchdowns and making headlines.

Richard Childress, who pastored Franklin Baptist Church before moving this summer to Raleigh, N.C., cautioned his then-high school senior four years ago about the life of a walk-on in a major-college football program.

Daniel was a star at Franklin High. After helping the Broncos to a state championship during his junior year, he earned first-team all-state honors as a senior linebacker and was the Tri-Rivers District Player of the Year and the Region A Player of the Year on defense. He had 83 tackles, two interceptions and five blocked punts in the fall of 2005. He also played tight end and handled the Broncos’ punting and placekicking.

In short, he did everything one a player can do on the field, and he dominated.

Smaller schools, including Gardner-Webb and Norfolk State, came calling at the end of that senior season, but Daniel had a dream.

“He was determined to go to U.Va.,” Richard Childress recalls. “I really encouraged him to look at those other opportunities just to see what was available. But he didn’t apply for any other school. Even as a kid, probably at age 8 or 9, he wanted to go to U.Va.”

And he wanted to play big-time football.

Richard Childress knew all about the realities of trying to play ACC football without a scholarship. He knew his son would go from being one of the biggest and fastest players on the field in high school to one in the crowd at U.Va.

Most “walk-ons,” as non-scholarship players are called, serve as tackling dummies during practices for a couple of semesters, get tired of the abuse and either call it quits or transfer to a smaller school.

“We discussed that,” Richard recalls. “He was determined to try out.”

Daniel made the Cavaliers’ roster in the fall of 2006 but didn’t see any action and was redshirted. The following fall, he continued to practice but didn’t play. A year ago, he made waves on the U.Va. “scout team,” which simulates upcoming opponents’ plays and formations during practice.

Still, the prospects of playing time looked dim. They dimmed further earlier this year when Daniel was suspended from the team for a couple of weeks during spring practice. His dad prefers not to discuss the details of the suspension, but the experience was pivotal.

“I think that was sort of a turnaround for him,” Richard says. “I think he was even more determined to prove himself.”

Daniel returned to August workouts on a mission and quickly caught the eyes of his coaches, who named him a starter on several special-teams units for the Cavs’ season-opener against William & Mary.

“He called me one night and said, ‘Dad, think I’m going to get to play.’ They had listed the guys on the starting lineup, and he was on list. He was excited about it.”

As were Richard and mom Pam — and younger siblings Lauren, Tyler and Hannah.

“When we look at it from our perspective as his family, my goodness: I’m not sure we would have stayed with that for three years — being a punching bag, people hitting on you all the time,” Richard says. “How much of that would we be able to take? I’m just thankful that all of that faithfulness and dedication has paid off. He has been rewarded.”

Daniel has another year of athletic eligibility remaining after this one, but don’t expect to see him on the field in 2010. He is on track to receive a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences in May.

“He reached his goal, and that was to be on the field to play,” Richard Childress says. “He’s ready to move on.”