Better, Faster, Stronger

Victoria Chow/Staff

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The sick feeling in the pit of Kevin Daft's stomach derived partly from the McDonald's breakfast he had eaten and mostly from the interceptions he'd just thrown.

As UC Davis' junior quarterback looked around the locker room at halftime, he felt his heart sink further.

"I just felt like I was going to let the whole team down," Daft says.

All because his alarm hadn't gone off.

"We missed the wake-up call," Daft says. "We missed breakfast and everything. It was close to being the most miserable day of my life. We got a call and everyone was already on the bus ready to go to the game."

On that day in 1997 - the first game of the Division II playoffs - the UC Davis team bus made what was probably its first, and likely its last, pregame stop at McDonald's. Daft and his roommates, the starting tailback and starting tight end, ran inside and ordered breakfast.

Awake more from shock than from real alertness, Daft scarfed down his meal on the way to Texas A&M-Kingsville. He went through the motions of warming up, but for a man who's known for meticulous mind, it was a waking nightmare.

Jolted out of his routine, he couldn't refocus. Daft threw three picks and the Aggies stumbled their way to a 9-9 tie at halftime. In the locker room, his head spinning, his coaches calmly re-emphasized the game plan.

He went back out, clean slate, and threw four touchdowns in the final two quarters. They won, 37-33.

"I would never want to let anyone down," he says.

He didn't, and he still doesn't.

When the Cal wide receivers talk about Daft, they wear big smiles.

"He's got microscopes for his eyes," Marvin Jones says. "He can see if we cut a route a yard short or even a half yard short. Everything. Even if it's not football. If there's a mark on the board, he can't stand it. He has to wipe it off."

"We always get on him," Jeremy Ross says. "As receivers, you have those moments where you're like, 'I'm open. Throw me the ball.' But he's always like, 'You know, he has to go through his reads, he has to do this, he has to do that.'

"When it comes down to those moments, he's always taking the quarterback's side. It's pretty funny when we're in there calling him a quarterback: 'You're a spy, man.'"

Head coaches and coordinators run the big show, but position coaches like Daft are often the players' deeper connection to the game. They're the head of a close-knit family. And in the case of the wide receivers, they're the head of a brash, outspoken, loud family.

Luckily, Daft joined that family already knowing how to be a leader.

As a junior, he set seven Division II playoff records as the quarterback for UC Davis. He entered his senior season poised to break program records in career passing yards, total offense and touchdowns. For the first time in years, NFL scouts were coming to Davis. Fans came up to Daft on campus to shake his hand.

"Which is neat," he says, "but I don't really like that much attention."

That spring, Daft was drafted by the Tennessee Titans. His rookie year, he stood on the sidelines for the Music City Miracle. The next year, he went to NFL Europe. When he came back to the States, he played for the Chargers, 49ers, Falcons and finally the Titans again.

In his final years playing, Daft used the offseason to volunteer with the UC Davis football team. When he retired for good, he left with a picture in his head of the coach he wanted to be.

"I played on a bunch of different teams and bounced around a little bit, so I was able to see different kinds of coaching styles," he says. "When I got closer to the end of my career, I understood I would probably coach. I learned more from the ones who weren't good coaches than the ones who were."

He learned that the bad ones were the ones who didn't communicate, who kept a wall between themselves and their players. He started writing down tips for himself whenever he had a coaching idea. He slept for weeks at a time in the corner of a team meeting room in Memorial Stadium as the Bears' offensive graduate assistant.

When he was named the wide receivers coach, his first step was to establish relationships. That wasn't always easy with the personalities in the wide receiver corps.

"The players who challenge you in certain ways, I've learned a lot from them," Daft says. "I've had guys who graduated the last couple years who are different types of people you have to deal with.

"You can get through to them in different ways by the way you approach them or talk to them. I think that's something I've learned."

And they respected that. Going into the 2008 season, Daft inherited a group that had 13 career receptions. In 2009, they chalked up 120 catches. This year, he has two big names in Jones and freshman Keenan Allen. Jones is averaging 16.1 yards per catch. In spite of being in and out with injuries this season, Allen leads the team with five touchdown catches.

"With this young swag that we have, he knows about it," Jones says. "He's not too far from us in terms of years and knowing the lingo and how we interact.

"When we're on the field, we talk about football. When we're alone with him, in his office, we talk about his life, our lives, beyond football. He's that person you can always depend on."

Memorial Stadium is empty except for a few wide receivers running in circles through the sunset light.

Behind them race two little girls, their giggles filling the warm, late summer air. The end of fall camp is in sight and football is nigh. But before football - in a spare moment before the frenzy of the season - comes family.

Daft stands on the sideline with his wife, catching up on their days as they watch wide receiver Alex Lagemann duck down to give their daughters, Talia and Caroline, high fives.

"They're giddy when they're out here," Daft says.

Jones, too, stops to say hello on his way up to the locker room. The girls love their tall, lanky playmates, the big boys who work with Daddy. They're much loved too.

"I have a son, and my son and my girlfriend live up here with me," Jones says. "They're friends. My son hangs out with his kids all the time."

The sun is setting, but Daft and his wife stay a little longer to let the girls run around. It's good for everyone to remember that football isn't everything. At the end of the day, there's life.

"He's been there through the thick and the thin," Jones says. "Coming in here and playing as a true freshman, talking to him was my way out of all the stress. He has an impact on all our lives."

Daft smiles as he watches his players spin around his daughters, his life and their lives intertwining.


Katie Dowd covers football. Contact her at [email protected]

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