Tragedy and triumph: How Jayden Daniels found peace (and a Heisman) at LSU after heartbreaking pandemic

BATON ROUGE, La. — About 60 miles east of Los Angeles, just south of Riverside, California, adjacent to March Air Reserve Base is a lush oasis in the middle of desert terrain.

Within Section 64 of Riverside National Cemetery, at Plot No. 2854, lies the final resting place of William and Betty Daniels.

William and Betty, husband and wife for 50 years, were laid to rest here in March 2021 in a single burial ceremony. They perished within a month of one other from the same affliction: COVID-19.

“Beloved daddy and mama,” their headstone reads, a Christian cross and a praying angel inscribed above their names.

Jay Daniels had to deliver to his son Jayden the news: “Paw-paw passed away.”

Grandson never said goodbye, in person, to his grandfather, the man who drove him to so many practices, the Air Force veteran who taught him to remain stoic and even keel, to never flinch.

In the wake of such a traumatic experience, Jay and Jayden took William’s age-old advice. Pick yourself up by the bootstraps, he’d always tell them. Nobody is going to feel sorry for you, he’d say. And so, each of them in a dark place, their feelings buried within, they marched onward with life. No matter that they removed two loved ones from life support 27 days apart, that they closed two caskets on the same day, Jay and Jayden insisted that they were OK. That’s at least what they told one another.

“Are you OK?” father would ask.

“Yes, I’m OK,” son would answer.

“Neither of us,” Jay says now, “were OK.”

LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels lifts Heisman Trophy after winning the college football award, Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023, in New York. (Todd Van Emst/Pool Photo via AP)

'Perception shift' at LSU

Within LSU’s football facility, seated at a desk inside the program’s quarterbacks meeting room, Jayden Daniels sports a sweeping smile as well as about 15 pounds of new muscle.

It is August 2023.

He is much different than that skinny kid who, after losing two grandparents, endured the worst season of his football-playing career as a junior at Arizona State in 2021. He is the rare fifth-year starting quarterback in college football, one of the SEC’s most accomplished returning QBs and now a Heisman Trophy winner. He’s also added to his now-210 pound frame what he describes as “armor” for the grind of the SEC. But his biggest change may be attitude.

By nature a shy and quiet person, Daniels is more expressive than his father has ever seen.

“He’s just smiling and happy more,” Jay said in an interview in August.

As the season played out, it ended up being a good sign for everyone wearing purple and gold.

Daniels somehow improved on his numbers from last season, when, in his first year in Baton Rouge, he marched the Tigers to the SEC championship game by running for at least 90 yards in five games, throwing for at least 245 in five more and scoring 28 touchdowns.

In 2023, he ranked third nationally in passing yards (3,812), tied for the lead in passing touchdowns (40), had the most rushing yards of any QB (1,134 yards) and tossed just four interceptions. He became the only FBS player ever with at least 12,000 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards in his career, is one of just 11 players in FBS history to record at least 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing in a single season, and against Florida, he became the first player in FBS history to finish with at least 350 passing yards and 200 rushing yards in a game.

On Saturday night, his final college season culminated in the sport’s most recognizable individual prize: the Heisman Trophy.

“He wasn’t even listed as a top-10 quarterback in March,” LSU head coach Brian Kelly said in August as Daniels entered the year with the second-best Heisman odds. “Now he’s listed as the top two to three favorites to win the Heisman. He’s made a huge perception shift. He’s on the right path. Now he’s gotta go do it.”

And he did.

Born to play quarterback

As a former college cornerback, first at Washington and then Iowa State, Jay Daniels raised his son to be a cornerback.

Even at 8 years old, Jayden possessed speed, a lanky range and athleticism — a perfect corner! That was never going to happen, Jayden now laughs.

Raised in Southern California, producer of some of the country’s best QBs, Jayden grew up watching Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, Marcus Mariota and Cam Newton. He wanted the ball in his hands at all times.

As early as 10 years old, Jayden began working with Ryan Porter, a former arena league quarterback and close friend of his father who is also from San Bernardino. The two clicked, and by Jayden’s freshman year, he became the starting quarterback at Cajon High School despite being the human version of, his father says, a string bean: 5-foot-10, 137 pounds.

If you doubt that, check out his freshman video posted on YouTube. Jayden was thin enough that the school required Jay to get approval from a doctor before his son played in a game.

“The first doctor said, ‘Absolutely not,’” Jay recalled, “so we had to go to a second doctor.”

What transpired over the next four seasons was one of the best careers in California high school football history: 14,007 passing yards, 3,645 rushing yards and 211 touchdowns. He did it all while battling through injuries.

As a freshman, he cracked his wrist in the final game, a loss in the state semifinals. As a sophomore, he broke his thumb on his throwing hand in the second quarter of the season opener (he played through it the rest of the season). As both a junior and senior, Jayden’s team lost in the state championship game.

Jayden Daniels' lack of size growing up never stopped him from getting on the field. (Yahoo Sports)
Jayden Daniels' lack of size growing up never stopped him from getting on the field. (Yahoo Sports)

That mattered little to colleges. The offers poured in: Alabama, USC, Georgia, Nebraska, Oregon, etc. They saw something in Jayden what Porter saw as well. In a world of spread football and running QBs, Jayden’s best attribute was his footwork, the coach said. He’s got his old man’s feet. “DB feet,” said Porter.

Couple that with his arm and, well, it’s no surprise that he started in Year 1 at Arizona State, stunning the country with his speed, arm and athleticism. As a rookie in Power Five football, he threw for 17 touchdowns and two picks and entered 2020 as the face of the university.

On the field, Jayden personified a calm and cool attitude that his father ingrained in him. Jay’s San Francisco 49ers fandom knew no bounds. He and son watched on repeat Joe Montana’s 11-play, 92-yard game-winning touchdown drive to beat the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII.

As legend has it, during the drive, Montana gathered teammates and pointed to the crowd, “Hey, isn’t that John Candy?” — a light-hearted tactic in a pressurized time that explains his nickname: Joe Cool.

“That’s Joe Cool!” Jay would tell son during the drive’s replay. “If you pattern your game after anybody — calm, cool and collected — it’d be Joe Montana.”

Playing through grief

On Dec. 31, 2020, Betty Daniels, 77, had improved enough from her battle with COVID-19 that doctors released her from the hospital to return home. Her husband, William, 78, still struggled while on life support as he battled a disease that suffocated the world, divided America and resulted in grandson Jayden competing in just four games of his sophomore season.

Because of COVID-19 protocol, no one could visit William. Not at Thanksgiving. Not at Christmas. Not on New Year’s.

“My father just sat there alone, day by day,” Jay said.

The family removed William from life support on Jan. 9, 2021 — the couples’ wedding anniversary. Not long afterward, Betty was re-admitted into the hospital. She died on Feb. 5, 2021 — her birthday. Because of pandemic restrictions on mass gatherings, the family delayed the burial by a month.

During spring practice ahead of his junior season, Jayden returned home for one of the worst days of his life.

“We had to close two caskets at the same time,” said Regina Jackson, Jayden’s mother. “Having to close his grandmother’s casket and going to the next one to close his grandfather’s casket, that’s a lot.

“But Jayden is a quarterback, and he took it as, ‘The world doesn’t care what I have to go through.’ Whether he’s dying inside or happy, he continued to do it.”

That season, his junior year at Arizona State, Jayden threw the same amount of touchdowns as he did interceptions (10). Around him, things weren’t great. The athletic department was mired in an NCAA investigation, the Sun Devils lost five games and the offense did not suit him. He wasn’t public about the change in the offensive philosophy, but two years later, Porter is.

Jayden is a run-pass option (RPO) quarterback. He’s a zone-read guy, the coach said. Arizona State moved away from that.

“Jayden didn’t complain, but I will,” he said. “You could tell he lost his confidence a little bit.”

But there was something else lingering within Jayden Daniels. Everyone around him knew it. They sensed it — a sadness.

Jayden and William were close. While Jayden’s parents worked, Williams cared for his grandson, often bringing him to football practices in his PT Cruiser and watching from the stands before the two took part in their favorite daily ritual: having slurpees.

Three days after his grandfather passed, he wrote 250 words of pure grief on his Instagram page. The last time he saw his grandfather was May 2020, seven months before he passed.

“Recently lost my best friend, man,” Jayden wrote. “Wish I was able to see you and roll with you one more time.”

In his return home to the L.A. area that season, Jayden wore custom-made cleats adorned with the faces of his three deceased grandparents for Arizona State’s game against UCLA. He threw for 286 yards and two touchdowns and the Sun Devils beat UCLA, 42-23, at the Rose Bowl.

Did that help? Did he let go of the grief? A little.

“There were some times where it came out,” said Herm Edwards, then-Arizona State’s head coach and a person to whom Jayden grew close. “But he holds a lot in and that’s not a good thing. You gotta let it out.”

Finally, Regina said, it happened. Jayden did let it out, only after he transferred some 1,400 miles to the East.

“We got to tell our story,” she said, “at LSU.”

A fresh start in Baton Rouge

Back in LSU’s quarterbacks meeting room, Jayden Daniels acknowledges just how difficult a decision it was to return to school and forgo the NFL Draft.

“I’ll be honest,” he said, “it was 50-50.”

Jayden always envisioned himself leaving college for the NFL after his third year. He graduated from Arizona State a year early as a junior. He’d started all three years of Power Five football. And then he made the decision to transfer to LSU to surround himself with what Porter referred to as “Maseratis and Porsches” — the talented group of SEC receivers.

Jayden “reinvented” himself in Year 1 in Baton Rouge, Porter said.

“He’s got that sour taste out of everybody’s mouth from the crap that he dealt with at Arizona State, which was crap,” Porter said. “None of it was his fault. None of it.”

Jayden thought he’d leave after Year 3. He then thought he’d leave after Year 4. But, “life happens,” Jay said. “A lot of kids see three-and-done. They want this perfect roadway but that’s not always how life is set up to be.”

LSU QB Jayden Daniels celebrates a touchdown with Malik Nabers during a game on Oct. 22, 2022. (AP)
LSU QB Jayden Daniels celebrates a touchdown with Malik Nabers during a game on Oct. 22, 2022. (AP)

Last December, as LSU prepared for its bowl game, Jayden met with Kelly and offensive coaches to discuss a fusing of a professional quarterback’s offseason with a college quarterback’s offseason. They agreed to allow Jayden to spend several weeks home to train with coaches who readied NFL QBs for the draft. They created a weight-gaining meal plan (a chef cooked him pre-made meals for each week). He participated in virtual reality training, too, and he had plenty of time to do it all because of a lighter class load.

The decision to return, though, was not easy. NFL scouts gave him a late Day 2 draft grade, his mother said — a tempting projection. At best, he could be drafted in the third round.

“I could have went out this year and take what I got,” Jayden said. “Last year, I had an up-and-down year. I want to go out and control what I can control.”

NFL scouts also provided feedback for his improvement: He needed to be quicker with decisions and hesitate less. Over the course of his career, his decisions slowed. Too much thinking. Too much running. He spent part of the offseason with receivers like LSU's Malik Nabers, working on communication and connection.

When he wasn’t in Baton Rouge, Jayden was in Orange County, California, in an Airbnb he rented near his training facility, 3DQB, where Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud both worked out last year as they prepared for the draft. Nabers has noticed a difference.

“We had summer practices and when he threw the ball, it was just so precise,” Nabers said. “You can tell his arm and accuracy was improved.”

Something else has changed, too. LSU provided him a new place, different surroundings, new people. Jay, Jayden and Regina all began to tell Jayden’s story to those around them — the loss of his grandparents, the struggles at Arizona State, the tough climb to this point.

At an SEC school with a rabid fan base, it was time to tell Jayden’s tale, to humanize him. They let it out.

“I play for my family and the name on the back of my jersey. I play for them, knowing what they sacrificed for me to get here to this point,” Jayden said. “It goes back to my mom and dad and late grandparents. Rest in peace. Picking me up from school while my parents worked. Grandpa used to pick me up from school every day and take me to practice and training. My family has sacrificed for me to get to this point.”

Jay and Jayden are in a better place than they were in the spring of 2021. Are they back to being “OK”? Not quite.

“Our whole family is coming out of it,” Jay said in August. “But it’s tough to wrap your mind around it."

“We’ve seen and felt a lot. Jayden has done a good job of handling his emotions, but when you are the face of a university and a quarterback, you figure a way to get through it.”

On Saturday night, at the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York City, Jayden Daniels, as he’s done all of his life, proved that he did, indeed, follow Paw-Paw Williams' mantra.

When he got knocked down, figuratively and literally, he’s picked himself up by the bootstraps and dusted himself off, because nobody is going to feel sorry for him, the Heisman Trophy winner.

(Editor's note: This story was originally published on Sept. 2 and has been updated to reflect Jayden Daniels winning the Heisman Trophy.)