Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn
I spent much of the first quarter of Braden River High’s 41-31 win over visiting Manatee on Sept. 7 thinking about the last time I heard a high school crowd get so loud for one player.
I came up empty.
The Pirates' faithful thundered when senior wide receiver Knowledge McDaniel took the field for warm-ups. They did so again when he was announced as a team captain. When he caught his first pass, a 31-yard touchdown from senior quarterback Bryan Gagg, I thought the bleachers might collapse.
The win was McDaniel’s first game of the season. By now, you might know his situation: He was ruled ineligible by the Florida High School Athletic Association on Aug. 8 for receiving “impermissible benefits,” in the form of staying with Braden River booster club president Todd Thoma and his family, which includes Pirates junior kicker Brett Thoma.
In front of an FHSAA appeals committee on Sept. 7, however, McDaniel and his supporters had a chance to change the ruling. They did — but not in a way anyone anticipated. After hearing all arguments, the appeals committee ruled McDaniel was eligible to play in non-district games, but remained ineligible for district games and any potential playoff games the Pirates play. At the time, three non-district games remained, including the Manatee game.
Saint Stephens Episcopal athletic director Lenny Paoletti was one of the members of the appeals committee. He shared the committee's reasoning behind the ruling.
"The committee felt as though the school dropped the ball," Paoletti said. "We didn't want to penalize the student, but there's a rule in place. If he was ruled eligible to play in all the games and the playoffs, then as a committee, our concern was there would be many schools (in the future) intentionally not observing the rule. Any student can go play anywhere they want now. You could see homes filled with students. Not so much in this area, but we have to look at the whole state of Florida.
"We don't punish. The school is the one who caused him to be ineligible. We actually granted him games."
Personally, I think Paoletti's concern over other schools taking advantage of the rule is misplaced. It's already happening at plenty of schools in low-income areas, and it will continue regardless of McDaniel's ruling. If the FHSAA actually wanted to change things in this regard, it would stop calling housing an "impermissible benefit" — at least for kids already in the school's zone. McDaniel wasn't trying to transfer anywhere. He was trying to stay where he spent his first three high school years.
I wrote a column calling the FHSAA’s original ruling unfair, but at least the punishment was by-the-rulebook. This appeals committee decision is baffling. If you believe McDaniel is guilty, fine. Let the original punishment stand, because the rule book calls for total ineligibility. If you believe he’s innocent, let him play in every game. Granting partial eligibility only shows that the committee has no backbone.
After the Manatee game, I asked McDaniel what he thought of the ruling. He could have given a simple “no comment.” I would have understood, and frankly expected this. He could have also trashed the ruling. Instead, he took the high road, and he didn’t hesitate.
“Honestly, I’m thankful they are letting me play at all,” McDaniel said. “Obviously, I wanted to be able to play in every game, but that wasn’t the decision they made. We’ll see what happens (with future appeals).”
McDaniel and Braden River can appeal the committee’s decision during the next FHSAA Board of Directors meeting on Sept. 23-24 in Gainesville, and Pirates coach Curt Bradley said the teams plans to do so.
Stats are secondary in a situation like this, but the Manatee game showed how big an impact McDaniel can have on a game. He finished with 133 total yards (87 receiving and 46 rushing) and two touchdown catches, including the aforementioned one on the game’s first possession. He could have gone for more, but junior running back Brian Battie was so dominant, the Pirates didn’t have to sustain many drives. He ran for 267 yards and four touchdowns.
"It felt good, man," McDaniel said of getting to play. "I was happy to be back with my team. I felt good about the game. I was more excited than (all of) Manatee."
The next time he’s eligible to play is Oct. 5, a home game against Booker High. Until then, McDaniel said, he will be working with the scout team, helping the first-team defense prepare for the offenses they will face. He’s a captain, after all, and he said he’s going to do everything he’s allowed to do to help the team. He said it wasn’t as difficult as some may think for him to watch the past two games from the sideline, as he still had a job to do — fire up his teammates.
McDaniel’s coach has been impressed by his poise through this tough situation.
“Knowledge is one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met,” Bradley said.
He added that he’s confident the senior will find great success in both football and life, and that he found the committee’s ruling disappointing.
If you’re a Pirates fan looking for a silver lining, here’s one ... if the board of directors decides to overturn the appeals committee ruling and grants McDaniel full eligibility, his first game back would be on Sept. 28.
Against Venice High.
For so many reasons, that would make one crazy turn of events, and I hope it happens for everyone’s sake.