Emboldened by one remarkable quarter of football, FSU’s Danny Kanell can see his true potential.
Dunnavant’s Paydirt Illustrated | 1995
Danny Kanell could always throw a football farther than the rest of them. When he and his high school buddies used to knock around the beach in Ft. Lauderdale, even though he did not play on their tiny Westminster Academy team, it sometimes seemed he could chuck that thing all the way to Miami.
A few years later, this was found out.
Not just that he could pass a football—well enough, in fact, to have made him one of the top recruits in the country after only two years of high school ball— but it was discovered that Danny Kanell did, unfortunately, throw the damn thing to Miami a lot. By the third quarter of last year’s intrastate showdown between the Florida State Seminoles and the Miami Hurricanes, the ‘Canes had converted three Kanell flubs into touchdowns. Worse, with more than a quarter left to play, Danny’s own fans were screaming for his hide:
“Gittem outta there!”
Despite having led the ’Noles to a 4-0 start and throwing for 1,000 yards faster than any quarterback in school history, Kanell became a lightning rod for the fans’ frustrations that day. The week after the loss to Miami, in which he was eventually benched, the flak was so intense that Kanell had to unplug his dorm room phone. No longer was it just some reporter wheedling for quotes. They were students, alumni, boosters. Your average armchair authorities and football psychos dialing up the quarterback to tell him he had to come back from this, to tell him he needed to learn to look off his receivers better. To tell him what a jerk he was.
Driving around campus one day, a gilded No. 13 plated to the bumper of his black Toyota 4-Runner, Danny noticed another driver in front of him. The guy had his arm out the window, hand up, middle finger extended.
Kanell had a big accounting test that same week. He went to the library to study. But, of course, they were there, too, another table full of experts debating his value, saying, “He’s just young,” as if they were the ones with some sort of experience.
Then the following week, he was benched again. Normally an excellent student, his grades that quarter would slip to an all-time low, and after much discussion with his father, Danny decided to change his major from pre-med to marketing. Gridiron and chemistry regimes just do not mix, says Danny, who had entered college wanting to be a doctor, like his dad. But this year he is a Heisman Trophy candidate and a pro prospect. So Danny Kanell is the quarterback, instead.
Not until the last game of the regular season did Kanell emerge from the shadow of Charlie Ward, his predecessor and the ’93 Heisman winner. After leading the Seminoles from the verge of humiliating defeat to a remarkable 31-31 tie with Florida, Kanell rose from campus scorn to Man of the Year. Now, as Florida State enters ’95 atop many pre-season polls, the same people who booed him unmercifully are eagerly awaiting his senior season.
Though the low points of his junior season are but distant war stories for Kanell, the pressures to prove himself have only temporarily abated. Right behind the 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior, sophomore Thad Busby and freshman Dan Kendra—the nation’s top quarterback prospect as a high school senior last year—are ready to step in should he stumble. During the offseason, Kanell had little on his mind but leading the Seminoles, in one of head coach Bobby Bowden’s pet phrases, from “wire to wire.” From Number One in the pre-season to Number One after the bowls—which has been a problem for FSU teams in recent years.
At a booster function in Atlanta, Bowden ruminated on Kanell’s junior season. “You must handle that position very delicately,” he said, wiping from his brow the sweat of an afternoon golf match with members of the Atlanta Seminole Booster club, his fourth stop on a 20-city barnstorm for Seminole pride. Bowden admits that if he had one decision to make over again, he would not have pulled Kanell so early in the Miami game.
Bowden was being escorted from the golf course to a local sports bar, where he would nibble cold bar food, glad-hand the FSU loyals, and hug their gum-smacking kids; where men and women in t-shirts proclaiming “FSU Football is Life” would bring him caps, footballs, and helmets, each to be signed by the fifth-winningest coach in college football history.
“Maybe sometimes I’ll just have to tell the other players, you know, I’m going to have to treat this guy a little differently,” Bowden said. “Or sometimes a line coach might jump on the quarterback and I’ll just have to tell him, ‘Hey, you can’t do that like you can (with) a lineman.’”
“The potential for Kanell was there all along,” Bowden said. “It was a matter of the coaches and the players believing in him, and of Kanell believing in himself.” In the end, however, Bowden said, there was only one way that could have happened. With just 13 minutes left in the regular season, with FSU taking a beating from the one team it must beat, Kanell had to play one quarter of flawless football.
As a result of that unbelievable comeback, Bowden said, “Danny Kanell is now a kid playing with ultimate confidence.”
AT 8:30 A.M., it is already hot in Ft. Lauderdale, and so time to get it over with. Wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and cross trainers, Danny appears at the front door of his parents’ house. He thrusts one large hand forward, along with a heap of Baptist pleasantries about not getting lost, about not being too early, he hopes.
Kanell is headed for an early-morning bruising with a personal trainer because, in the afterglow of last year’s Seminoles vs. Gators redemption, he has glimpsed his real potential. And as much as he is sure of where he wants to go as an athlete, he is certain he is not there yet.
His appointment is with local task master Tommy Boland. Danny was referred to Boland by his own father, Dr. Dan Kanell, Sr., the team doctor for the Miami Dolphins and Florida Marlins. When a lot of players are spending their summer breaks sucking down liquids and catching z’s on the sofa, Danny arrives at the gym all sneakers and smiles, 15 minutes early.
“Do ’em sitting?” he asks when the trainer arrives, grabbing a dumbbell.
“Sitting? No, not sitting! What’s wrong with you?” says Boland. “Give me 10 push-ups.”
“If you’re gonna learn this, Danny, you’ll do push-ups until you leave.”
Danny shoves out 10, then goes back to doing shoulder raises.
“Up slow… SLOW!” says Boland. “Come on, Danny, you eat sandwiches that weigh more than that!”
After 45 minutes in the weight room, Boland marches Kanell out to the parking lot for a variety of exhaustive quickness drills. Then, professing that he can also help bring more balance to Danny’s game, he has Danny stand on one leg on a yellow parking lot bumper. Danny holds his other leg extended in a frozen stride, hands held high as if ready to pass. He closes his eyes as he focuses on an imaginary point ahead of him, and very slowly sinks down on one leg to a position, says Boland, adapted from T’ai Chi.
“And hold… hold it… focus on your spot…Focus.” Badoom! “Good Danny. You got 30 seconds.”
When it is over, Danny slumps in a chair in Boland’s office. He hangs his head in a towel and asks when Boland is going to take him “out to the field.”
“We’ll get to all that soon enough,” Boland says. “We’ve got some parachutes and weight jackets that I want to start working with. But you just stick to what we’ve planned for right now. And start thinking about that diet.”
Like most college students, Kanell has a weakness for pizza, burgers and soda pop. He is trying to amend his junk food ways, he says, but he still hopes to put on five more pounds for this season while improving his mediocre 4.9 speed.
“Can you imagine? Putting on weight and bringing down your 40 time?” Boland says to his pupil. “This is important, Danny. It’s important for the coaches and the fans and the media,” he says, sliding a signed copy of his new workout book across his desk to a reporter.
“That’s what they all want to know, that you are doing more than what’s required.”
Danny raises, stretches, groans. “Oh, goodness. I won’t even be able to swing a golf club this afternoon,” he says, and as he heads down the hallway to retrieve his car keys and ball cap from the gym floor, Boland watches him with a knowing, managerial stare.
“Man, I’ve been wanting to get my hands on him for two years.”
THE FOYER OF THE Kanell home leads not to a living room, but a game room. This largest section of the house is dominated by a billiard table and shelves of trophies for baseball, basketball, football, track, tennis—the private celebration of Danny and his three sisters, Daryl, Dana, and Debbie. Their father was a record-setting discus and shot man at Pitt.
“At FSU, you’re just not a quarterback until you beat Miami… Florida.”
Beyond the game room is the Kanell swimming pool. Just beyond that is the Kanell tennis court. Just beyond the tennis court is the ninth hole of Ft. Lauderdale’s exclusive Coral Ridge golf course.
“Yeah, when I was a kid my dad even had me a batting cage out there,” Danny says, looking out from the kitchen as he stuffs a quart jar full of ice and then empties a carton of orange juice over the cubes.
“I’m gonna change real quick,” he says, “moving through a den with a world-class Fellowship of Christian Athletes motif. Bible study materials and several volumes of inspirationals are neatly scattered on the coffee table. Throw pillows with needlepoint Bible verses nuzzle the sofa. Adorning the wall, among other Kanell memorabilia, are a framed (Ft. Lauderdale) Sun-Sentinel feature on Danny, and a framed cover of Sports Illustrated.
Though this mania for sport might seem like the not-so-subtle persuasions of a sports-crazed parent, actually, Danny says, his mother and father never intended for him to play football. Dr. Kanell had been an all-city basketball player in high school, but when a broken femur during his one and only season of high school football sidelined his dreams of a collegiate basketball career, he vowed that if he ever had a son, he would never let him play football. During Danny’s freshman and sophomore years at Westminster, the coaches called Dr. Kanell trying to recruit his blessing. But he stood by his promise.
Danny played basketball, soccer, and baseball instead and was, in fact, drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers out of high school (and again by the New York Yankees this summer). He even took piano lessons. Just about everything except football. “I never really did want to play, anyway,” he says. “I’d hear all my friends talking about how they hated practice.”
But during his junior year, Westminster Christian needed a quarterback. The school also had a new offensive coach; he, too, called Dr. Kanell. “He convinced me that they could teach Danny the proper fundamentals even though he had never played, so I finally acquiesced,” said Dr. Kanell. That year, Westminster won the state 1-A championship. The next year, they finished runnerup.
“He was probably one of the top five recruits in the country,” Bowden said. “I would have loved to have redshirted him. But we needed him right away to back up Charlie.”
Reappearing in a fresh golf shirt, coaching shorts, and tennis shoes, Danny is ready to meet his father for lunch. Then he has a 1:30 tee time with his brother-in-law, thereby fulfilling for the day his stated summer regimen of “just working out and playing golf.”
At the restaurant, a few of the waitresses seem certain that Danny is somebody. They huddle briefly at the counter, and then send an agent. She scribbles out the order while stealing glances at Danny, who seems oblivious to it all.
Dr. Kanell arrives with no less conspicuousness. At 6-8, he almost has to duck under the door frame. He offers a muscular but somewhat shy paw, with a perpetual smile and almost quirkish nodding during conversation.
“Well, we would hear some pretty awful things up in the stands,” he says, referring to the FSU players’ family section, where the Kanells had more than once endured disparagement against their son. “My wife had her own method. She’d just turn on her radio and listen to the game.”
“At FSU, you’re just not a quarterback until you beat Miami… and Florida,” says Danny, noting that Charlie Ward was also booed and benched in his junior year.
But Ward had been a fleet, make-something-happen kind of leader. He operated out of the shotgun and frustrated defenses as he flushed from the pocket like a jackrabbit in a brush fire. Although Kanell had once stepped in for an injured Ward during his sophomore year—and even won ACC Player of the Week honors—as the starter he did not strike fans or coaches as an agile or confident leader.
Said one Atlanta booster during the recent Bowden Day: “It was like his feet did not know where they wanted to go. His arm knew. His mind knew. His eyes knew. And his legs knew. But his feet did not know where they wanted to go.”
So Bowden kept him under center, made him hand off the ball more and, compared to FSU’s usual fast-paced offense, played with an uncharacteristic conservatism. After the 13th-ranked Hurricanes blew past the third-ranked Seminoles on the strength of five turnovers—including three Kanell interceptions—his self-confidence sagged.
“I could just see it in their eyes,” Danny says. “My teammates weren’t confident in me.”
Florida State shut-out Clemson 17-0 and won its next three games by a combined margin of 108 points. The ’Noles even grunted back to seventh in the polls, but it was almost as if that didn’t matter. Kanell had not yet faced the Gators. Still uncomfortable with Danny in the shotgun, Bowden went into the Florida game announcing the Seminoles were “coming to run.”
It was the classic collegiate rivalry on many levels. The two quarterbacks, Danny Kanell and Danny Wuerffel, had been South Florida high school contemporaries, who several years earlier had agreed to go to different colleges so they would not be competing for the same job. Wuerffel was the Gators’ midseason replacement for senior Terry Dean, who, like Kanell, had generated Heisman talk early, and then stumbled. Now juniors, Kanell and Wuerffel were meeting for the first time, in front of a record Tallahassee crowd and a national television audience.
Florida Coach Steve Spurrier had added to the tension by referring to FSU in the press as “Free Shoes U,” alluding to the pre-season scandal that had come out of the disclosure that several FSU players had run up a $6,000 bill at a Tallahassee Footlocker shoe store, compliments of a pro agent. During warm-ups, Spurrier refused to go to the middle of the field for the usual pre-game salutations. Eventually, Bowden marched down to Spurrier’s turf, made for his hand, and gave it a perfunctory pump.
Then, for three quarters, the Gators’ defensive linemen proceeded to crash through the Seminoles’ offense like stormtroopers, tearing pieces from Kanell’s jersey as he desperately tried to find a receiver. Florida converted a second-quarter Kanell interception, and led 24-3 at halftime. The fans were either booing, leaving, or chanting for backup Thad Busby.
By the end of the third quarter, the score was 31-3.
Instantly, Kanell became a campus hero, a guy who had finally risen to the occasion.
With nothing left to lose, Bowden dropped his man into a no-huddle, shotgun formation, and for the remaining quarter, Kanell led the most impressive comeback of last season. The most impressive comeback in Florida State history. Hitting pass after pass, he brought the Seminoles to within 14 points amid a growing chorus of Seminole chanting. Then, with 5:25 remaining, Kanell scrambled to his right from two yards out. He burrowed into the endzone for his first collegiate rushing touchdown. It brought the Seminoles within seven, and the home crowd to near delirium.
In the fourth quarter alone, he completed 18 of 22 passes. He threw for three other touchdowns and ended the day 40 of 53 for 421 yards, setting an FSU single-game completion record. The Seminoles also tied an NCAA Division 1-A record for fourth-quarter comebacks.
In the ABC post-game interview, Bowden defended his decision to go for the final, tying extra point rather than try for two. But he could not hide his own amazement. “It was still a pretty good win—I mean tie. It was good tie,” he said, before tearing loose from a commentator and wading into the melee.
Instantly, Kanell became a campus hero, a guy who had finally risen to the occasion. “It was awesome. But the people giving a standing ovation were the same ones who had just a little earlier been booing,” Danny says. “And that took a little bit off of it for me.”
With his Caesar salad and grilled tuna sandwich now cleanly dispatched, he looks to his father, the doctor. “Hey, dad, is grilled tuna healthy?” he asks. “I mean, I had a grilled tuna sandwich. That’s pretty good for me, right?”
FROM JUST OVER the cusp of the hill, near the pin, the words hiss like gas above the tight, nubby lawn:
Danny stops in his tracks, looks incredulously back at the green.
“He cussed! Hey, did he cuss? I never heard him cuss before,” Danny says, looking back at his brother-in-law, who, obsessed with beating the good-at-everything college jock, has just missed his par.
Purple thunderheads have raised a 40 knot wind from the south. And in the glowering storm, with Danny at the wheel, this is gutbuster golf; a kidney-jarring ride over curbs, back and forth down the fairway to replay holes, blazing through lingering foursomes with a, ‘“S’cuse us. Outta your way real soon…” and then, swhack!, another of Danny’s long white tracers. Sometimes they fly where he wants, sometimes clean through the dogleg and over a three-story condominium.
“Bad shot doesn’t bother me,” he says, happily watching Kevin, the brother-in-law, miss another one. “But, oh, if I beat him he will be hot. I’m serious. He won’t be able to sleep tonight.”
The two have at it like convicts with slingblades: the bow-legged, solid-hitting golf addict who plays nearly every day, determined to whip the lantern-jawed All-American boy who, comparatively, hardly even plays; a kid whose family can afford to take him to Wimbledon and the Olympics, but who gets jittery with excitement over a two-bit golf bet, and then is suddenly stricken with worry that he might be violating NCAA regulations by “gambling” with his brother-in-law. The straight ace, designated driver who admits he used to cheat his grandmother at checkers, and who is also known to take his drop on the golf course with a swift kick of his foot.
When Danny hangs one on the green from a hundred yards out, Kevin asks, “What’d you hit?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he says, slipping the club into his bag.
By the 10th hole or so, they’ve played into a third man, a cigar-chomping duffer who’s mostly hitting out of sprinkler heads and the roots of Banyan trees. He gets their names mixed up, and for the rest of the match, Danny, now calling himself Kevin, and Kevin, now Danny, play the old goof as much as golf.
“I think he’s drunk,” Danny says. “Is he drunk? He might be drunk.”
On the final hole, which Danny and Kevin have replayed three times to try and break a tie, Kevin chips one in from the fringe. His hands go up, back arched, club raised with a victory whoop.
Danny shrugs it off, but not cleanly. On the way home, he apologizes three or four times for his poor 88. When we arrive, his mother Diane is busy preparing a lecture for her Bible study class. Danny also has some more film he’s been meaning to show.
It’s a ’94 highlights video that he had made at FSU. He prefaced it with Bible verses, and gave it to his mom and dad for Christmas. But it is not exactly your average highlights film.
“I made ’em put the bad parts in there, too,” he says, and toward the middle of the tape there is a blur of sacks, interceptions, and hang-dog closeups. And then his favorite, from the Florida game: a brilliant fall-away completion followed by a blow to the temple, which he replays three or four times. “I got a concussion from that one,” he says.
Next stop is dinner at his sister’s house, and then a date with old high school pals to watch a Westminster baseball game. Back in the car again, this time smelling of bar soap, he says, “If I don’t stop moving, I don’t get tired.”
During dinner of steak and potatoes at his sister Daryl’s house, the talk turns to bachelor parties. Another friend is getting married in a few days. Where can they take him?
“How about Denny’s?” says Daryl, giving Danny a harsh look.
“Aw, come on. It’s not like we’re going to take him to a strip joint or anything,” Danny says to his sister as his two buddies, who wait on the sofa with a kind of polite restlessness, break out giggling.
At the ballpark, Westminster hits Broward Christian so hard that the game is mercifully ended in the fifth inning. Afterwards, the boys go to play some trivia at, where else, a sports bar. They call their trivia team The ’Noles. They answer some trivia, and then drive Danny home early because there is, you know, a workout in the morning.
THE PHONE IS RINGING but Danny does not want to answer it. He’s got “The Comeback” on video and an Italian hoagie in his lap. “Something’s wrong with that phone anyway,” he says, ignoring its third plea for attention. On the tube, the Gator route is well under way.
“They are ready to open the season with Kanell in the shotgun, and that is perhaps the best indication that they now have as much confidence in him as they once did in Charlie Ward.
Ten minutes later the doorbell rings. Danny hurries to switch off the house alarm. He swings open one of the heavy front doors, and standing there on the brick porch is a youngish, fair complected man. The guy glides into the living room and stretches out on the sofa. It’s Seminole offensive coordinator Mark Richt, in town recruiting.
“You too lazy to pick up the phone, Danny?” he says, and Danny protests that it’s not working properly.
“Yeah, right,” says Richt.
There are some names of high school players bandied about, and after trying to place a call to a local coach, Richt hangs up, stares back at the television.
“No summer job, either, I suppose. Man! What a life,” he says, sweeping his eyes around the softly paneled den, pretending it’s all he can do to comprehend the luxury, with the fairway just outside…
“Hey, I don’t have time,” Danny says. “I’m working out with my own trainer nearly every day.”
Danny stands, lifts his shirt and pats his gut. “Really, you’re not gonna recognize me when I get back up there.”
“Some guy my dad knows… Hey man, you tell ’em.”
That’s right. T’ai Chi and stuff.
“Yeah, when I get back, me and Kendra can spar,” he says referring to the blue chip freshman quarterback, supposedly a black belt.
“I wouldn’t want him to get hurt, though.”
“No, I wouldn’t want you to get hurt, Danny.”
Kendra, the coach says, can bench press 365 pounds and runs a 4.5 40-yard dash.
“Wait a minute, now. You’ve actually timed him?”
“No. But I’ve seen him run on film..
“On film. Come on…”
“Believe me, Danny, I know what 4.5 looks like.”
“Aw…” Danny shakes his head, laughing at this carrot and stick game of denial and approval—of motivation. He gives up, and offers Richt something to drink. After Richt makes his recruiting connection, Danny escorts him out. He shuts the door and smiles sheepishly. “He’s, uh, he’s kind of sarcastic,” Danny says, and then returns to watch the end of the game.
The ’Noles have gotten the ball back in decent field position with 22 seconds left to play. They make a quick gain to about the Gators’ 40. At 17 seconds, Kanell peels right and burns in just inches short of the clock-stopping first down. Frantically, he’s trying to coax the players into position, but they don’t seem to hear him as the clock hits 10… with garnet bumping into gold just out of field-goal range… 5… and Danny grimacing as he watches himself trying to wave them down on the line of scrimmage.
“Man! If I just could’ve… we might’ve…” he says, hardly able to watch as the clock reveals the only flaw of an otherwise diamond perfect quarter of football… 2… 1…
“A tie,” he says, shaking his head. “We had 17 seconds left.”
It was still a remarkable performance, and after the clinical dissection of the Gators’ defense a month later in the Sugar Bowl, Kanell enters his senior season as the undisputed leader of the FSU offense. Bowden and Richt both say they are ready to open the season with Kanell in the shotgun, and that is perhaps the best indication that they now have as much confidence in him as they once did in Charlie Ward.
True, at FSU, a lot of people are still talking about Ward, and others are already talking about the new kid, Dan Kendra. But none of that bothers Kanell. He acknowledges his debt to Ward as a mentor and friend. And it is to be expected that fans will always look beyond the present. Whether they will remember him for one quarter, for one season, or forever, is just part of the game. A confidence game.
When it is suggested that winning the Heisman himself would be, well, pretty nice, he says simply, “Yeah, it would,” then brushes the thought aside as he heads back to his bedroom—where every wall and every corner is strategically cluttered with ball caps, tennis shoes, trophies, footballs, baseballs, basketballs, and a barrel full of baseball bats, where towels and jogging clothes hang over the arm of a treadmill, under the awesome gaze of a Michael Jordan wingspan poster. The big white sign on the bedroom door says simply, “Athletes Only.” ✦