AVON, Ind. | This Thanksgiving, Elijah Daniel has a lot to be thankful for. The 2013 defensive end has scholarship offers from Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Marshall, Oklahoma and Purdue and says Alabama and Florida State may be close to offering.
The 6-foot-4, 247-pound defensive star just finished his junior season at Avon (Ind.) High School, going 10-2 before losing in the sectional championship.
It hasn't always been so easy for the Tuscaloosa native who now lives in Indiana.
Growing up just outside the University of Alabama's campus, Daniel and his brothers and sisters were separated from his parents at an early age and forced to live with foster parents in a local group home.
"I didn't grow up with my parents," Daniel said. "I was a foster kid, growing up in a group home. There was a lot of good times, and then there was how I got into foster care and all that with my parents."
His foster parents in Alabama, Mike and Ginger Abernathy, raised Daniel until the third grade when he moved to Indiana to live with an aunt he had never met. Daniel hasn't forgotten what they have done for him and still talks with them on a regular basis.
When he visited UA recently for the LSU game, he stayed with the Abernathys.
"We toured the campus and talked to a lot of fans," Daniel said. "It was just really fun. It was the first time I'd been back home to Alabama in awhile.
"They were telling me how I had gotten bigger. They had actually come up last year for one of my sophomore games and for my brother's graduation, and they just talked about how I had gained weight and gotten taller since they had come up last."
Moving to Indiana
Moving across the country is never easy, but it's even more difficult when you're only in the third grade and you're going to live with somebody you've never met.
For Elijah Daniel, that's how it happened.
His aunt found out that he and his brothers and sisters were living in a group home in Tuscaloosa and decided to take the children in, move them to Indiana and raise them on her own.
The move wasn't easy at first. Without their parents and living far away from what they knew as home, Daniel and his brothers turned to football as a distraction.
"The transition was weird because I was living with my auntie instead of my mom," Daniel said. "I really didn't even know my auntie because I was young. Things were different, but then we got put into football and that helped make the transition better.
"Me and my brothers would always tear each other up, so my auntie decided to put us in football, and we were pretty good at it from the jump."
To say Daniel and his two brothers were good at football may be somewhat of an understatement.
Daniel's oldest brother, Montez Robinson, was a four-star recruit out of high school who signed with the University of Georgia. His other brother, Armonze, had offers to play in the Big 10 but ended up signing with Marshall where he's currently redshirting as a freshman.
Elijah may be the best of the bunch, and Avon head coach Mark Bless believes he has a chance to be a special player at the next level. He said he believes Daniel's troubled past may be what drives him on the football field.
"You can tell he's a football player as soon as he puts pads on," Bless said. "He's got a great explosion off the ball, good speed on the field and physically, he handles himself well. He has a little bit of aggression, and he knows how far to push that. I think some of his past probably is an opportunity to let that out on the field."
Bless has been the head coach at Avon for only two years, but he and the rest of the coaching staff has taken Daniel in as one of their own and helped him overcome his past. Multiple coaches have served as father figures for the teenager who lacked a male role model growing up.
"Me and Coach Bless and a few of the coaches on the coaching staff really have a close relationship," Daniel said. "They take me in as if I was there son, and they do that to everybody on our team. They're a real family."
"Last spring, our family started having family meals, and we just started Elijah with us," Bless said. "We wanted to expose him to different family environments. We all function together as a family. It's really neat because after games, he'll come up and hug my wife, my daughter, my sister-in-law and her daughters."
Avon defensive coordinator Chris Bombei even accompanied Daniel on his visit to Florida where he saw the Gators take on the Crimson Tide.
"That family relationship is something that he really appreciates when he's around Coach Bombei's family or our family," Bless said.
The ultimate goal
Every top recruit has essentially the same goal of one day reaching the NFL, and Daniel is no different. He and his brothers were born in the South, and all three had the dream of playing in the SEC one day to help reach the professional level.
"I think that all three of the boys had a goal of playing in the SEC," Bless said. "He's a teenage kid, but his ultimate goal is to play in the NFL. A lot of us had that goal growing up, but I think he's got the tools to achieve that goal, and I think he sees his possibilities improved by playing in the SEC."
Even though he now plays high school football in Indiana, Daniel believes he has the speed and athleticism to compete in the SEC, college football's elite conference.
"I say I got SEC speed," Daniel said. "I want to see how I measure up against the best because as you know, it's about to be an all-SEC BCS national championship."
Daniel believes Alabama, one of those schools vying for a BCS title, may be close to offering him a scholarship. He says he can cancel out a lot of other schools with an offer from the Crimson Tide as well as the offers he's already received from Florida and Oklahoma.
The rising star doesn't have any favorites at this point, but knows what he's looking for after watching his brothers go through the process.
"I'm looking at how the people are there, the coaching staff, do they treat you right and do they have your back," Daniel said. "What's the strength and conditioning, the pluses and minuses with that, and obviously, playing time is a factor."
This Thanksgiving, Daniel plans to sit around, eat and watch football just like anybody else, but he will also be the first one to give thanks to the people who have helped get him to where he's at now.
"He's very grateful of people that help him," Bless said. "He has a good understanding that people aren't just trying to take advantage of him."
Reach Greg Ostendorf at firstname.lastname@example.org.