After his sophomore year at Foreman, following his first full season of football competition, Johnny Daniels approached coach Peter Grazzini with an intriguing question.
"Have you ever produced a Division I player?" Daniels asked Grazzini.
"Yes, in volleyball," Grazzini said. "But not in football."
"I'll be your first football player," Daniels said.
The question captivated Grazzini. Had Foreman ever produced a Division I football player? The coach did some research. No, as far as anyone knows, the school has never sent a football player to a Division I program.
Daniels could be the first. He came to Foreman to play basketball, but Grazzini took one look at the chubby, 287-pound freshman marching in a ROTC class and projected him as a big-time lineman.
College coaches think so, too. They have never made Foreman a must stop on their recruiting trips into Chicago in the past. But Daniels, now a 6-foot-5, 240-pound junior, is attracting attention like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
"He is the best kept secret in the city of Chicago," Grazzini said. "He isn't on anybody's top 30 list. But I wouldn't expect anyone to know anything about Foreman football because we haven't done anything yet. Our job is to put (Daniels) on the map."
From the moment Grazzini discovered Daniels in an ROTC class, he has been grooming the youngster for stardom. "I liked his physique. He was more built for football than basketball. He is very strong and very athletic. As a defensive tackle, he will be a nightmare for everybody," he said.
Daniels quit playing football in seventh grade. He aspired to be a basketball player. Coaches told him he had potential to be a basketball player. But Grazzini persuaded him to try out for the sophomore football team. Soon he was starting on the varsity as a defensive end. As a junior, he forced 13 fumbles.
"He got some interest when people saw his size. I invested in some Huddle software and began sending his highlight film to a lot of colleges," the coach said. "Northern Illinois liked what they saw, came in to see him and then everybody came...Big Ten, MAC, Ohio Valley.
"They like his size and explosiveness and his good feet. He has the wingspan of someone who is 6-foot-11 14. He is being recruited as an offensive tackle and defensive tackle. Class 1-AA schools don't think they can get him. They think he is above them. It's a big process for us, finding the right fit."
Daniels has no scholarship offers yet, but he has strong interest from Northern Illinois, Toledo and Eastern Illinois. Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern and South Dakota State also have shown interest. Toledo visited Foreman four days in a row with four different coaches.
"Offers should be coming by the end of the month," Grazzini said. "At the moment, he is enjoying the process of being recruited. This isn't a race; it's a process. Our goal is to get him to 270 pounds to go to college. Now it's all about homework, nutrition and lifting weights."
Daniels has taken an unofficial visit to Northern Illinois. He liked the campus and the coaching staff and is anxiously looking forward to attending the Huskies' summer camp. "They want to see him go up against other big-time players, the kind of competition he doesn't get in the Public League," Grazzini said.
"I like Northern Illinois a lot," said Daniels, who also plans to attend camps at Northwestern and Illinois. "I hope they will offer. I felt comfortable there. I'd like to play closer to home. But my family understands I will go anywhere to play."
In fact, Daniels has two dream schools--Miami (Florida) and Michigan. They haven't shown any interest to date but the youngster hopes they'll be among the major Division I programs that figure to evaluate him during his senior year.
"I was always a Miami fan growing up," he said. "Once I understood the game, I liked Miami's style of play. And the stadium at Michigan is so big. Tom Brady went there. He's my favorite player. I can throw the ball pretty good. In 7-on-7 games, I play quarterback. I can throw the ball more than 50 yards. And everybody knows I like the New England Patriots."
"Johnny wears jersey number 52," Grazzini said. "But he'd wear number 12 (Tom Brady's number) if he could."
Grazzini, 33, is preparing for his second season as Foreman's head football coach. Last year's team was 7-3, losing to Glenbard South in the first round of the state playoff.
A 1997 graduate of Morton in Cicero, he played and coached volleyball before he took a liking to football. He didn't want to play baseball in high school but his father said he had to do something so he chose volleyball. His high school team finished fifth in state on one occasion and lost twice in the supersectional. At Eastern Illinois, he played club volleyball for four years.
After graduation from EIU in 2005, he was an assistant football coach at Foreman for two years, then got out of coaching to pursue a career in the restaurant business for two years. All the time, he was a full-time teacher at Foreman. When the pizza business went bust, he returned to coaching and became head football coach last year.
"I was always interested in football but I was more schooled in volleyball," Grazzini said. "It is more fun coaching football than volleyball. The dynamic of taking 11 kids to make one play successful makes it one of the most intriguing sports I've ever been a part of. It builds character and toughness."
Daniels might not be the only Division I player that he will produce. Kentral Brown, a 2011 graduate, is a highly promising safety at Butte Junior College in Chico, California, the same school that produced Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Brown red-shirted last year after beating out 100 other players for a spot on the 50-man roster.
Now it is Johnny Daniels' turn. "I'm still not successful. The coach always says nothing is good enough. I always try harder until it is good enough. I want to learn the game better," he said.
The game plan for the remainder of the summer is clear. He has begun a 7,000 calories-a-day diet that includes a lot of protein, carbohydrates, meat and chicken. He squats 300 pounds and power cleans 225. His goal is to lift 185 pounds at least 20 or more times. His personal goal is to weigh 260 pounds before the season opener.
And he wants to do more pushups than his coach. "I want to get stronger. The coach can do 80 pushups. I can only do 45. My goal is to beat him by the end of the year," Daniels said.
"I feel good about myself," he said. "This has been a blessing. The coach said if you put in hard work, you'll get noticed and colleges will want you if you stand out and perform. For the colleges to tell him that I'm good enough to play for them...well, that is amazing, a dream. I never knew how far football could take me. As a kid, you only dream about going to the NFL."
Will he play offense or defense in college? "He is very physical and disruptive. He has a mindset to be a nightmare on defense. He will snap a lot of heads back with his initial punch. He likes to get after the quarterback and chase running backs," Grazzini said.
"I love football. It's unexplainable. I love everything about it," Daniels said. "But I prefer defense. My work ethic is pretty good for defense. I love playing violent. When college coaches ask me which position I prefer, I say defense. I have more passion for defense than offense."