Daniel Cross – Champion

Daniel Cross manages to combine reserve with intensity to create a persona of driven peace. He is a champion in both senses of the word – as a winning athlete and as an advocate for student athletes transitioning from sports to the business world. Daniel sits fully relaxed in his easy chair as we talk, but he radiates empathy and understanding for what most sports figures find to be a difficult tumble.

He has lived that ragged fall himself, discovering the empty gap between cheering crowds and the silent after burn of a sports career. Rather than succumbing to bitterness, he’s taken up the banner for yesterday’s forgotten heroes.

Daniel is founder and CEO of Athlete Connections, a non-profit organization that helps “athletes complete their career,” as Daniel puts it. “There are no failed athletes,” he tells me. “Just to be able to play basketball, baseball or any sport at the college level defies all the odds. Take basketball, for instance. Less than 3% of all students can make the claim to have played in NCAA sports; of those, barely 1% goes professional. That’s 44 players out of 60,000 who play NBA ball.

To even get close to that is the best kind of success.” With all their focus on being part of that 1%, and the adulation they receive along the way, when their last game is played, entering the “real world” is the greatest challenge student athletes face. Daniel and his organization want to be there for them.

He comes by his sense of responsibility honestly; Daniel is the oldest of five kids raised in humble circumstances in Carbondale, Illinois. As he tells me his story, it’s clear he has mined it for every lesson he could find. His intelligence is without question, so it surprised me when he said he didn’t get high marks in school, especially when he told me his father was both teacher and pastor. “I didn’t want good grades; I didn’t see the importance of school, not until I found out to play basketball I had to do well in class.”

That was a foreign concept to my middle-class mind so I asked him to explain further. What kind of life had he looked forward to while in school? “I didn’t look forward. There were no professionals in my neighborhood. All my friends’ parents were in survival mode, living hand to mouth. It’s hard to see outside the box. I didn’t see it, so I couldn’t dream it. I didn’t see any of my people on TV that were successful… except for the Cosby Show.” A grin spread across his face. “What I learned from that show was to marry a lady lawyer… and I did.” In the dining room, his beautiful wife, the lady lawyer, was playing with their two kids. Athletics made all this possible. “That was something you did see on TV, pro athletes, so that’s what we aspired to.”

And not just basketball. As Daniel told me about his fledgling sports career, he couched it in transferable skills, like a good CEO. “Soccer that developed footwork and speed; baseball which developed hand-eye coordination… I played them all, encouraged by my father. He was a high school teacher, so he knew who was doing drugs, who was dealing, who I needed to stay away from… and a lot of them were my friends. Sports were a good way to keep me busy, and it gave me something to aspire to. Give someone a goal and there’s no stopping them.”

He admitted sports were more important to him than church growing up. “When you’re made to go to church you tend not to like it at times, but what was being built despite me was a foundation of belief, a structure of faith that will see you through difficult – and really good – times. It grows deeper as you rely on it through your life.”

It sounded like a difficult childhood to me, but he shook his head and laughed. “I love Carbondale. I go back every summer to teach basketball camps. To give a little of what I got.” He began leaving his hometown regularly, though, when his talent began to get noticed his sophomore year of high school. Summers he’d go to Chicago to attend the kind of camps he now puts on. “That’s where my game really took off to another level, playing against older men. A lot of basketball players come out of the Chicago area. Others might say New York or L.A. but Chicago… that’s where the players come from…” He laughed, but there was a spark in his eye daring me to challenge him.

Daniel came to the University of Florida through a hard-to-resist recruitment. “It was the opportunity to see another part of the world – and it was the world to me. I’d never been out of the Midwest, so down here was culture shock. I had people saying ‘hello’ who didn’t know me; where I’m from you don’t talk to someone if you don’t know them. I was on uncommon ground. It’s that Southern hospitality, you know, the sweet tea and everything that comes along with it. I knew then I wasn’t moving back; not when it’s twenty degrees there and in the eighties here.” Not to mention the chance to play his first year. “Yeah, I’m an impatient man, if I put the work in and prove myself, then I deserve to be in there.”

College for Daniel was the best time of his life, but it wasn’t without its difficulties. “It’s like having a full time job you don’t get paid for. Conditioning, practice, weight training, more practice, more conditioning, watching game films, and a full load of classes and study time.” Daniel has the habit of pulling lessons from everything; his student athletes are never far from his mind. “This routine possesses a lot of qualities that – even though they’re not aware of it at the time – will benefit athletes later down the line when transferring to the business world. Discipline, working toward a goal, playing under pressure, working in the public eye… it’s the best time of your life.” Daniel was an integral part of the first Final Four team ever fielded by the Florida Gators, and with it he was feted with numerous awards. Daniel was inducted into the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006, he was awarded the Regions Bank solute award honoring former student athletes from the South Eastern Conference operating successful business and is receiving a prestigious 2008 SEC Conference Legends Award.

The NBA loomed large in his mind as friends, coaches and supporters all encouraged the dream. “I would try out every year and always make it to the final cut, but it never happened.”

That didn’t mean he wasn’t a professional. Daniel played professional basketball across the world. “The longer I played, the more my family would say maybe it was time to consider the B plan, but when you’re focused on the A plan, there’s no time for B or C. Basketball was like an addiction to me. No matter the problems or pressures off the court, when I was out there I was totally free. It was magic.” Time waits for no one, not even athletes, and eventually Daniel knew it was winding down. “I decided to play in Israel. It would be a chance to see the Holy Land, and I did; Jerusalem, Bethlehem, it was beautiful country, nothing like you see on TV.” He led a team of non-English-speaking players and managed to pull them together despite the language barrier. “Basketball is a language of its own.”

Then, with practicing over and the season ready to begin, the first game rolled around. “I was walking out onto the court and suddenly it felt like someone kicked me in the back of the foot but no one had touched me. I fell to the ground and it was over. I had torn my Achilles tendon.”

From there yawned an empty pit. A successful athlete’s image is entirely rooted in sports. Everyone around them reinforces that image with cheering and backslapping. For those playing college ball, they are severely restricted about how much they can work and stay eligible. It seems everyone but the athlete is making money, but when the parade is over, they are left to themselves, bereft of their identity, so they believe, with no way to make a living. For some, the chasm is too large to leap. Disappointment, betrayal, bitterness, depression – they all vie for the former athlete’s psyche. Daniel fought it, and determined to do something about it.

Athlete Connections was founded to partner with schools and sports fans to bridge that gap that no one was spanning. Whether it’s learning to handle finances responsibly, discovering their transferable skills, or help in seeking employment, Daniel and his board of directors offer hope.

I asked Daniel if achieving professional status was only for a precious few, are college sports worth it? “Oh, yeah! College is fantastic, the best time of life. The school is not the problem, the gap between university and employment is. We’re there to fill that gap. We need the help of business and loyal fans, true, but that will come.” Maybe that business is yours. Maybe you are that fan who can offer skills or tax-deductible donations. Or maybe you’re a student athlete struggling in the gap. Daniel Cross can be found at www.athleteconnections.com. Check it out!

— LU