PAINTSVILLE — Six months ago, Kash Daniel wasn't sure it was going to work out the way he'd always planned.
Ever since he was a little kid, Daniel had dreamed of playing college football at the highest level.
Through three seasons at Paintsville High School, he felt like he'd done enough to earn the opportunity. Daniel did whatever his coaches asked of him — putting in time at linebacker, quarterback, tight end, wherever he was needed to make a difference on the field.
He was the star player in Paintsville's turnaround from a 3-8 team his freshman year to a 10-3 squad last season, which included an improbable playoff victory over rival Pikeville and a run to the Class A quarterfinals.
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The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder also looks every bit the part of a high-major recruit. He has the size, speed and strength that college coaches usually salivate over when evaluating linebackers.
But his junior season ended with zero scholarship offers.
How would Daniel have reacted six months ago if you'd told him that he'd be sitting at a table in his high school gymnasium Saturday with bona fide scholarship offers from Kentucky, Louisville and South Carolina, ready to put on a hat representing one of those schools and reveal where he'll play college football?
"I would have said you were full of crap," he said Wednesday.
Six months ago, it didn't seem possible. On Saturday, the first step of Daniel's boyhood dream will become a reality.
It wasn't easy getting here.
When his stellar play on the field failed to get him any attention from college programs, Daniel and his coaches concocted a plan to get his name out there, however possible.
Assistant head coach Jason Kinner — a former Paintsville standout himself — was the point man, and he knew that being good enough to play major college football wasn't necessarily good enough to attract major college coaches. Not in Daniel's case, anyway.
"Being from Eastern Kentucky, the odds were stacked against him," Kinner said. "South Carolina, Kentucky, those kinds of schools — they don't come to Eastern Kentucky and recruit kids very often. The toughest part for us was just getting through that gatekeeper. With these major universities, it's tough to get to the guys you need to talk to. Everybody can't just call and talk to Mark Stoops."
Kinner played football at Georgetown College, and Paintsville head coach Joe Chirico played at Marshall University. They reached out to every college contact they knew. Kinner spent hours on the computer, searching for all the ones they didn't know.
"We emailed and emailed," he said. "I don't know how many emails we sent. Thousands."
There was a lot of rejection, a lot more that simply went unreturned.
In February, Daniel got his first big opportunity at the Best of the Midwest combine in Indianapolis, a showcase that included some of the top prospects from several surrounding states.
The day after the camp, he was back home and got a call from Kinner, who told him that he would be talking to coaches from Austin Peay the next day, and they would be extending his first scholarship offer.
"I went in there and hugged my dad," Daniel said. "It was one of those moments when I could look at my dad and say, 'I made it. I did it.' After all that hard work that my dad has put in with me ... just that feeling of telling him that was unreal."
Daniel received a few more scholarship offers in the days that followed, but he still wasn't getting the interest he always wanted from the biggest college programs.
A couple of months later is when everything changed.
Through more persistence, Daniel managed a spot at the Rivals camp series event in Charlotte. That showcase was stacked with the very best high school prospects from the Southeast.
Daniel knew this could be his make-or-break moment, and he spent the entire car ride watching film on the running backs and tight ends he knew would be in attendance.
"He always has been the most competitive kid, and he's known where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do since the first time I met him," said Chirico, who coached Daniel as far back as grade school. "He doesn't lack confidence, but he puts the work in behind it. ... He's never strayed from that dream."
When he got there, Daniel was the only player from Eastern Kentucky, and he immediately felt out of place. Other kids were talking about their scholarship offers from Alabama and their late-night phone calls with Nick Saban.
"Where you got offers from?" they asked Daniel.
"Marshall, Austin Peay," he replied.
They didn't take him seriously.
Then he stepped on the field.
One competitor who lined up across from Daniel called him a "hillbilly." That guy ended up on his backside.
Rivals.com ranked Daniel as the sixth-best defensive player at the camp. The five in front of him included commitments from Florida State and Tennessee, two players with Alabama offers, and Dexter Lawrence, the No. 1 overall recruit in the country.
A few days after that, UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot came to watch Paintsville's spring practice. Eliot asked Kinner to have Daniel call him that night at 8 o'clock. It was 3 p.m., when Kinner relayed those instructions.
"It's five hours, but it felt like a whole entire day," Daniel recalled.
He was sitting in his truck, looking at his phone, Eliot's number already up on his screen. As soon as the clock hit 8:00, Daniel hit the call button.
Eliot said he had been impressed by Daniel's performance. He was offering a scholarship to play for the University of Kentucky.
"After I hung up the phone," Daniel said. "I let out the biggest yell. It should've busted my windows, to be honest with you."
Louisville extended an offer the next day, and South Carolina the day after that. 247Sports has since ranked him as the No. 2 inside linebacker in the country and one of the nation's top 100 recruits.
Coaches from Ohio State and Florida came to Paintsville to watch Daniel work out, too. They wanted him to attend their camps, dangling the possibility of more scholarship offers. But Daniel felt like he'd done enough trying out. He was ready to make a decision.
As much as Saturday will be about him, he knows it's really a group celebration.
He almost left Paintsville after that 3-8 freshman season, thinking his next three years would bring more of the same. He tried unsuccessfully to transfer to Pikeville — "the chickenbleep way out," he says now — and he was welcomed back with open arms when he returned.
He speaks of his teammates as "35 brothers" and beams at the thought of his "one big, happy family" at Paintsville High. He hopes many of them will be in the crowd Saturday.
He's grateful for the persistence of Kinner — "He'll never know how much I appreciate it," Daniel says — and the undying support of Chirico, who took over the program before Daniel's sophomore season and instilled a "We Not Me" mantra that Daniel has seemingly bought into completely.
He says he wouldn't be in this spot without his father, who always demanded the best of him, pushed him to his limit, and then asked for more.
"After 18 years ... I finally understand why he was so hard on me," Daniel said.
And don't forget about mom.
"I always want to give my mom a shout-out," he said. "If you could put that in there, to say I want to give my mom a shout-out."
She lives in Betsy Layne and teaches at the high school there, always making the Friday night drives to see her son on the football field. According to Daniel, she also gave birth to the biggest baby ever born at Pikeville Medical Center.
"I weighed 12 pounds and 6 ounces," he says proudly.
Daniel has now captured the attention of the entire region. He says he's felt the support from all over, heard from the complete strangers who have followed his story and wish him well.
"The support you feel — not just from Paintsville — but from every county in Eastern Kentucky: They want to see you succeed. They want to see one of their own succeed," he said.
Of course, he knows where they'd all prefer to see him next. A Paintsville grad hasn't signed with the Wildcats since Joey Couch in 1987.
"I'm not going to lie," Daniel says, "Everybody that I've talked to from Eastern Kentucky is saying, 'Go to Kentucky.'
"This is Big Blue country down here. If you walked into that gas station, I guarantee you somebody'll have a Kentucky shirt on, a Kentucky hat on or a Kentucky decal on their truck."
Daniel hopes they'll cheer for him Saturday even if he picks up the Louisville or South Carolina hat. There's no doubt what will happen if he puts on the other one.
"If I do that, then this place is going to erupt," he said. "This place will ignite on fire if I choose to go where everybody's wanting me to go."