Revisiting the Daniel Tabon story – Most Times Fairy Tales Don’t Come True

Eight years ago, Daniel Tabon was an incredibly gifted football prospect who had seemingly just fallen from the sky.  Not on any Rivals  or Scout Top 100 list or ESPN Future Stars outlook.  He literally came from nowhere and after signing day was touted as the next great linebacker prospect for the Oklahoma Sooners.

But fame and fortune – or even college gridiron success – never happened for Tabon.  In fact, he never set foot on the field for a game in Norman.  His nomadic past made it difficult for him to gain NCAA certification and he was scheduled to sit out his freshman year.  Soon, he was gone from Norman and today is still in the metro area doing oil field work, according to his former coaches .  Even though he didn’t find football success, Tabon appears to be making a life for himself and still maintains contacts made through his brief association with OU football.

When I visited with him back in 2006, I encountered an extremely articulate young man who had experienced one of the toughest childhoods you could ever imagine.  Here is the story of Daniel Tabon.

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The buzz about OU football signee Daniel Tabon started unusually late in the recruiting season.  It was tough to believe that the 6-3, 215 linebacker from Altus with a 4.48 40-yard dash somehow escaped the radar screens of all the gurus who have normally identified the top prospects by the time they first put on a varsity uniform. But when you hear the whole story about the future Sooner linebacker, it becomes clearer why it was so hard to find Daniel Tabon.

From the time he was six years old, Daniel Tabon has not had a permanent address.  One of 13 children, he has been in 35 foster homes and shelters in the past dozen years.  He has no idea where most of his family is and has little contact with the ones he does know.  Had it not been for a reunion with a foster family that had kept him for a time five years earlier, Daniel might not be where he is today.

“A couple of years back, I thought I wouldn’t even finish high school,” admits Tabon.  “I figured I would just be doing what I was doing out on the streets, but I opted out of that and decided to get something better.  I’m graduating from high school and have a college scholarship. I’ll be the first Tabon to graduate from high school and go to college.  That’s a pretty big thing.”

Tabon’s journeys took him through a number of schools and communities in western Oklahoma and through it all; the only constant in his life seemed to be football. While he may have been lost in the foster care system, he always stood out on the gridiron.

“I was at a 7th grade football game and there was this kid in the backfield that looked like a man playing with boys,” Altus High School head coach Lyn Hepner remembered.  “They were running just a toss sweep and he would just take the ball and go 80 yards.  And I’m thinking ‘That guy will make a player’.”

Altus coach Kelly Cox was another person who noticed the lanky 7th grader on the opposing Lawton Tomlinson team blowing through his team.  Little did he know that the youngster would soon have an even bigger impact on his life and vice-versa.

As fate would have it, Tabon was soon taken from the foster home where he was staying in Lawton and moved to Altus. And the home he wound up in was with Kelly and Nancy Cox.

“One of his teachers from Lawton called me just out of the blue that didn’t know me from Adam, before he came to live with us, and said ‘I hope you can find a place for this kid.  I think he’s pretty interested in football’,” said Cox.

You might think that’s where the fairy tale part of this story begins.  But this is real life. And when you’re dealing with the child welfare system, everything doesn’t always go smoothly.  It certainly didn’t in this case.  Within a year, the state was pulling Tabon away again.  It was a tough and confusing moment for both the Cox family and for Tabon.

“My wife, when he came and told us he was leaving, she was crying’, said Cox. “He was just a 13-year old boy, he had only been in Altus a short time.  It was tough on everybody.”

“It was 7th grade year and I though the Cox family had given up on me”,   Tabon remembered. “That kind of sucked”.

Tabon would reappear in Altus in his freshman year, playing safety on the football team and again living with the Cox family.  Once again, problems arose and once again Tabon continued his nomadic journey.  The only thing that kept him from getting permanently lost in the system seemed to be his football ability.

“I went to the same school from the time I was a first grader, so I don’t know what it must be like to even be the new kid in school, let alone moving around all the time.  I mean, how many distractions would there have to be?” wondered Hepner.  “But the thing he’s always had is a trait to adapt to any situation. I guess that’s kind of a survival skill”

“With his athletic ability, you’d hear things about him.  I know he went to Mangum for a while and I think that week we looked in the paper and he’d scored a touchdown and recovered a fumble.  Then you hear he’s at (Lawton) Eisenhower and it wasn’t long before he was starting.  In fact, we saw some film on him there.  Every program he went to, he contributed and he had to do it in a hurry. He did a really good job and, obviously, was staying eligible because he was playing.” 

But as he got older and his home life continued to be unstable, Tabon began to realize that his dream of being a Division I football player might be just that.  He knew that most players who are being recruited start to get noticed no later than their junior year and with his moving from school to school, he was convinced that might be his undoing.  That’s when the thoughts of quitting school and giving up his dream became more prevalent.

After starting four games during his junior year at Lawton Eisenhower, Tabon was at the crossroads of his young life.  That’s when the Cox family got involved again, securing the necessary paperwork to become foster parents and moving him back into their family.  Hepner, who was taking over the Altus High School program after 26 years as a teacher and assistant coach, sat down with Tabon to give him some advice.

“When he came back this summer, I told him it was obvious to me that the people who care the most about you are right here in Altus,” said Hepner.  “The Cox family, they are to be commended.”

Something else happened in the summer before his senior year that would set the stage for the events that led to Tabon’s college recruitment. He attended the University of Tulsa football camp and was clocked at 4.45 in the 40. Kelly Cox knew it wouldn’t be long before college coaches knew who Tabon was.

“That’s the ‘holy grail’ in college football.  It doesn’t matter if you’re 5-7, 165, if you can run that fast, people will be after you,” said Cox.  “And here is this guy, 6-3, 215.”

Tulsa managed to keep the news about Tabon away from other recruiters, hoping they could sneak him in to the fold before other schools could find out about him.  Tabon, though, had other ideas.  He was intent on playing at a BCS conference school, so if Tulsa was his only offer, he was ready to go to junior college and develop his game, then hope that he could make the move to a big D-1 program after that.  As it turned out, he wouldn’t have to wait, thanks to some extra work by Hepner.

Altus was using Tabon all over the field in his senior season.  He played safety, where he was a fierce hitter, ran some halfback and was used as a punt returner.  But midway through the season, there were still no college coaches calling on Tabon, so his coach went to work.  Hepner took his new video editing system and compiled a highlight tape of his star player, which he sent to a team in the Big 12.

“I actually sent it to OSU first and they didn’t seem very interested, so I held the highlights for awhile thinking that well, maybe there isn’t as much talent as I think there is or he’s not what colleges are looking for,” said Hepner. “So we kept compiling the highlights and later on in the year I said, well, I’m going to send it to OU.  They don’t have to take it if they don’t want to, but I’m going to send it.  So I sent it on a Thursday and on Monday, Coach Merv Johnson was calling me, so it had caught somebody’s eye up there and things kind of rolled from there.”

The eye he caught was that of OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who envisioned the lanky safety as a bulked up linebacker in the Sooners scheme.  It didn’t take long for OU to make a scholarship offer to Tabon.

“I was pretty excited. It was a dream of mine to play D-1 ball and to play at OU – it couldn’t get any better than this,” said Tabon.

By this time, Tabon suddenly was moving up the recruiting ranks.  He made the Oklahoma All-State team and was rated as the fifth best player in the state. It seemed too good to be true, and Cox and his wife tried to make sure that the young man who had seen so many disappointments in his life didn’t lose perspective of where he had been and the challenges that were still ahead.

“It’s truly a gift of God that he’s been given and we want him to make the most of it, but we just wanted him to be low-key and humble through everything,” said Cox.  “We were excited, but Daniel knows best that this could be a two-edged sword and things can suddenly go the other way.  We didn’t want him to get the big head. But that’s something we’ve talked about all the time with him – overcoming obstacles.  And here’s a light at the end of the tunnel”

Tabon quickly committed to OU and despite some late overtures by other schools, became one of the Sooners 2006 signees.  Hepner and Cox agree with OU coaches who think Tabon can put on about 25 pounds on his 6-3 frame without losing his speed and agility.

Cox has been coaching for 19 years and, ironically, had worked in the Lawton program long before Tabon came on the scene, working with players like perennial NFL Pro Bowl selection Will Shields, and former Sooners Martin Chase and Antonio Perkins.

“I know what college players are like and he can fit in at that level.  He won’t be out of his league,” said Cox.  “Daniel tries his best when he’s challenged.  I don’t doubt at all that he can rise to the challenge off the get go. I don’t think there can be anything as difficult as what he has faced the last nine years of his life.”

Tackling the odds of trying to become a major college football star may not seem anywhere near as daunting as what Tabon has faced just making it to this point, but he is not satisfied with his good fortune thus far. 

“I plan on coming up to Norman in early June to get acclimated.  I want to work with Smitty (strength coach Jerry Schmidt) and get bigger,” Tabon said.  “I’d like to play right away this fall.  It’s the biggest goal, one of my short term goals.  I’m up at six every morning lifting and running.  I plan on making an impact as soon as I can.  I plan on being a starter, if not this year, as soon as possible.”

And even though Tabon says it’s doubtful that anybody in his biological family has any idea of the success he has had in his football career, he will have family in Altus that is pulling for him every step of the way.

“We’ve been with him thick and thin the last four or five years, not just with football, but with his life,” said Cox.  “He’s a part of our family. We didn’t consider ourselves foster parents, we’re his parents. My 13 and 15-year old kids call him brother and he calls them brother and sister.  My wife calls him son and he calls her Mom.  That’s family.”

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