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Willie Daniel

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William P. "Willie" Daniel


Willie Daniel, 77, departed this world peacefully on June 29, 2015 surrounded by his loving family and devoted friends. He died at his Starkville home on Oktoc Road after a lengthy illness.

Visitation will be Thursday from 5:00 to 7:00 at the Christian Life Center at First United Methodist Church in Starkville. The funeral will be held in the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church on Friday morning at 10:30 with visitation for one hour prior to the service. Burial will follow in Memorial Garden Park in Starkville, MS

Willie became a nationally known sports figure in the 1960's as a result of a stellar football career which began at Macon High School and continued though Mississippi State University. His professional career took off quickly and he spent nine years with the National Football League where he gained a reputation as a speedy defensive back. In 1986 he was inducted in the Mississippi State Sports Hall of Fame.

He played for the Pittsburg Steelers and the Los Angeles Rams. A knee injury forced him to retire from the National Football League in 1969. He returned to Starkville where he and Barry Wood had formed a general insurance agency, Wood and Daniel. In 1967 the partners purchased the Carroll Hollingshead Agency and later the Mutual Insurance Agency.

Willie recognized that the fitness industry was about to explode and he saw an opportunity to become one of the pioneers in the operation of health clubs which have remained a national obsession. He opened the Willie Daniel Athletic Club in 1970 and offered weights, aerobics, massage therapy, sauna, steam baths, karate, and a nursery for children. In 1975 he built the first of two racquetball courts which led to the formation of the Mississippi Racquetball Association.

Somehow Willie found the time to give back to his community. He coached and sponsored Starkville junior baseball teams as well as the Starkville Open Football League. He served as chairman of the annual Oktibbeha County Cancer Crusade which became the first county in Mississippi to triple its annual contribution quota. He was a member of the Mississippi State "M" Club, Bulldog Club, "Old Dawgs" Club, and the National Football League Players Association. He was a member of the First United Methodist Church in Starkville, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Savage Bible Class where he served as President. He was one of the original members of the Starkville Kiwanis Club, and the Starkville Country Club where he made the club's first "hole-in-one" in 1975.

Willie was born on November 10, 1937 in New Albany. He grew up in Macon where he lettered in basketball, track, baseball, and football at Macon High School all four years. He received a scholarship to Mississippi State University where he lettered in track and football for four years before graduating in 1959.

His professional career took an unexpected turn, said wife Ruth. "Willie wasn't drafted out of college and was hired as an assistant football and head track coach in Cleveland, Miss. He received wide publicity when an irate parent became physical with him because the coach didn't play his son in a game. When approached by the Steelers to turn pro, he quickly changed his mind about being a coach, joking that "Pro-ball wouldn't be any rougher than this."

He married Ruth Nash, of Columbus in 1959 and they had three children including Sandra Daniel Eilders and husband, Jeff, of Ridgeland; son, Kent Daniel and his wife, Evalin, of Evans, GA; and son, Richard Daniel of Starkville.

Other survivors include grandchildren, Hope (Jesse) VanEtten, Steven Eilders, Sam Daniel, Bay Daniel; and great-granddaughter, Baylee VanEtten

He is also survived by his brother, Joe Daniel and wife, Wanda, of Slidell, LA, Kathryn Daniel Harris and husband, Patrick, of Florence, MS. He was preceded in death by his brother, Hayes Daniel; and his parents, Paul H. Daniel and Jewell Lewellen Daniel. Other survivors include sister-in-law, Julia Ann Daniel; numerous cousins; nieces; and nephews; and a very special cousin, Kay Baker who would always bring a light to his eyes.

By the time the clock registered the new millennium, Willie was facing the most monumental challenge of his lifetime when his mental health began to deteriorate. This downward spiral into the world of dementia was attributed to the numerous concussions he suffered during his football career.

Willie qualified for and become a part of a state-of-the-art research project at Boston University being conducted on football head injuries. He has donated a portion of his brain and spinal cord for the search project in hopes of developing procedures and equipment to make the sport safer for athletes of the future.

Pallbearers are Bob Craig, Jimmy Lee Dodd, Don Edwards, Bailey Howell, Chuck Minor, Charlie Weatherly, and Barry Wood. Honorary pallbearers are James Barnett, Kermit Davis, Frank Ingels, Billy Stacy, MSU "M" Club Members, and the Willie Daniel Athletic Club staff.

This has been a difficult journey and the family would like to thank all those who have helped Willie beginning at Plantation Pointe in Columbus and the wonderful staff at The Carrington Nursing Center for almost five years. The family expressed sincere appreciation to Don Edwards, one of Willie's oldest and dearest friends who visited Willie every day taking him outdoors, shaving him, and doing anything necessary to keep him awake and alert. The family is very appreciative of the special caregivers and the hospice staff which cared for him during his final days.

Ruth, his wife of 56 years, spent the last decade seeing to the needs of her husband--difficult at times, but done with love. She noted "My heartbreak is nothing compared to what Willie has faced. He loved his family, his life, his friends, his church with all his heart. He lost it all far too soon."

Memorials in his name may be made to the Center of the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine (htt:/ or to the .

You can go online and leave the family a condolence at:

Published in Clarion Ledger on July 1, 2015
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