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From SAAC chair to White House correspondent: Eugene Daniels

Former Colorado State football player reflects on benefits of student-athlete experience

Eugene Daniels served as the Mountain West Conference’s representative for the national Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee during his Colorado State football career. Now, Daniels works as a White House correspondent for Politico. (Photo submitted by Eugene Daniels)

Every now and then, former Colorado State football player Eugene Daniels fights a feeling he loosely describes as “imposter syndrome,” a sense he doesn’t belong where he’s at. Recently, he’s been the following places:

The White House.

Air Force Two.

The airwaves of news networks like CNN and MSNBC.

This only scratches the surface of Daniels’ work as a White House correspondent for Politico. He focuses his coverage on Vice President Kamala Harris, first lady Jill Biden and second gentleman Douglas Emhoff and emerging powers in Washington, D.C. Daniels also co-authors the political news company’s flagship newsletter, Playbook.

He received these opportunities in January from Politico, which he’s worked for since 2018 as a political reporter. They still seem surreal at times, Daniels said. In those moments, he goes back to similar experiences from his time as a student-athlete. Specifically, as a member of the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.

“For years, I felt this when I was a student-athlete. I felt this when I was on SAAC: Only the best get to be at the top or get to be in the big rooms. And they are the smartest. They are the best. You cannot touch them, and it is inherent in them that they get there,” said Daniels, who was on Colorado State’s football team from 2007 to 2012. 

Now, he knows that’s not true.

In part, he said his time on Division I SAAC — he served as chair for one year and vice chair for another during his three-year term — laid the foundation for his confidence to work with, and even occasionally challenge, powerful people. As a student-athlete, he was regularly flying to meetings that included athletics directors, conference commissioners and presidents from across the NCAA.

“It’s those types of things that do end up setting you up for talking to powerful people in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

Daniels recalled a specific example from his time on SAAC that has stuck with him. It occurred during a governance meeting in Indianapolis where he presented a position SAAC took on an issue to a high-level NCAA committee.

One administrator in the room responded to Daniels’ remarks dismissively, Daniels said, saying something along the lines: “No offense, Eugene, but I have socks older than you.” Daniels’ nerve-ridden response, as he remembered it, went: “Well, that just feels like you need to buy new socks.”

“Everyone kind of laughed,” Daniels added, chuckling at the memory nearly a decade later. “Afterward, the person who said that reached out to our (SAAC) liaison and was, like, ‘That Eugene is going places because he’s not scared of people.’”

Daniels walks to board Air Force Two as part of his job as a White House correspondent for Politico. He said his time as a student-athlete, specifically on Division I SAAC, helped prepare him for such a career. (Photo submitted by Eugene Daniels)

To this day, Daniels gleans benefits from that type of experience.  

“I took from that lesson … that all these (powerful) people are just like us,” he said. “Every student-athlete who is scared to speak up, every human that is worried that they’ll look dumb or someone is going to say something rude to them or something like that, they also have those exact same fears. Once you get over this idea of adults being the smartest among you when you’re in college, you can kind of do anything.”

Daniels carried this lesson to one of the biggest political media companies in the country, though it’s not where he started his career. After graduating with a journalism degree from Colorado State, he worked for a local television news company in Colorado before earning an opportunity at Newsy, a news network based in Columbia, Missouri. There, he covered groups like the Democratic National Committee and events like the 2016 primary elections for both major parties.

His advice to those student-athletes getting ready for or just starting their careers: Be confident and be ready.

“I’ve gotten so lucky to work with some of the smartest journalists in D.C. … and the thing I learned the most that I now share with people is they’re not that different. They are very smart, right? But a lot of it is luck and someone taking a chance on you,” he said. “I remind myself all the time when I’m in these rooms, and I’m, like, ‘Oh my God, how did I get here?’ that I got here just like everyone else did, by being ready when someone else is ready to give you a chance.” 

SAAC was just one example of how Daniels started to prepare and build confidence for his career while at Colorado State. He also joined every student media group he could: anchoring a TV segment, writing for the school newspaper and magazine, and hosting a radio show. And despite a career-ending shoulder injury before his junior season, he remained part of the team through graduation, which meant lots of early mornings, late nights and little breaks between.

Fast forward almost a decade, and Daniels’ days are equally busy. They start as early 5 a.m. to work on Playbook and can include any of the following: TV and podcast appearances, occasional internal diversity and inclusion meetings for Politico, White House briefings, various interviews and flights on Air Force Two, to name a few. 

“I’m juggling a lot, and what’s funny is as a student-athlete, we juggle a lot. I’ve been trained my whole life to have an insane schedule,” Daniels said. “Being a student-athlete, specifically being on SAAC, was the thing that prepared me to juggle all of these things. All of those little things and all of those little lessons will end up paying off. Even though being a college student-athlete and a White House reporter basically have nothing to do with each other, all those lessons still come back every once in a while.”

Daniels asks a question during a White House press briefing this year. (Photo submitted by Eugene Daniels)