Cam McDaniel was hanging out with his family after a 14-10 victory over USC in South Bend when he first saw the photograph.
“My first reaction when I saw it initially, I guess, because I was with my family, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh this is kinda crazy,”’ McDaniel said in a phone call this week. “I didn’t know it was going to go viral or anything like that but I recognized it as a very peculiar photo.”
McDaniel didn’t realize that just a few days later, he’d be dodging phone calls from news agencies and friend requests from strangers while people around the world shared the picture of him.
He was no longer Cam McDaniel, Notre Dame football player. He’d become: “Ridiculously Photogenic Running Back.”
“I remember getting messages from people in Australia and the UK and I was like are you serious? These guys don’t even watch American football!”
The photo was snapped during one of McDaniel’s 18 carries that night. His helmet just happened to fall off, and Jonathan Daniel of Getty Images shuttered his lens at the perfect moment. In the following days, the photo caught fire on Twitter and ended up on sports blogs like SB Nation’s Notre Dame site One Foot Down, SB Nation’s home site, and countless others. Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, and other non-sports news sites were writing about “Ridiculously Photogenic Football Player.”
“I noticed it when I started getting friend requests on social media,” McDaniel said. “Then my mom called me and said, ‘Hey, NBC News is trying to get a hold of you, ABC News is trying to get a hold of you.’ They were calling my house in Coppell and I was getting unknown calls on my cellphone, but I was in class, and then I realized it was all these news agencies trying to get a hold of me.”
The day after the USC game, McDaniel and his fiancee were watching Zoolander, but on national television he was being compared to the model’s signature Blue Steel look. McDaniel laid low for a few days while the world was giggling over his new meme-dom.
“I didn’t want people to know me for being the photogenic running back,” he said. “That’s not why I want to be on ESPN!”
Google searches for his name spiked after Oct. 23, as did searches for “Ridiculously Photogenic Football Player.”
He asked Notre Dame’s Player Personnel office how he should deal with his sudden viral fame. Eventually, he decided that he’d do an interview with the Today show, due to NBC’s partnership with Notre Dame football.
In a video call, five Today hosts hit him with questions like, “Are you real?” and “Also what’s your phone number?”
He was only on camera for about two minutes and barely had the chance to speak. The most uncomfortable moment for viewers was the awkward pause after one Today show host said, “Cam, your fiancee is nearby. She didn’t want to go on camera, but you’re happily engaged. I don’t want to offend her but this is how colleagues, women in this building have described you: ‘He looked a model. Sexy with a chiseled jaw. Sexy stare and gently tousled hair.’ How would you describe that photo?”
McDaniel felt uneasy about the interview and wishes he had had more of a chance to speak about the experience from his perspective.
“I was being objectified sexually and that was one thing about it that I didn’t like and I wanted people to understand, that you might see memes that are making these sex jokes but that’s not who I am, that’s not Cam McDaniel.”
The internet went wild again after the Today interview, with Bro Bible dubbing it “the most embarrassing interview ever.” Although the interview did not go the way he would have liked it to, McDaniel looks back at the experience with a good sense of humor.
“It was a fun experience overall but it wasn’t exactly what I was looking to do. I wanted to share a little bit of my heart and just have a conversation.”
Amid all of the attention, Notre Dame still had football to play. McDaniel carried on with the season with two identities: Notre Dame running back and “ridiculously photogenic” running back. Luckily, his teammates didn’t give him too much grief over the whole ordeal.
“Honestly guys didn’t give me a lot of flack about it. People thought it was really hilarious and people were like, ‘Dang, you’re the engaged guy. Why did this happen to you and not me!?”’
Now, four years later, McDaniel looks back at the experience as something unique that could’ve happened to anyone.
“Even though it’s like this crazy freak experience, it was cool. How crazy is it that that happened, you know, to me? At the end of the day I’m just a dude. Helmets get knocked off of people all the time and my facial expression just caught it at the perfect time and the persona that they captured is how all the magic happened.”
McDaniel is now married to the fiancee who once sat alongside him as he became a meme in 2013. He’s playing in the CFL for the Toronto Argos. I asked him when he finishes playing football whether he’ll write on his resume that he’s a meme.
“Umm I’m going to put on my resume that I’m the most ridiculously photogenic football player in college history,” he joked. “Not that I’m a meme.”