BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Dimly-lit street lights on Bloomington's west side illuminated a mom and her son as they lingered in a Chick-fil-A parking lot late into Friday night. The son had just finished a soccer game around 8 p.m., and by then most restaurants were either packed from the dinner rush or getting ready to close. Sandwiches and milkshakes would have to suffice.
Shortly before departing each other for the night, the mom back to her hotel room and the son back to his apartment, the mom stopped and turned toward him.
"Daniel, this has been a pretty good day," she said.
"No," he responded, a smirk quickly brushing across his face. "This has been a great day."
Daniel Munie, now an Indiana redshirt junior defender and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, couldn't have planned Sep. 20, 2019, to go any better.
That morning he was inducted into the Kelley School of Business after being denied direct admission over a year earlier. That afternoon he sat in the locker room at Bill Armstrong Stadium -- Indiana set to host Wisconsin in about an hour -- as the team celebrated head coach Todd Yeagley's 47th birthday. And that night he scored his first career goal in an IU uniform, the game-winner to seal the Hoosiers' eventual 3-1 win over the Badgers.
Daniel was a late bloomer, though. He was never quite big enough to stand out among a talent-rich St. Louis FC club team. He never had the physical build or the flashy skillset to garner any significant Division I looks. On weekends when Daniel and Cheri, his mom, made the long, arduous drives to soccer camps around the Midwest, hoping for even a single recruiter to catch a glimpse of the lanky defender, most college coaches had already cleared out before Daniel could get in front of them.
"Every time he had a showcase that came around, it just seemed like the timing was bad," Cheri says, "or he played in the third game and all the coaches had already gone home."
So the marathon continued, Cheri shuttling Daniel from St. Louis to Grand Park, Indiana, to Madison, Wisconsin, to Bloomington to any camp, really, that offered even an inkling of hope for a chance encounter with a college coach.
At a U-14 showcase event in Minnesota during Daniel's freshman year of high school, Cheri received an urgent phone call. She had always made the necessary sacrifices, scheduling her own errands and plans around Daniel to be with him at every camp. Except on this weekend, Cheri couldn't make it. It was one of the only camps she can recall ever missing.
"Uh, Daniel's at the hospital," the caller said.
"What do you mean he's at the hospital," Cheri frantically replied from her home in Maryland Heights, Missouri.
Daniel went airborne on a non-contact play. A freak accident. The prognosis was a snapped bone, and there was no way he could finish the camp that weekend. One of the first thoughts that sprung into Cheri's mind was about Daniel's continued string of misfortunes. "Oh my gosh, he's gonna miss the next showcase event," she recalls thinking.
Unlike college basketball and football, where most high-major prospects are scrutinized and followed until they sign on the dotted line their senior year, most upper-level soccer recruits commit to a school before the end of their junior year to far less fanfare. Daniel was still uncommitted, though, and the level of interest from college coaches rarely peaked beyond a cursory glance or passing conversation.
Daniel finally came to terms with his outlook following another unsuccessful showcase event in Grand Park in the summer of 2017. In the parking lot afterward he turned to Cheri and said, "Mom, I think I'm just going to play (for the) high school (team)."
Cheri sympathized with his frustrations: "He was struggling to get anything. We knew he could get Division II (offers), but he really wanted to play Division I."
But quitting on aspirations that he had talked about since he was four years old? No way Cheri could allow Daniel to do that so swiftly, at least not until he saw through the entire recruiting process. Daniel reluctantly agreed.
"That was all Daniel ever wanted," Cheri says, "is for somebody to just give him a chance."
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="337"] (Courtesy: Cheri Munie)[/caption]
Kevin Kalish already had one foot out the door, making a beeline to become the next head coach of Saint Louis University men's soccer. After spending 16 years overseeing the St. Louis Scott Gallagher club program -- one of the top prep clubs in the nation -- Kalish was hired in the winter of 2017-18 to lead the Billikens. Though he still had a few months left serving as vice president and club director of St. Louis FC, nothing was forcing him to continue vouching for and developing club players at the rate he once did.
Except when it came to Daniel. Kalish made it a priority as one of his final acts to land Daniel with a college soccer program. "I find it my job to get you to where you need to be so you can be seen," Cheri remembers Kalish saying. And it was the least he could do after guiding the unheralded defender through the club ranks for nearly 12 years.
However, before Kalish could hold up his end of the promise, Daniel had to do his part first. That meant continuing to attend showcase events and camps during the summer leading into his senior year. Not much changed, though: The playing time was still sparse, and the attention of coaches remained fleeting at best.
Kalish gave one piece of advice: "When you're out there, even if it's for those 10 minutes, those 15 minutes, you play lights out. You have to play so hard that the coach doesn't want to take you off the field."
Daniel clung onto every word from that initial discussion.
As a senior, Daniel logged the most minutes of any player on his club team. At the same time he also experienced a long-awaited growth spurt, finally long enough, tall enough and bulky enough to play a demanding center-back position. His physical skills also began to turn heads. Years later, Yeagley would refer to Daniel as "one of the most athletic players we've ever had."
And then the camp invites came shuffling in. "That was the turning point," Cheri says. No longer did she have to shell out $500 dollars to take Daniel to showcase events; coaches were eager enough to see him in-person that they were willing to waive the entrance fee.
In late December of 2017, Indiana called. Daniel had been on their radar for a while, but they were never convinced enough to dole out an offer. This time, however, the coaching staff wanted him to come to Bloomington for a camp they were hosting. Daniel immediately said yes.
When the camp ended, Cheri says she had to almost force Daniel to talk to IU's coaching staff, so he navigated his way through a line of other high school prospects and waited his turn.
The coaching staff said they were intrigued by his late growth spurt and emerging athletic tools, but Yeagley was also up-front and brutally honest with Daniel. "You're a project," Cheri recealls Yeagley saying. But he was a project that the Hoosiers were willing to work on, and a project they couldn't risk letting go to another school.
A few weeks later, Indiana offered Daniel a spot in its 2018 signing class.
"They were really the only school that looked at me besides SLU (Saint Louis)," Daniel says. "I think it was between SLU and here (IU), and obviously I've heard great things about the history of this school."
All he had to do was say yes to IU, but hesitancy crept in.
Saint Louis was Daniel's chance to play close to home. They offered him more academic and athletic money than Indiana could give. He was granted direct admission into Saint Louis' business program but not Indiana's. The opportunity for early playing time at Saint Louis was tantalizing, rather than redshirting at Indiana. And to top it off, Kalish would be his head coach.
Something about the Hoosiers kept drawing Daniel toward Bloomington, though. He says he still can't quite pinpoint exactly what. Cheri thinks Daniel simply wanted to go farther away from home. Eventually, Yeagley and Indiana won the recruiting battle over Kalish and Saint Louis.
But mustering the courage to tell Kalish his decision was perhaps the final, most difficult part of the process. The man who, since the start, held up his side of the promise to Daniel, was also the man Daniel would have to turn down in the end.
So two hours after Daniel called Yeagley to pledge his commitment to the Hoosiers, he pulled Kalish aside after their club game had just ended.
With one deep breath, the words came flooding out of his mouth. Indiana was his choice. How any of it was possible, though, Daniel made it clear to Kalish.
"You're the reason that I got to go to Indiana."
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="360"] (Courtesy: Cheri Munie)[/caption]
The only IU game Cheri has ever missed in Daniel's career was on Oct. 6, 2019, at Penn State. Her flight was already booked for that day, but a combination of extreme weather and an expensive plane ticket that probably couldn't be refunded had she waited too long made for a rare decision to forgo the trip to Happy Valley. It was Daniel's third career start, and the Hoosiers cruised to a 3-1 win over the Nittany Lions.
Ever since then, Cheri's made the three-and-a-half hour trek from St. Louis to Bloomington for every IU home game, and paid whatever expense was necessary to fly to every away game. Tedious as it may seem, for Cheri and Daniel, it's all part of the reward.
"A lot of people have asked me just recently this year, they're like, 'Cheri you go to every game, isn't that a lot of work?' And I said, 'No, this is the joy of what's come of everything,'" Cheri says. "It's kind of like this is the fun part, going to games. What's hard is getting him to practice five times a week when he was younger. Now, I just get to go and watch for fun."
As a single mother with three kids, the time for sitting down and relaxing was rare. There would be weekends when Daniel had eight games in a three-day span. They'd often load the car with three different uniforms -- baseball, basketball and soccer -- and they'd dart from town to town and game to game. Eventually those endless weekends became the norm in the Munie household rather than the exception.
Fast-forward a decade later, and the kids are still Cheri's first priority. Only now, it's a night spent in a hotel room, a day spent at Bill Armstrong Stadium and a long drive home.
"She doesn't miss a game, it's crazy," Daniel says. "It's pretty unreal, but I appreciate that."
So when the mother and son stood in the Chick-fil-A parking lot two years ago, it was a culmination of sorts. Finally, Daniel had found his home.
But very little needed to be said in that moment. One look at the grin on Daniel's shadowy face and Cheri could sense the palpable relief.
"That was the day that I knew everything he had worked for -- got into the business school, soccer was starting to work out -- it was a lot of work," Cheri says. "And I was like, 'OK, finally all that work is coming to fruition.'"
And the work never stopped. After earning his first career start on Sep. 27, 2019, against Sacramento State, Indiana's coaching staff couldn't keep him off the field. He's started every single match -- health permitting -- since that day. The statistical production soon followed.
2019: 14 starts and three points.
2021 spring season: 16 starts, two goals, All-Big Ten Second Team, National Championship runner-up.
So far in the 2021 fall season: 20 starts, three goals, three assists, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
As Yeagley puts it, the 6-foot, 180-pound center back is a prime example of waiting your turn in the Hoosiers' system.
"He's grown every year," Yeagley says. "He was a redshirt kid, he came along, got his first chance in 2019 after waiting for a little bit... His accolades are well deserved, no doubt."
There's often a certain stigma that comes with being the "redshirt kid," though. Except in IU's proverbial soccer factory, which annually churns out professional players, redshirting is nothing to be ashamed of.
Just ask Daniel -- as a recruits' parent did in late 2019.
"How did you handle being redshirted?" the parent inquired.
Daniel's lips curled into a familiar smile before letting out a simple answer: "I'm happy here."