@NDBaseball's Nick Podkul & Cole Daily share their unspoken bond as they honor their father's.
By John Heisler
They became the best of friends and so very much more.
They actually met before ever venturing to South Bend.
Then, a couple of Midwestern kids, they came to the University of Notre Dame and became classmates and next-door neighbors in the middle infield for the Irish baseball squad.
They scheduled the same classes on purpose.
They have an extra sense of what the other is going to say or think before he says or thinks it.
They are joined at the hip in a long list of ways.
Both Irish infielders lost their fathers, something they never really discussed with each other.
And now it’s Father’s Day for 2018.
Daily and Podkul will celebrate it in their own personal–and yet connected–ways.
##########Jeff Daily, Cole‘s father, passed away at age 38 in an auto accident in November 2003.
“I spent the night at my grandma’s house,” says Cole, a grade-schooler at the time.
“I just remember her waking me up that day and saying, `We’ve got to go home, your mom has something to tell you.’ I thought it was something exciting.
“I got home and my mom just told us. There already were a lot of other family and friends there, and it was just kind of shocking. My sister had just been born–she was about four months old–so we had a lot of blessings.
“It was a terrible situation, but there were a lot of people there caring for us.”
Frank Podkul, Nick‘s father and the former athletics director and softball coach at Andrean High School, died from a cancer-related illness at age 59 in September 2013.
“I was in high school, I was laying in bed and my mom walked in with my aunt and uncle and they told me,” says Nick.
“I was in total shock–I didn’t want to believe it was true. It was a really hard time. I just laid there in total disbelief.
“I had a huge support system, but I didn’t want to just sit and think about it. So I played in a baseball tournament that weekend–it was my way of honoring him. It was about taking what life dealt you, moving on and trying to make the most out of it.
“I’d say I’m a pretty lucky kid. I try to honor my dad through playing baseball–I’m fortunate enough to be in the position I am today.”
Those two losses, nearly a decade apart, have played significant roles in shaping the people Daily and Podkul have become.
From Springfield, Illinois (Sacred Heart-Griffin High School), Daily–the starting Irish shortstop and a 22nd-round draft pick last week by the Washington Nationals–is coming off a 2018 season in which he hit .268. He started all 54 games and committed just seven errors at short, while helping turn 33 double plays. He also led the team in stolen bases, successfully swiping 14 bags in 19 attempts.
From Schererville, Indiana (Andrean High School), Podkul–the regular Irish second baseman and a seventh-round selection of the Toronto Blue Jays–received second-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors after batting .312 with eight home runs and 24 extra-base hits this past season. He finished the regular season ranked seventh in the ACC with a .439 on-base percentage, recording 35 walks in 2018. In his three-year career, Podkul hit .296 (162-548) with 90 runs and 71 RBI. He also received All-Midwest Region honors from the American Baseball Coaches Association and Rawlings.
Some years later they haven’t forgotten the influences their fathers had on them.
“We were really close, like best friends,” says Daily, who stands 6-0 and weighs 187 pounds. “We’d go hunting, fishing. We were always hanging out together. He would be mowing the lawn and I would have my little lawnmower.
“We’d watch the (St. Louis) Cardinals’ games in the garage, and I would go to his softball games and be in the dugout with him, keep the scorebook.
“I remember him saying, `You’re going to make it in whatever you want to do–you’re going to make it.'”
The 6-2, 198-pound Podkul recalls playing catch and shooting hoops with his dad.
“We were really close . . . pretty much anything sports-related, watching games, going to (Chicago) Cubs games as a kid.
“It’s crazy to think back to when you were a kid and realize how much things have changed. I have a really positive image of my dad and how great he was to me and my brother.
“As Cole says, it stinks to be in the position we’re in, but you’re blessed with the fact you had someone like that in your life at some point.”
##########They met on their official visits to Notre Dame in the fall of their senior years in high school, though the relationship took a little while to blossom.
Offers Daily, “We didn’t really hang out or anything during our visit.
“Then I remember seeing him when Notre Dame made the NCAA regional at the University of Illinois.
“We were both there, and I said, `Hey, Nick,’ and he just walked right by me and didn’t say anything back.”
Counters Podkul, “I think in summer school (before their freshman year), Cole actually hated me. I don’t think he really liked me very much at all.
“But he warmed up and about a week in it was the start of something great.”
Says Daily, “I realized he wasn’t that bad of a guy.”
Before long they became inseparable–and that became hard to miss.
“Everyone always sees us on campus together because we take all the same classes together,” says Daily.
“We walk to class. We eat together after class. We do a lot of things together during school, and it allowed us to become really close.
“Spending as much time as we do together allowed us to really get to know each other.
“Often times, it’s crazy, we say the same thing at the same time, or we’re thinking the same thing.”
Adds Podkul, “We have a lot of inside jokes that no one really gets, but they will see me and Cole laughing together.
“I think we walk around campus and no one really knows our names but they are like, `Oh, those are the two kids who never leave each other’s side.’ We take the same classes, so it’s funny how everyone associates us.
“We literally do everything together on a daily basis.”
Daily admits they’ve been known to wear the same clothes.
Says Podkul, “We went to a presentation one time and wore the same exact outfit. It was pretty embarrassing.”
Daily adds, “We were partners in the same presentation and we showed up in the same shoes, sweat pants and hat.
“We actually schedule our classes together on purpose.”
Chimes in Podkul, “I usually ask Cole what he’s taking and I sign up for the same classes so we can be together.”
Daily started his Irish career at second and eventually found a home at shortstop. Podkul originally played third base, then moved to second base in 2018.
Says Podkul with a twist of the needle, “Second base is harder to play so they put the better kid there.”
Yet, for all their time together, Daily and Podkul never discussed the losses of their fathers.
“I think it’s one of those things where it already happened and you just don’t bring it up,” says Daily. “You don’t want people to feel bad for you or anything like that. If someone asks, I would talk about it but I wouldn’t bring it up.”
Adds Podkul, “It definitely helps having a really good friend like Cole who has been in the same shoes as you.
“He’s been in the same position, so you have a support system with a terrible tragedy like we both had to deal with.
“We’ve both known, but we never really talked about it.
“It’s just one of those things where, like I’ve told him before, if you need anything, let me know and I’ll always be there. And he said the same thing to me.
“But it’s just one of those things that’s hard to talk about and it probably will be probably forever.”
Daily and Podkul spent so much time together that sharing every last intimate feeling about their fathers became unnecessary.
The two of them just understood.
“I think Nick and I developed that unspeakable bond through all the stuff we’ve gone through, whether it’s in life or in baseball or in school,” says Daily.
“No matter what happens, for either of us, we’re always each other’s biggest supporters. “We want the best for each other and we are always going through different scenarios together.
“Whether we’re having a bad day at school, a bad day at the field . . . no matter what’s going on, I’ll just know I’m going out to the field and whether I just struck out or something else, I can always count on Nick to say something when we’re in the field to get me to laugh.
“He’ll just say, `Hey, man, I know you’re having a tough day, but I love ya.’
“Just knowing he’s going to be there for me no matter what happens is kind of that bond that we’ve created through Notre Dame.”
Podkul appreciates the similarities in their backgrounds:
“I just think it’s really refreshing having someone who is so similar to you–both currently and who had a similar childhood, too.
“It’s a huge relief having someone support you like that, like Cole. You always count on a good laugh, always count on a bad joke.
“It’s awesome to go through your college career with someone so similar and someone you love so much.”
There are times that bond extends to the playing field because that sixth sense lets them know where the other one is going to be on the diamond.
Podkul and Daily remember a critical double play they turned in a key spot of an early-season game at LSU.
Says Podkul, “It was late in the game and Cole gave a big fist-pump. He was fired up and that got me jacked up.
“It was a special moment.”
Adds Daily, “There was a picture of me yelling after it happened because we were up and the bases were loaded.”##########Daily writes his father’s initials on the bill of his hat.
“Usually after the National Anthem, I have my hand on my heart and I hit my chest twice for my dad and my grandpa and then just kind of go play,” he says.
Adds Podkul: “I remember when I was a kid, what my dad always said to me was, `Just be Nick.’
“I tell myself that before every at-bat.
“That’s how I honor him.”
Daily figures if he could have a conversation with his dad, it would happen while the pair was fishing.
Podkul says he and his father would more likely be found on a golf course.
“He was a coach so he’d probably have a lot to say about what I was doing wrong with my swing,” he says.
And in their own ways, the Irish double-play partners believe they’ve drawn strength over the years from dealing with their father’s deaths.
“Going through something like we went through kind of puts things in perspective,” says Podkul.
“I think it really defines us as being tough because it’s something that kids shouldn’t have to deal with.
“Whether it’s baseball, you’re going through a slump or we’re losing games, I think Cole and I could be good resources for keeping things in perspective and knowing we’re all truly really lucky to be here.
“Whatever is going on in your life, as long as you count your blessings and understand that, I think you realize what’s truly important.”
Daily has come to appreciate how precious life is.
“It’s made me feel a kind of love for everyone, all your teammates, your coaches.
“You just appreciate the little things that go on throughout each day. Never take anything for granted.”
Says Podkul, “You have to understand that everyone has their battles.
“You never know what someone could be going through on a daily basis, so you’ve just got to try to do whatever you can to positively impact someone’s life every single day because you never know what they are going through.”
Adds Daily, “It’s knowing that everyone here has probably had to endure something in their life.
“It’s knowing everybody has their own things they are going through. So you just treat everyone with respect.”##########Don’t be surprised if Podkul makes a stop today at the Grotto on the Notre Dame campus.
“The Grotto is a big one for me,” he says.
“Whether it’s my dad’s birthday or the day he passed away or Father’s Day, my mom and I will go light a candle at the Grotto.
“It’s comforting, and it gives you that piece of mind.
“I know our dads are looking down at us with big smiles. He’s super proud of me. Cole’s dad is super proud of him.
“No matter what happens, everything is going to be okay.
“It’s going to work out in the end.”— ND —John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.