There was no easy way to ask his mother for permission, so Daniel Abesames-Hammer put it off as long as he could. He had been leaving the house in the afternoon, telling her he was going to visit friends when he was really out learning football so he could try out for the junior varsity team for his upcoming sophomore year.
Abesames-Hammer figured his parents would hate the idea, so he told them as little as possible until it was time to turn in the required waiver with a signature on it. When he finally broke the news to his mother, Elaine Pamaran, she was more than a little skeptical.
At that point, after all, her son was about 4-foot-10 and barely 100 pounds.
“I was like, ‘No,’” she said.
When Abesames-Hammer was younger, his grandmother took him to a doctor to see why he wasn’t growing, but it wasn’t much of a mystery. Most of his family was short, and being short wasn’t going to hamper anything he wanted to do in life. But with his newfound interest in football, it was suddenly a dicey proposition to think about him getting on the field with people that could legitimately hurt him. Even with all that padding and a helmet, a lot of bad things can happen when a 250-pound lineman barrels full speed into someone half their size.
“I was never really scared of being hit by huge people,” Abesames-Hammer said. “You cant be scared. You have to go 100 percent every play.”
The agreement he reached with his mother was simple: As long as he didn’t suffer a concussion, he could play. Though Abesames-Hammer hasn’t grown much since then — he now stands at about 5-foot-1 and about 125 pounds — he still hasn’t stopped.
You won’t see college football’s tiniest player this season on ESPN or in the College Football Playoff. But as a running back for Division III Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, Abesames-Hammer is not only a curiosity and fan favorite but also a role model to thousands of kids who watch the videos he posts on TikTok (@hyphydaniel) about what it’s like to be a 5-foot-1 running back in college football.
“I get (direct messages) all the time from 13 and 14-year olds who haven’t hit their growth spurt complaining about being short and calling me an inspiration,” he said. “That feels really good. I never had that before I blew up on social media. People saw me either as a joke or a secret weapon.”
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Abesames-Hammer still faces plenty of disbelief. When he was home in the San Francisco area this past summer and took a job at Jamba Juice, his coworkers laughed when he told them he played college football.
There was a time Abesames-Hammer wouldn't have believed it either. He had thrown himself completely into football, sucking down protein shakes and using the COVID-19 shutdown to pump as much iron as he could. His plan was to attend San Jose State as a regular student, but some film from a scouting combine he attended in San Francisco started to get around and he was suddenly getting calls from non-scholarship Division III schools that needed players.
But it was Matt King, the newly-hired offensive coordinator at Cornell College, who impressed him most, laying out a plan for ways they could use his lack of size as an advantage. Abesames-Hammer committed without ever stepping foot on campus.
“We knew from film he was small, but he was quick and shifty and he was like, ‘Coach, I’ve always been small, I'm ready for the challenge,’” head coach Dan Pifer said. “But when he showed up, I was like, ‘Holy (expletive) he is really small. I was nervous. I’ve never coached anyone that small. I was afraid he was going to get broken in half.”
Though Abesames-Hammer is not the shortest to play NCAA football. He is significantly lighter than the 4-foot-9, 140-pound Jayson Carter, who recorded two carries for Rice nearly a decade ago. That makes Abesames-Hammer, without question, one of the smallest players to ever set foot on a college football field.
But the coaching staff at Cornell discovered quickly their new running back was tougher and sturdier than he looked, and that he could indeed help their team. Though it would be foolish to try and make him an every-down type of back, Abesames-Hammer rotates in 15 to 20 plays on offense and averages about five carries per game. This year, he’s already got a coupe of 20-plus yard runs.
And whenever he steps onto the field, people can’t help but be fascinated by what they're seeing. Even during his senior year of high school, former NFL star Marshawn Lynch sought him out after a game when Abesames-Hammer ran for more than 100 yards and two touchdowns at Oakland Tech, Lynch’s alma mater.
“It’s funny at away games because you can hear the other fans, there's a buzz in the stadium,” Pifer said. “Our alums, he’s the first guy they want to talk to. Everybody wants to shake his hand. He's been a big inspiration for a lot of people. It's worked out well. He’s done some great things considering his size.”
It’s become even more difficult for Abesames-Hammer to be effective on the field since the NCAA changed a rule earlier this year to ban all below-the-waist blocks outside the tackle box, effectively taking away something he could do to level the playing field as a blocker. Still, he does what he can to use his elusiveness and lack of size to almost hide underneath tacklers and slip away.
But Abesames-Hammer knew if he wanted to play football, he’d have to embrace proving that he belongs every step of the way.
“Half the time I get shown a tremendous amount of love, people saying you’re hella shifty, hella fast” he said. “Other times the people across from me are pointing at me and yelling obscene things because I’m small. But once I start making plays they're like, ‘OK he can be a factor. He can be useful.’ It was eye-opening to some people.”
Remarkably, Abesames-Hammer has still not missed a game due to injury, he said. Sure, he’s had some nicks and dings, but nothing that would cause him to question whether he should be playing in the first place.
"There have been times he's gotten trucked, but he just gets back up and goes again,” Pifer said. “He’s got the utmost respect from our players. When he screws up, we treat him like he’s 6-foot-1, 230 pounds. He’s got to find a way to get it done.”
Abesames-Hammer, of course, knows there are limits to what he can do in the game. He’s not going to play in the NFL, so he’s planning to become a physical therapist or a coach. But in many ways, this is what lower-division college football is all about: An opportunity for those who weren’t blessed with freakish athletic gifts to get an education while continuing to play the game they love for as long as possible.
“Of course as a mom you get scared because all these guys are bigger than him,” said Pamaran, who has been converted from skeptic to supporter, watching every game on a live stream. “I don’t want him getting hurt, but he proved can do it. I'm so happy that he followed his heart.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Meet Daniel Abesames-Hammer, college football's smallest player