Lessons in giving


Aug. 20, 2008 at 3:20 a.m.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series.

The Victoria YMCA’s gym resounded with halftime chatter as the 10-year-olds huddled around their coaches.

Daniel Zarate Jr., then 17, had volunteered to coach his younger brother’s basketball team. He took a moment to rally his players at halftime of the season’s final game.

The team was ahead, but Daniel had something other than victory in mind, recalled his father, Daniel Zarate Sr.

Daniel was about to teach his players a life lesson. Eight years later, the Zarates think with even more emotion about Daniel’s message of giving.

A boy on Daniel’s team had not scored all season, and the coach wanted to change that before the final buzzer.

“I told Daniel I didn’t think it was a good idea. I told him to just go ahead and win the game,” his father said.

But each time the players ran down court, they passed the ball to the boy.

He missed a lot. But, finally, he scored.

The Zarate brothers’ team lost the game, but Daniel was focused on a different final score.

Dan looked into the crowd and saw the reaction of the boy’s mom.

“At the end of the game, you should’ve seen that boy’s mom,” his father said. “She was jumping up and down and screaming.”

Daniel finds his passion

Daniel’s desire to help his brother also led him to discover his own passion – cooking.

Daniel grew up in a family of five – two parents, Daniel Sr. and Cecilia, an older sister, April, and his younger brother, Robert.

Born May 28, 1983, in Jackson County Hospital, Daniel grew up in Edna.

He started cooking when he was 14, making grilled cheese sandwiches, eggs and ravioli for his younger brother, his mother recalled.

His parents remembered those lunches after Daniel started his higher education, taking classes at Victoria College in 2001 and transferring to Lone Star College at Montgomery near Houston in 2002.

During a school break at Montgomery, Daniel visited his family and told his dad he wanted to be a chef.

“He was real driven, moving toward what he wanted to do,” his father said. “I was always real impressed with him.”

Daniel dreamed of being on a show with a famous chef, his mother said. He transferred again – this time to study culinary arts at Corpus Christi’s Del Mar College in 2003.

He graduated in 2005 with an associate’s degree in applied science for culinary arts, including certification as a cook, baker, bartender and restaurant manager.

Chasing a dream

After working at several different restaurants in Corpus Christi and Victoria, Daniel’s uncle John invited him to come to Alexandria, Va., to seek a job in a bigger market.

“He always wanted to go to a bigger area, to see what happens there and test his skills,” his father said.

Daniel left for Alexandria in February 2006 and became a chef at a French restaurant.

After two months, he decided to try a position in management. Daniel got his chance at a Hooters in Manassas, Va., about an hour south of Alexandria.

As a Hooters manager, he was busy Aug. 1, 2006, making sure the restaurant was running smoothly, said Jeremy Wannar, the restaurant’s cook at the time and who often worked with Daniel.

This particular night, Daniel and the night shift employees had a water balloon fight and squirt gun war in the parking lot and tuned in to the staff’s favorite radio stations as the store’s traffic waned, Wannar said.

The store closed at midnight, and Dan, as he was known by his coworkers, completed his management duties.

“Since Dan was new, he would get out around 1:30 after finishing with all of his paperwork,” Wannar said. “He was just ready to roll.”

After work, Dan got into his car and drove 15 to 20 minutes north to Kirkpatrick’s Irish Pub outside Gainesville, Va., before heading home.

A terrible call

Dan had told friends he sometimes had a hard time staying awake driving home late at night. He often would call them for conversation to help him stay awake.

In a phone call, he even told his parents he almost fell asleep once while driving home.

It was an eerie foreshadowing of a truth to come.

The phone rang in the Zarates’ master bedroom.

Daniel and Cecilia looked at the clock before picking up.

It was 5 a.m. Aug. 2, 2006.

A social worker in Virginia was on the other end of the line. Dan had fallen asleep at the wheel.

He was thrown from the car and suffered severe head injuries.

The call was one no parent should have to take, and it was one that would live on.

Coming Sunday in Part 2: Another man’s heart can’t go on.



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