Brothers' bond drives Darling

Ravens: Rookie Devard Darling lost his twin brother three years ago, but he still gains strength and determination from his memory.

May 02, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Devard Darling's journey to the Ravens took him from the beaches of the Bahamas to the wheat fields of Washington state, from being a tragic outcast to a national standout.

Through it all, the rookie receiver says, his strength has come from two hearts beating as one, his way of describing the unbreakable bond between twin brothers.

When Devard was born, there was Devaughn following right behind with his hand wrapped around Devard's ankle. From that point, you couldn't tear them apart or tell them apart. They were the same. Same looks, same laugh, same ultimate dream.

It's a dream that, with every stride and catch at his first NFL practices this past week, is kept alive through Devard, along with his brother's memory.

Three years ago, shortly after finishing their freshman seasons at Florida State, Devaughn collapsed and died while participating in the Seminoles' offseason conditioning program.

Still, to this day, they remain inseparable. The silver chain that was worn by Devaughn when he died now hangs around the neck of Devard. The date of Devaughn's death - 2-26-01 - is written on the tape around Devard's wrists before every game. And a photo of his brother is tucked under Devard's jersey and over his heart.

"Every day I live, I live for him," Darling said. "I miss my brother to death. Just imagine spending every second of your life with someone and then, all of a sudden, he's not there.

"The worst fear in my life was to lose my brother. I don't know what else could be worse. There's nothing else you can throw my way."

That determination was pushed to the brink when, after losing his brother, Darling nearly lost another love - playing football.

Although the autopsy report revealed no definitive cause of death, Florida State refused Darling medical clearance to return to the football team in 2001, knowing he shared a sickle-cell trait with his brother.

"I asked the heavenly lord to please stop it," said Wendy Smithe, Devard's mother. "He's had enough now."

The medical examiner noted sickle-shaped red blood cells - the ones that could threaten the flow of oxygen in the blood, especially during a state of dehydration, when the overall volume of blood is reduced - were found diffused throughout Devaughn's body. The presence of a sickle-cell trait affects one in 12 African-Americans and is linked by some studies to rare but sudden exercise-related death.

Darling doesn't believe the abnormality is what truly ended his brother's life. The family's wrongful-death suit, which says the school was negligent in denying Devaughn water until it was too late, has yet to be settled. Florida State University police filed a 300-page report finding no fault on the university's part.

Another contributing factor might have been ephedra, the highly scrutinized diet pill. According to the Los Angeles Times, toxicology reports indicated ephedra was in Darling's system, but coroners didn't say it caused his death.

The ambiguity surrounding his brother's death made finding another destination difficult for Devard. Tennessee, Texas A&M and Southern California showed interest but eventually backed off like Florida State because of medical concerns, all of which nearly cut him out of big-time college football.

"It was like they were trying to kill me, too, trying to take football away from me," said Darling, who ended up at Washington State. "To this day, I have that dark cloud over my head like something is wrong with me. I don't understand what people want me to do. I took every test out there repeatedly. It's like they're waiting for me to just drop down and die. That ain't a fear."

Ravens officials have repeatedly said they do not consider him a health risk.

The club had the long-striding deep threat graded among their second tier of receivers. At the NFL combine in February, he underwent all of the typical testing, as well as additional cardiac examinations because of past concerns. Team officials said they have had no previous problems with players carrying the sickle-cell trait.

"He's at a bit of increased risk because of family history," Ravens trainer Bill Tessendorf said. "[But] we could find nothing from a physical standpoint that would have been a reason why we wouldn't draft him."

In fact, the Ravens went out of their way to select him, trading a fifth-round pick to move up six spots in the third round to draft him. It made Darling the first Bahamian to get drafted in the NFL, a distinction that will be celebrated with a parade next week in his Caribbean home.

Darling's past, as team officials view it, is a source of passion, not problems.

"There's a quiet resolve there with him in terms of wanting to do well," said Phil Savage, the Ravens' director of player personnel.

Early separation

Separation of family and country came early in life.

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