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September 5, 2013

Appreciation fuels senior leader Darby

Darby can lead. Darby can smile. Darby can survive. Darby can honor. Darby can make it.

The one thing Darby cannot do is have any regrets.

When senior safety Alden Darby was a little kid people would try to get his attention by yelling out his first name, Alden.

Good luck.

Anyone who has been around the Arizona State football program knows no one refers to the senior safety by his first name.

They could then try just saying his last name, Darby. Now that might work.

The multi-year starter, one of ASU's most recognizable personalities, is only referred to by his last name around Sun Devil Stadium, Bill Kajikawa practice field and the Verde Dickey Dome.

According to his mother Nellie Mckinley-Darby, when he was a young boy he would only respond if somebody called him, "King."

From an early age Darby was born to lead.

He has now taken his leadership skills and applied them full force in his last season at ASU.

"This is my last four or five months of college football," Darby said. "I don't want to look back and have any regrets. I look back as a freshman, sophomore and a junior and I have regrets. I say, 'I could have did this. I could have did that.' Now that I'm a senior it's kicking it into overtime. I know that I can't do anything that I did last year even though I had an okay season. I can't do anything that I did last or the previous years. I have to double down and I have to really kick into full gear and that's what I'm doing as a leader on, off the field, in the weight room and in the classroom and I'm changing all the way up."

Darby has taken a strong hold of the role of the vocal leader of the team in the obvious ways.

At the end of every practice the defense and offense have one final stretch. Before the team huddles around coach Todd Graham, Darby leads them in their team, "Devils," jumping jacks.

He is always the loudest one on the field. Students walking to class on Rural Road could probably hear Darby yelling out coverage adjustments to the defense.

He congratulates even offensive players like when a running back gets to the third level he'll yell out, "Way to hit the hole."

The highly regarded Pat Tillman 42 practice jersey has been worn by Darby more than anybody else on the team since Graham arrived at ASU.

All those things are expected of a leader at ASU. What sets Darby apart though, is the frequency with which he does things he doesn't have to.

The second practice of the fall camp was for the newcomers only. Freshmen and junior college transfers stepped off the tram with a deer in the lights look in their eyes.

A few minutes after practice started Darby rolled into practice wearing flip flops, a tee shirt and gym shorts.

A couple other veteran players were there as well but Darby was the only on the actual practice field. He was standing behind the safeties during a defensive walk-through.

He had taken special interest in freshman safety Jayme Otomewo. Darby was right behind Otomewo, chattering in his ear telling him to creep up on some pre snap reads. Then once the play was over Darby pulled Otomewo aside and coached him on proper footwork.

"It was a thing where he didn't have to do it," Otomewo said. "It got me motivated for him to come and teach me and get it from a player perceptive different from a coach. So it was good for him to come down and teach me the safety position."

Darby knew some of the young players would be a factor this season but he took some time to focus on some really young players like Otomewo who will be playing long after Darby has graduated.

"It's just my thing," Darby said. "I truly care for them. We're a team."

Darby can smile

At Camp Tontozona there is a natural water spring adjacent to the playing field. On the first day of practice in Payson, Ariz., different players trickled on the field but Darby held up every member of the secondary.

With the group known as the, "Bird Gang," gathered around him, Darby got down on his belly, drank from the spring and told his teammates it was tradition that started last year. One by one all the corners and safeties followed suit.

When some players tried to back out of the tradition safeties coach Chris Ball pushed his way to spring and yelled out, "You can't be in the Bird Gang unless you drink from the spring.'" After everyone had a sip the secondary group attacked the practice hard.

The spring at Tontozona was another example of Darby bringing a group together and getting them excited to work.

Ball said that is just how Darby is.

"I've known him for a year and a half and I don't think he's ever had a bad day," Ball said. "He shows up every day with a smile on his face ready to work. Those guys come around usually once in a coaching career. He's a great leader. He sets the tone for us in the secondary. He's smart. He's high character. He's got tremendous work ethic and he's tough. He's fits exactly what we stand for."

The two share a special relationship that's different from the rest of the players and coaches. Besides digesting some natural standing water for Darby, Ball will do anything for his safety.

Ball and Darby share their own handshake and Ball embraces the nicknames of the secondary like the Bird Gang or the Taylor Kelly of the defense.

"That's my brother from another mother right there," Darby said. "I love coach Ball to death. He's really something else. I love having him as my coach because he's a teacher, he's a father figure, he cares about us and he can relate to us, that's the better thing. He's just so happy about everything. So I can always talk to him about anything, about life, about football and he is always there for me no matter what."

Darby has learned a lot from Ball but Ball has learned a valuable lesson from Darby while they have worked together. In his tenure at ASU Ball has never seen Darby drag through a practice. Darby always has the most energy on the team

Ball said if he is having a bad day he can just look at Darby and say, "if that kid can bring it every day why can't I?"

Darby's leadership goes beyond the players.

Darby can survive

When Darby is talking on the field his sentences are short, clear, loud and concise. He is usually yelling to his teammates as he gathers his body into a safety's ready position, prepared to back pedal.

One-on-one he talks quickly and his sentences go on longer. He never breaks eye contact and stands upright gently rocking his helmet against his legs with both hands holding the facemask.

When he talks about his life during high school in Long Beach, Calif. he will actually look down at his helmet and his voice becomes a little bit quieter. It was a trying time for Darby that greatly affected his life now at ASU.

Around the time of his senior year Darby was on his own.

For reasons he's hesitant to get into, Darby was estranged from his parents. His mother wasn't able to be there for him for a period of time. Though his father lives just across town in the inner-city of Los Angeles, it was a completely different world to him, and so Darby decided to stay in Long Beach.

At one point he was living in a house by himself.

"In high school I basically had to grow up fast," Darby said. "I grew up in Long Beach so I had to learn a lot of things on my own. I had to learn how the streets operated and just get everything on my own. I couldn't rely on nobody. I couldn't wait for other people to make things happen. I had to make things happen on my own. That's where I got how mature I am today. That's where I got it from all through my high school experience. Some of the things that I faced, not having certain people there in my life from time to time, wasn't ever financially stable, never had the best of the best things. I had some things but never had the best of the best. Basically I had to learn how to get things on my own which is why I am the way I am today. That's why I'm so caring and giving back and wanting to help others."

Darby left the house and moved in with a teammate. He said his teammate's family was not financially stable either, so looking for different odd jobs at car washes and after school programs to put a couple dollars in his pocket became commonplace.

He ended up moving again, where he found a more permanent home with another teammate, Paul Slater.

"I ended up moving in with the quarterback of my team, the Slaters and they really took care of me, got my SAT classes in order and basically just gave me a home," Darby said.

Darby learned a lot from the experience. He learned how to get things on his own and he matured quickly.

When he moved to ASU he took the lessons he learned with him.

After practices a college football player may just throw his gear into the equipment hamper and not think much about clothes at all. With everything that Darby went through he learned ever to overlook even the smallest gifts he receives at ASU.

"It gave me a great deal of appreciation," Darby said. "Everything that I get from these cleats to these socks to the free wrist bands, I appreciate it all. I know that it can all be taken away from me. I've seen the lowest of the low and I know that I don't take anything for granted. Living in Arizona, getting Division I coaching, the free food, the weight room, I don't take anything for granted."

Darby can honor

On Nov. 10, 2012 Darby intercepted a pass from USC quarterback Matt Barkley and took the ball 70 yards for a touchdown in the Los Angeles Coliseum. It was one of the best highlights of Darby's college career and it was the day he was in the most emotional pain.

Three days earlier Darby got a call from his cousin Eric Adams. Darby was in a meeting and missed the call. Darby texted Adams back and said he would call back later but was busy throughout the day and never called Adams back.

"I never got the opportunity to call him back and I never will," Darby said.

Adams passed away the next day at age 23. He was more than a cousin to Darby.

"He was more like my brother," Darby said. "We grew up together. He was actually the first person ever to sign me up for football…He told me I should play football too so he signed me up and was the first person to put shoulder pads on me and cleats. Everything he did, I wanted to do."

Ever since that day Darby said he never misses a call, will always spend time with somebody if they want to hang out and cherish every moment he has.

"It really hurt me and really hit me home," Darby said. "Seeing his life go by like that at a young age, that right there just showed me don't take life for granted. Take advantage of every single day. You never know when your time is going to run out. So I live life with no regrets. I don't like to have a bad day because you have a bad day then that next day you could be gone."

Darby would always say that there were people back home who could not play the game the way he can and they would love to be in his shoes. The one person that really relates to is Adams.

Adams was the first person to show Darby the game that he loved. During the USC game Darby had Adams' name written on his arms, legs and shoes and dedicated it in his honor.

Darby knows what Adams would want to see from him in his final college season.

"I know that if there's one thing that he would want me to is to play this game," Darby said. "Play this game with a passion, play it with no regrets, just play it with respect and go all out."

Darby's passion is football, his cousin's passion was rapping. Darby said before he passed away, Adams was gaining a following in Long Beach for his skills. Both of them would always discuss using their talents to help their families.

"We always talked about how me and him getting the family out of the hole that we were in," Darby said. "We were going to take care of the family. He was going to do it by rapping. I was going to do it by football. So now he's gone. He can't do it by rapping. Now it's just me by football. I know if there was something that he would want me to do that's to get to the next level, make the most out of life."

Making it to the professional level is no easy feat. With the experience Darby has had in his life and the leadership he has shown at ASU he is already acting like a professional.

It takes a driven athlete who brings it every day and plays with no regrets to get there.

Darby can make it.

Arizona State NEWS


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