From Nightmares To SEC Dream

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas cornerback Darius Vinnett sat quietly in the passenger seat while his mother, Dorothy, steered her Nissan Maxima to the New Orleans airport last March.

The jaunt from nearby St. Rose was usually loaded with conversation before Vinnett boarded an airplane and returned to West Hills (Calif.) Community College.

Not this one. Two weeks after his father's death, the 19-year old was unable to ease his mother's sadness as they rode in complete silence.

Vinnett had to leave her.

They both knew that.

Two weeks' worth of classwork piled up in California while Vinnett dealt with matters at home.

Despite the loss of his father, with whom he had a close relationship, the Arkansas signee wouldn't let anything derail his dream of playing Southeastern Conference football. Stanley Vinnett's death after a lengthy bout with cancer was earth-shattering, but Vinnett had come too far to give up five months before preseason practices began.

He had to remind himself of that as Dorothy Vinnett pulled up to the terminal, bit back tears and dropped off her youngest of three children.

"That was the first time that when I got out to get on the plane and go back to school she didn't get out of the car," Vinnett said. "She just pulled right up and stopped in front of my stop. She said, 'I can't come in.' I just looked at her face and knew that she wanted to cry, but she just wouldn't let it out in front of me.

"It hurt me because I couldn't be there to help her. I had to go back to California and finish what I had to do."

If anyone questions Vinnett's determination, all they need to do is take a look at his life the past eight months.

He wrestled with - and passed -23 credits in his final semester at West Hills despite grappling with his father's death. Meantime, his mother checked into the local hospital, where her gallbladder was removed.

There were times the 5-foot-9, 175-pound Vinnett wasn't sure if he'd make it to Arkansas and moments when he wouldn't have been blamed if he quit trying.

But because of his will, the junior's dream will come to fruition today when he starts his fourth game at cornerback in Arkansas' SEC opener against Alabama.

"It makes me appreciate it even more, just knowing everything I've experienced and how hard I worked just to get here," Vinnett said. "This is always what I wanted to do, play college football in the SEC.

"I just know that it's going to be everything that I dreamed it would ever be."

California Dreamin'
Vinnett had to follow an SEC road loaded with obstacles.

He grew up watching LSU, began playing football when he was 6 and eventually stood out at Destrahan High, where Vinnett recorded 130 tackles, 7 interceptions and 3 fumble recoveries as a senior.

But he struggled in the classroom and failed to qualify to play Division I football.

"You know how high school boys are," said Dorothy Vinnett.

It nearly cost him dearly.

Vinnett prepared to play at Division II schools until he bumped into Curtis Johnson, who lived in his neighborhood. Johnson worked as a councilman for the local parish and did his best to keep St. Rose's youth off the streets and on the right track.

Johnson told Vinnett he had connections at West Hills Community College.

"He basically sat me down and we talked, and I would go over to his house almost every day," said Vinnett of Johnson, who passed away last February. "We would watch tapes of football games and stuff like that. He told me, basically, I had the talent to play anywhere in the nation.

"He told me, 'Go to junior college - this is your second chance.'"

Under coach Mark Gritton, Vinnett made an impact on the field and in the classroom at West Hills. He earned all-conference honors, collected 56 tackles as a sophomore and averaged 23.4 yards per kick return. More important, he was a Junior College Academic All-American for earning a 3.6 grade point average.

"He just realized he made a mistake not making his achievements in academics like he should have," said Dorothy Vinnett. "He just said when he got there he would do what needed to be done."

Said Gritton: "He gets most of the credit. I always say, 'I want to get a kid just like Darius.' And I also say, 'I want a football player just like Darius.'"

'Smooth Sailing?'
Vinnett was exactly what the Razorbacks were looking for when they scoured the country for cornerbacks to replace Ahmad Carroll, Lawrence Richardson, Eddie Jackson and Marvin Jackson. Former Arkansas assistant and current San Jose State coach Fitz Hill was recruiting Vinnett and hoped he'd join the Spartans until the Razorbacks stumbled upon him.

Hill told Hogs secondary coach Bobby Allen they found a diamond in the rough.

"For us, the timing was just perfect," Allen said. "A young man out in California is from Louisiana and wants to get back here. He has always dreamed of playing in the SEC. Us being fairly close to home, it just all fit. He was recruited pretty aggressively by the Pac-10. He did like San Jose because there was an immediate need.

"But when we got in the picture, everything just seemed to fit for him."

Vinnett was also courted by schools like the Louisville, Mississippi State (an SEC school) and Southern Miss, but committed to the Hogs on his recruiting trip.

Arkansas coaches were ecstatic to notch a cornerback they felt could come in and compete for a starting job right away.

But Vinnett still had 23 credits to complete in one semester before becoming eligible.

"I thought after Signing Day it was smooth sailing," Vinnett said. "I didn't have any doubt in my mind that I could pass those units. It just seemed like, always in my life, I had to overcome obstacles and had to overcome different things.

"It just seemed like for the first time it was going to be smooth sailing."

In March, Vinnett got an early-morning knock on his door.

Early Alarm
Stanley Vinnett was diagnosed with colon cancer in the winter of 2002, underwent chemotherapy and had slowly shown improvement. But he woke up to use the bathroom one night, collapsed on his way back to bed and died.

Gritton said Dorothy Vinnett called at 5:30 that morning. She was noticeably upset, told Gritton what happened and asked if he could tell her son.

"(Gritton) never comes to my room that early so I knew something was wrong," Vinnett said. "When he told me the news, it hit me, but I didn't really understand because I was so far away.

"But when I got on the plane and went home, walked into my house, reality set in."

The next two weeks were difficult to endure, but Vinnett was glad to be home to help his mother cope. Dorothy Vinnett didn't want him to leave, but he had to pack his things and make the lonely trip back to California.

Sadness dominated his thoughts throughout the three-hour plane trip and continued during the two-hour bus ride back to West Hills. He remembered his father's face in a casket and said it was hard digging back into his books.

It was even more difficult when his mother began having stomach problems and checked into the hospital.

Vinnett's world seemed to be crumbling around him.

He pressed on.

"He stayed focused and we prayed a lot," said Dorothy Vinnett. "That's how we managed. It was difficult. But I knew he had to go back to finish what he started.

"He's not a quitter. In spite of obstacles, he's still determined."

That characteristic also struck Arkansas coach Houston Nutt.

"We've never had a guy take that many hours and have that many good grades through a junior college," Nutt said. "And he had to go through a death and everything.

"He was locked in on getting here."

'The Super Bowl'
Vinnett graduated from West Hills, finished one final course -- an on-line class -- at home last summer and arrived in Fayetteville on July 25. He fit in with coaches and teammates immediately, leaving the Hogs confident Vinnett would have a productive career at Arkansas.

"He doesn't find an excuse," Allen said. "You talk about a mature young man. To be able to handle all the adversity at home, it says something about his character. It says something about his personality. It says something about his confidence."

Vinnett slipped past redshirt freshman Chris Houston during preseason drills, laying claim to a starting spot. He has taken a few lumps this season -- like 6-foot-6 receiver Drouzon Guillon's 77-yard touchdown catch last week -- but Vinnett said it has been a valuable experience.

A lock-down, open-field tackler, Vinnett is ninth on the team in that category (11) and has two for losses in three games.

"A lot of times when the young guys come in they're kind of scared, wondering what it's going to be like," said free safety Vickiel Vaughn. "Just having some kind of college experience is kind of giving him confidence and motivating him. He knows that he has been in this atmosphere before."

Not exactly. Vinnett is amazed when he runs onto the field to applause or shakes hands with fans who know his name. His mother felt the same as she sat in Razorback Stadium and watched his first career start during Arkansas' 63-13 win against New Mexico State.

A week later, the entire family crowded around the television to watch ESPN as the Hogs battled then-No. 7 Texas before falling 22-20.

Dorothy Vinnett said they'll be watching CBS closely today, treating her son's first SEC game like it's "the Super Bowl."

That's the way Vinnett sees it.

He's overcome too much the past semester to consider it any less.

"With my father passing and my mother getting sick and all those (credits) and me missing school, it just was real hard on me," Vinnett said. "Sometimes I didn't think I was going to make it.

"It makes me appreciate of everything -being around here and being with the guys on the team, around the coaches and playing in this stadium.

"I'm anxious to get it going, playing in the SEC and accomplishing my goal."

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