Vinnett Carries On

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas cornerback Darius Vinnett said he hadn't heard from a few friends and family members Monday, a week after Hurricane Katrina ravaged his hometown of St. Rose, La.

He also didn't know when his mother, Dorothy, could pack her bags and go back home. That's because Vinnett didn't even know if home existed.

Clearly, the senior has had more than football on his mind since family members evacuated their homes and relocated to Arkansas before the storm ripped the Gulf Coast last week. But the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Vinnett, who started his 11th career game last Saturday, managed to squeeze in a smile when he talked about his 44-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the Hogs' 49-17 win against Missouri State.

"When I saw (linebacker) Sam (Olajubutu) run over and he made the tackle, I saw the ball pop out and I picked it up," Vinnett said. "(Defensive tackle) Keith Jackson made a good block. After that, I knew no one was going to catch me.

"It was like an adrenaline rush."

It also was a fitting reward for the player Arkansas coaches and teammates regard as a gritty, gutsy leader of the defense. The hurricane, as well as the painful knee tendinitis that has hobbled Vinnett all summer, has been difficult to deal with.

So Arkansas strong safety Vickiel Vaughn said Vinnett deserved the opportunity to kick off his senior season with a positive moment.

"He's a true fighter," Vaughn said. "When you deal with all the things he's dealt with this summer, going into the season, his mindset as far as getting prepared for the season, it's tough. But, you know, he's probably got the biggest heart on our team. And if you look at him, he's probably one of our smallest guys.

"You can measure him by his heart. He cares so much about what he does and he cares so much about what he wants to do and what he wants to be. What we ask from him, he gives you and more.

"I'm proud of him as far as what he's done and what he's accomplished so far."

That's especially true under the circumstances.

Vinnett said it has been hard to focus on football since his family made a last-minute decision to evacuate the New Orleans area and came to Fayetteville. He said several cousins, an aunt, one grandmother and his nephew remained in town Monday.

Vinnett continues to live with his mother and nephew and probably will for some time. Vinnett said his sister, who lives in Baton Rouge and is a nurse at a New Orleans hospital, recently went home and returned to work.

Vinnett's mother stays glued to the television, hoping to catch as much information as possible in the numerous reports. He tries to stay away, but can't help watching the endless video clips that depict his home as a ravaged war zone.

"It is scary for something like that to happen to your hometown and you're not even knowing what type of condition it's in and not being able to talk to your friends back home just to see if they're OK," Vinnett said. "Or any relatives from back in that area just to see if they're OK. It's been really frustrating.

"I've been having a lot of my mind lately and I'm dealing with that."

But Vinnett's thankful most of his immediate family didn't get caught in the storm and admits it's nice having his mother in town.

Dorothy Vinnett has made the place feel like home. She cooks, cleans and helps with other things he has missed since leaving home for college.

"Fortunately for Darius, he hasn't been able to go home and see the devastation," said Arkansas cornerbacks coach Bobby Allen. "You can see it in pictures, but you haven't gone down your own block to see your house and it really sinks in.

"And he's had his family with him during this time. I think that has really helped."

But Vinnett's mom can't take away the other thing that has taxed his mind this summer: Knee tendinitis. It's not unusual to see Vinnett walk out of the training room every day with an ice bag on each knee. He's learning to manage the pain and doesn't plan on letting it sideline him on Saturdays.

Arkansas held Vinnett out of practice most of the preseason so he could rest his aching knees. Defensive coordinator Reggie Herring knew what he had in the cornerback and wanted the intense competitor to prepare for game day.

But coach Houston Nutt wondered how Vinnett would perform last Saturday.

"I was worried about two things," Nutt said about Vinnett's tendinitis. "Not practicing very much the last two weeks. Then, on top of that, just the terrible disaster that involved his family with the New Orleans deal.

"You knew his concern. You could tell talking to him. In his voice, in his eyes, you could see there's a little more on his mind than playing man-to-man defense or playing football. Once his family got here in town, he got to see them visually and knew they were in the stands watching him play. I think it makes things a whole lot easier for everybody. Especially Darius."

Neither pain -- the heartache from the hurricane or his aching knees -- affected Vinnett's play Saturday.

With family members watching him, Vinnett recorded two tackles and the fumble return in the first quarter. It was his first career touchdown and the first time Vinnett scored since an interception return his senior year at Destrahan (La.) High.

"I haven't been in the end zone for awhile, so it's real exciting when you get a defensive touchdown," Vinnett said. "It kind of gives the team momentum and boosts the offense a little bit."

Said Vaughn: "I was overjoyed for the fact we scored on defense. I was overjoyed to see that he was the one that scored."

Now, Vinnett will be counted on to lead Arkansas' secondary during Saturday's Southeastern Conference opener against Vanderbilt. The defense, which was ripped apart in SEC play in 2004, will have its hands full with Vandy quarterback Jay Cutler.

Linebacker Clarke Moore knows Vinnett will be ready despite the distractions.

And he might even turn in another performance worth smiling about.

"With his circumstances, it would be hard for anybody to keep that smile on your face," Moore said. "He's got a lot going on. His knees are bothering him. His house is probably washed away. I don't know the circumstances, but his family is in a disaster.

"So, I mean, you've got to respect a guy that's still coming out every day to work."

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