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<i>This feature story is from the September 2004 issue of the Inside Carolina Magazine. To learn more about the publication and how to subscribe, <a href=http://northcarolina.scout.com/3/icmag.html>CLICK HERE</A>.</i>

BREAKING RECORDS,
BREAKING THROUGH

Darian Durant won't lie to you. He knows about the statistics. He knows he's earned the personal accolades. But he also knows he holds the key to leading his young teammates to more wins in 2004 and the ultimate prize: a return to a bowl game and a season-ending victory. It's a tall order, even for a player who has rewritten the record books, but it's all he wants.

Inside Carolina Magazine
September, 2004
WORDS: Mark Simpson-Vos
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins

I
f things unfold the way they are likely to during the fall of 2004, Darian Durant won't just break many of the Tar Heels' offensive records. He will shatter them.

Indeed, with 47 career and singleseason records already under his belt, Durant may well put the records for Tar Heel quarterbacks out of reach for a generation, maybe longer. After all, he only needed two games of his junior season to set the career mark for touchdown passes, breaking the previous record of 35 set by Chris Keldorf during the high-flying final days of the Mack Brown era. By season's end, he had accounted for 51 trips to the end zone for his career. And that isn't the extent of the rarified air Durant has already reached. Career passing yards? At 6,517 yards, that record is his. Total completions? Check. Total offense? Yep, got that one, too.

In each of the two previous seasons, Durant has bettered his own season totals for passing attempts, completions, and yardage, not just through the air but on the ground, where his tenacity and ability to make seemingly impossible plays out of nothing have placed him among the team's statistical leaders in rushing over the three years of his career. As he enters his final year in Carolina blue, Durant has already crossed the 7,000- yard threshold for total offense. Last year, he threw for more than 2,500 yards and rushed for just under 400. At that pace, should he remain healthy, he will crush every record in the books, and he will make an assault on the top marks in ACC history to boot.

And yet those records and personal achievements tell only a part of the story for Durant, and perhaps an even smaller part of the Tar Heel story during that stretch. For starters, there was a good chance three years ago that Durant wasn't going to complete his career at the University of North Carolina. Despite a freshman year where he threw for over 1,800 yards and 17 touchdowns, Durant stunned coaches, teammates, and fans by announcing he planned to leave the program. Confused and missing his family, he strongly considered transferring to a program closer to home in South Carolina.

Fortunately, a fateful lunch with thenteammates Michael Waddell and Willie Parker at the K&W Cafeteria changed Durant's mind. "I don't remember what I ate," he said, laughing, "but talking to them then, I pretty much knew what decision I needed to make. I grew to know those guys, and they were like brothers to me. I didn't want to leave those guys."

Durant returned, but with a considerable amount of repair work to do. While his talent and the Tar Heels' lack of depth at quarterback meant he quickly won back his starting spot on the depth chart, it took much more than that for him to earn back the trust of his teammates. In fact, looking back, Durant said he thinks it wasn't until the final game of his sophomore season that he became a leader and true member of the team again. It took nothing less than one of the gutsiest performances in recent Carolina history. Durant had missed four previous games due to injury, but with the Tar Heels staggering into the season-ending matchup with Duke, Durant begged to play. With pins still holding together his surgically repaired thumb, he led the Tar Heels to the win, salvaging some success out of an otherwise difficult year. "I showed guys that I'll play hurt for them," Durant said. "I just wanted to put the injury aside and go out there and play. I think that's when I gained their respect."


"I know a lot of people say, ‘He's good, but he's not great. He never wins games.' I'd love to trade in the records to win more games."

Looking back now, Durant feels like he's put miles between that tumultuous spring and where he is today. "I was just young and immature. That was the main thing," he said. "I thought I had to go somewhere I was wanted. Just being away from home, being young, that's what happened. But now, I've learned to be thankful for the situation you're in. A lot of people would kill to be successful playing football at the Division-I level, especially at the University of North Carolina. You have to make the right choices. I've learned you have to be smart and thankful, and enjoy the moment."

It's a hard-won lesson, to be sure. If only the rise of a leader at the end of the 2002 season had carried over into success in 2003. Instead, as with so much of Durant's career, it hasn't been that simple, as Carolina limped to a 2-10 record. And so, despite the personal achievements of the last two seasons, he has presided over only five victories. Each year Durant's numbers have gone up, the team's win total has sunk in the opposite direction.

The Tar Heel general is hardly the first athlete to enjoy an excellent stretch of personal play while his team is struggling mightily. But rarely has the discrepancy seemed so pronounced—certainly not at the University of North Carolina. So some would claim there should be asterisks next to Durant's records. As he prepared for his last trip through fall practice and for his first and last journey through the grind of the new ACC, at a time when the player's legacy should already be cemented, it remains a serious question mark. Will Durant be remembered as the dazzling athlete and fierce competitor who repeatedly put his team on his shoulders and almost single-handedly—sometimes literally—kept them in games? Or will be remembered as the guy who just couldn't get it done?

As he looks ahead to his senior year, Durant understands the questions about his records. "They don't mean much right now," he said. "I haven't done anything. I know a lot of people say, ‘He's good, but he's not great. He never wins games.' I'd love to trade in the records to win more games."

But it would be a mistake to think Durant doesn't know he's accomplished something. It is one of the interesting conundrums about a player who has often kept coaches, fans, and certainly opponents guessing during his three previous seasons. Practically in the same sentence as saying the records ought not to count, Durant reveals an inner sense that they do.

"It shows the hard work I've put in over the years, and just being successful," he said. "I know I've played my heart out for the past three years, and I know I've done all I can do. I know I can't play all eleven positions on the field. All I can do is just go out there and play quarterback to the best of my ability."

Durant isn't the kind of guy to point fingers at teammates, but he also isn't going to sugarcoat things and his assessment of the relationship between his achievements and team's is about as straightforward as it comes. The fact is that Durant has presided over one of the toughest periods in the program's history. In years where the top personnel has been experienced and strong, injuries and lack of depth have spelled defeat. In years where the offense has fired on all cylinders, the defense has been unable to hold up its end of the bargain.


The result has been a career for Durant where success has often remained just out of reach. In 2003, Carolina lost once in triple overtime, once on the last play of the game, and frequently in a fourth quarter after keeping the game close for 45 minutes. But there were plenty of games that weren't that close, and you only need one statistic to reflect that: the more than 6,000 yards of total offense rolled up by UNC's opponents last year, compared to only 4,700 for the Tar Heels. Numbers like those begin to suggest the asterisks some place next to Durant's performances. After all, the gunslinger wouldn't be throwing so much if the defense had shown the ability to keep the opponents off the field and out of the end zone. He wouldn't have amassed so many rushing yards if plays weren't routinely breaking down, or if Carolina's tailback corps was as strong as usual. It's not the way people like to see records broken.

Yet such arguments only take you so far. Indeed, if it wasn't for Durant's frequent heroism, one wonders where exactly the Tar Heels would find themselves entering the 2004 campaign. One need only look to 2002, when Carolina could manage only four touchdowns in four games with Durant sidelined. And a career passing percentage of .608 and a 137.3 quarterback efficiency rating don't lie. Sure, Durant has had to throw more than he or his coaches would like. But the fact is, Durant's aim has more often than not been true, and his ability to make plays is what truly sets him apart.

"He's a magician with the ball sometimes" head coach John Bunting said recently of Durant. "But if he is a magician, it's not because he gets it done with smoke and mirrors. What I like most about Darian Durant is his competitiveness and the way he wants to win."

And that's what Durant says sets him apart as well. While he acknowledges that his teammates have had a considerable influence on his record-setting performances—"We've had a lot of guys at receiver who were really talented," he said—he also points to his own internal drive to succeed. "I think I have a will to win," Durant said. "Whether playing cards or video games, I love to win. I'm a serious competitor, and my love for the game and my will to win is what makes me go."

"I surprise myself sometimes," Durant admitted, musing on his playmaking ability, "but not a lot. I'm used to running around and making things happen. It's not magic. It's just a different game from what people are used to seeing. I'm not the best athlete in the world, but I'm a playmaker. I'm not going to give up. If I don't see a receiver open, I'm going to try and make something happen on every play. There's a mental change for me when things start to break down. When I tuck the ball, I'm a running back. I don't slide. I try to break tackles and make people miss."

"A lot of people would not expect to see such a talented person in Darian," said fellow senior Jason Brown, who has spent his career opening holes and passing lanes for Durant. "But I think that's one of his motivating factors and one of his strengths. He's out to prove everybody wrong. And he impresses me with his work ethic. That's why Darian is such a leader. It's just a privilege to play alongside him."

The athleticism and determination have been there since Durant first arrived on campus, but looking ahead to his senior year, he recognizes a new mental maturity as well. "I guess the biggest thing is not taking it for granted now," he said. "I don't think I was as focused [in previous years] as I am now. As a freshman, the idea of me still having three years left came into my head a lot, and I wasn't putting forth the effort like I am now. Now I recognize my importance to the team."

Durant credits offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill for bringing about the change in intensity. "He's a very fiery guy," Durant laughed. "He brings that out in me, jumping around out there and yelling. He's just very intense. Just being around him for three years has changed my attitude. I'm more enthusiastic now on the field."

For Tranquill's part, he's ready to see Durant put those words into action. "It's [his] time," Tranquill said. "He's got to put in as much time as he needs to get himself mentally and physically better. Sometimes he doesn't run the game like he needs to be able to run the game. Those are the things he needs to get better at realizing and I think he will."


"I'm not the best athlete in the world, but I'm a playmaker. I'm not going to give up. If I don't see a receiver open, I'm going to try and make something happen on every play."

Durant recognizes that his leadership role extends off the field as well. As a senior on a team still full of young players, Durant knows one of his most important jobs is passing along the wisdom that preparation before game day is every bit as vital as what happens on the field. "I think it can happen with any freshman," he continued. "You feel happy to be on the field, but at the same time, you see the older guys on the team studying film and doing the extra things off the field that help you win, and you think, ‘I've got plenty of time. I don't need to do that.' I think that happens to a lot of freshmen…. So my main focus is to get us all on the same page."

Now, it all comes down to one final season to see if Durant can get that message across, urging his teammates to the same level of fire and passion that has allowed him to maximize his ability, channeling personal ability into team success. Durant understands that it's one of the biggest challenges in sports to make that happen, and he knows the odds of success are even longer this season in a tougher, expanded ACC. But he thinks the level of competition will actually help focus the Tar Heels.

"You dream about playing against Miami, Florida State, those guys," he said. "You look forward to the challenge. I'm more excited than ever. We all are. We have a tough schedule, but we believe—no, we know we can play with everybody on our schedule. Low expectations are just a motivator for us. We want other teams to come in and sleep on us. I think we're going to open a lot of eyes."

Why the change? "Everybody has a positive attitude," Durant explained. "You look at a lot of our games, and we were in the games, fourth quarter late. We just didn't close it out. So we know the potential we have. We know we have the talent. We have the weapons at every position."

And as for the records? Durant acknowledges that he thinks about them every once in a while, but when he puts on his helmet, they couldn't matter less. "I'll think about legacy when this year is over and we've been to a bowl game," he said. "I think this year is going to be crucial. I want people to know I've played my hardest every time I've been out there, and that I've given everything to help my team win."

But now, Durant says, it's time for the team, not the individual. "Everybody is coming together as a unit," he explained. "You can tell from the team functions that guys have come together. I heard a thing a few years ago: you lose big, then you lose small, then you win small, then you win big. So we lost big, we lost small, and now I think it's our time to do some things."

No matter what happens, Durant doesn't want people to remember the numbers— certainly not the losses, but not necessarily the gaudy statistics and records either. Twenty years from now, when he walks into the Hall of Honor on his way to a team reunion, he said he knows what he wants his teammates and coaches to say: "That I'd do anything for them. That I went out there every Saturday and played my heart out for them,

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went to war with them, and gave everything I had. That's the biggest thing."


Mark Simpson-Vos (simpsonvos@yahoo.com) is an editor for UNC Press.


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