Ravens' Darling plays for his fallen brother

OWINGS MILLS – Tapping his heart before pointing toward the heavens, Devard Darling doesn't feel alone.<br><br> It's his ritual after touchdowns. It's the Baltimore Ravens rookie wide receiver's way of honoring his fallen brother, Devaughn, letting him share the moment.<br><br> The identical twin brothers were one heartbeat. <br>

The Darling family was struck by tragedy three years ago when Devaughn collapsed suddenly and died of a cardiac arrhythmia suffered during an intense conditioning drill at Florida State.

Clasping his playbook in the Ravens' locker room Friday afternoon before his first NFL practice as the team began a rookie minicamp, Devard Darling's love toward his brother and his bitterness toward a cruel twist of fate haven't faded.

Devard and Devaughn shared more than a womb. They shared a football dream.

"I live for him," Darling said of his brother, a gifted linebacker who cracked the Seminoles' formidable defensive lineup at age 18. "I live for two. He is me and I am him. 

"He's not here physically, so I have to take it on for him. Everything I do is for him."

Darling fulfilled his family's hope by overcoming grief and extensive medical scrutiny to play football again. The swift receiver developed his raw talent, accomplishing enough in three seasons after a transfer to Washington State for Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome to trade up six spots in the third round to draft him last weekend.

"This is a special thing for him," Ravens director of player personnel Phil Savage said of Darling, who plays with photographs of Devaughn attached underneath his shoulder pads. "This is a dream come true."

Yet, it's hard for Darling to escape a past filled with sadness.

On Feb. 26, 2001, Devaughn Darling hit the ground during predawn mat drills that had always been a staple of legendary coach Bobby Bowden's strenuous training regimen.

Devard Darling saw his brother seated on the floor with an ice pack pressed to the back of his head. He initially thought his brother was resting.

Devaughn Darling died 90 minutes later at a Tallahassee hospital.

The death certificate lists the cause as exhaustion and dehydration, noting the presence of the sickle-cell trait that both twins inherited genetically. The sickle-cell trait affects one in 12 African-Americans, and has been linked in some studies to rare but sudden exercise-related deaths.

The condition involves only one sickle cell gene and isn't the same as sickle-cell anemia, a more serious condition caused by two inherited sickle-cell genes. Devard Darling has only one of those genes. He isn't viewed as a health risk by the Ravens' medical staff.

The Darling family, which moved to Texas from the Bahamas after the twins' parents divorced when the brothers were 12, disagreed with the autopsy finding and filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the university.

They blamed the workout and the coaching staff and trainers. Devard Darling alleged that the players weren't allowed to drink water.

"It's foolishness that pushed my little nephew to the grave," the twins' uncle, Frank Rutherford, a track athlete from the Bahamas who earned a bronze medal in the triple jump in the 1992 Olympics, said in an interview published two years ago.

After the funeral and after having doctors examine Darling, the university made a decision about the surviving twin: He could remain an FSU student and retain his scholarship, but he wouldn't be allowed to play football again.

They didn't want to assume the risk.

"It was a real tough time for me," Darling said. "It was like, they took my brother away from me and now they're trying to take football away from me."

Darling initially wanted to transfer to Tennessee, but believes Volunteers coach Phillip Fulmer was scared off by medical concerns. 

He also looked at Texas A&M, USC and Purdue, but ultimately settled on Washington State after those schools declined to clear him to play.

The Cougars' medical staff screened Darling, but made him wait months before clearing him to play. Then, he was redshirted for a year.

Darling was monitored daily at Washington State for his fluid levels and any changes in his body chemistry, energy and athletic performance.

Nothing was ever found wrong with his heart, Darling said, or anything else to indicate a definitive reason why he couldn't play football.

"I'm a perfectly healthy guy," Darling said. "I took all the tests out there numerous times. I don't know what else they want me to do. I'm ready to come out here and get that black cloud from over my head and play."

Darling emerged as an honorable-mention all-Pac-10 Conference selection last season and then left school after his junior season. He caught 104 career passes for the Cougars for 1,630 yards and 18 touchdowns. 

Last season, he caught 50 passes for 830 yards and seven touchdowns. 

Darling said he was thrilled when he saw the ‘410' prefix light up on his telephone last Saturday night, signaling that the Ravens were going to draft him. Darling had visited the team's training complex a few weeks earlier.

"When Devard fell to us in the third round, we were ecstatic because we believed his skills are not third-round skills," Ravens quarterbacks and receivers coach David Shaw said. "He's been questioned, poked and prodded by everyone. He's a very determined young man."

The Ravens had the lowest-ranked passing game in the league last season, opening a door of opportunity for Darling to possibly emerge as the team's third receiver behind Kevin Johnson and Travis Taylor.

"I'm looking to make a big impact," said Darling, who was trailed by a television crew from his native Bahamas on Friday. "I'm a playmaker."

It has been a bittersweet experience the last few years for Darling. Especially on birthdays and during anniversaries of his brother's death.

At her Texas home, Darling's mother has devoted a shrine to Devaughn, including a scarred Seminoles helmet that Devard has a habit of putting on.

Now, the rookie wideout wants to continue to honor his brother's memory. In Devard's mind and heart, Devaughn was with him Friday.

"We were always a packaged deal," Darling said. "Together. Forever. I'm here. This is my dream."
Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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