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Rookie living NFL dream for two

WESTMINSTER, Md. -- It's a sultry Tuesday morning and he's dropped his first pass of the day. The Baltimore Ravens rookie wide receiver regroups and jogs back to the start of the passing drill to correct his mistake.

Then it happens again. Another ball Devard Darling should have grabbed. He's better than this. And training camp is where he has to prove it.

But there's no time for doubt. A cool, Bahamian voice offering words of encouragement reminds him of that.

"Don't worry about that, keep going," Darling can hear his identical twin brother Devaughn say. "You know you're a good player. You know you're one of the best receivers out there."

Unfortunately for a depleted Ravens secondary, his improved performance the next day was evidence that he had listened to his brother. One of his over-the-shoulder catches not only wooed the crowd at McDaniel College, site of Ravens training camp, but also Baltimore's coaching staff. Yet with ironman Jamal Lewis carrying the bulk of the offensive load, the Ravens' passing game plays second fiddle. And when the Ravens decide to pass, Darling figures to become one of second-year quarterback Kyle Boller's favorite targets.

"There's going to be a point during the season where he explodes onto the scene," said Ravens quarterbacks/wide receivers coach David Shaw. "It's going to be a shock to everyone except those that have seen him practice."

Devaughn, who had been there for all of his brother's ups and downs in his quest to the NFL, wouldn't have been surprised, either. He always knew Darling could be the best and he made sure everyone else knew, too. As a standout linebacker at Houston's Stephen F. Austin High School, Devaughn never finished an interview without mentioning his brother. He never wanted to be above him.

But Darling never expected his brother to be watching him. Devaughn had the talent to play alongside Darling in the pros and that was a dream they talked about as children. They wanted to be the pride and joy of the Bahamas, the first Bahamians to be drafted by an NFL franchise. Then the duo would hopefully play for the Miami Dolphins, a fan favorite in their birthplace and homeland for 12 years. Oddly enough, with Dolphins wide receiver David Boston going down in early August with a knee injury and linebacker Zach Thomas slowly recovering from knee surgery, the franchise had two voids the twins could have filled. And if Miami wasn't an option, they were prepared to separate, for the first time, at the NFL draft. But they would have to dominate at Florida State University before going on to the next level. Both Seminoles showed substantial promise during their freshman seasons and were in position to have breakout sophomore campaigns.

But fate stepped in and changed their plans. During FSU's rigorous offseason mat conditioning drills in February 2001, Devaughn's heart was pushed to its limit. He collapsed, lost consciousness and never made it back to his brother. Darling couldn't have been prepared for his twin's premature departure.

"I would be in the bed and just look at him and say, 'What would I do without you?'" Darling said. "And then I would just say to myself, 'That won't happen until we're like 80.'"

Now he had to deal with his biggest fear 62 years earlier than originally planned. And even worse, he had to deal with suspicions about why his brother was gone.

Devaughn's autopsy report did not identify a definitive cause of death, but sickle-shaped blood cells spread throughout his body were noted as a possible contributor. FSU blamed the oddly shaped red blood cells, which can hinder the human body's oxygen flow, developed from the sickle-cell trait that Devaughn, Devard and eight percent of African-American males share. The Darlings, however, pointed to negligence on the part of the university for not giving Devaughn proper hydration. The family and Florida State recently reached a $2 million settlement in a wrongful death suit against FSU.

But there's not enough money in the world to relieve Darling's pain. And there aren't enough hugs and handshakes to make him feel better. Not because he hates sympathy, but because there aren't many people that understand what he's gone through. Losing a close relative is hard but Darling's loss was much deeper than that.

Imagine looking at a mirror and suddenly, your reflection disappears. For 18 years, he and Devaughn woke up every morning and saw their counterparts. Wendy Hunter, "Mummy" of the twins, worried that Devard wouldn't recover. Through all of the heartache, she admits that her grief was not equal to her son's.

"At the time of the death, I was thinking to myself, 'If I'm feeling like this, then how is Devard feeling (after) losing a piece of himself," Hunter said. "I have no idea."

The only thing that kept Hunter in tact was her spirituality. She remembers reading her Bible the day she got the news about Devaughn.

"God was preparing me for this," Hunter said. "I was studying grace, and it took every piece of grace to keep me from falling apart."

And grace has replaced some of her tears with a grin. Today, she laughs about the good times with her twins. Like the way they played in their palm tree in the Bahamas, the one that split at the top, giving each twin a place to sit. Or how they would never let their older sisters get "mouthy" with their mother, even though they were the youngest of five siblings. And Hunter never worried about saving up for $100 shoes because Devaughn and Devard made her life easy financially, understanding her struggles as a single mother with two jobs. But all of her memories were of the two of them. There wasn't anyone in his life, not even his mother, that understood what it would take to help him survive without Devaughn.

No one would have looked down on Darling if he turned in his jersey the day after his brother's funeral and refused to pick up another football. And people would have understood if he got back on the field and didn't have the same fire as before when his brother and teammate was alive. But Darling's dreams were only deferred, not dead.

"I had no choice but to make it this far," Darling said. "I can't lose, I can't fear. It would be even worse if I would have just given up and didn't want to play anymore. It would have been like I was killing myself too and Devaughn; (I would have been) killing our dreams."

Football had become even more important to Darling. It was his new survival method, until a Florida cardiologist told him that he wouldn't be medically cleared to suit up for the Seminoles ever again. He was considered a health risk whose heart could react to strenuous training the way his brother's did. In Devard's eyes, FSU was turning its back on him when he needed it most.

"Why would you do something like that to a person?" Darling asked. "When I got back there after the funeral, they put on a whole new face. They didn't want me there no more."

And neither did most of the schools that promised him the chance to play again. After numerous electrocardiograms and other medical tests, many of his suitors acted like the Seminoles and one-by-one took their scholarships off of the table.

But he finally found a home at Washington State University and finished his two-year career there with 1,666 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns. With a 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame and 4.3 speed, he could have been a first-round selection in April's NFL draft. But instead, he fell to the third round after being placed on multiple franchises' medical lists. It was bad enough that he couldn't share the special moment with his brother, but he also had to deal with the doubt that haunted him throughout his collegiate career.

The Ravens took the so-called risk with the 82nd overall pick. Time will tell if he was one of the draft's bigger steals. But more important, the Ravens have helped him and his brother fulfill their dream; one physically and the other spiritually.

And this is where most of the stories on Darling end: with him carrying a torch for two into the NFL. But until he was drafted, he still hadn't found someone that understood his trials. Then he met Ravens defensive back Corey Fuller.

The 10th-year veteran knows the ins and outs of the NFL and has become accustomed to schooling rookies. But his bond with Darling is unlike any he's had in career. Fuller, an FSU alumnus, understands Darling's anguish. His 18-year-old brother was murdered when he was in college. And although 12 years have gone by, he frequently talks to his mother about the what-ifs.

"It's just hard," Fuller said. "Even as time goes by, just talking about it seems like it's all there again. I feel for (Darling) because I know what it feels like. You can not get over it."

Darling now has a teammate and friend that will lend both his support and shoulder if he ever needs it. And he has an example that has survived in the NFL for a decade, living with the same void he has in his heart.

"If he needs to cry, we'll cry together; if he needs to talk we'll talk," Fuller said. "It's going to get hard. (But) to have somebody go through the same situation, it makes it better. Because until it hits home, close to you, no, you don't know how I feel."

Darling has been living without his twin for three years, and regardless of how much success he has in his career, it won't erase his brother's memory. And while some people around him have a tragic outlook on his life, he continues to use Devaughn to push himself.

"Hopefully one day I can sit back and look back at my NFL career and say that I accomplished our goals," Darling said. "That would be it for me, just to make it and persevere through everything."

However, like Fuller said, his days will get tougher. But if Darling ever falters, he has nothing to worry about. Two of his brothers will be watching his back: one of them from above and the other from the sidelines.

Myron Medcalf can be reached at myron.medcalf@mnsu.edu