Zack Darlington is confident he will play football again.
He speaks of the future with measured enunciation and carefully chosen words. The stutter is gone, or so it seems, but then it slowly creeps back into his voice.
Two concussions in a two-month span can have that kind of impact.
He’s well aware of the speech lapses. It’s part of his therapy; part of the step-by-step process he said will have him back playing the game he loves by the time the Nebraska Cornhuskers hit the field for spring practice in March.
That’s the plan.
“One hundred percent. That’s my goal and that’s what I’m working toward now,” said Darlington, an Apopka High senior who committed to play quarterback at Nebraska on June 14. Ten days later, his life would change forever.
Darlington spoke Thursday about the traumatic injury, his recovery and his future.
One of the state of Florida’s top college football prospects, Darlington was recently invited to the Marine Corps-sponsored Semper Fi All-American Game, which is Jan. 5 in Carson, Calif. He will not play, but he expressed his deep gratitude to the Marines for including him despite his inability to take the field.
He has been sidelined since taking a horrific hit during Apopka’s season-opening loss at Duncan (S.C.) Byrnes High. Athletic trainers and on-field personnel struggled to find Darlington’s pulse, prompting his 8-year-old brother to run frantically in search of his mother, screaming, “He’s dead, mom. He’s dead.”
After a night at a South Carolina hospital, Darlington slowly got back on his feet. He’s been able to think back and reflect on what he has endured. His goal to return has never wavered. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound quarterback goes at every task life presents as if he is always wearing a helmet and pads.
He was going hard last summer, as usual, during an offseason workout that included a drill with large tractor tires. The goal was to push a tire across the line before your teammate and his tire.
As Darlington went to lunge across the line ahead of his teammate, however, he was hit awkwardly in the head and neck area by his teammate’s tire and crumpled to the ground.
He couldn’t move. He couldn’t talk.
“I wasn’t knocked out, but I wasn’t able to do everything,” he said. “My hands seized up, which was really scary. I couldn’t use my hands and my arms were fidgeting and my mouth was like . . . I was trying to say something and nothing was coming out. That was really scary. . . . I felt like I was capable of doing something that my body couldn’t.”
He had endured injuries before. Broken bones, no problem. He led Apopka to Class 8A state semi-final and championship game wins last year with a broken wrist. Not playing never crossed his mind.
This, however, was different.
For the first time in his somewhat injury-plagued football life, he actually wondered if he could return to the field. After being hit by the tire, Darlington would slowly regain most of his muscle control. But his fingers remained curled a day later and he still could not talk.
The fingers finally straightened. The speech never did.
“It was about three days and all I could get out was lots of stuttering and not complete sentences,” he said. “I’d kind of use the wrong words or use words in context that didn’t make any sense.”
It was scary for Darlington and his family, especially 16-year-old Molly, one of the seven Darlington children.
“She was the one who broke down and cried. Me and her, we bicker at times, but we are the best of friends and we get along really well, so when I was barely able to speak, it really hit her hard,” Zack Darlington said. “I think she got really scared because she knew how much I loved to laugh and joke around and when I wasn’t able to do it, it kind of freaked her out.”
No one, however, was more freaked than 8-year-old brother Wyatt after Zack’s second concussion.
After the initial injury, the Darlingtons brought in a specialist, Dr. Semyon Slobounov, who works with the Penn State laboratory for virtual reality and traumatic brain injury. They were also seeing Dr. James Ray, a physician at the National Training Center in Clermont, as well as Tom Gibbons, director of the Orlando Stuttering Center.
On Aug.7, Darlington was cleared for full contact.
It wasn't easy for Apopka head coach Rick Darlington to send his son, Zack back on the football field. Rick Darlington has had to juggle the responsibilities of coach and father in a much different way than in the past. Zack is his second oldest son. Ty Darlington is a sophomore center at Oklahoma.
“It’s been real tough,” Rick Darlington said after the second concussion sidelined his son for what looks to be the remainder of his senior season. “When he got hurt in June, we hoped he’d be ready to play. We didn’t know if he’d be ready for Byrnes and he was and then this happened, so it’s been hard.
“I’m not an overly emotional person, but I’ve shed a lot of tears just thinking that he may not be on the field with us this year. It’s his senior year. . . . But God has a bigger plan than our plan and although I’d love to have him out there with us with a helmet on Friday nights, I’m just glad he’s safe and healthy and I can still coach with him. I’m still very blessed he’s still my son and I still get to see him all the time.”
Just 17 days after he was cleared for fall practice, Zack Darlington was sprawled motionless and unconscious on a South Carolina football field, victim of a hit witnessed by millions on ESPN. The scene sent young Wyatt into hysterics as he rushed off to find his mother in the bleachers.
“What everyone was freaked out about was that they weren’t able to find a pulse for about five minutes so they were thinking that I had died,” said Zack of Wyatt, who, along with 12-year-old Jackson, are both Blue Darters ball boys and as much a part of the Apopka sideline as the rest of the team. “So that’s what Wyatt thought. He immediately ran to my mom and said, ‘He’s dead mom, he’s dead. He’s not moving. He’s not breathing.’
“He was just heartbroken at the thought that I had died right in front of him. . . At that age, to have your big brother, go down right in front of you, the one that had battled back from all of these injuries, that you thought could never be broken . . . goes down right in front of you. That is really, really scary.”
Things have settled down a bit now. Wyatt and Jackson are shagging balls, as always. Zack’s not on the field, but his teammates take him out there every Friday night. The Darters decided to have a different player wear Darlington’s jersey for each game. So far, Chandler Cox, Rakeem Smith, Robert Thomas, Anthony Ellis and Jacob Whitrock have all worn the No. 6.
“It’s been really tough not to have Zack on the field and you can tell it really bothers him,” Cox said. “But God just tells Zack that we think about him out there and we play for him each week and it’s been fine. We just work as a team. We have a strong brotherhood. I think we can work through any adversity by coming together.”
And they’re playing just fine. The Darters are 6-1, haven’t lost since South Carolina and are averaging 50 points per game. Darlington isn’t exactly absent, however. He coaches in practice, just like his father. He’ll run the scout team offense and has even recently been running with the second team just to get in a few reps.
“I’m not 100 percent, but I’m taking steps,” Darlington said and he touched on whether he would quarterback the Darters again. “It’s not up to me. It’s up to God. He’ll tell me that, tell the doctors that, tell my parents that. It’s all God’s plan.”
When he’s on the field, there is no stuttering. There’s also no stuttering during his fiery pregame speeches. He gave one that caused quite a stir of emotions last Friday night before sending his teammates out on the field to dismantle previously unbeaten West Orange.
“On the field it’s little to none,” Darlington said of the stuttering. “I don’t know what it is. I just get around my team and it’s like being around your family. It’s comfortable. It’s what you are used to and you don’t feel like you are in the spotlight and you don’t feel like everyone is watching you.”
He returns to Lincoln, Neb., in a few weeks to take his official recruiting trip to the school that has stood by him since he said he wanted to play his college football as a Cornhusker. He’ll be visiting Nov. 15-17, the weekend Nebraska hosts Michigan State.
“I have a great feeling now. I’m not really worried about much,” Darlington said of Nebraska. “I think when I go up there I’ll feel a little more comfortable with it. It will be the first time for them seeing me since the accident and the first time since I made the commitment, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
It’s just another step toward his goal. And once he’s set his mind to something, the past only speaks volumes for what he can accomplish. Don’t, however, think Darlington isn’t well aware of what he has overcome.
“No doubt. You never expect it. You are definitely thankful when you get the speech back and you realize how blessed you are just to be able to talk,” he said. “Not many people have had it and been able to talk fine and then had it taken away and know how it feels to not be able to talk and get the looks, like, ‘What happened to you?’ There are people in worse [situations] than I am, and I’m very blessed that it wasn’t worse than it was.
“I am blessed beyond measure.”