Zack Darlington gathered his state runner-up medal, walked off the podium at the Florida Citrus Bowl and headed toward the locker room.
It’s customary that all players stay on the field as the medals are presented. The runners-up will usually — reluctantly — sit and watch the winners claim their glory.
It appeared, however, that Darlington had enough. He had just watched his Apopka teammates, the 2012 Florida Class 8A state champions, lose the crown to Homestead South Dade in a 41-28 upset at the Citrus Bowl. He had watched a lot this year.
Darlington missed all but three quarters of his senior season after a concussion knocked him out of the Darters’ season opener and sidelined him for the season. Some players might have sulked off and disconnected entirely from a situation too unbearable to endure.
Darlington dove right in. He changed his mindset from quarterback to coach. He became a sideline leader and challenged his teammates to be the best they could be without him. He took on the task of becoming the scout team quarterback, preparing his teammates for each upcoming opponent. He never showed self-pity, never buried himself in doubt about his future and never once showed any signs of depression or anxiety about his situation.
Saturday night as he walked toward the locker room, he paused, turned around and watched the rest of the ceremonies from the south end zone of the stadium … all by himself. He, like nearly all of his Apopka brethren, shed tears; lots of tears. And for once, Zack Darlington was allowed a moment to reflect.
As usual, he handled everything with poise, composure and grace. A few reporters approached him as the names of South Dade players, the champions, were still echoing over the public address system. Darlington could have easily sulked into the safe haven of the locker room. He could have told us all to go away.
He did not.
“Life throws things at you sometimes that you don’t know how to take,” Darlington said. “I very easily could not even be walking right now or not even be here. God has blessed me beyond anything I could have imagined because I’m able to play football again.
“I’ll play in January and he’s given me a Division I scholarship so I can do that at the next level … not many people get that opportunity.”
Sure, he wanted to play Saturday night, but he also had all the confidence that his teammates could do the job. They didn’t play very well. South Dade did. Sometimes the scoreboard doesn’t tell the real story of who wins and loses.
“A lot of people took a look at my senior season as it being a hard time,” Darlington said. “But I’m blessed beyond measure. Being able to go to back-to-back state championship games with this team and working for as long as we did, going through 15 weeks of busting it and getting after it the way that we did, it just makes you a different person.”
His faith, his family and his teammates were the cornerstone of his perseverance. He knew everything would turn out positive if he just kept looking forward.
“There’s always a tomorrow and you can’t let the failures of today effect your successes of tomorrow,” Darlington said. “As a quarterback you gotta have that mindset… there’s always a next play.”
He’s an amazing young man. He’s 18 years old, but he talked like a seasoned, veteran coach. In fact he talked … well, like his dad.
“I think he handled it better than can be expected for an 18-year-old guy,” said Rick Darlington, Zack’s father and Apopka’s head coach. “He was a great team leader and had a great junior season and wanted to lead us back to the state championship.”
Even after the first concussion Darlington suffered during a workout mishap in June, he was still determined he’d lead his team back to the Citrus Bowl to defend the state title.
“I remember the morning after his first concussion and leaving the hospital … and seeing the Citrus Bowl in the distance and him pointing at it and saying, ‘We’re going back there,’ “ Rick Darlington said of his son. “We didn’t think the accident was that bad. He always had tremendous faith that God would let him lead his team back.”
But then came the second concussion. The scare was real and happened on ESPN before a live audience of millions of people, which brought even more attention to his circumstances.
“We were at the hospital … the next morning, he had tears in his eyes and said, ‘I’m not going to get to play again, am I?’” Rick Darlington said. “We shed a lot of tears, my wife and him and I. We just said, ‘We need to have you not play this year so that you can get to the point where you can have a chance to play again.’ There was never any question from that point.”
In less than 30 days, he’ll be a freshman enrolled at the University of Nebraska. If anyone can come back from all he’s been through, it will be Zack Darlington.
He expects to be the next great quarterback at Nebraska.
Tomorrow, as the song goes, is a day away, and Zack Darlington will indeed, have his day.
“He’s very mature for a young man,” Rick Darlington said. “I’m just blessed to be his dad.”
Chris Hays is the Sentinel's recruiting coverage coordinator and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter at @Os_Recruiting and Facebook at Orlando Sentinel Recruiting, Instagram at os_recruiting and on Pinterest at Orlando Recruiting.