Darrius Heyward-Bey likes a challenge. Or perhaps more appropriately, he enjoys being challenged.
From adolescence to McDonogh to Maryland, Heyward-Bey has encountered doubts and at each turn, he has overcome those obstacles.
Now a starting wide receiver for the Oakland Raiders, who will visit M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday to meet the Ravens, Heyward-Bey can look back at those challenges and credit them for aiding his development.
"It's just my personality. I've always been that way," he said Wednesday night after a Raiders practice. "My whole life, people have told me that I can't do this or I can't do that or it's too hard to do. I don't go in trying to prove them wrong, but I just want to prove to myself that I can do those things. I put all the work in and do everything that is necessary to do to make things happen for me in a positive way."
Growing up in a one-bedroom apartment in Silver Spring with his mother, Vivian, Heyward-Bey watched television and concluded that the people on the screen were the ones who achieved success. Desiring a similar path, Heyward-Bey worked hard enough to earn a basketball scholarship to McDonogh in Owings Mills.
He joined the football team his freshman year and spent another season on the junior-varsity squad. That's when coach Dom Damico issued his first challenge to Heyward-Bey.
"Coach Damico, he pretty much told me that I wasn't good enough to play varsity," Heyward-Bey recalled with a chuckle. "I just remember that sticking in my mind and I just really wanted to prove to myself that I can because all my friends were on varsity. That was the first time that I can remember where it came to football and I challenged myself."
Damico, who still coaches McDonogh and also taught Heyward-Bey in his psychology class, said the coaches instantly recognized the young receiver's raw skills, but also noted some problem areas.
"He kind of had trouble with hand-eye coordination and spatial skills, like adjusting to the ball and stuff," Damico said. "So I challenged him, and said, 'Hey, Darrius, you can run fast and you've got a great body, but you can't catch.' He would catch 100 balls after practice to become better at it. In track and field, if you told him that his starts were terrible, he'd stay out there for three hours to try to get his starts right. … He's willing to work hard, and we're still seeing that every day."
Heyward-Bey caught the attention of Terps coach Ralph Friedgen, who saw a still-developing talent. And like Damico, Friedgen, who was dismissed by the university after the 2010 season, challenged Heyward-Bey.
"One of the biggest problems he had — he said this a couple times — was he wasn't running his routes full speed because he was thinking," Friedgen said. "I told him, 'You've got this speed, but unless you learn how to run routes full speed, you're never going to be able to use that. You might as well go out for track.' He was taken aback when I said that. My thinking was, he's got a gun, and he's got to be able to pull the trigger. He's got to make that defensive back think that he's going to run past him every single time and then run the routes off of that. That took some work to do, but he finally got it the last two years he was here."
Heyward-Bey left the Terps after his junior year with Friedgen's blessing. A time of 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine convinced Oakland to select Heyward-Bey with the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft.
After a slow start in his rookie year when he caught just nine passes for 124 yards and a touchdown despite 11 starts, Heyward-Bey has been steadily building on that foundation, finishing last season as the team's top receiving threat with 64 receptions for 975 yards and four touchdowns.
"The beginning of my career was definitely hard, not the way I wanted it to start," he said. "But in life, things don't always start the way you want them to start. I just continued to work at it and I just focused on being consistent week in and week out and year in and year out, and I've just steadily improved."
Heyward-Bey is tied for second on the Raiders in touchdown catches (two), third in yards (289) and fifth in receptions (19). He appears to be ceding ground to teammate Denarius Moore (first in yards and touchdowns) as quarterback Carson Palmer's favorite target, but Oakland coach Dennis Allen said he's still eager to chart Heyward-Bey's progress.
"I think he's on the progression, and I think his deal is just keep getting better every day and keep getting better every week, and then next thing you know you've gotten better for the whole year," Allen said. "So I think that's really what the progression is, and not worry about the end results, just worry about the process of getting better every day."