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.