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Darrius Heyward-Bey comes home on draft day

Probably the nicest thing about draft day for Darrius Heyward-Bey wasn't that he went seventh to the Oakland Raiders, or that he was the first wide receiver off the board ahead of the more highly touted Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin.

It was the reunion he enjoyed with his best boyhood friends, who came from Greensboro, N.C., and Miami specifically for the occasion. It was the return of most of his mentors, including former Ravens receiver Devard Darling. And it was the continued presence of the most important women in his life, the women who helped shape Heyward-Bey into a responsible young adult.

There was a sadness, too, on the day that Heyward-Bey's life changed forever. Rich Woodlee wasn't there and he should have been. He had mentored Heyward-Bey from his youth, treated him just like the son he already had, Ryan Woodlee. Rich was there when Heyward-Bey's car got dented up; he paid to get it fixed. He was there for all the important stuff in Heyward-Bey's life, too. Except this one.

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Rich Woodlee died last January of a heart attack at 52. When Heyward-Bey was looking for a place to hold his draft party, Yolanda Woodlee, Rich's wife, volunteered her Silver Spring home. It was perfect. "This is his village," Yolanda said of the home Heyward-Bey frequented.

Even better, Yolanda, a former reporter for The Washington Post, came up with the idea to wear green rubber bracelets in memory of Rich. Heyward-Bey wore one, Ryan Woodlee wore one, and Brenton McCoy and Adam Simms wore them, too. Those four were best friends growing up. Darrius, in fact, was McCoy's first friend in kindergarten at 5.

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McCoy and Simms drove five hours from North Carolina A&T to attend the party. Ryan Woodlee flew from Miami and was in town for less than 48 hours. They weren't going to miss this.

Neither was Darling, who played with the Ravens from 2004 to 2007, during which time he befriended Heyward-Bey, then a star athlete at McDonogh in Baltimore. They shared a special bond. Heyward-Bey's birthday is Feb. 26, 1987. Devard's identical twin brother, Devaughn, died of apparent cardia arrhythmia, on that same day 14 years later.

"He's like my little brother," Devard said of Heyward-Bey. "The Lord put him in my life for a reason. ... It seems like it was meant to be."

Now Darling will see Heyward-Bey at least twice during the football season. Darling plays for the Kansas City Chiefs, who are in the AFC West with the Raiders. "I'll be there every step of the way to help him out," Darling said.

The most influential women in Heyward-Bey's life were there Saturday, too. Yolanda and Vivian Heyward-Bey, Darrius' mother, sat on either side of him when Oakland found itself a big, fast wide receiver. The two women embraced soon after and the rest of the 30-plus supporters cheered as they hugged. Then there was Adrienne Heyward-Bey, Vivian's sister. She helped Vivian raise Darrius from a baby.

"We were housemates," Vivian said. "Adrienne was the first one to hold Darrius after he was born. We raised him together. We taught him the value of friendship."

Yolanda shed some tears, too, knowing that her husband wasn't there to see Darrius take the next step. But she felt his presence and found peace in that. She would have celebrated Rich's 53rd birthday last Monday and their 30th anniversary last Tuesday.

"It means a lot to have everybody who played such an important role to be here," Yolanda said. "Rich wasn't here physically, but he was spiritually."

Photos: Doug Kapustin / Sun


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