Gridiron gratitude

The Baltimore Sun

It's hard to imagine a worse Faustian bargain for someone to have to endure, but for Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett, it's a reality.

As far as he's concerned, his mother's killing, which occurred when he was just 13 years old, probably saved his life.

He was the one who found her that day, July 4, 1994, when he entered the front door of their Atlanta home after returning from a friend's house. Cheryl Hambrick had been shot in the head, execution-style, in the middle of the hallway. He stood there, in silence, unable to move until his 18-year-old sister arrived.

Police were called, but years later, the crime remains unsolved. Dockett was supposed to move in with his estranged father, but four months later, he died of pancreatic cancer. Dockett ended up in Burtonsville, living with his uncle, Kevin Dockett.

"Things happen for a reason," Darnell Dockett said during the media day before this week's Super Bowl between the Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

He even has a message for his mother's killer, should he happen to be out there watching the Super Bowl.

"I forgive him," Dockett said.

The reason Dockett is still here, in his eyes, is his uncle, a businessman who became Dockett's legal guardian as well as his savior after the death of his parents. Without his uncle, and the guidance of his college defensive line coach, Odell Haggins, Dockett surmises he would probably be dealing drugs in Atlanta, in and out of prison, or perhaps worse.

"I can honestly tell you, if he wasn't the man that God chose to take a chance on me, I wouldn't be here today," Dockett said.

Instead, he's become one of the keys to the Cardinals' unlikely run to the Super Bowl and one of the best young defensive linemen in the NFL. It has been a tragic and bumpy but ultimately uplifting journey for Dockett, 27, who years ago starred at Paint Branch High in Burtonsville.

"You know, with losing my mom when I was 13 and then losing my dad like four months after that, it made me become a real tough person," Dockett said. "I just felt like I could overcome anything. I don't really have any down days. Everybody that knows me, they come into the locker room and they know I'm happy, they know I'm cheerful, and I just look at life right now as though I've already had my misery days. But I honestly believe that my mom and my dad are still here."

Dockett was no saint before his mother's death. He acknowledges that he was headed for serious trouble, regularly committing a litany of crimes growing up.

That didn't entirely change when he moved to Maryland, but it wasn't from lack of discipline. Kevin Dockett, who drove a dump truck and turned it into a fleet of trucks, was old-school when it came to punishment. He didn't hesitate to break out a wooden paddle he called "Hickory."

"When he tried to discipline me, I took it in stride," Dockett said. "Me and his relationship became so close, I supported him in everything he did and he supported me in everything I did.

"He didn't have a lot of money, and for him to embrace me into his family and take care of me, and do all those things for me like I was his own son, that meant a lot. ... He's the only one who believed in me. He's the only one that kept helping me out of heaps of trouble. I owe him everything. He's like my dad, my best friend."

Dockett's uncle steered him toward football, which he didn't like at first, but he quickly figured out that he could dominate. His senior year at Paint Branch, he blossomed into one of the best high school players in the country, with schools near and far scrambling for his commitment.

Florida State won him over, thanks to the bond formed between his uncle, Kevin, and his future position coach, Haggins.

"When I started recruiting him and found a lot more about what happened to him at a young age, my job as FB coach went out of the door," said Haggins, an All-America defensive tackle for the Seminoles in 1989 who has coached at the school for the past 14 years. "I started thinking like a parent. 'What can I do help his uncle raise this young man?' "

Football was never the problem.

"I've never seen a defensive lineman play lower than Darnell," Haggins said. "He just had a knack for the game. If a guy was trying to block him one way, he knew the play was going the other way. He had such great instincts."

Controversy had a way of finding Dockett, though, and NFL general managers took notice. In 2001, Dockett was involved in an incident during a game when Florida coach Steve Spurrier accused him of intentionally twisting the knee of running back Earnest Graham at the bottom of a pile. In his junior year, before the Sugar Bowl, he was arrested for shoplifting - after a friendly store clerk gave him $1,000 of merchandise for $100 - and suspended for the game. Even though he was the Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior, character questions dogged him before the 2004 NFL draft.

The Cardinals took Dockett in the third round and immediately plugged him into their lineup. In 2007, he was a Pro Bowl alternate. Dockett said he can never repay Haggins for the coach's faith in him.

"He was like my father when I was in college," Dockett said. "You know, going to college with no father, no guidance - he would always check on me, make sure my grades were up, come to my classrooms, just all those things like a father would do."

The same is true of Dockett's uncle, who will be making the trip to Tampa, Fla., this week to watch the game. Dockett, whose body is covered in tattoos, even has a poem inked on the inside of his forearm dedicated to his uncle. He was happy to show it to reporters this week, while also knowing he can never thank Kevin Dockett enough.

Sun columnist Rick Maese and the Associated Press contributed to this article from Tampa.

a poem of thanks

Darnell Dockett has this poem tattooed on the inside of his forearm dedicated to his uncle:

For believing in me when no one else would.

When the odds were against me,

beside me you stood.

For being my friend , brother,

confidant and father.

Because of you I know

blood is thicker than water.

Words can't express my gratitude,

Nor any amount of money.

From the bottom of my heart,

Thank you and I love you


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