Darrius Heyward-Bey's wait to join the NFL almost over

Sometime early in the process, Darrius Heyward-Bey removed the mystique from the NFL draft and reduced his interminable offseason to a series of job interviews.

Less than two weeks from a destination, the 6-foot-3 wide receiver from Maryland with 4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash has handled it all - the workouts and interviews, the poking and probing - with good humor and a keen sense of responsibility.

It's almost as if Heyward-Bey, 22, has been preparing for this all his life. In a way, he has.

When he was 14, he left his mother, Vivian Heyward-Bey, and his safety net in Silver Spring to attend McDonogh in pursuit of a better education and a future in basketball.

"I had to grow up early," Heyward-Bey said recently. "The decision to go to private school and move away from home was a big thing for me. Being away from home, you have to make [some important] decisions.

"There's a lot of peer pressure as a young male. I feel I always made the right decision. It made me the person I am today."

From dozens of game tapes, on through the scouting combine, Maryland's pro day and four private workouts - so far - the picture the NFL gets of Heyward-Bey is that of a gifted athlete with world-class speed. He possesses the ability to separate from defensive backs and make game-changing plays.

From combine interviews and four team visits he has made, Heyward-Bey has presented another dimension to NFL executives. He is a quick study, wise beyond his years, and has a desire to be the best and a willingness to work to get there.

It's that dimension that might push him over the top April 25 and higher into the first round. Projected as a mid- to late-first-round pick, Heyward-Bey has attracted the interest of the Oakland Raiders, who have the seventh pick in the draft and place a premium on speed.

If character really is important in the NFL, Heyward-Bey goes to the head of the class.

"You can't get better character," said Dom D'Amico, his football coach at McDonogh. "He was never in any trouble at McDonogh. He has good friends in the NFL guiding him. His roots are grounded, his personality set. ... He's one of the best [people] I've ever been around."

What stood out to Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen was the way people responded to Heyward-Bey.

"It was really unusual for me to see so many people striving to help him be a success, from high school and college," Friedgen said. "I think it's because of the way he is. He cares for everybody. He has no ego. He's just a wonderful person."

Character could play a role in where Heyward-Bey gets drafted. He was a track star and basketball player first at McDonogh. He didn't play football until ninth grade. By the end of his junior year, though, everyone knew football was his future.

But he is not a finished product. His route running can be better. His hands are good, but his technique needs improvement. His production at Maryland (15 touchdowns in 38 career games) was modest by Michael Crabtree standards (41 touchdowns in 26 games).

Still, Heyward-Bey delivered eight plays of more than 50 yards in a pro offense that had quarterback issues. Crabtree, the top wide receiver in the draft, posted big numbers in Texas Tech's prolific spread attack.

"If Darrius had played at Texas Tech, he'd be one of the top three picks taken," D'Amico said.

Devard Darling of the Kansas City Chiefs says Heyward-Bey has a chance to make it big in the NFL. "He's more talented than 85, 90 percent of the receivers in the league now," said Darling, who played for the Ravens when Heyward-Bey was at McDonogh.

In fact, the two were friends then and remain close. Darling's wife, Cicely, was track coach at McDonogh and often told her husband about the school's football prodigy. Heyward-Bey stayed with the Darlings in the summer before his senior year to prepare.

"He had to mature quickly," Darling said. "He's different than a lot of young kids in his position. I'd like to say I had a big part in doing that, but the Lord blessed him bringing the right people into his life. He's a mature young man."

Kevin Glover, who serves as Maryland's pro liaison, watched Heyward-Bey burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman, then mature into a quiet team leader.

"When you have the talent he has, sometimes you see players lose focus on the task at hand," Glover said. "He never lost focus. He's a very sharp, observant guy. He listens and learns. That goes a long way."

Heyward-Bey credits his mother with his solid foundation. Vivian Heyward-Bey made certain he got involved in whatever sports he wanted ("At one point, I thought I wanted to be a hockey player," he said).

But he also saw the effects of friends making poor decisions, and that helped steer him onto the straight and narrow path, too.

"I have seen guys I've known who made bad decisions," Heyward-Bey said. "I am always surrounding myself with good people. That's a big deal with [NFL] teams. We're on the same page there."

about this series
He's 6 feet 3 and weighs 208 pounds. He runs faster than most people on the planet. He's the big-play wide receiver many NFL teams covet, and he could be chosen in the first round of the NFL draft. We continue our series of occasional articles looking at Maryland's Darrius Heyward-Bey as he prepares for the draft at the end of the month. Find more stories, photos and videos at baltimoresun.com/sports