The following is based on a profile in the new book “How ‘Bout Them Dawgs” published by the University of Georgia Press, available now where books are sold and on the UGA Press website. This is the first in a series of excerpts from “How ‘Bout Them Dawgs.
Football got its start in the 19th century, mostly for energetic boys to enjoy a release of pent-up energy. There were no scholarships, no big coaches’ salaries, no team doctors, no smartly dressed cheerleaders, no season ticket plan, and no reserved parking.
All that would change as football gradually replaced baseball as the premier sport on campus. As the game grew in popularity, the greatest trade-off in the history of America took place: a kid could gain a free college education by playing a sport.
It rings true today, but for so many college athletes, they see professional riches as their ticket to a good life without having to depend on a degree. While true, many squander National Football League riches and wind up disillusioned.
We don’t know where the game is headed with today’s challenges, but the old grant-in-aid system still works. Take Georgia tight end Darnell Washington, for example. His college scholarship was the first step in bringing him opportunity in life. His NFL contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers will enable him to provide for his family, especially his mother, Katrina Graves. If you have any doubts about the value of the intercollegiate grant-in-aid system and the NFL draft, you need only to look at the life story of Big O.
Think about his development years and his home place, and the environment from which he sprung. He grew up in Las Vegas, one of nine kids, but knows little about the attractions which draw more than 32 million visitors a year to his hometown. To this day, he has never pulled the lever of a slot machine, and he has never rolled the dice at a gaming table.
He has never seen any of the classic shows that Vegas is famous for: Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Prince, Elton John, or Wayne Newton. And he has never enjoyed a $250 steak dinner for one simple reason—he didn’t have the money. If he had, he would have given it to his hard-working mother for groceries or some critical family need.
There were periods in Big O’s life when his family were homeless, including many months when he slept in a U-Haul trailer. There was no roof over his head. There was no car, so the family walked everywhere they went. To the doctor’s office, to school, to the grocery store. His mother walked to work, hoping that she would not get laid off. Those who know Darnell can easily forecast that one of the first moves this gentle giant (6-7 265) will make with his pro football income will be to buy his mother a home. With success in the NFL, Big O will become the ultimate story of emerging from austerity to sustainability.
There are many interesting features to Big O’s personality and habits. He is a very laid-back person who is not flummoxed by solitude. He can idle away with family and friends without becoming overcome with boredom. While at Georgia, he spent considerable time playing video games and pickup basketball at the Ramsey Center on the UGA campus.
He is a fan favorite. Even though they are keen on the image of him catching a ball in traffic and hurdling would-be tacklers, they can’t fully appreciate the inside story of his career without sitting down in a video room with his coach, Todd Hartley, and seeing the many times his blocking made a difference, leading to a big gain, a first down or a touchdown.
Operating in a cloak of selflessness, Darnell says, “When I make a good block, I appreciate that I am having an opportunity to help a running back make a big gain or score a touchdown.”
“He was disappointed that he fell in the recent draft, but that has made him more motivated than ever,” says Todd Hartley, his position coach in Athens. “The good news is that he is really happy to be in Pittsburgh. He really likes the Steeler staff. I believe Pittsburgh is the perfect place for him.”
While the size and weights of NFL linemen will be greater than what Big O saw in the SEC, Hartley has long marveled at the Bulldog tight end’s ability to move the line of scrimmage, which he will be called on to do “in the league.”
“That,” Hartley continues, “Is very hard to do—it is very rare—but he gets it done because he is good at it but also because of his unselfish mentality. He is the ultimate team player.”
Hartley says it is difficult for a tight end to get credit for the “dirty work,” he must do, the infighting on the line where one substantial move can give him the leverage to make a difference on a given play. “He doesn’t say much, he lets his action in close combat do the talking, but he can get emotional about football because he loves the game so much.”
Darnell’s marquee plays also excite his Bulldog coach, who became a friend early on in their association. When Big O hurdled a defender in the Oregon game in 2021 and raced another 20 yards downfield, nobody was whooping and hollering more than Hartley, but just as spectacular was a block he made in the 2nd national championship game in January.
“Stetson Bennett hit Brock Bowers in the flat on a drive which led to a score,” Hartley remembers. “As soon as Darnell saw Brock catch the ball, he turned and spotted a defender and made the most unbelievable block I think I have ever seen. He literally drove the defender 40 yards down the field.”
As a parting shot, Hartley said with almost familial pride. “He was a good student. He always went to class, and we never worried about him failing. I am confident that he will come back to Athens and graduate.”
Bulldog fans can thank Todd Hartley for his recruiting efforts. It was Todd who influenced Big O to “keep Georgia on his mind.”