LINCOLN — Rick Darlington has conducted enough interviews in the last four months to politely make a point — but purposefully make it clear.
His son, Zack, is going to play football at Nebraska. He'll enroll in January and work out in spring drills. Two concussions suffered last summer — the first a freak accident, the second on national TV — may have canceled Zack's senior season at Apopka (Fla.) High School, but they didn't snuff out Zack's career.
It's true that Husker coach Bo Pelini will honor Zack's scholarship if the 6-foot-2, 210-pound quarterback never suits up. Pelini guaranteed that, Zack says, “about as fast as you possibly can.” While Zack was still in Spartanburg (S.C.) Regional Medical Center, in fact, recovering from a hit he took in an Aug. 24, ESPN-televised game between Apopka and Byrnes (S.C.).
But in that same hospital, the Darlington family, in consultation with doctors, decided Zack would make good on Pelini's offer.
I'm not going to play again, am I? Zack asked Rick with tears in his eyes. Tears — of fear, of relief, of resolve — were not in short supply that weekend.
You aren't going to play your senior season, Rick told him. But you are going to play at Nebraska. Your future is more important than our present.
A story about Zack Darlington's head might as well hum a few bars about his heart.
* * *
Zack finished his last day of classes at Apopka on Friday. His first early graduation request was from his younger brother, Wyatt, a ballboy for Apopka. Wyatt wanted to throw around the football.
And Zack can throw around a football. He's been a quarterback since he could pull a T-shirt over some junior shoulder pads that parents Rick and Shelley bought at Wal-Mart. He would play by himself or with his older brother, Ty, who's now an offensive lineman at Oklahoma.
Home-schooled in grade school, Zack would watch film at night with his dad, the same plays, back and forth, combing over the smallest details. During the day, Zack would get done with his classwork as quickly as possible so he could head to Dad's football practice up the street.
“Mom would stick her head out the door and if she didn't hear any coaches hollering, she knew we were done,” Zack said.
Zack said he formally took the quarterback reins around second grade, in Valdosta, Ga., one of Rick's stops as a high school head football coach, playing for the Boys and Girls Club's Wildcats team. Black jerseys, yellow helmets one year. Yellow jerseys, black helmets another.
Rick returned in 2006 to be head coach for a second stint in Apopka, just northwest of Orlando. The Darlingtons settled in as Apopka became a powerhouse in Florida's largest class, 8A, annually producing multiple FBS recruits. Zack ascended to starting quarterback, while Rick designed and called plays for the Blue Darters' offense, inspired in part by the philosophy of former Husker coach Tom Osborne, who ran power football out of a dizzying number of sets. Together they helped win a state title in 2012. Zack played the title game with a broken right wrist. Apopka scored 53 points.
Nebraska started heavily recruiting Zack, a four-star prospect, shortly after that title game win. NU offered in March and fended off Ohio State, which also offered that spring, to win Zack's commit in mid-June. In an interview with The World-Herald and several other media outlets after the commitment, Zack, a Christian, said he wanted to use football as a platform to share his faith. He says the same now: that the game is a blessing, a road to a bigger calling.
The next two months would deepen Zack's faith with adversity.
It started with a late June rain on Apopka's practice field. The Blue Darter players were flipping tractor tires in a drill, and the rain moved it indoors to a wrestling room.
“I'm always competitive,” Zack said. “So naturally I wanted to win that drill.”
At the end of the indoor race, Zack's team's tire took a “funny roll” toward him. He caught the tire and pushed it over the finish line, but stumbled as he did and fell into another group's lane. That group's tire fell on the back of Zack's head and neck.
Zack remembers his vision being blurry. He remembers blood — from busted lips — all over his hands.
“And my hands wouldn't open up,” he said. They stayed clenched. His speech was garbled. Rick took Zack in his gray Chevy Silverado to the hospital. Zack's team won the drill.
For more than a month, Zack was held out of contact drills. Dr. Tom Gibbons of the Orlando Stuttering Center worked with Zack to repair his speech. Gibbons told Zack that Moses had a speech impediment in Exodus.
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“Many, many sessions,” said Zack, who is armed with a gifted memory and didn't stutter once in the phone interview.
Rick consulted with several doctors, including Dr. Semyon Slobounov, a professor and scientist at Penn State whose focus, according to PSU's website, is “sports-related traumatic brain injuries.” Zack was cleared to practice in early August and he started at Apopka's season-opener at Byrnes, a powerhouse in South Carolina. Byrnes was the better team for much of that game and would eventually win, but midway through the fourth quarter, Apopka had the ball while trailing 44-36. Zack had his chance to tie it up.
First-and-10 from the Apopka 35. Zack executed a play-action fake and bootlegged to his right, looking for an open receiver. He found none. As he neared the sideline, Zack had a choice to run out of bounds and take a 4-yard loss or turn upfield and perhaps reach the original line of scrimmage.
So Zack turned upfield. He lowered his head. Byrnes linebacker Aymel Lyles did, too. They met at the 33.
“At first, I was mad at him for staying in bounds,” Rick said.
Lyles launched Zack sideways. Zack's helmet — think Michigan's design, with medium blue base and white wings — bounced off the turf.
What Husker fans saw on TV — Zack out cold and surrounded by a dozen coaches and trainers before being loaded onto a stretcher and eventually a helicopter for the Spartanburg Regional Medical Center while Apopka fans cried in the stands — told the story. Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck called. So did Pelini. He guaranteed Zack's scholarship.
“I felt very blessed,” Zack said.
Said Rick: “I wasn't surprised, because that's the kind of man Coach Pelini is.”
The second concussion wasn't as traumatic as the first head injury. The family would have to decide whether Zack could play again in high school, if at all.
“I didn't want to hang it up for the season,” Zack said.
The family and doctors decided he would. That resting from a second concussion was crucial to Zack healing right. Zack would practice more than NU fans might think. He threw in 7-on-7 drills. He got a little work with the top offense. He tried to stay sharp with his skill set. Apopka would have to defend its state title without its prime trigger man — but it would gain an extra coach on game day.
Zack could mentor junior Chandler Cox — who already has an offer from the Huskers as a fullback/H-back — on the finer points of the position. How to throw one route quick, but to “wait for the second window on the dig route.”
“You can help your teammates without really coaching them, and that's what I tried to do,” Zack said.
Rick noticed that his son's personality, his character, didn't change after his high school career ended. Same enthusiasm. Same competitive juices.
“He's the same whether he's on top of the world or whether he's not playing football,” Rick said. “He's been very consistent. That's a silver lining.”
Meanwhile, Rick had to retool his offense. He put Cox, a 6-foot-1, 220-pound bruiser, in the single wing. Handoffs every which way. And it worked. As a team, Apopka ran for nearly 6,000 yards this season. The Blue Darters broke the state record for points scored with 751, and returned to the 8A state title game, though they lost 41-28.
One opposing coach told the Orlando Sentinel that the offense was straight out of Knute Rockne's playbook. A Sentinel columnist wrote that Rick “could easily be the next Gus Malzahn” — the Auburn head coach who parlayed his own high school single-wing into one national title for the Tigers as offensive coordinator and an appearance in this season's BCS title game, which will be played in two weeks.
That's about the time Zack will be heading up to Lincoln. There's the usual excitement for winter conditioning and spring camp, where two other young scholarship quarterbacks — Tommy Armstrong and Johnny Stanton — await, and Zack plans to embrace all of it.
He's not scared. He knows he has to change his game for college, where linebackers and safeties make it hard on any quarterback to run in the open field.
“I'm going to have to learn to get down more,” Zack said.
He prefers, of course, a head-first slide. Auburn's Cam Newton did well by it. So did another famous college quarterback.
“Tim Tebow didn't slide feet first,” Zack says.
Rick's a coach. So while Rick knows his son will play football at NU, he knows something else, too, when it comes to sliding.
“Zack will do what Coach Pelini and Coach Beck tell him to do.”