Darius Powe’s grandmother, Mary, used to go to every one of his Pop Warner football games. Since the first day he stepped onto the field, decked out in oversized pads, Mary was a constant fixture.
Her presence was his motivation, his drive. He wanted to impress the woman who loved him and made him feel special.
When Darius used to visit her house, she would have his favorite meal waiting for him every single time: her signature egg sandwiches. Despite his father’s wishes for Darius to eat healthy, his grandmother told him eat her sandwiches anyway.
“She was an ideal grandmother,” says his father, Darius. “She loved (Darius and his brother) to death.”
At the age of 9, the freshman wide receiver’s grandmother passed away, leaving him to play out the rest of his football career without the presence of the woman he loved just as much as anyone in this world.
When Darius speaks, he is soft-spoken and thoughtful. He’s a man of few words, shyly responding with succinct and direct responses.
But when prompted with a question about his grandmother’s death, his face relaxes and the words flow more smoothly. His face looks like that of an 18-year-old who has thought much too deeply about the unfairness of life.
When he discusses the impact of her death on his life and football career, one can sense the depth of pain he’s experienced.
“She really liked football,” Darius says. “Her passing made me play harder. I wanted to make her proud on every play.”
Darius started playing football at 6 years old, a natural from the first time he took the field. Baseball and basketball were temporary distractions, but football was always in his heart.
Despite the tough-natured stereotype of most football players, Darius was always a sensitive kid. In fact, Darius used to cry underneath the protection of his facemask during games.
“He probably cried more than he celebrated,” his father says.
With the death of his grandmother, the tears started flowing off the field. Football ceased to matter. With his grandmother no longer there to watch him compete, he lacked the burning desire to carry on.
Before the death, Darius and his father would conduct strenuous off-season workouts. Darius Sr. sensed the athletic potential of his son, and together they worked toward the goal of molding young Darius into a football player worthy of attracting college scholarships someday.
Everything changed with the passing of Darius Sr.’s mother. Neither son nor father could find the motivation to continue. Darius Jr.’s promising football career skidded to a sudden halt.
Of course, the death affected more than just football preparation. His family discontinued its typical activities. At Thanksgiving dinner, the table was emptier than usual.
But Darius knew he couldn’t spend the rest of his life feeling sorry for himself.
In school, his best friends would rehash memories of their games from past weekends. Darius couldn’t help but miss the game he knew he loved.
And so, after a year of contemplation, Darius returned to the football field, stronger than he could ever realize.
The natural talent remained as he picked up Pop Warner once more and continued on to high school. As he shot up in height, the coaches switched him from running back to wide receiver.
But once again, Darius faced a roadblock. His middle school didn’t have the same connection to high school teams as others around his Long Beach, Calif., home.
Other middle schoolers would join his high school team with a reputation and expectation for success. Darius would have to establish his own reputation through hard work and determination.
During those first few months, benched on the varsity squad, he channelled the memory of his grandmother sitting on the sidelines during those youth football games to keep his focus sharp.
Darius was finally offered his chance to shine during his sophomore year with the graduation of the seniors ahead of him.
He seized it.
He quickly established himself as one of the premier deep threats in the competitive arena of Los Angeles-area high school football. He caught six touchdown passes as one of the youngest starters on the team.
A breakout junior year brought the attention of Division I programs. Darius led his team in reception yards and touchdowns; his signature performance came in November when he compiled 160 yards and two touchdowns.
Heem team , all go on Saturday!!
— Darius powe wow (@HeemAtCal) August 30, 2012
Two years later, Darius found himself in position to accept an offer from Cal. The academics played a big part, but Cal won him over the best way they knew how — by treating him like family.
Nothing in the world would’ve made his grandmother happier.
Darius took just a few snaps against Nevada this past Saturday, finishing with no targets or catches. He currently sits fourth on the depth chart behind Keenan Allen and fellow freshman wideouts Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper.
“In college, I’m not playing like a star yet,” Darius said. “I’m just trying to catch on and learn as much as I can from Keenan. I’m not starting like Bryce or Chris, but I’m working hard to get there every day.”
Just as in high school, Darius faces the challenge of establishing himself as worthy of playing time and a starting position. But Grandma Mary is in his heart, pushing him every day to be the best he can be.
Battling adversity is nothing new for Darius Powe. Now, he faces the greatest athletic challenge of his life thus far.
But as a soldier who has faced the atrocities of war, the hard part is already over. Everything else is a lesser fight.
Michael Rosen covers football. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org