Keep the Family Close: Darius Allensworth stays loyal to his community

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

About 15 years ago, in a youth recreational basketball game in San Diego, a particularly large 9-year-old boy was dominating and bullying his opposition. Although most of the other kids were about the same age, he was clearly the biggest kid in the league and was doing anything he wanted on the court.

The other team’s coach had no answer. He scanned through his group of players and saw 6-year-old Darius Allensworth. He approached his assistant coach James Allensworth, Darius’ dad, with a possible solution for the 9-year-old who looked more like he was 11.

“It was a close game and (the coach) came and said, ‘You think Darius can guard that big guy?’ and I was like, ‘I think he can,’ ” James says. “So before we put him in the game, I gave him a little pep talk. I said, ‘Listen, Darius. Do not let this kid score. No matter what happens, do not let this kid score.’ ”

For the next 10 minutes, Darius completely shut the big 9-year-old down. Despite the noticeable size disadvantage, he played him physically, and did not give him any space to work with. His coaches’ plan clearly worked, as Darius frustrated his opponent to the point where he got pushed down.

“I’m just wishing and hoping and praying that he stays well, that he has a great season and he just continues to improve. And if those things happen, then maybe some dreams can come true.”

—  John Lovett, Cal defensive backs coach

With about 30 seconds left in the game, James looked down the court and saw his son on the ground crying. Confused, James ran down and asked his son what was wrong.

“He looked up at me with tears in his eyes. He’s crying uncontrollably and he said, ‘He scored!’ And we all laughed,” James says. “And then I thought to myself, ‘This kid might have a chance,’ because he was so competitive.”

Throughout Darius’ life, he has kept that same competitive mentality. Darius began playing football when he turned 9 years old. In high school, he played multiple positions on the field, including receiver, defensive back and kick returner. He became the first player at his high school to earn a football scholarship to a Division I college. And since coming to Cal in 2013, he has seen the highs and lows of the program for the past four years.

Now, in 2016, Darius is one of the Bears’ captains. Cal may not be viewed as a favorite against many of its upcoming opponents this year, but Darius is ready to do everything he can to make the most of his time remaining at Cal, as well as make his family and home community of Menifee, California, and Heritage High School proud.

The early years of college weren’t easy for Darius or Cal football. Coming off an ACL injury suffered during his senior year of high school, Darius redshirted the 2013 year, when Cal finished 1-11. After the disappointing 2013 season, Darius remembers how the coaching staff did not allow players to wear any clothing with a Cal logo in the weight room.

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

“We had to wear gray shirts. Gray sweatshirts. Black socks. Black shoes. We weren’t worthy enough to wear the Cal logo,” Darius says. “We weren’t playing hard enough. Ultimately, I feel it helped us. It impacted us.”

Then, in the spring of 2014, teammate Ted Agu died.

“It was a rough patch,” Darius says. “To be honest, I’d thought about not even playing football anymore. That’s how rough of a patch it was. But we stuck through it.”

The next season, the Bears went 5-7 and finished just one game short of bowl eligibility. For many on the team who wanted to send their seniors off with a bowl game, this was another failed season.

“(It was) not what we wanted. So we went home, regathered, regrouped,” Darius says. “I mean, those guys, it was their last season, so they were kind of like, ‘Aye, let’s go out there and do something special.’”

And that’s what Cal did in 2015. Winning seven games in the regular season, the Bears finally went to a bowl game and took home the Armed Forces Bowl. Now, many of the seniors who graduated last year have found a spot in the pros.

Darius and the handful of players in the senior and redshirt junior class are the last remaining players on roster who started their college careers during head coach Sonny Dykes’ first year. They have seen the ups and downs of their program in the past three years. In a way, Darius and these players represent the end of an era — Dykes’ first freshman class.

There likely won’t be many more players left from that first class after this season. Eras in college never last long. So for Darius and the teammates in his class, 2016 is their turn to try to finish their college career strongly and make a mark in the history books.

Making history is something Darius already did at his old high school, Heritage High School in Riverside County, California. Even more than three years after he graduated, it’s not uncommon to see Darius proudly wearing and representing Heritage High School apparel. While he goes to school in Northern California, he still constantly checks for updates on how the Heritage football team is doing.

“I love that school,” Darius says. “I will always go back no matter what, till I’m 30. Till I’m 50. I’ll always go back to support Heritage High football games.”

When he has the chance to go back home, he can be seen at games wearing his letterman and passing out gloves and Cal gear to kids.

“Even his redshirt freshman year, he would talk so much about Heritage, you would think he still went there,” James says. “And I was trying to tell him, ‘Hey, you’re not in Heritage anymore.’ He has so much pride in that school.”

“I love that school. I will always go back no matter what, till I’m 30. Till I’m 50. I’ll always go back to support Heritage High football games.”

— Darius Allensworth

Darius’ high school career didn’t start at Heritage, however. In his freshman year, he lived with his dad in Corona, California, and went to Centennial High School. With notable alumni such as Vontaze Burfict and Will Sutton, Centennial is a powerhouse that provides its players lots of attention and opportunities to play for college scouts.

Darius quickly stood out in the program and became a star player on varsity in his first year. But he had other plans.

“He called me one day and he said, ‘You know what, I was thinking about Heritage,’ ” says Sonja Duke, Darius’ mother. “He said, ‘I would rather go to a school right now that isn’t established to help build that organization up. They’re great athletes and no one gets to see them, because nobody knows the school is there, so I would love to be able to go there to help to build that institution up so scouts and all those things can start coming out to see that school as well.’ ”

Darius moved back with his mom in Menifee and transferred to Heritage for his sophomore year. When he transferred, Heritage High School’s 11-man football program had recently started up. Its inaugural season was 2008.

Football at Heritage was new. So Darius and his teammates became the group that would start a culture and tradition to build and transform Heritage into a strong football school.

“He said, ‘Listen, everyone kind of thinks that if I’m at Centennial, I would get a scholarship. But no one believes if I go to Heritage, I would get a scholarship, and I want to prove them wrong,’ ” Sonja recalls her son saying on why he chose to make the transition from Centennial to Heritage.

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Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

Darius is the first player in the history of Heritage High School to earn a Division I scholarship to play football. Darius’ close friend and teammate Donovan Adams was the first player to go to college to play football in Division II Fort Lewis in 2011.

He died in a car accident in the summer of 2012. Darius wears the number two in honor of Adams.

“It was hard for the whole city,” he says. “They canceled school. It was a big thing.”

Darius caught his first football when he was 3 months old. It was a crocheted football his grandmother made for him. Even as a baby, he was already showing hands and awareness.

“I would toss the ball to him and he would literally catch it. That was crazy to me,” Sonja says. “I knew the day he was born that he was something special. Because he was a brand new baby, and something brand new babies don’t do is look up and look around and check out the room. I knew that God had gifted me with an amazing son.”

And throughout his life, her son has stayed on course and committed to his goals. When he was 5 years old, he told his mom he was going to do three things: First, he would go to college. Second, he was going to have a full-ride scholarship.

Check. Check.

The third thing he told her: He was going to play in the NFL.

“I think that God has even more amazing things for him in his life, so I am very proud to be his mom.”

— Sonja Duke

“I’m only 21. (There’s) so many options open after football,” Darius says as he knocks on wood. “Football has allowed me to think about this a little longer. But everything’s going to work out, and I’m just glad.”

Darius, along with his teammates and coaches, considers his awareness to be his greatest strength. While he’s certainly capable of making the big play, many of the positives Darius has on the field won’t show up on the stat sheet.

But the little things, such as containing the outside and preventing a runner from cutting the corner and using his safety help to limit the passing window for receivers he guards, are what make him valued by his team.

“I’m just wishing and hoping and praying that he stays well, that he has a great season and he just continues to improve,” says defensive backs coach John Lovett. “And if those things happen, then maybe some dreams can come true.”

It’s been about 15 years since Darius shut down his older opponent in his San Diego rec league and cried after giving up just one basket. Since then, his mindset has not changed.

Along the way, he has not forgotten his motivations and the people who have left an impact on him.

“When he was little, there was a song I used to sing to him, and the words were, ‘Darius. You’re my pride. You’re my joy. You’re my beautiful baby boy,’ ” Sonja says. “Now I say, ‘Darius. You’re my pride. You’re my joy.’ But he’s my beautiful young man who has truly walked through life for these 21 years, and he’s pretty much stayed on course. And I think that God has even more amazing things for him in his life, so I am very proud to be his mom.”

While there may be challenges heading toward Darius and the Bears this season, Darius has already overcome them and won. And his goal is to keep elevating himself and the family and community that raised him.

“My parents enjoy watching me play. It’s a joy to them,” he says. “So (I’m) doing it for my parents. Do it for my friend Donovan that passed. And just doing it for my high school and my city and show that if you put your mind into it, you can get through, get out and do what you want to do.”

Ritchie Lee covers football. Contact Ritchie Lee at [email protected].