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Members of Devaughn Darling's family still struggle with his death, particularly the way in which it happened at Florida State and the emptiness it has left in their lives.

By BRIAN LANDMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 10, 2002

SUGAR LAND, Texas -- Devaughn Darling knew how his mother felt about tattoos.

SUGAR LAND, Texas -- Devaughn Darling knew how his mother felt about tattoos.

"It's permanent and I don't think God wants you to mark up your body like that," Wendy Smith lectured.

But the youngest of her five children had to have one. He had talked about it for years and long ago had decided what he would have etched forever on his left forearm:

A cross and, arcing above it, the phrase, "The Blessed One."

Darling always considered himself fortunate, beginning with his surprise birth. His mother was unaware she was having twins until after the first son, Devard, was born and the nurse excitedly beckoned the doctor back into the delivery room.

He had a loving family and excelled academically and athletically, so much so that he and Devard earned scholarships to play football at Florida State.

Darling wanted to show his appreciation for his wonderful life. So, despite his mother's consternation, he traipsed off to a local tattoo parlor on his 18th birthday.

"When Devaughn got the tattoo, he called me and said, "Mom, I got a tattoo, but it's a spiritual one,' " his mother said. "That's so I would feel better and he would feel better, too."

No matter how she viewed it before, it's an image she aches to see again on her son.

But can't.

Devaughn Darling collapsed and died after a strenuous offseason workout at Florida State on Feb. 26. He was 18.

"I'm so sorry and I still regret," said Smith, 48, the tears streaming down her cheeks, "we should have taken a picture when he was lying there because he was so peaceful and just so beautiful with that cross and him calling himself, "The Blessed One.' "

For nearly a year, Smith and her family have tried to cope with the void and have tried to understand why Devaughn died.

Reminders fill the family's home in this stylish subdivision south of downtown Houston. A few feet from the front door, the wall beneath the staircase is lined with photographs, awards and track medals Devaughn and Devard won in high school. On the floor sits a football from the 2001 Orange Bowl, the highlight of the twins' freshman season at FSU.

Then there's the silver plaque that rested on Darling's coffin during the funeral ceremony, which includes his jersey number, 53, and the inscription, "Florida State University." The shrine's centerpiece, perched on a pedestal adjacent to the stairs, is Darling's FSU helmet.

"It's a bittersweet thing (to have out)," said Monique Smith, 33, Darling's oldest sister. "There's bad attached to it, but there's still good attached to it. You don't see Florida State. You see Devaughn. We like to say we can still smell him in it."

She and her family still yearn for sensory stimuli. It's why they saved pieces of his hair and why Wendy Smith has her son's FSU jerseys hanging in her closet. All are things they can touch and, for an instant, allow them to re-establish contact.

But Devard, 19, said he doesn't need anything to detect his twin's presence.

"I'm always thinking about him, 24-7," he said. "Every minute, Devaughn is on my brain. That's how I cope, knowing he's always there with me."

Growing up, no one would see him without his twin. Devard was the bright, quiet one. Devaughn, equally as bright, was so loquacious that Monique figured he might one day be an attorney.

They rarely argued or got out of line and, despite being the youngest, they often assumed a role as referees during family troubles such as those arising from a strained relationship with their father, Dennis Darling. He and Smith have been divorced for a decade and he still lives in the Bahamas, where the family once called home and where the twins were born.

"I always felt a sense of peace around them," their mother said, calling her twins "the center of this family."

During the college recruiting process, Devaughn, a promising linebacker with speed and size, made certain coaches realized he wouldn't go somewhere without Devard, a receiver.

"Devaughn didn't worry about himself," said Stacey Darling, 21, the twins' sister. "He worried about Devard and would ask, "Do you have a passing game?' "

That's why they eventually chose FSU ahead of Texas A&M. There, they would remain together.

Until Feb. 26.

"It was very, very painful when Devard came home for Thanksgiving and walked through the door," Monique said. "Yes, I was happy to see him, but it was very painful to see him alone. As much as I love Devard, sometimes it's hard to see him. Sometimes I prefer not to see him."

That way, when she calls, she can pretend for a moment that Devaughn is there with him and simply can't come to the phone. The moment never lasts long.

"It's so final, so final," Wendy Smith said, gripping Devard's slumped shoulders. "There's nowhere you can go in your life to see that person again or hear that voice again. It's so unbelievable the feeling you get down in your gut, that you feel like you have to cut it out or you won't breathe again."

Smith has relied on her Christian beliefs, not only for strength to climb out of an emotional "pit," but for the belief that her son's death is part of a divine plan to compel FSU to change its offseason workout program.

"Even though they try to stay away from the effect it may be having, something is going to happen," she said.

Along with Devaughn's estranged father, the family intends to sue FSU for wrongful death, alleging that coaches and trainers ignored warning signs and deprived Darling of water. The state's six-month window to investigate a possible claim before a lawsuit can be filed expires Feb. 14.

"This isn't about money," said Frank Rutherford, 37, a cousin and father figure to the twins, who lived with him when they emigrated to the United States eight years ago. "It has to do with how Devaughn lost his life, the way that these people proceeded to squeeze Devard out, the arrogance of that program and the safety of other kids to come to that university. We don't want any other family to feel what we feel."

Darling's autopsy revealed no definite morphological cause of death, but Dr. David E. Craig noted that Darling carried the rare sickle cell trait, the presence of one abnormal hemoglobin gene.

Though the NCAA and many in the medical community call the trait a "benign condition" that shouldn't restrict or limit the student-athlete, an increasing amount of research links the trait to sudden, unexpected death.

As an identical twin, Devard also has the trait.

FSU subsequently would not clear Devard to play, offering instead to let him remain at school on a full scholarship, help out with the football team and earn his degree. The family was shocked and angered.

"I wanted to stay at Florida State; that's where we wanted to play, that was our dream," Devard said. "But I feel like they turned their back on me. I knew nothing was wrong with me or Devaughn from the beginning and there wasn't anything they could say or do to make me feel that way."

He had to go on for himself.

He had to go on for his brother.

And his family offered him its unflinching support. The Darlings said Devard passed stress tests and EKGs. After conferring with researchers and physicians, they came to believe the trait wouldn't have been an issue had FSU coaches and trainers taken proper precautions, namely ensuring Devaughn stayed hydrated.

A police investigation, however, exonerated FSU of wrongdoing and Craig, the medical examiner in Tallahassee, previously told the Times he found no postmortem signs of dehydration and did not think that was a factor.

FSU coach Bobby Bowden, reluctant to talk about the situation given the pending litigation, said he didn't want Devard to leave.

"I tried to make decisions on him like I would my own sons," he said.

Once Devard realized he would have to transfer, Wendy Smith said FSU's stay-but-no-play stance resulted in a scarlet letter for him. Texas A&M wouldn't touch him. A day after Tennessee promised to fax a scholarship letter, it reconsidered, the family said. That left Devard in tears. Later, Purdue and USC wanted him to have more tests.

"If we were to live our lives in fear that he was going to die on the football field, that's enslaving him," Monique said. "It came down to if someone was willing to take a risk."

Washington State decided to do that in early September. Yet, Darling found himself waiting on the sideline as WSU officials sought additional medical opinions that supported their own doctor's view that he safely could resume his career.

"I was far away from home, I had just lost the person I love the most in this world and then I can't do the thing I love doing the most in this world; that's playing football," Darling said. "I felt like my life was on pause."

The Cougars eventually cleared him to practice on Nov. 1. He sat out the year as a redshirt and will have three years of eligibility remaining.

"It's unbelievable the constitution this kid has, the character this kid has, to handle it," said Washington State coach Mike Price, who expects Darling to be a major contributor in 2002. "I don't know how all that would have affected me."

Immediately after Darling's death, FSU coaches and administrators tried to do all they could, within NCAA rules, for the family. Wendy Smith, so distraught after hearing the news, failed to pack an appropriate dress and shoes for a memorial service that would be held on campus on March 1.

The school provided those essentials.

The athletic department set up a Web page for fans to send the Darlings their condolences. It's a site the family visits regularly. FSU established an endowed scholarship in Devaughn Darling's memory. Charlie Barnes, the executive director of Seminoles Booster, said the necessary $50,000 was raised almost immediately.

Florida State also had all its athletes wear a patch with Darling's number, 53, on their jerseys. It placed a picture of Darling along with a helmet and jersey in a case in the Moore Athletic Center's foyer. The 2001 football media guide is dedicated to Darling's memory. And at FSU's recent postseason banquet, the video recap of the year began with a tribute to Darling.

The family appreciates all of those gestures but has grown more and more incensed by a lack of calls or letters from athletic department administrators and coaches, particularly Bowden. Wendy Smith concedes the specter of a lawsuit might curtail some contact, but she can't understand why Bowden couldn't have sent a Christmas card.

"He came into my living room and sat down and gave me this impression that he's this father figure, he has six kids himself, that he spends time with his children and his grandchildren and he prayed with the athletes," she said. "He gave me that confidence and I felt confident in releasing my sons in his care because of the picture he painted of himself. Now I know that Christian heart is not what he said it is because I know if it was, he would have picked up the phone sometime and say, "Ms. Smith. How are you coping? How are you feeling?' "

Although Bowden concedes he lost contact with the family after Devard transferred, he said they should know his heart still goes out to them.

"We're all sad and will be sad about it for a long time," he said.

When Devard returned to Tallahassee in October and was on the sideline, he and Bowden didn't talk. But then Devard didn't go to the Maryland game to chat with him.

He went to see his former teammates.

"I love them; they're my boys," he said, holding out his cellular phone in which he has programed the numbers for many of them. "I tried to watch every game. But it's hard knowing that we should be there with them, that Devaughn should be there making that tackle, that. ... "

Dennis Jr., 26, is the lone other sibling who watches FSU games. He sat in the stands that day ... and vociferously rooted for the Terrapins. At one point, he said an FSU fan asked him to move.

"I said, "It's way past a football game. You'll never know,' " he said bitterly.

A couple of times a week, members of the family make the 20-minute drive to a fenced-in oasis tucked in the midst of urban sprawl, the Forest Park Cemetery and Funeral Home.

It's surreal for them to be there, but it's sobering. So, too, is the vacant plot immediately to the left.

That's reserved for Devard.

On a sunny afternoon in mid January, the vase at Darling's grave site is brimming with a colorful fresh arrangement. Usually, it's filled with silk flowers dyed garnet and gold. Engraved on the bronze marker, which cost the family $800, is a football, a football helmet, the number 53 and, of course, Darling's slogan:

"The Blessed One."

A few months ago, Devard went out and had that, along with a cross, tattooed on his left forearm. It's the only one he plans to have. Dennis will get Devaughn's likeness tattooed on right arm on Feb. 26. Even Monique intends to get a tattoo on that date.

"He always wanted me to get one," Devard said "I also put his number and RIP."

Members of Devaughn Darling's family still struggle with his death, particularly the way in which it happened at Florida State and the emptiness it has left in their lives.

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