FORT LAUDERDALE — In his entire life, Ty Darlington earned one B. Yeah, of course he’s still embarrassed.
“I blew it,” he says. “Absolutely blew it.”.
Never mind that by any measure Darlington’s college career — on the field, off the field and everywhere between — has been extraordinary. Oklahoma’s senior center has emerged as a leader for No. 4 Oklahoma, which plays No. 1 Clemson on Thursday in the College Football Playoff Orange Bowl semifinal. The two-year starter anchored an offensive line that solidified in the second half of the season, providing push for the Sooners’ run to the postseason.
But when Darlington says, “I’ve had an incredible college experience,” football is only a piece.
Earlier this month, he was named the winner of the Campbell Trophy, known as the “academic Heisman” and presented by the National Football Foundation to recognize the best combination of on-field performance, academic achievement and off-field service among college football players. That came shortly after he’d won the Wuerffel Trophy, a similar award.
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Darlington is a two-time Academic All-American. He’s one of 15 voting student athletes in the Power Five conference’s NCAA autonomy legislative process. He’s president of the Big 12’s student-athletic advisory committee, as well as Oklahoma’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
There were mission trips to Haiti, relief work after a tornado struck the nearby city of Moore, Okla., In 2013, and regular visits to Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center – all of which, Darlington says, were life-changing events that opened his eyes to a bigger picture.
In the aftermath of a disappointing finish to the 2014 season, Darlington was determined to try to change the trajectory of the football program. He is a little sheepish about the whole thing now. But for a long time last winter, the home screen on his cell phone was a photo of a Clemson defender lying atop Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight. Darlington’s passcode was 40-6 — the score of last season’s Russell Athletic Bowl, with Oklahoma on the wrong end.
Along with six teammates, he presented a proposal for a leadership council to coach Bob Stoops last winter, with the goal of holding the Sooners to higher standards through peer pressure. The role became especially important last spring, when a racist video involving members of the SAE fraternity chapter at Oklahoma went viral and the football team presented a united front in its response.
On the field, he has “bridged the gap,” according to offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, for an offensive line that was young and learning a new system. In the second half of the season, the Sooners’ offense surged as the line solidified.
“He’s been an incredible leader, an example of what you want in a student athlete,” Stoops says. “The absolute example. He’s led with the way he works and what he says and the way he communicates, listens to others.”.
Teammates refer to him as “The Honorable Ty Darlington,” or sometimes “the Senator,” but don’t worry. Although he’s pursuing a master’s degree in intercollegiate athletics administration, he’s not sure what vocation he’ll eventually choose. But he has ruled out one thing.
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“No politics,” he says. “I learned that from SAE.”.
Coaching, like his father Rick Darlington, the head coach at Apopka (Fla.) High School? Maybe. An athletic director? Perhaps. Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, who says Darlington can achieve “just about anything he sets his mind to accomplish,” was especially impressed by Darlington’s preparation and then vocal participation on several issues during the NCAA Convention last January. As one of the 15 voting students, he spoke up with his concerns about proposals on concussion safety protocols, guaranteed scholarships and time demands on student athletes. His motion to refer the concussion safety proposal for further study was defeated, but not before he’d made a serious case that the safety measures didn’t go far enough.
“He was a very active speaker and a very effective advocate,” Castiglione says. “The way he presented his point of view changed people’s minds about certain issues.”.
It’s been a pretty nice ride. But there was that one blemish. The class was the last one of Darlington’s undergraduate career. Last December, as he finished up a degree in multidisciplinary studies, he took principles of strength and conditioning.
“It’s the absolute last class I should have made a B in,” he says — and he is getting worked up now. “I had an A. I should have coasted to an A. And then I absolutely just blew the final.”.
Yes, he studied. There were extenuating circumstances involving a late-night excursion to grab a bite with former teammates, though details were scant. But whatever the reason, the result was tough to take.
“I needed a 73 (on the final),” Darlington says. “I got a 72. That was it.”.
But just maybe, he says, it was a good thing. For as long as he can remember, Darlington has not accepted anything less than perfection. His mother, Shelly Darlington, homeschooled him until the fourth grade. Instead of giving grades, the goal was “mastery.”.
“He just expected to do it right all the time,” she says.
That trait drove Ty, the oldest of seven kids, through athletics, as well. Ty Darlington says he recognized early that he might not have as much talent as other players.
TCU among the schools that snubbed me, Baker Mayfield says.
“I think I knew even then … If I wanted to make it, I was gonna have to work way harder than everybody else,” he says.
That included early morning workouts with his father’s football teams when he was a grade-schooler. Extra pushups in the garage. Countless drills on the driveway. Polishing pass-blocking skills on trees in the yard.
“I was a crazy little kid,” he says, and you might not find this hard to believe, but that goes for games, too. Wearing face paint and barking signals for Oklahoma’s line, he doesn’t much resemble a statesman.
“He’s not the scholar out there on the field,” Riley says. “He’s got a great intensity about him and a great focus, and it’s a good mix of that that carries over to our other guys.”.
As a freshman in high school, Darlington told his counselor he wanted to be valedictorian – “because I wanted to win,” he says. And then he did. He was on a similar academic path at Oklahoma until that final class. But looking back, the B might have been an important development.
“Honestly, it was sort of a humbling experience for me,” Darlington says. “To an extent I think I had sort of found my identity in that lifetime 4.0. I thought the world would end if I didn’t have it. Being achievement-oriented is great until you start to find your identity in your achievements. Then it’s a pride thing. Then you get cut down pretty fast.”.
As he focuses on the bigger picture, he hasn’t found much reason for regret.
“I maximized my college experience,” he says. “If I take pride in anything, it will be in having tried to take advantage of every opportunity.”.
Well, almost. At a luncheon in earlier this month in New York, he was shown a mock-up of a ring he’ll receive as the Campbell Trophy winner. Darlington showed it to his mother, and he couldn’t help it, he was slightly upset. Along with other accomplishments, it listed his cumulative college GPA: 3.91.
Darlington told her, “I’m gonna live with that my whole life.”.
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