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The story behind one Nebraska football player's call to serve

From ESPN - February 15, 2018

LINCOLN, Neb. -- His late grandfather's United States Marine Corps ring hangs from the mirror of Zack Darlington's F-150 XLT SuperCrew, alongside the dog tags left over from high school football, adorned with a call to exhibit honor, excellence and effort.

No more appropriate representation of Darlington could exist.

When the Nebraska quarterback-turned-receiver and placeholder announced Jan. 30 that he would forgo his final season of eligibility to join the U.S. Army, his 189-word post on social media told only afraction of the story.

I'd like to say thank you for everything, I will always be a Husker! #GBR4EVER pic.twitter.com/0GiruLF7Sw

Zeus (@DarlingtonZack) January 30, 2018

Darlington endured a litany of injuries that predate his stardom at Apopka High School outside of Orlando, Florida. Once he was healthy, he experienced great victories that culminated in a state championship five years ago, but disappointment at Nebraska, failure and grief followed. Then came the renewal and new passions.

All of it shaped him into a 22-year-old with a clear vision to serve in the U.S. Army Special Forces and build a life in rural Nebraska. He said he planned to reach his goals with teamwork, toughness, leadership and selflessness -- virtues that have been carved into his being and are evident from merely a brief encounter with the second oldest of Rick and Shelly Darlington's seven children.

"I could never be more proud to be his brother," said Jackson Darlington, a sophomore football standout at Apopka High. "Just the thought that he's willing to sacrifice his life, everything that he does to protect us that brings me so much pride. I just feel like he's meant for this.

"He cares a lot more about other people than he does himself."

MANY YEARS AGO, Ty Darlington thought his brother Zack was soft. A lineman en route to All-Big 12 honors as a center at Oklahoma -- where he now serves as a quality-control assistant coach -- Ty is two years older than Zack, who played quarterback.

The Darlingtons lived on a lake near Umatilla, Florida, 25 miles north of Apopka. Rick and Shelly, both educators, homeschooled their children until eighth grade, and the kids spent nearly all of their free time outside.

If Ty tackled Zack, the younger brother often ran inside and complained to their mother. Ty's perception on the matter changed about eight years ago.

In an important youth football game, one swift kick to the face from a defender knocked the top, front teeth from Zack's mouth. The bloody QB climbed to his feet and tossed his teeth to the sideline. They sat in a cup of milk for the remainder of the game as Zack led his team to a score, then clinched victory with a series of sacks as a defensive end.

"That was the first time I ever thought, 'Wow, this kid has something special in him,' " Ty said

Fake front teeth and all, Zack's toughness persisted. As a sophomore, first-year starter for Rick Darlington, the Apopka coach, Zack suffered a torn labrum in his non-throwing arm. His shoulder popped from its socket several times in a single game, but he continued to play, biting down hard on a towel to suppress his desire to scream when medical staff intervened.

The next year, he fractured the wrist of his throwing arm with several games left in the season but played while wearing a splint and led Apopka to an 8A state championship with a 53-50 win at the Florida Citrus Bowl.

And then there was the time, driving home from practice in Ty's senior year, that the brothers saw an elderly man struggling in a lake after his boat capsized. Before Ty parked the car, Zack had dived from the dock. He flipped the boat and pulled the man to safety.

"That's just normal instinct for him," Ty said. "He's an incredible leader, especially in tough moments. He loved football not because of the X's and O's; he loved football because of the toughness, the leadership opportunities, the brotherhood. Those are all things that the military has to offer.

"When you look at it like that, it's not any wonder this is what he has chosen."

BEFORE PLANS FOR THE MILITARY, there was Nebraska. Darlington enrolled in the spring 2014 and immediately met Sam Foltz, a walk-on punter who took the young QB under his wing.

"He could kick the ball," Darlington said last week, "but that dude was so much more than a punter."

Darlington rose to prominence under new coach Mike Riley with a strong showing in the 2015 spring game, but he remained buried on the QB depth chart and did not appear in a game that fall.

Still, Darlington prided himself as a jack of all trades and remembered a coin presented to him by Apopka assistant coach Emilio Vitulli, a former Navy SEAL, after the 2011 game in which Darlington's shoulder repeatedly popped free.

The coin pictured a Jack and represented team over self. Darlington treasured it. And when he left for college in 2014, he gave the coin to his brother Jackson, promising to carry the same traits to Nebraska.

"In high school, I got to be the star," Darlington said, "so I did not have to worry about giving up any dreams for the team to succeed. But when I got to college and this disappointment happened, it was a moment of character and test -- 'You say you are about this. Are you really?'

"So that was my thing: 'Whatever it is, I will do it.' "

He threw himself into weightlifting, often working out twice a day. It earned him the respect of teammates beyond his close friends, who included roommate and place-kicker Drew Brown. Darlington ascended to a leadership position. He carried the American flag from the tunnel before every game in 2015.

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