SB Nation

Michael Kruse | August 26, 2014

The Right Thing To Do vs. The State of Florida

Thirteen years after Devaughn Darling’s death at FSU, a family still waits

The Tallahassee medical examiner unzipped the body bag. Here was an 18-year-old, muscular, black male. Here was an 18-year-old, muscular, black male with white sneakers and gray boxers and gold Florida State shorts. Here was an 18-year-old, muscular, black male with white sneakers and gray boxers and gold Florida State shorts and a tube up his nose and a tube down his throat and IV needles in his arm and his neck and automated external defibrillator pads still stuck to his chest. Here, cinched to his left wrist, was an emergency room bracelet. Here, on his left upper arm, was his only tattoo, a cross and three words: THE BLESSED ONE.

He died after a winter offseason workout in a hot second-floor gym on the Florida State campus.

Here was Devaughn Darling.

He died after a winter offseason workout in a hot second-floor gym on the Florida State campus. The school said it didn't do anything wrong. The family said the school didn't do everything right. They settled before a trial for a payout of $2 million. The school paid the family $200,000. Florida law said the remaining $1.8 million would have to come straight from the state. The family is still waiting.

Devaughn Darling died more than 13 years ago.

darlingDevaughn Darling makes a tackle during the 2000 season. (Courtesy FSU)

Houston. Last month. Into a restaurant called the Grand Lux Cafe for lunch walked a 32-year-old, muscular, black male in a black ball cap and a black T-shirt and a pair of khaki shorts.

darling Devard Darling, in 2007, with No. 53 tattooed on his arm. (Getty Images)

Here was Devaughn Darling's identical twin.

Here was Devard Darling.

Who came out first. Who came out with Devaughn's hand clutching his ankle, which on April 16, 1982, at Princess Margaret Hospital in Nassau in the Bahamas, shocked the doctor, because he'd only ever heard one heartbeat, so synced were the two in the womb. The twins, the youngest of five, who growing up didn't want to be in different classes, didn't want to wear different clothes. Who were never apart and who never wanted to be. The twins who watched the Miami Dolphins play on TV as boys and who moved to Texas before seventh grade, and who then wanted to play football, and to play it so well they could play it together in college, and to play it so well in college they could become the first identical twins ever to play in the NFL, so they could move back to the Bahamas and start a youth football program and a foundation to help kids who had dreams like they had dreams, and so their mother, who worked so much, wouldn't have to work anymore. Who sitting in their room in the Houston suburb called Sugar Land set goals to make all this happen, talking them out, writing them on posters, hanging the posters on their walls. The twins. Who were co-captains on the football team at Stephen F. Austin High School. Who had tears in their eyes when they signed their national letters of intent with Florida State. Who had played as freshmen on a Seminole team that lost to Oklahoma in the national title game in Miami. Who expected to play much more as sophomores, Devard in the rotation of wide receivers, Devaughn as a probable starter as a linebacker. The twins. Who shared a room in the football dorm in Tallahassee called Burt Reynolds Hall.

Now Devard slid slump-shouldered into a booth at the restaurant. He had had a bad night, he said, a rough morning. He had come from the hospital, where his sister's baby, a little girl, had died, he said, only 3 months old, of a rare lung disease. He had watched the doctors shut off the machines that were the only thing keeping his niece alive, the monitor showing her heart slowing, slowing. Stopping.

"Like a little light going out," said Devard, a father of three sons, including a baby also only 3 months old. He tugged on the brim of his cap.

"My brother's buried in a Seminole uniform, No. 53, 6 feet deep. I didn't want to dress him up in a suit."

This, on a weekend when he had come from his home near Seattle to host a scholarship luncheon for the small foundation he runs to honor Devaughn, the As One Foundation.

About Florida State, he said, "My brother's buried in a Seminole uniform, No. 53, 6 feet deep, right here in Houston, Texas. I didn't want to dress him up in a suit. No. That uniform. We're all grown now, we understand there's business in everything, but when you come to the core, being a human being, reaching out to the family ..."

And the state of Florida, the money, the $1.8 million?

"I think about my mother," he said.

The next morning, the door opened at a home in nearby Richmond, and here was Wendy Hunter. A tall, proud, pious woman who made her twins big Friday high school gameday breakfasts, eggs and grits and sausage, and filled the fridge with pasta, "things that would give them fuel," all while working two different jobs as a home health care aide. Who drove to their games in Tallahassee, often paying the rent late because she needed the money for gas, there and back, there and back, there and back, on Interstate 10. Who wore her two pins that said MY SON IS, one with No. 83, the other with No. 53. Who keeps a picture in a frame in her entryway of Devaughn wearing that No. 53, and his helmet on a shelf in her den, where she files her papers, including the last letter she got from Florida State, last year, from the university president at the time, in which he wrote, "I hope this matter will come to closure for you sometime in the near future." Who still works her two jobs, 12, 14 hours a day, for 10 bucks an hour. Who had just gotten home from an overnight shift, after having spent the night before at the hospital, to hold her baby granddaughter and to say goodbye. Who after that had bought fresh flowers and had gone to Forest Park Westheimer Cemetery, to put them on the headstone of her son, and to tell him she knew he was going to make such a good uncle up there.

Now she sat in her living room.

"When do it stop, Lord?" she said.

darlingThe pins that Devaughn and Devard's mother wore to their games. (Courtesy the Darling family)

The day Devaughn Darling died started early. Coaches rapped with spoons on the doors in the dorm. It was Monday, Feb. 26, 2001, 5 a.m. — 45 minutes till "mats."  Mat drills weren't just drills for Florida State. Heading into 2001, the Seminoles had finished in the top four in the national rankings for 14 consecutive seasons, and Bobby Bowden, their jowly, cornpone coach many had taken to calling a legend, considered the mat drills the bedrock. Three segments, 21 minutes each, on padded mats — jumping and scrambling, running through ropes, ducking under plastic pipes ...

"You will pass out before you die. If you pass out, the trainers will take care of you." darlingDevaughn Darling as a freshman. (Courtesy FSU)

"The only thing he tells me how to do is the mat drills," Dave Van Halanger, the team's strength and conditioning coach, had said in The Ledger in Lakeland, Fla., a few months before. "He wants it to be 10 days of hell." For three weeks before the beginning of actual practice in the spring, this stringent conditioning and agility work, and fast, fast, fast — rolling, diving, crouching ... "Excruciating," Brian Allen, a linebacker, had said in Ohio's The Columbus Dispatch the previous month. Stations were set up with trash cans for vomit. Just a week and a half before, local sports talk radio host and former offensive lineman Eric Luallen had recalled something defensive coach Chuck Amato had said at mat drills back when he played: "Just remember, gentlemen, the body is a wonderful machine. You will pass out before you die. If you pass out, the trainers will take care of you."

For players, "mats" were a blur, something endured more than done. And by 7 a.m. they were almost over. Devaughn, 6'2, 220 pounds, had fallen to one knee to catch his breath, and he had grabbed at his aching ankle, and he had seen Devard between stations, their groups hustling past one another in a hall, coaches barking — Hurry, hurry, hurry! — next to no time for water, no time to stop, no time to speak, just enough time for the twins to touch hands. Devaughn had worried about throwing up and passing out, the way he had the Thursday before — Devaughn, the best linebacker prospect in Texas his senior year, with 143 tackles and 10 sacks, who also had never missed a day of school; Devaughn, who had set up his computer to play the Florida State fight song when he turned it on; Devaughn, who had put a note in his dorm by his bed, telling himself, reminding himself: "Integrity means keeping your word, giving your all and finishing what you start." Almost finished.

Now, in the Moore Athletics Center, in the second-floor gym, with a banner on the wall calling Florida State football a DYNASTY, coaches told Devaughn and the rest of the players in his group to get down on the ground, fronts to the mats, roll to the right, roll to the left, pop back up — Move your feet, move your feet, move your feet! — back down on the ground, fronts to the mats, roll to the right, roll to the left, over and over and over. And Devaughn was down on the ground and he couldn't stand back up. He told his teammates his chest hurt. He told his teammates he couldn't see. The coaches told him to do it again. He hadn't done it right. They told him to do it again with his group. He hadn't done it right. They told him to do it again on his own. He hadn't done it right. And his eyes were closed, and he was out there all alone, the last player to finish, his teammates cheering for him, clapping for him, pushing him, encouraging him, like they had done before, like they had done for him and for others.

"You got to go four quarters!" one of them yelled.

Finished, finally, and Devaughn staggered off the mats. He crumpled to his knees near a wall, against which he rested his head.

The top trainer hurried over.

No response.

Shallow breathing.

The trainer checked his pulse. He had a pulse.

"Let's move to the training room," the trainer said.

The trainer and another player carried Devaughn out of the gym — "There goes our only "F," as in failure, Devard heard one of the coaches say — and they carried him a little more than 200 feet, in 40 or so seconds, and they put him on his back on the first training table in the room. The trainer and his staff put an oxygen mask on his face and ice packs around his body. They checked his pulse. He had a pulse. The trainer watched Devaughn's eyes, which moved to the right and then back to the center, to the right and then back to the center a second time, to the right and then back to the center a third time, and then they rolled back in his head.

Devaughn Darling was dead, 3 hours and 37 minutes after the rap of the spoon on his door in the dorm.

"Call 911!" the trainer shouted.

The trainers did CPR — No pulse, no pulse, no pulse! — and the campus police who rushed into the room did CPR — No pulse, no pulse, no pulse! — and now the paramedics rushed into the room, and the ambulance raced down Champions Way, Devard riding in the front, screaming into the back — Breathe, Devaughn, breathe! — and screaming at the cars on the roads — Move, move, move!

At Tallahassee Memorial hospital, Devaughn Darling was dead, 3 hours and 37 minutes after the rap of the spoon on his door in the dorm.

The doctor stepped into the crowded waiting room. Devard didn't need to be told. He already knew.

Later that day, that Monday, to a television station in Houston, offensive lineman Bobby Meeks said, "He was complaining to the players, ‘It's like my chest is hurting.' And it was like, ‘I don't want to hear it,' or whatever. The trainers, Meeks said, "told him to get on the mat, and he went on and did it ..."

The next day, that Tuesday, in a statement released by Florida State, Meeks amended what he had said: "Some people may think I was blaming the FSU trainers in my interview, but I wasn't. Like I said, Devaughn didn't tell the coaches or the trainers that he had chest pain. They didn't know that. He got back in the drill and finished."

That morning was the autopsy. The unzipped body bag. The tattoo and the tubes and the gold Florida State shorts.

The day after that, that Wednesday, there was a team meeting, and Bowden, the legendary coach, was struck — surprised — by the depth of the players' grief, the extent of their apprehension about the drills, the level of their anger at the coaches for what some of them saw as their role in the death of a teammate.

"What I thought would be a five-minute meeting lasted probably an hour, hour and a half," Bowden told reporters. "After I came out of there, I had an extremely different feeling than when I went in there of how it has affected them. I could see real anguish, a lot of questions to be asked, and when I left them I could see why they would want to ask questions like they did." His initial thought had been to continue with the remaining scheduled sessions of mat drills. He instead had opted to cancel them.

"All of a sudden, somebody dies, and it throws it in an entirely different perspective," Bowden continued. "And that's the part I didn't quite grasp until I talked to the players, because now you think about how hard you work the boys, and it's been one of the secrets to our success here, and now you've lost a boy."

darlingFSU coach Bobby Bowden in 2001. (Getty Images)
Devaughn, he explained, "was the first player I've ever coached in 47 years who actually worked himself to death."

The day after that, that Thursday, a gray day in Tallahassee, was the memorial service on campus. In the Ruby Diamond Auditorium, Devard sat in the front row, next to his mother and the rest of the Darlings, and the team filled up the seven rows behind them. Some of the players wore gold No. 53 patches pinned to their shirts. Standing at a podium behind a 5 and a 3 made of garnet-colored mums and daisies spray-painted gold, Bowden talked.

"Listen to what I'm saying now, and I hope it doesn't hit anybody wrong," he said.

Devaughn, he explained, "was the first player I've ever coached in 47 years who actually worked himself to death. I will not quit, I will not quit, I will not give in — I will die before I quit. That's a great virtue."

To Devard, to Wendy, to the Darlings, he said he was sorry.

"I didn't recognize that he'll never complain and he'll never quit," he said.

Two days later, that Saturday, back in Houston, was the funeral. Some players made the trip, and so did some of the coaches, Bowden included. Devard wouldn't leave until he saw the gravedigger throw dirt on the top of the coffin of his identical twin.

Three days later, eight days after the death of Devaughn, the Florida State football team started spring practice. Bowden had considered delaying it. He decided against that. Practice, he told reporters, would "probably be the best medicine."

"I kind of told the guys it's time to move on and play ball," linebacker Bradley Jennings said.

"Everyone is going extra for him," linebacker Michael Boulware said.

"He's looking down on us," Odell Haggins, one of the coaches who had been in the second-floor gym with Devaughn, said.

"It's a step in healing," Jim Gladden, another one of the coaches who had been in the second-floor gym with Devaughn, said.

Three days after that, Sandy D'Alemberte, then Florida State's president, got a letter from Dennis Darling Sr., Devaughn's father in the Bahamas. The letter included: "... there are certain matters that I'm not satisfied with, as I have gotten conflicting reports from trainers and eyewitnesses as regards to what really happened ..."

Nine days after that, Devaughn's father got a letter back from Richard C. McFarlain, a Florida State attorney. The letter included:

"We share your concern that a thorough investigation of all the facts be done."

"We share your concern that a thorough investigation of all the facts be done."

A month after that, Florida State released its report and the public records about Devaughn's death. The conclusion was the school was not responsible. The autopsy showed a "sudden unexpected death" with "no definite" cause. The toxicology reading was "essentially negative." The cardiovascular exam was "essentially negative." The toxicologist found acetaminophen, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine — from the cold medicine he had taken the night before. The medical examiner mentioned, too, that Devaughn had sickle cell trait — he knew that, the school knew that — something found in eight to 10 percent of black people in this country. He pointed out that sickle cell trait can "lower the threshold for ventricular arrhythmias in patients exposed to exertional heat injury." Maybe this was the reason, and maybe it wasn't. Devaughn was alive, and then he was not.

The campus cops had talked to the players who had been with Devaughn. They had been put under oath and had sworn to tell the truth.

They said he was having trouble. Trouble finishing. They said the coaches told him to finish. They said the coaches told him to do it again and to do it right. They said he said his chest hurt. They said he said he couldn't see. That everything was black. They said he told them that — the players, his teammates — but not the trainers, not the coaches.

"He was just tired and wasn't doing the drill correctly. He had to keep going because of his mistakes," Travis Williams said.

"He did what any other athlete would have done. He finished the drill to the max of his ability," J.P. Snead said.

"He was having trouble getting up off of the mat," Eric Resta said.

"Couldn't hardly stand," Chance Gwaltney said.

"Kept falling on the ground," Matt Munyon said.

The campus cops had talked to the coaches who had been with Devaughn.

They had been put under oath and had sworn to tell the truth.

They were asked if Devaughn had had problems finishing the drill.

"Not out of the ordinary," Gladden said.

"Not out of the ordinary," Jimmy Heggins said.

"Not out of the ordinary," Jeff Bowden said.

Two more college football players died after offseason workouts that year. In July, at the University of Florida, Eraste Autin died from heatstroke. In August, at Northwestern University, Rashidi Wheeler died from asthma. A week later, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times arrived in Tallahassee to talk to Bowden about those deaths, and Devaughn's.

"I ain't God," Bowden said. "I can't control who lives and who doesn't."

"I ain't God," Bowden said. "I can't control who lives and who doesn't."

He kept talking.

"All I can do is try to prevent this from ever happening again," Bowden said. "In the past, we coached under Spartan conditions. We always felt we could out-physical and out-condition any other team. Now, all of a sudden, we are thinking in ways we never thought before. We don't want another kid to go down."

He kept talking.

"We are looking inward. We are looking at our program. How could this thing slip up on us?" Bowden said. "We are not doing anything different than we have done for the last 25 years. I don't know what it is, the weather, the fast food, the health of the players, the fact that they don't always come in prepared. If players come out unprepared, and start two-a-days in that hot sun, they can die out there."

He kept talking.

"So I used to write them a letter, telling them to start working out at the hottest time of the day, so when they came out here, they'd be okay. I don't know if I can write that anymore without being sued."

He kept talking.

"You slack up too much, you're going to let the other team win. And they'll have a new coach."

He kept talking.

"The players don't want to slack up. They want to be winners."

He kept talking.

"And you can make all the adjustments in the world and a player still might go down if he has some defect."

darlingChris Rix, FSU's starting QB in 2001, wears a No. 53 patch. (Getty Images)

That fall, the 2001 season, Florida State established an endowed scholarship in Devaughn's memory. All of Florida State's athletes wore a No. 53 patch on their jerseys. A No. 53 jersey was put in a case in the front of the Moore Athletics Center. The media guide was dedicated to Devaughn. And the Seminoles had their worst season in a decade and a half, finishing 8-4, ranked 15th in the country.

By February 2002, it was time for mat drills again, and the team had made some changes. Players were given two four-minute breaks during the drills instead of just the time it took to hustle from one station to the next. Now there weren't just trash cans set up at the stations. Now there were water coolers. The trainers bought five new automatic external defibrillators to be kept close. And outside, waiting, was an ambulance.

And by August 2002, time for practice prior to the second season at Florida State after the death of Devaughn, with Devard preparing for his first season at Washington State, where he had transferred, because the Seminoles wouldn't clear him to play, because he also had the sickle cell trait — in that month, the team had assigned, to a new, freshman linebacker, No. 53. Some of the players who still kept in touch with Devard took note, and told him, and were discouraged, and went to Bowden, and asked him, the coach who was called a legend, if he would consider not giving out that jersey, that number, at least until all the players who had known Devaughn, who had played with Devaughn, who had been with Devaughn in the second-floor gym, were gone. Bowden complied.

"Gee whiz," Bowden said to a reporter who asked about Devard, playing up at Washington State, because he wasn't allowed to stay and play at Florida State, "all I know is I wish him all the success in the world."

That October, Devaughn's parents sued Florida State.

The civil suit alleged insufficient breaks and not enough chances to get a drink. It alleged inadequate medical equipment. It alleged a slow emergency response. Mainly, though, the civil suit alleged that the coaches knew Devaughn was having trouble, obviously, visibly, and didn't let him stop, made him keep going.

Florida State's attorneys and the Darlings' attorneys, led by the flamboyant Willie Gary from Stuart, Fla., reached a settlement within two years, avoiding a trial in which Bowden and other coaches and so many players could have and almost certainly would have been made to testify.

The payout to Dennis Darling Sr. and Wendy Hunter — the money for the death of their son — was $2 million.

But not really.

The beginning of the reason for why that was the case, even back then, even in the summer of 2004, right from the get-go, was in the record, committed to paper, written in black on white, as clear as dense legalese can be: "... because the State's sovereign immunity bars any claim by Plaintiff against FSU in excess of $200,000, in total, pursuant to s. 768.28, Florida Statutes, the Parties also agree to support the passage of a Claims Bill by the Florida Legislature in the amount of $1,800,000.000, as specifically appropriated by the Legislature ..."

The rest of the money — most of the money — was not going to come from Florida State. It was going to come from the state of Florida.

No way around it. The rest of the money — most of the money — was not going to come from Florida State. It was going to come from the state of Florida — if it was going to come at all — and it was going to come only if the Legislature said so. If the right politician or politicians said yes. The law, by exact statute the aforementioned 768.28, is meant to prevent state entities — public universities, school districts, local governments — from going bankrupt due to any iniquities deemed to be particularly egregious and their legal consequences. The dispassionate assessment is that this makes fiscal sense. That doesn't mean it isn't awful for the parents of Devaughn Darling or anybody else like them.

So that was the most important piece of the settlement.

The next-most important piece of the settlement?

The following portions of text, worthy of numerous, vigorous red-pen underlines: 1. "This Agreement embodies the entire agreement between FSU and Plaintiffs ..." 2. "... no further legal actions against FSU may be pursued by them concerning the incident ..." 3. "... their only recourse to collecting the $1,800,000.00 is through a Claims Bill ..." 4. "FSU will not be obligated to lobby in support of the Claims Bill." 5. "... the payment made is not be construed as an admission of liability ..."

The settlement was a contract, binding, with one exception, explicitly identified — a fat paragraph squeezed into the middle of the document. Florida State, according to the careful wording, agreed to make "its best efforts" to put a memorial of some sort to Devaughn in an athletic building, and to send to the Darlings photos and videos of Devaughn playing, "to the extent that such items can be located," as well as replicas of the rings Devaughn got for being on a team that won a conference championship and played for a national championship, "to the extent that such can be replicated," and to have an endowed scholarship in his name. None of this was "obligatory." All of this was "voluntary."

Devaughn's father signed it. Devaughn's mother signed it. All the attorneys signed it. A judge signed it. Now, legally, it wasn't the fault of Florida State that Devaughn Darling was dead. And officially, for the school, all matters concerning his death — the "incident" — were over.

"To bring closure to the family," Andy Haggard, one of the attorneys representing the school, told a reporter from the Miami Herald, "this was the honorable and just thing to do."

All that was left was the claims bill.

"Claims bills can go either way," Haggard said. "I think this one will pass."

Claims bills hardly ever pass.

From 1955 to 1999, less than two in five had passed, according to Jacksonville's Florida Times-Union, and the success rate started to get worse from there. Since 2000, it's less than one in four.

The parents of Devaughn Darling didn't get their $1.8 million in 2005.

Or in 2006.

Or in 2007.

Or in 2008.

By this time, across town in Tallahassee from the Capitol, the Florida State football sheen had faded. The team in that first season after Devaughn's death had lost four games. The team in the second season after Devaughn's death had lost five — the worst performance since 1976. And the 2007 team hadn't played in the Orange Bowl or the Sugar Bowl or the Rose Bowl. It had played, and lost, in the Music City Bowl. Bowden, the legend, was two more mediocre seasons away from finally retiring. In the Orlando Sentinel in December 2007, Gladden, one of the coaches who had been in the second-floor gym with Devaughn, pointed to his death as one of the reasons for the Seminoles' diminishment. "Now all of a sudden," he said, "that little thing about blind trusting with blind faith is no longer there. Up until that point, our kids believed in anything we told them." In March 2008, though, reporters from the Tallahassee Democrat and the Tampa Tribune wrote stories about "mats."

"I think in the past here at Florida State, the mat drills have kind of been a rallying point for the team to where they feel like they can't be beaten ..." said Todd Stroud, a former nose guard who had returned to the team to be a strength and conditioning coach. "They have walked through the fire of hell ..."

Randy Spetman, the new athletic director, called the drills "a machine." He said they were "neat." "That's what it takes to win national championships," he said.

"It definitely pushes your body to the limit," quarterback Drew Weatherford said.

"You just tell yourself that your body can do more than you think it can," wide receiver Bert Reed said.

The parents of Devaughn Darling didn't get their $1.8 million in 2009.

Or in 2010.

Or in 2011.

Or in 2012.

Or in 2013.

The 2013 Florida State football team won the national championship. It was the Seminoles' first time in the national championship since the 2001 game in Miami when Devaughn and Devard Darling were on the team. The coach of the 2013 team, Jimbo Fisher, got a raise, from making $2.75 million a year to making $4.015 million a year. His assistant coaches got raises, too, from making a total of $2.86 million a year to making a total of $3.375 million a year.  Added up, Florida State's football coaches received a per-year raise of just about ... $1.8 million.

Florida's 2014 legislative session is already over. No claims bills passed.

The parents of Devaughn Darling didn't get their $1.8 million.

"I actually had a tragedy in my family, just yesterday," Devard Darling said, dressed in a gray suit with gray shoes, standing behind a small lectern in a small ballroom in a country club in Sugar Land. This was last month, outside Houston, a Saturday afternoon, at the scholarship luncheon for the As One Foundation, the small non-profit he runs to honor Devaughn, the name a reference to that shocked doctor in the Bahamas, because he'd only ever heard one heartbeat, so synced were the two in the womb. Now this. "My sister lost her little baby, 3 months old," said Devard, who had wanted to prepare some remarks, but hadn't, so here he was, just standing, just talking. "I was there for her last moments," he said. "I'd like to honor Brittany Vaughn," that middle name, for Devaughn, floating out into the air, "with just a moment of silence, please." The people in the room bowed their heads and held still.

"Thank you," said Devard, and then, before he gave $1,000 checks to seven high school seniors with bright futures, he told them his story. Their story. The twins. Who didn't want to be in different classes. Who didn't want to wear different clothes. Who were never apart and who never wanted to be. The twins. Who wanted to play football in high school so well they could play it in college. Who wanted to play it so well in college they could play it as pros. Who wanted to play it so well as pros they could start a foundation. To help kids who had dreams like they had dreams.

"Don't let anyone kill your dreams," he told them. "Become what you want to become."

He told them about Feb. 26, 2001.

He told them about how he went to Washington State, where he cried himself to sleep, so many nights, and talked to his twin, talked to Devaughn, talked out loud, in the apartment he lived in alone. He told them about how he played parts of six seasons in the NFL. About how he started As One. About why.

"Don't let anyone kill your dreams," he told them. "Become what you want to become."

After the luncheon, on this hazy, overcast afternoon, he drove to the Forest Park cemetery, where he stood in his gray suit, the only sounds those of cicadas in the Texas heat, and looked down.

DEVAUGHN  STEPHEN  EVERETTE  DARLING
"THE BLESSED ONE"
April 16, 1982     February 26, 2001

"Seems like it was yesterday ..." he said.

He used the bottom of his right shoe to gently brush fresh-cut clippings of grass off the headstone of his twin.

darling(Photo by Michael Kruse)

"An act for the relief of ... the parents of Devaughn Darling, deceased ... "

That, every year, is how the claims bill starts.

"WHEREAS," it continues —

WHEREAS, Devaughn Darling collapsed and died; WHEREAS, after litigation and mediation; WHEREAS, the parties resolved; WHEREAS, as provided by the settlement agreement, the remaining unpaid portion of the consent judgment, $1.8 million, is sought to be paid to the plaintiffs ...

Bureaucracy is a tough place to go looking for mercy. And if the elicitation of empathy is the aim, a story is definitely the way to go, but maybe the worst way to start a story is with the word WHEREAS. Those are the rules, though, so let me try:

WHEREAS, last month when I was in Houston, Devard Darling told me, "I feel like literally half my soul is not here. It will never be the same. That part of me will never be fulfilled."

WHEREAS, last month when I was in Houston, Wendy Hunter, the mother of Devaughn and Devard Darling, told me that in the last Mother's Day card she ever got from Devaughn he had written that when football practice gets hard he thinks about her, and how hard she worked for him and Devard, and how that gives him energy to keep working, keep trying, keep going. "He was such a good boy," she said.

WHEREAS, when I called Dennis Darling Sr., the father of Devaughn and Devard Darling, he told me, "I'm so disappointed."

WHEREAS, when I called Frank Rutherford, a cousin of, and father figure to, Devaughn and Devard Darling, he told me, "He was one of those spirits of fairness and calmness and reasoning and logic, and that's what Devaughn was, even at an early age, and the fact that he's not here, it's felt in our family — every second he's not here, it's felt."

WHEREAS, when I called Yolanda Jackson, the lobbyist working for the Darlings' attorney to get this claims bill to pass, she told me, "The Darlings have played by every rule. I don't know why the state wouldn't go ahead and take responsibility and pay it."

WHEREAS, when I called Andy Haggard, who 10 years ago called the settlement "honorable and just" and said he thought this claims bills would pass, and asked him if he's surprised the parents of Devaughn Darling still haven't gotten their $1.8 million, Haggard, one of the attorneys for Florida State, said, "Yes. Yes. I did think it was going to be a foregone conclusion, because it was Devaughn Darling, a football player at one of our state institutions ..."

WHEREAS, sometimes claims bills in Florida don't pass because the state doesn't have the money, when property taxes are down, or there's a recession, and a bare-bones budget barely covers what the state is supposed to do for its citizens, and that's fine, but the budget for the state of Florida in 2014 was a record-breaking $77.1 billion, with a surplus of $1.2 billion.

WHEREAS, sometimes claims bill don't pass because certain powerful politicians think listening to sad stories and then picking which sad stories are the saddest as a way to decide who deserves money is unseemly, and that might be, but that's part of the process.

WHEREAS, sometimes claims bills don't pass because certain powerful politicians think this process is so unfair, so broken, they won't consider any of them until the process is fixed, even though they don't offer any ideas about how it might be fixed.

WHEREAS, sometimes claims bill don't pass because certain powerful politicians say it's difficult to balance emotion and facts — and that's just not a good enough reason, because all of them were elected by the people of the state of Florida, most of whom do that every single day.

WHEREAS, sometimes claims bills don't pass because certain powerful politicians think lobbyists working on behalf of attorneys have too much influence — and that's not a good enough reason, either, not even close, because of course lobbyists have influence, and anyway it's not like influence is a one-way street.

WHEREAS, this, too, is part of the legacy of the legendary Bobby Bowden, whose publicist failed to make him available for comment.

WHEREAS, there's a tree planted by the practice fields with a plaque for Devaughn, and there's a booster-funded scholarship named after Devaughn, and each season's top freshman gets the Devaughn Darling Award, and all that's true — but so is this: from 2010 to 2012, revenue for the Florida State football team was $113.4 million, which is a lot. And no matter how much money the program takes in and spends, the school's not on the hook for the claims bill, understood. But come on.

WHEREAS, in the summer of 2013, the Florida State football team got an indoor practice facility that cost $15 million. And the school's not on the hook. Understood. But come on.

WHEREAS, in January of 2014, Florida State spent $2,820,613 to send its football team and its coaches and its band and its cheerleaders to California for the national championship game. And the school's not on the hook. Understood. But come on.

Be It Enacted by the Legislature of the State of Florida: The facts stated in this preamble are declared to be true. The sum of $1.8 million is appropriated from the General Revenue Fund to be paid to the parents of Devaughn Darling as relief for their loss.

This act shall take effect upon becoming law.

darling(Photo courtesy of the Darling family)
Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler | Title Photo: Getty Images

About the Author

Michael Kruse, an award-winning staff writer at the Tampa Bay Times, also has contributed to Grantland and Outside. This is his first story for SB Nation Longform. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.

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