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December 28, 2010Like an inner-city basketball star whose deeds are regaled and exaggerated for generations, Ronald Darby's speed is legendary in Oxon Hill, Md.
Growing up, all the neighborhood kids used to challenge the future Potomac High star to footraces. Darby never lost. The myth grew when he began playing football at 8 years old. After his youth-league coach relented and moved him from tight end (he was bigger than most kids then) to running back, Darby became the Pop Warner version of Eric Dickerson, busting off 80-yard touchdown runs at will.
The tales of his greatness grew taller by the day. They say he could out-run a cornerback who had a 20-yard head start. They say defenses never laid a hand on him, much less tackled him. They say he could score every time he touched the ball.
Some of those yarns are even true.
"I don't know if I scored every time," said the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Darby, chuckling. "But I'll say this - I'd just take the ball, run to the outside and just go down the sideline. No one could catch me."
And they still haven't. Darby's wheels are a cartoonish display of whirring joints and knees that remind some of the Road Runner. He's already won three different track titles in 2010 alone, including three gold medals in the Maryland class 3A state championships and the 100- (10.55 seconds) and 200-meter (21.24) titles at the USATF National Junior Olympic Track and Field Championships in Sacramento. On top of that, Darby consistently runs the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, making him one of the fastest athletes in the country.
"I've coached for 43 years at all levels and Ron is just as fast as any of the elite level athletes I've ever coached," said Potomac track coach Stan Mullins. "Ron could be one of the best in the United States in track. He's maturing and his body is getting stronger.
"One thing I've noticed in elite level athletes like Ron is that the lifters in their legs - the muscles that lift the knees up - are exceptional," Mullins continued. "In Ron they're fully developed, and for a 16-year old that's amazing. It's just naturally there. He's capable of running a 10.2 100 and a 4.2 40."
Darby didn't run a 4.2 at his first local combine after freshman year. He had to settle for a 4.4. That said, he still smoked every other athlete by more than a tenth of a second.
"He's a freshman and he steps up and beats everybody - that's when I knew we had something special," said Potomac coach Ronnie Crump. "It was exciting to see."
Of course, nothing provokes college recruiters more than a combine hero. When their stopwatches light up with that magical "4.4" number, their eyes open wide and their cell phones start buzzing. A scholarship offer is never far behind.
After Darby exploded at the local combine, he went to a one-day camp at Maryland with senior teammate Devonta Tabannah (New Mexico). Underclassmen aren't even supposed to be at these events, but that didn't seem to matter after the Terps coaches watched Darby run. He clocked in with a 4.39, proving his first 40 was no aberration.
"[Former Maryland assistant coach] James Franklin came over to me right after that and offered me right on the spot," Darby said, laughing again. "That was pretty cool."
That was just the beginning. He made stops at North Carolina, Virginia and numerous prospect camps with the same result: a 4.4 40 followed by a scholarship offer. By the time he was done, he had 18 scholarships from places like Notre Dame, Florida, West Virginia, Georgia Tech and Rutgers.
Darby just finished his junior year and he's already being called one of the hottest prospects on the East Coast heading into his senior season.
"His speed along with his size and versatility," said Rivals.com recruiting analyst Mike Farrell, "make him very special."
But there are plenty of track stars out there. Not every track star can run with a helmet and pads on. Darby can.
"A lot of coaches recruit speed, even if it's only track speed or straight-line speed, but Ron can motor in-between the white lines," Crump said. "Running back, cornerback, punt returner -- everything he does is at top speed."
Still, Darby has heard the critics. He's heard the label "all wheels and no skills." He's heard them say the only reason he has offers is because he can run. Darby bristles at that notion; nothing incites him more.
"A lot of people get me confused as a track runner, but I actually just started running track. I've been playing football for much longer," he said. "Running on the field is more natural to me than anything I do on the track. To be honest, my game speed is even faster then my track speed."
Witness Potomac's last game of 2010 against Gwynn Park. Darby was lined up at right cornerback, and Yellow Jackets quarterback Zachariah Jefferson threw a short slant to the left. The receiver caught the pass in stride, but he ran into a host of Potomac defenders.
Darby let up, thinking the play was over. But the receiver busted through and broke down the sideline. Darby, who was caught flatfooted, quickly recovered and reached top speed in two strides. He caught the receiver 40 yards downfield and then stripped the ball loose, forcing a turnover.
"I'm pretty fast," said Friendly High cornerback Sherrod Baltimore, who had to play against Darby this year. "But he's at an entirely different level. He's a primetime player."
Crump compares Darby's game to Mr. Prime Time himself, Deion Sanders. Like Sanders, Darby has an unwavering confidence in his abilities; he routinely picks out the best opposing receiver and asks to guard him.
During his freshman year, Crump recalls Darby challenging his teammate Tabannah one-on-one. It didn't seem to faze the youngster that he was going up against a Division-I recruit.
"You want to know what makes him special? It's his competitiveness at corner," Crump said. "He will never back down. He has a Deion swag about him -- and he can be that good, too."
Darby may be a natural corner, but much like Neon Deion he made his fair share of plays on offense and special teams, too. Darby ranked among the state leaders with 1,329 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns last year. Opposing defenses stacked the box, overloaded one side and put their strongest, fastest defender on him. Nothing doing.
"No matter where I line up - in the slot, in the backfield -- I could feel the defense watching me," Darby said. "They were always pointing at me and saying, 'There he is, there he is - get on him.'"
It didn't matter. Darby ran for more than 140 yards in six of 10 games last year. He averaged almost 9.0 yards per carry.
"He's electrifying," said Baltimore, whose team allowed Darby to rush for 150 yards. "He's like Chris Johnson man; if he gets out in the open, it's goodbye. With that 40, he's gone."
But speed - even football speed -- alone does not equate to greatness. The best prospects have intangibles, namely the drive to improve and an unrelenting work ethic.
For his part, Darby is considered one of the hardest workers on the team, a perfectionist who is constantly self-critiquing his footwork, his moves and his technique. Off the field, he's just as obsessive. Unlike many upper echelon talents, who let their schoolwork go by the wayside, Darby is practically an honor roll student.
"My GPA is above a 3.0. I'm paranoid about my grades," Darby said. "If I get sick and miss school I'm worried the whole day. I even worry my teachers because I care about my grades so much."
That's all well and good, but there's a reason Darby is being recruited by the top college football programs in the country: his athletic skills. And many of those same programs believe Darby's career won't end with college football. According to scouts and coaches, he has a chance to play professionally.
"He's already modeling his game after the top corners in the NFL - Darrell Green, Charles Woodson, Champ Bailey," Crump said. "With his work ethic, he has the opportunity to get to that level. I don't usually say this, but yes, he will play on Sundays."
And so the legend continues.