When an athlete reaches iconic status often they are celebrated with a nickname: His Airness, King James, The Great One, Sultan of Swat, Sweetness. Some even transcend their sport and become cultural icons. From then on they are known by a single moniker: LeBron, Michael, Babe, Kobe, Serena, Tiger. …
So when does Darius Jennings get his nickname?
OK, perhaps we're getting just a little ahead of ourselves. Amateurs, especially high school amateurs, don't deserve that honor no matter how much they've accomplished. But Jennings, the jaw-dropping athlete from Gilman, is certainly on the fast track to earning an epithet of his own.
Last year, as the quarterback in Gilman's spread-option offense, Jennings ranked No. 1 in the state through 10 games with 2,022 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns. That's an average of over 200 yards per game. Not surprisingly, the 5-foot-11, 170-pound dynamo already has seven Division I offers from the likes of Maryland, Iowa, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, North Carolina, Virginia and Boston College. He is a surefire four-star recruit and should be one of the top-rated prospect in Maryland for the Class of 2011.
"I didn't think I could do this at all," said an awestruck Jennings. "Not many people get a chance to play for Gilman, be on a team with these great players and put up the numbers I did. I've truly been blessed."
YouTube's database doesn't have enough space for a full slate of Darius Jennings highlights. Pick a game, any game. The scripts are all pretty much the same. But somehow, the movie never gets old. It's like watching Harrison Ford kick butt in Raiders of the Lost Ark over and over again.
Scene 1: Darius Texas-two-steps through a hole, cuts left, hops over a defender, cuts back right, breaks a tackle, hits his stride like a Ferrari with super unleaded, and then … gone. The alternate scene is more typical, but it's much less dramatic. Alternate Scene: Darius takes the snap … gone.
"Sometimes as a coaching staff we just sit back and watch him run," said Gilman assistant coach Henry Russell. "It's fun to watch."
Surprisingly, Jennings doesn't have the fastest 40-yard dash time in Maryland (4.45). But on the field, he's a Chris Johnson incarnate.
"I have agility and speed," Jennings said. "I can see the whole field; I have the ability to make my body small and elude tacklers. But I can be big and run over people when I have to."
Jennings' career began in the second grade. Ironically, he spent his first game snapping the ball -- not receiving the snap.
"The coaches had him playing center," said his father, Lawrence Jennings. "But he didn't care. He was just so happy to be out there."
The center experiment didn't last long. Eventually he moved to a skill position, where his athleticism quickly became apparent. But Jennings insists he wasn't a huge football fan in those early years. He dreamed of being the next Allen Iverson or Kobe Bryant; Tory Holt and Charles Woodson were afterthoughts.
"I started playing basketball when I was younger," Jennings said. "Football was just something to do when basketball wasn't going on."
Darius finally realized his football talents during his eighth-grade year at Gilman. In his first game, Jennings took a punt back for a touchdown. After the opposition went three-and-out, he turned the same trick. One minute. Two punts. Two touchdowns.
"After that I was like, 'Wow,'" Jennings said. "I think I may be able to do something special here."
Jennings hasn't slowed down since. As a freshman, he started on jayvee. But after dominating the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association's lower levels, Darius earned a varsity promotion toward the end of the year. He played well as a defensive back and Gilman coach Biff Poggi started him in the season's final game against archrival McDonogh.
Gilman led McDonogh 21-14 with time running out, but the Eagles were driving. Jennings was inserted to shadow star receiver Gerrard Sheppard (Connecticut), who had a good four-inch height advantage on the freshman corner. Eagles quarterback Rudy Johnson saw the mismatch and threw up a Hail Mary. Darius played the ball perfectly; he intercepted the pass with three seconds left in the game.
"That was probably the best moment of my high school career," Jennings said.
Jennings' success continued as a sophomore. Despite undergoing offseason knee surgery, he played every game … at every position. Darius lined up at kick returner, quarterback, receiver, running back and cornerback. His versatility quickly became apparent. But on the downside it precluded him from dominating one area. Thus, he didn't register any eye-popping numbers.
But then came 2009. In the offseason, Gilman dubbed Darius the starting quarterback. His job: Take the direct snap and run wild. Behind a hulking offensive line, he did just that.
It started with a 97-yard-rushing effort against St. John's. He followed up with a 210-yard, three-touchdown performance against Bear Creek (Col.). But the volcanic eruption came in Week 3, when Jennings unleashed his entire arsenal on powerhouse DeMatha. Though overshadowed by Stags running back Marcus Coker (391 yards rushing), Jennings gashed the DeMatha defense for 364 total yards and five touchdowns. He registered his longest run of the year, a 75-yard scamper on a power-left run.
Cue the alternate scene: One cut … gone.
"That run jump-started everything," Jennings said.
Darius took another major stride against Good Counsel. The Falcons held a 42-25 lead in the fourth quarter. Gilman needed offense - and fast. Jennings, though only a junior, remained unfazed. He evoked the confidence of Johnny Unitas about to conduct a two-minute drill.
"I told the guys, 'Look, just hold your blocks and we're going to score.'"
Five seconds and 83 yards later, Jennings did just that. Gilman lost the game, but Darius finished with 273 yards and three touchdowns against one of the best defenses in Maryland.
Afterwards, Good Counsel coach Bob Milloy asked a rather perplexing question:
"How in the heck do you stop that guy?"
Contrary to popular belief, Jennings did more than just torch defenses like Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl. Gilman couldn't resist using him in at cornerback in key situations.
In an early-season game against offensive juggernaut Bear Creek, Darius shut down the Bears' top receiver, ultimately helping Gilman to a 39-36 victory. Then, in the MIAA A-Conference title game against McDonogh, he recorded another key interception in the Greyhounds' thrilling 34-27 triumph.
"He hadn't taken any practice reps at corner, so for him to go in there and shut those kids down was amazing," Russell said. "Whether it was Bear Creek, Gilman, DeMatha or the championship game against McDonogh, Darius was making big plays. He stepped up in big games, and that's the type of player he is."
He's also a player that doesn't like to talk about himself. Ask Darius about his season, and he'll credit the offensive line. Ask Darius about his talent, and he'll credit God. When fans approach him in church or students stop him in school, he makes a point to deflect focus onto others. It's an attitude that has been instilled in him since he first started tearing up the gridiron and the hardwood.
"People tell me all the time Darius is special, but I always tell him the same thing," Lawrence Jennings said. "I tell him to stay humble, thank God for your talents, give 100 percent every play, enjoy the game and be the best team member you can be. Everything else will take care of itself."
That outlook is the foundation for every Gilman athlete. The Greyhounds churn out Division I stars every season, but in order to play at Gilman everyone must buy into the team-first and God-first concept. The Greyhounds' motto this year was "God is our rock." It's a saying Jennings has taken to heart.
"I know it's not about me," Jennings said. "There are 10 other guys out there blocking for me … And I realize God has blessed me with a great talent."
Jennings' humility has certainly impressed the Gilman coaching staff.
"He has all the talent in the world but you'd never know it," Russell said. "That's what really makes him a special kid."
Next season, Jennings has an opportunity to be even more special. He is already running track with the intention of lowering his 40 time. He's in the weight room with the goal of adding at least 10 pounds of muscle. He's going to combines like the Rutgers Showcase and the Maryland Elite 7-on-7 camp to fine-tune his skills. On top of that, his arm strength is improving, which means he'll be a more effective passer in 2010.
By the end of the year, Darius' name could reside alongside great Maryland running backs like Tavon Austin and Ben Tate. Both of those electric 'backs rushed for over 2,000 yards in consecutive seasons.
"I'd like to rush for 2,000 again, but it means nothing if we're not winning," Jennings said. "We have the ability to go undefeated and run the table and win a conference championship. But we have to play every game like it's our last."
Gilman has a glut of talent returning from last year's 7-3 MIAA A-Conference championship squad. But they also lose team leaders like Jim Poggi (coach Biff Poggi's son), Anthony Ferguson, Tripp Trainor and Kostas Skordalos. To win their eighth conference title this decade, Jennings will have to absorb the loss.
"We're going to miss those guys and Darius is going to have to step up as a leader," Russell said. "He'll continue to grow in that sense. We're excited to see what he can do in that role."
When the 2010 season ends, Jennings will undoubtedly realize his college football dreams. He'll be the starting cornerback or receiver at some major BCS school. Lee Corso will rave about his speed; Mel Kiper will stick him at the top of his 2014 draft board; the ESPN news crawl will highlight his name. Perhaps he'll even earn one of those fabled nicknames.
But regardless of future accolades, Jennings has already cemented his legacy with the one person who counts. And that person could care less about nicknames.
"I'm on Cloud 9 as a parent seeing what he's accomplished academically and athletically," Lawrence Jennings said. "I'm very proud of him, not just as a football player but as a person. He's the son every parent wishes they could have."