Latest stars in the Hambrick bloodline hope to follow same path to football greatness, but avoid the speed bumps

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Mon. October 24, 2011 | Matt Baker | Email

Hernando's Darren Hambrick Jr. Pasco's Janarion Grant

The Hambrick family tree casts a dark and sprawling shadow across the dirt parks and grass fields of the North Suncoast.
Pasco County’s only high school football state title sprouted here. So did two pro baseball careers and 10 seasons in the NFL.

And so did bloody fights, drug busts and arrests down the road from a street that bears the family name.

The tree is still growing, and two branches bloom on fall Friday nights. Darren Hambrick Jr. terrorizes as a pass rusher for Hernando High, which can clinch its first district title since 1997 this week. Janarion Grant is a speedster who turns busted plays into touchdowns for undefeated Pasco High.

As college recruiters come for the high school juniors and cousins, Hambrick and Grant know the majestic heights of their family tree. They also know how hard the crash is from the treetops to the bottom.
• • •
Darren Hambrick Sr. was the fiery one. He wasn’t the biggest — 6 feet 3, 200 pounds with skinny little legs — so he became the meanest. He channeled his ferocity into hard hits. He brooded and bickered with coaches.

But he was also a once-in-a-generation talent, the St. Petersburg Times’ best athlete in Pasco County history who finished fourth in the 1993 state meet — by himself.

“I was a dominant force,” Hambrick says. “I’ll be the one that ignites the fire.”

That fire took him from the violent streets of Lacoochee to the NFL, where he led the Cowboys with 154 tackles in 2000. Little Darren remembers watching in awe as the man he calls Pop flew across the field with a star on his helmet.

“He was playing, having fun,” his son says.

Then the fire took him to jail.

Troy Hambrick was the outgoing one. The mama’s boy with the toothy smile, the little brother a year younger than Darren, the one nicknamed Wimpy because Darren fought, but Troy ran.

“And not too many people caught me,” Troy told the Times in 1993.

That speed took him to the NFL, where he replaced Emmitt Smith and led the Cowboys in rushing in 2003.

Then he went to jail, too.
• • •
Darren Hambrick Jr. is the fiery one. His hand twitches before the snap. Teammates can feel his energy when he steps on the field.

“It just comes from the heart,” he says.

On a defense of runners and hitters, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound hammer runs hard and hits the hardest. Teammates call him Brick.

“He feeds off it, just getting hits,” Hernando lineman Malcolm Hudson says.

His team does, too. Brick ignited a rally in last year’s playoff loss to North Marion by body-slamming three-star running back Jamie Gilmore.

“He’s got that spark,” Pop says. “He’s a fighter.”

Brick leads the Leopards in quarterback hurries and, despite moving from linebacker to defensive end, ranks third with 50 tackles.

He flies across the field to throw rushers back a yard. He glares at opponents on the ground, shaking his head back and forth with his mouth motoring.

“He gets that,” Grant says, “from his dad.”

Sometimes the fire burns Brick, too.
• • •
Janarion Grant is the outgoing one. The cousin with the toothy smile, the flowing dreads and his mother’s name tattooed on his biceps.

The 6-foot, 185-pound defensive back/receiver is a blazing speedster who won the long jump as a sophomore. His 18 touchdowns are tied for most in the North Suncoast; 13 of them covered at least 24 yards.

“If he touches the ball,” Brick says, “he’s gone.”

Coaches yelled “Poison!” on a high punt last week, telling the Pirates to steer clear. Grant flew through the middle of the field where his uncles once starred, snagged the live ball on a hop and flew 47 yards into the end zone.

“He’s got that mentality, you’re not going to stop me,” Pasco athlete Trey Dudley-Giles says. “He tries to get outta there.”

And Grant, like his uncles, has plenty to run from.

Relatives warned Darren and Troy to leave Lacoochee. Use sports to get to Gainesville or Dallas, where gunshots don’t ring out at night and drug deals don’t go down on your doorstep.

They stayed home and chose their friends carefully. They studied hard to qualify academically to turn offers from Florida and South Carolina into escapes. They wanted to buy their mom a new home.

When their NFL days ended, they came back. The fire still burned.
Troy was released last month after four years in federal prison for selling crack in Lacoochee. Darren has been arrested five times. Police reports mention a broken bed frame and beatings with a table lamp.

But Pop has been out of trouble for a year and a half. He stops by games unannounced to critique Brick and Grant. He dragged his nephew to a recruiting camp in Gainesville to expose him to more talent. He tells his son to listen to his coaches and harness the flame.

“I had some off-the-field trouble,” Darren says from his Lacoochee home, “but I don’t let them down on the field.”
• • •
Before Darren and Troy led Pasco to the 1992 state title, their father, Julious Grant, played pro baseball. Their uncle, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, was an All-Star pitcher and has a street named after him in Lacoochee.

“Fruit don’t fall far from the tree,” Pop says.

But when the ripened fruit lands on its own, how far will it roll? Far enough away to escape the long shadow of the family tree? Far enough away to grow tall and strong, for the sticky green leaves to blossom?

Brick is already out of Dade City, living with his mom in Hernando County and suiting up for his dad’s rivals.

Grant isn’t. The streets are still violent. His mom — Darren Sr.’s sister — was shot in the neck by her ex-husband in 2006. He’s in jail for life.

Brick and Grant stay at home and choose their friends carefully. They study hard to qualify academically to turn letters from Miami and LSU into escapes.

The family name is etched into Grant’s ripped right forearm. He hopes to be better than his uncles and go “great places” with football.  He wants to buy his mom a new home.

Brick wants to blaze his own Hall of Fame career.

“It’s a lot to live up to,” Brick says. “Basically I’ve just got to follow my own path to be my own person.”

Earlier this month, Hernando clung to a 22-7 lead over Sunlake in the fourth quarter with first place in the district at stake. After a sack set up third and long, Brick’s fire burned too hot. Officials flagged him for taunting. Coaches benched him.

“When I be mad, I feel like I play better,” Brick says. “But at the same time, I don’t like to play angry. I like having fun.”

An assistant told him that he can be a great player if he channels that ferocity and harnesses it. Brick brooded and, with his coach still talking, began to walk away.

Halfway to the bench, he stopped. Then the fiery teenager with the towering family tree turned around, hung his head and listened.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Staff writer Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@sptimes.com

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