Saturday, September 22, 2018

Darnell King's winding career leads to Rowdies


That an area high school star should ended up playing his professional soccer for the Tampa Bay Rowdies seems a natural story.

But the details of how it got to that point for Darnell King weren't always natural. They included playing at a college he'd never heard of — in cold weather that wasn't part of the sales pitch — covering his bases by selling yoga pants and getting nudged into a pro tryout thanks to a persistent girlfriend.

And finally, ascending to an all-league level — at a position he's still not fully comfortable playing.

That's right. King, in his second season as the Rowdies' rock-solid starting right defensive back, did not play defense at Gaither High School, where he set a school mark with 71 points in a season. Nor did he at Florida Atlantic University, where he was the Owls' leading scorer each of his final three seasons.

"Where I'm at, I'm okay with it," King said. "I like getting up the field, that's my mentality. But it's my job to defend first."

And he's doing it much to the Rowdies' liking. On a team with extraordinary depth on defense, King has played all 720 minutes of the first eight regular-season matches.

"He's one of the best athletes I've ever seen," says Rowdies captain Tam Mkandawire, also an every-game member of the defense. "He has pace, power, strength. And he's still learning the position. He's only going to get better."

So how did King, a natural goal scorer, become a member of the NASL's 2014 all-star team (Best XI) as a defender? By following his motto: take opportunity when it comes.

After all, that's how he ended up playing his college ball at FAU. King figured he'd attract interest from USF or even a Division II program like the University of Tampa but had no luck.

"Never got that phone call. Never got anything," King recalled.

Fortunately he had a good friend who was transferring from Lynn University, a Division II school in Boca Raton, to the Division I program in the same city. King had no clue either existed, but with the connection he earned a trial practice for FAU and not too long after was headed to school there.

The only catch was the weather. FAU had been a member of the Sun Belt Conference, which lived up to its name. But King's freshman season saw the Owls move into the Mid-American Conference, where they were the only Florida team among schools from Ohio and Michigan. National power Akron was the leader.

"It was all new to me and it was actually another level. We lost to Akron 7-0 my first year. Unfortunately we lost the majority of our games," King said.

In four seasons the Owls went 3-19-2 in conference play, but King put up 17 goals in four years (the rest of the team had 22 in the same period). He made all-conference — "I was 10th after nine Akron players" he said — and King saw pro soccer as a real path, getting a shot in an NASL tryout in south Florida. He figured the Fort Lauderdale team was a perfect fit.

But again, no phone calls. That's where his then-and-still girlfriend, Kim Wolf, came into play.

"Kim's with me and kept telling me, 'If you don't try and call them, approach them (yourself), you'll never know.' She's in my ear, 'Call 'em, call 'em,' " King said.

So he did, the Strikers answered, and the rest is a circuitous history. He got semi-regular action as a rookie in 2012 before an injury to the team's right back landed him in his now secure position. But he doesn't mind sojourning up the pitch when he gets a chance.

"He still likes to express himself going forward, but he's so fast he can afford to do it," Mkandawire said. "And he's just a great guy, too. I really can't think of anything bad to say about him."

King is even a talented, aspiring singer, a trait he says he got from his mother, Renee Richardson. His father was the athlete. Tampa Bay Bandits fans might remember Timothy King, who played for the popular USFL franchise and even suited up for the Buccaneers in their three strike games. King's parents encouraged him to play numerous sports.

"I played soccer with my neighbor all the time so I just woke up one day at 3 years old and said I wanna play soccer. My parents were like, 'Sure,' " King said.

Basketball is his second love, but he figures his lack of height (he's 5-9 now) in ninth grade led to him being among the final cuts at Gaither. Yes, another twist of fate — that "bloody ax" as he calls it led to no sports for King as a freshman, but going full-bore soccer as a sophomore.

Though not exactly how he might have planned it, things have worked out ever since.

This is the first installment in our summer series profiling the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

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