TAMPA ― Jaelon Darden led the nation with 19 touchdowns last season, but he held more than the football close to his chest when he crossed the goal line. He also carried the memory of his father, Manya, who died last summer after a long battle with heart disease.
So it was a bittersweet moment Saturday when the Bucs traded up in the fourth round to select the 5-foot-8 receiver from North Texas.
“It feels like he’s still here because I have a lot of merchandise on to kind of keep him close with me‚” Darden said, grabbing hold of a chain around his neck. “Prayed about this. Cried about this moment here, so it definitely means a lot.
“Throughout my four years at North Texas, my dad was sick. He was dealing with heart problems, so we kind of built a strong relationship over the time, Me growing as a man and him being able to instill certain things into me and being able to mature and become the type of man I am today.”
In fact, the Bucs say Darden would send some of his scholarship money home to help pay for his dad’s medical expenses.
“My dad played a big part of why I’m here right now, giving me the motivation for my senior year with his passing, being able to fight a little adversity and give my teammates everything I have with what I was still dealing with kind of played a big part of why I’m here today,” Darden said. “So I’m definitely thankful for everything he taught me and to God for putting me in this situation.”
Darden is only 5-feet-8, but the Bucs believe he can make a big impact for them as a receiver and kick returner. Tampa Bay traded up eight spots to No. 129 with the Seahawks to select Darden in the fourth round. Seattle received the the Bucs’ fourth- (No. 137) and sixth-round (No. 217) selections.
Of course, the Bucs appear already loaded at the receiver position with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson returning. But they wanted to add speed, and Darden runs the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds.
Darden was extremely productive, catching 74 passes for 1,190 yards and 19 touchdowns in just nine games in 2020 before declaring for the draft and skipping North Texas’ bowl game. That vaulted him atop the school’s career list for receptions (230), receiving yards (2,782) and receiving touchdowns (38).
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Darden said the chip he carries on his shoulder due to his size “got me to who I am today, coming from high school to going to college to now,” the first player drafted out of North Texas in 17 years.
“It’s played a big part, and I kind of keep that on my shoulder,” he said. “That keeps me going, keeps me motivated. A lot of times working out with a lot of people, they don’t see I still carry that on my shoulder.”
Darden’s biggest impact as a rookie may come returning kicks. He had a punt return for a touchdown for the Mean Green.
“It’s definitely a strong impact of my game, being able to get back there and catch those punts and being able to put the offense in the best situation possible,” Darden said. “I don’t have any problem with that. I feel confident to come right in and be able to help whereever they need me.”
What would his father have said about him being drafted Saturday?
“He would just be crying right now, honestly,” Darden said. “Just knowing all the hard work I put in with me not coming home because I’m working, trying to get a step on everybody else that people are saying are better than me and things of that nature. It definitely means a lot, because he always told me to keep that chip on that shoulder and continue to work the way I work and the rest will take care of itself.”
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