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Bucs rookie receiver Jaelon Darden knows a thing or two about tough routes

Fifteen months after losing his dad, the fourth-round draft pick will make his pro debut.
Bucs fourth-round draft pick Jaelon Darden set a smorgasbord of school receiving records at North Texas.
Bucs fourth-round draft pick Jaelon Darden set a smorgasbord of school receiving records at North Texas. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Aug. 10, 2021

TAMPA — The fluttering trinity is inscribed in black ink on the outer edge of his right calf. Three butterflies, vertically aligned, floating skyward.

Toward heaven, by way of Jaelon Darden’s heart.

“My granny, my dad and then my other granny. They all passed, so that’s what the butterflies mean,” the Bucs rookie receiver said late Saturday morning. “I actually saw one today, so I know he’s watching over me — or one of them.”

Sort of stands to reason that Darden’s first order of business as a professional football player likely will be to field a punt, which requires gazing upward. A moment frozen in hang time for a son who lost his dad 15 months ago.

“With the situation, I had to kind of pull the plug, so that was probably the most difficult thing,” said Darden, who lost his dad, Manya, to heart-related complications on May 24, 2020.

“But at the end of the day, I know he’s watching over me, he’s guiding me and he’s got his hands on me.”

Outside of first-round pick Joe Tryon, no other rookie in Tampa Bay’s sweltering training camp projects to deliver a more profound impact in 2021 than Darden. A Houston native mostly ignored by the Division I-A upper crust due to his size (5-foot-8, 174 pounds), he set a smorgasbord of receiving records at North Texas and evolved into a draft sleeper.

“He’s a young, exciting kid,” four-time first-team all-pro Antonio Brown said.

“He’s a really good, young player,” said Mike Evans, who seeks his eighth consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season in 2021. “He’s going to be big for us this year. ... He’s looking real good. (He has) a lot of juice.”

Bucs rookie Jaelon Darden, left, and fellow receiver Cyril Grayson prepare for a recent practice at AdventHealth Training Center.
Bucs rookie Jaelon Darden, left, and fellow receiver Cyril Grayson prepare for a recent practice at AdventHealth Training Center. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Bruce Arians’ praise is considerably more subtle, interspersed with pointed critique. On Day One of training camp, the brusque 68-year-old coach called out his most diminutive weapon for dropping “too many damn passes,” later adding Darden may have been nervous.”

Two weeks later, the kudos still came with qualifiers. “Oh yeah, Jaelon, he’s improved,” Arians said Saturday.

“He’s just learning routes versus man. We specifically put him in one-on-ones because he’s been struggling. He’s beating everybody clean and he keeps breaking back (instead of) going for touchdowns. Just go for the touchdown. He’ll see it, he’ll learn it, but he’s getting off the line of scrimmage really, really well.”

For his part, Darden, 22, has embraced the textbook tough love. Familiarity, after all, has a warmth to it, and Arians’ admonishments come across as a highly salted version of Tamishe Darden’s.

“My mom’s like that, so I’ve been getting it like that for a long time,” Darden said. “If anything, it just motivates me to go harder. Seeing somebody wanting me to be great, it definitely pushes you to be great.”

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Structure, sternness and a spiritual foundation were prerequisites for survival in Darden’s northwest Houston neighborhood. Tamishe Darden, a school-bus driver, often starts her first route by 5 a.m. With no car until recently, she’d rise daily at 3 a.m. to get herself ready before rousting Jaelon and his younger brother by 10 years, Jamal Gould.

Then, they’d board a city bus to take them to Tamishe’s school bus.

“It was very challenging, and yet it still is,” said Tamishe, whose younger son battles asthma. “But with God’s help, we’re making it. We make it through each challenge; we take it day by day.”

Bent on grooming her children for success that would catapult them from their hardscrabble youth, Tamishe regularly sought excellence, be it in making a bed or a back-shoulder catch. While Manya (who was amicably separated from Tamishe at the time of his death) was the more detached, placid parent, Tamishe let no sloppy bedroom or post route go unnoticed.

“She has to be hard on me because nobody else is really,” Darden said.

“My dad wasn’t really a football player, so he really didn’t have no say-so. My mom tried hardest to stay on me and things of that nature, to make sure I could take it as far as I can with this football (career).”

He has taken it farther than many projected. A read-option quarterback (out of necessity) at Houston’s Eisenhower High, Darden accepted an 11th-hour offer from North Texas, evolving into the program’s career leader in receptions (230), receiving yards (2,782) and receiving touchdowns (38).

“(His mom) was working all the time, so Jaelon was left to kind of look out for the little brother, but again, he never used that as an excuse,” said Kerry Bamburg, Darden’s coach at Eisenhower. “He always made his workouts; he was just one of them kids that found a way to get things done. He didn’t have the best home life, but he made the best of it.”

Less than four months before the start of Darden’s dazzling senior year at North Texas (which included a school single-season record 19 touchdown catches), Manya lay on a surgical table in a Houston hospital. His defibrillator wasn’t working properly, and a new one had to be inserted, according to Tamishe.

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His heart wasn’t strong enough for the procedure. With his dad attached to a ventilator, Darden was left to make the decision not to resuscitate, Tamishe said. Manya Darden was 57.

“Him dealing with heart problems, him not being able to go to work, things of that nature, he really controlled what he could control,” Darden said. “He was trying to make ends meet and do what he can. So at the end of the day, that’s what I’m doing.”

A dad’s practical philosophy and a mom’s indefatigable nurturing have led Darden to the cusp of his pro debut, Saturday’s preseason opener against the Bengals at Raymond James Stadium. Tamishe and Jamal will be there.

The difficult routes they’ve taken — morning ones and mournful ones — have converged.

“I’ll begin to celebrate once that day occurs,” Tamishe said. “It will become a reality I would say, once we’re actually there and he’s in the first game on the field.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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