TAMPA, Fla. – Darnell Dockett says he would give it all away.
The fame, the house, the money – even the Super Bowl. He'd trade it and be a mechanic or a taxi cab driver. He'd leave it all and go back to Atlanta, where he once stole cars and did all the things he's raising his son not to do.
He'd let all this go, asking just one thing in return.
"The only thing I would give up all this for is to have my mom back," Dockett said. "That would be the only thing I would like to have back."
The 27-year-old Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle has a history as uplifting as it is sad, as genuine as it is hypocritical. From the murder of his mother when he was 13, to the death of his estranged father four months later – and with a childhood pocked with criminal mischief – Dockett's life transcends the many hard-luck stories found in this sport.
One of this Super Bowl's most raw, thoughtful, philosophical and truthful personalities, Dockett goes beyond the typical labels of the sport. While some look at him and see one of the NFL's most talented young defensive players, the measurable parts of his game are easily outweighed by the depths of his story.
"For him to be where he is right now, it took so much courage," said Cardinals defensive end Antonio Smith, one of Dockett's closest friends and spiritual confidants. "He's endured more than most people could ever imagine."
For Darnell Dockett, there is always a ghost in the room, an apparition that lingers almost 14 years after the murder of his mother. Even now, he seems certain the perpetrator was someone who knew the family, possibly even a person his mother trusted. And he believes the killer is watching him from afar, a familiar face with a secret shame. Maybe he has shaken Dockett's hand. Maybe he's been one of the neighborhood acquaintances Dockett might see on the rare occasion he returns to his hometown. Maybe it's someone far closer to him than even he realizes.
"For like the first five or six years I did [fixate on it]," Dockett said. "I used to always wonder, was it a family member? Was it somebody close to me? Was it somebody I see every now and then? I used to wonder, was it the neighbor? I used to wonder everything, man."
His mother's killer perhaps could have been any one of those things. But Cheryl Hambrick's own demons made the details cloudy. Dockett admits that she used drugs and even sold them from time to time. And there was no denying that questionable characters had been threaded throughout much of her life. But her death whispered of a distinct familiarity.
Dockett said he had spent part of that day – July 4, 1994 – at a friend's house. Eventually he returned to his mother's home in Decatur, Ga., finding a front door that was still locked, and an odd quiet when he entered. The circumstances immediately felt wrong, and when he walked in and found his mother, she was laying awkwardly in a hallway of the home, a lifeless body in a blood-soaked T-shirt. She had been killed by a gunshot to her head.
He didn't react when he saw her. No scream. No rushing to her side. The shock of the scene paralyzed him. He just stood and stared at her in silence, until hearing his older sister at the door of the home. Then he wheeled around and rushed her out before she could see what had happened, and the pair drove to the neighborhood gas station, where they used a pay phone to call police.
For detectives, the scene raised only more questions. There were no signs of a struggle. The door hadn't been kicked in. By all appearances, Hambrick had walked her own killer into the house, before suffering a death that looked like an execution.
For most, it's a reality that is beyond chilling – even in an NFL locker room, which often is thick with stories of hardship and loss. Experiencing death is one thing, but being a 13-year-old child and finding your mother murdered is almost unimaginable.
"The things he went through in life are horrible," said Smith, who has seen his own share of hardship. "No child should have to go through it. No child should have to see what he had to see."
And certainly, no person should have to carry it through his life. A moment that, despite the coping and the fame and the leaning on God that has followed, still can leave a sliver of angst – a frustration in the knowledge that unless the killer comes forward, the murder likely will remain unsolved.
"It ain't like one of these channels where I turn on CNN and they're looking for a little girl for like two years and they're showing the house and everything," Dockett said. "They probably look at it like another black person dying in the projects."
If the murder of his mother were the beginning and end of the story, that would be enough. The outside world would look at Dockett and marvel at how difficult it must have been for him to make it to this point in his life. But Hambrick's death was only a middle chapter. Four months later, his estranged father Darnell Sr. died of pancreatic cancer, shortly after trying to once again enter his son's life. Only a few months after burying his mother, Dockett found himself standing at his father's funeral, feeling little more than the anger of abandonment.
"My pain wouldn't let me feel for a stranger, because he wasn't ever there," Dockett said. "I think that's the only funeral that I have ever been to that I didn't even shed a tear."
Dockett (45) blossomed at Florida State, earning ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors in '03.
(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
But looking back, Dockett can see the deaths of his parents in a more philosophical light. He admits it's hard to know how his life would have turned out if his mother hadn't died, or his father hadn't left the family when Dockett was 5. Certainly he never would have been forced to leave Decatur, which he did shortly after his mother's death, when his uncle, Kevin Dockett, adopted Darnell and moved him to Burtonsville, Md.
A square-jawed disciplinarian with his own dump-truck operation, it was Kevin who was there to pick up the pieces after the death of Darnell's parents. Ultimately, he would become the authority in the life of a child who had seen little guidance from a father figure. Kevin would quickly see what it meant to open his arms to a child who by age 13 had been arrested a handful of times for stealing cars, fighting, and generally drumming up chaos in Atlanta.
"Me and some of my bad little friends, we'd done some of everything," Darnell admits. "We used to get chased by the police. Sometimes we'd do it on purpose just to see if they could catch us."
He jokes that boosting cars and running from the cops helped him develop his speed, but the humor is tempered with a reality that comes from Kevin's lips: a message that says Darnell's current stardom doesn't forgive his past transgressions. Yet those mistakes are part of him, and he's not ashamed to admit what he's done – particularly as the incidents relate to his uncle, who demanded respect and wasn't afraid to take those demands to a physical level.
"He was a bad kid when I got him, but he didn't act bad when he first came," Kevin said. "But it got worse and worse. It was always me talking to him, talking to him, talking to him. Then I was cutting out of work to go to the school because he did something. Eventually, I got tired of talking. So I'd just give him a nice spanking from 'Hickory.' "
Hickory was the wooden switch Kevin fashioned himself. And when Darnell fell out of line, Hickory would make an appearance. Eventually, Kevin decided to push Darnell into football, too, hoping the structure and dedicated time would add some discipline to Darnell's life. After some brief resistance – Darnell quit after his first few practices – his aggression became a tool that adults appreciated. But the success didn't come without some hurdles.
"I remember the coach, he was like 'Do you know the three-point stance?'" Darnell said. "I was like 'No, but I can tell you how to steal a Buick Regal.'"
Despite taking football up relatively late, it didn't take Dockett long to develop. A slow and out-of-shape eighth grader became a fast and brutal-hitting ninth grader at Burtonsville's Paint Branch High School. By his sophomore year, he'd gotten his first recruiting letter from the University of Michigan. By the time he was a senior, he had committed to a Florida State program that was a national powerhouse. And for the first time, Kevin could see the seeds of maturity starting to take root.
"Up until he got to Florida State, I made a lot of decisions for him," Kevin said. "But when it came time to pick a school, I said 'This is a decision you need to make for yourself.'"
Even now, Kevin can still see the maturity coming. He watched as Darnell got arrested in a shoplifting scam that stained his reputation – a crime that ended with Darnell suspended for a bowl game after his junior season. He watched Darnell, the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year, slip to the third round of the 2004 draft, partly because of character questions. And he watched Darnell befriend spiritual players with the Cardinals like Antonio Smith, who has played a role in helping Darnell see a much larger picture beyond his life as an athlete.
To some, it could be construed as divinity: a murder that delivered Darnell to his uncle's steadying hand, a steadying hand that helped deliver him to college football, a college career that helped him meet Smith, and a close friend who has helped him embrace everything that has delivered him to this moment.
And Smith's influence on Darnell can't be understated. Dockett has watched his teammate's strong faith help him through his own struggles, including a spate of family deaths that plagued Smith's career with the Cardinals. And he's been exposed to Smith's philosophy of making his family the center of his universe.
Dockett hopes to raise a better banner after Sunday.
(Paul Connors/Associated Press)
"I feel like my job is to help Darnell be grateful through life," Smith said. "I just think that throughout his life, for him to be where he is now, it took a lot of heart. But you've still got to be grateful for everything that the Lord gives you. That's one thing that I try instill in him. I tell him 'You are so blessed. Don't just focus on the negative. Focus on the positive.'"
And as Darnell has matured, his uncle said he's seen Smith's influence help shape his nephew.
"He's been maturing that way ever since he got into the league," Kevin said. "He's listening to other guys in the league and seeing other guys do bad things, and he's always saying 'I would never do that.' I've seen a lot of growth in him in the last five years. But better than that, I've seen a lot of growth in him ever since I've had him come live with me."
That growth has included forgiving his father's abandonment and his mother's murderer. And while he'd still like to know why his mother was killed – "Just to get the demons out," he says – Darnell has realized his own personal growth had much to do with that moment. It doesn't necessarily make his mother's loss easier. He still thinks about her, still imagines that she plays a role in his life. And still thinks about how he could have changed hers.
"Sometimes on Christmas, on Mother's Day, when I got drafted, when I signed a new contract – those days I wish I could be like 'Here Mom, here's your Mercedes Benz outside', or 'Here's your new house. You don't got to live in the projects anymore. You don't have to go to the grocery store with $20 to try to feed three kids,'" Darnell said. "I feel like I could have been a good man in my mom's life."
Instead, he has traded that opportunity for another: the chance to be a good man in the life of his two-year-old son, Dillon.
"When I do tell the story [of my life], I'm going to tell him everything," Darnell said. "I'm not going to leave anything out. I'm going to tell him 'As your dad, I'm never going to leave you. There's nothing me and your mom can go through to make me leave you. I'm always going to be a father to you.' I think that's what my dad should have done when he was younger."
Maybe he'll tell his son about how some of the best people can only be found after being preyed upon by some of the worst. Or how some of the best things in life can be reached only after enduring some of the worst. Surely he'll tell him that strength can come from the cruelest of places.
What Dockett won't do is lament where he's been, or how he's gotten to this point.
As he said this week, "My pain and my tears are gone. I've done shed enough of them."