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An Extraordinary Life Cut Short Still Offers One More Lesson

by on February 23, 2017 5:00 AM

Sometimes in life we’re blessed to meet people of the rarest quality. Sunday we lost one of those people when Darryl Hammond died at age 50.

But in his life he gave us the realization that our truest measure is the impact we make on others.

Despite a life cut short by ALS, the social media outpouring of love for Darryl illustrates how many people he reached from many different walks of life. That can only come from a man who is an original, a man true to himself and true to others.

Darryl Hammond was a force, a tireless competitor. Once you met him he was with you for life. No one ever had an unkind word to say about him. He had solid values, intelligence, leadership, humor and was a dynamic presence as an athlete and as a person.

In the mid-1980s, he was a great football player at Virginia, an early building block for Coach George Welsh’s vision of academic and athletic excellence.

Darryl and I first coached together at UVA, developing a fast friendship. In our travels we wore out his tape of comedian Robin Harris. During lunchtime basketball games Darryl was the best player but always played selflessly. In the coaches’ box together when Florida State came to play UVA, we’d unraveled their fast break offense signals and our sign-stealing helped limit them to 13 points — their lowest total of the year.

The stories go on and on, but one will always stand out, a lesson of dignity and control facing the unfairness of this world. On the Gator Bowl trip to Jacksonville we were driving some players to get dinner. I was driving the car and was the only white guy in it. At a stoplight a young man pulled up next to us and started yelling at me for driving these guys around describing them with a vile racial slur.

Even before the offensive word was out of the driver’s mouth our car locks clicked. Darryl was holding the automatic lock button down to keep the players in the car. In my heart I wanted to get out with them, but our emotions gave way to Darryl’s judgment. He knew no good would come of it.

As we drove away he said “It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. If we jump that punk we’re going to jail. What would we prove? We’d prove to him that we’re the thugs he thinks we are.”

Make no mistake, there was hurt in his voice but there was pride in who he was and what he stood for. His pause kept us all on the high road.

In 1995 our paths crossed again. Darryl was a graduate assistant coach and earning a degree in Penn State’s world-renowned turfgrass management program.

Because Darryl was so well respected by the players, Joe Paterno often asked Darryl for insights on how best to connect with the team. Joe valued him so much that after that season he offered Darryl a job as a full assistant coach.

But Darryl was still playing Arena Football in the summers. His competitive streak wouldn’t allow him to give that up. While we all tried to change his mind, he explained he couldn’t change who he was.

Through Joe’s disappointment he stated his admiration “I respect Darryl. Few people are honest about who they are and even less are willing to be true to themselves.”

After Penn State, Darryl continued his Hall of Fame Arena Football career, became a devoted family man, acted in movies and even coached high school football. He impacted people young and old, family and friends alike in his own way, a way that endures, an immortality imprinted on other’s lives that mortality can never eclipse.

Over the years we stayed in touch across the distance. At the end of the 2009 Penn State season he weathered the downpour of the Capital One Bowl win over LSU. I asked him if he regretted not staying at Penn State.

In his answer what came through was a man living his life true to himself, a man thankfully enjoying every day. Sadly though, despite Darryl’s competitive streak ALS caught him a few years later.

A few weeks ago my travels took me to Nashville near his home. He was wheelchair-bound and communicated by using his Eye-Gaze computer. It took longer to converse, but his sense of humor and his mind were as sharp as ever. When I asked about his family he was honest, telling me how hard this all was on them. He expressed how strong his wife Robin had been through all the difficulties of his fight.

When I got up to go something told me “leave nothing unsaid” so I reminded him of how much we all loved him and appreciated the time we’d shared in life. Now I’m grateful that God’s hand pushed me to be there.

But time waits for no man. No matter how much or little time we are granted by God, Darryl’s last lesson for me is to fill your days full with life, rather than simply letting the days fill your life.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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