- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Darrius Heyward-Bey walks in after practice with a grin — one side of his mouth curled up ever so slightly, hinting at his immense wells of curiosity, creativity and cleverness. The wide receiver eases into a seat with a smile, eyes dancing.

Heyward-Bey displays the wonder and enthusiasm of the redshirt freshman he is with the steadiness and doggedness of the veteran he essentially has become. The blend is seamless, authentic, intriguing.

At Maryland’s team house, coaches’ offices, a trophy case and the cafeteria are common sights, way stations in the lives of those whose existence seems to orbit solely around football. Heyward-Bey’s smile is another constant, ensuring he never fades into the background.

Not with dreams of an eventual career as a film director, an avocation now but maybe a stronger calling than football.

Not after a breakout season for the wideout-starved Terrapins, who will meet Purdue in the Champs Sports Bowl on Friday in Orlando, Fla.

Not with that grin, which dissipated during a tumultuous first year at college that provides another prism through which to view Maryland’s most electric receiver in more than a decade.

“I adjusted to it and know how to have a good time and keep a smile on my face because that’s the key to life,” Heyward-Bey says.

Perhaps it’s really the second key. If Heyward-Bey’s experiences are any indication, nothing is more valuable than a caring network of family and friends.

Growing up quickly

Heyward-Bey’s father was never in his life, leaving it to his mother and aunt to provide him the necessary direction. He grew up in Silver Spring, his athleticism — particularly his speed — soon apparent.

Opportunities surfaced, significant enough for Vivian Heyward-Bey to permit her son to attend and live at McDonogh School in the Baltimore suburbs. It was a serious transition. College freshmen often struggle to live away from home for the first time, let alone one in high school.

“Just going there changed me. Times were hard, and going up there and staying at the age of 14 is rough,” Heyward-Bey says. “I was forced to be responsible. When I first got there, I didn’t know how to do that. I was out there having fun. Then I started realizing this was the place for me.”

Sports helped. He played basketball and ran track. Football initially was a nonfactor.

Community support, though, was always present. Heyward-Bey bonded with coaches, teachers and administrators, a tribute to his upbeat approach and tenacious work ethic. He endured his share of scholastic struggles, overcoming each with the help of those around him.

“I watched him really work hard academically and struggle academically and not get discouraged with that,” McDonogh headmaster Bo Dixon says. “At the same time, he had this indomitable enthusiasm and spirit that just made this place a better place.”

Heyward-Bey left his own legacy. As early as his freshman year, he knew he wanted to depart McDonogh with at least one title: Mr. GQ, an annual variety contest.

His approach was classic Heyward-Bey. He spent a month and a half preparing alone, writing a skit and mixing in other skills. Heyward-Bey slipped in some music from Outkast, his favorite group.

“I danced a little bit, used my sense of humor,” Heyward-Bey says. “People knew I couldn’t sing, so I pretended I could sing. I made it more like a story line.”

He won easily. Dixon proudly says Heyward-Bey was the first unanimous selection. Even more telling, Heyward-Bey has returned to the school to judge the contest and hand out the award, giving back to a place that gave him so much.

“He’s just a wonderful kid. I’ve never recruited a kid where so many people in the school want to see him succeed,” Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen says. “There’s a lot of people that have gone to bat for him and want to see him succeed. He’s never changed from the day we started recruiting him.”

‘Around the box’

McDonogh provided a platform for Heyward-Bey’s interest in film. He hopes to become a director when he is through with football, and he happily compiled popular highlight films of his teams during his spare time in prep school.

Heyward-Bey is an aficionado of the “Superman” and “Back to the Future” series and considers “Coming to America” a personal favorite. He analyzes the work of directors Spike Lee and Michael Bay, vetting their techniques.

He also is interested in work outside the mainstream. One film that stands out to him is a foreign work called “The Circle,” directed by Yuri Zeltser.

“It gets really into giving a point of view outside the box, inside the box and also around the box,” Heyward-Bey says. “A lot of people don’t look for that third point. I’m that type of director.”

High on Heyward-Bey’s holiday wish list was the five-film “Rocky” DVD set. He was eager to see “Rocky Balboa,” the latest installment of the series, the night it premiered last week, planning a pre-holiday trip to the theater with his mother and aunt. Yet he considers the original “Rocky” the best of the bunch, hardly a tough call for a film connoisseur. His choice of Apollo Creed as his favorite antagonist — over the redoubtable Ivan Drago and Mr. T’s memorable Clubber Lang — was more revealing.

“He was a normal guy who was just good,” Heyward-Bey says. “It wasn’t like he was scary or big. He works just as hard to be good. These other guys, they just pop out of nowhere.”

Falling into place

Heyward-Bey certainly didn’t pop out of nowhere this year for Maryland; he was a celebrated recruit. Never mind that his football experience was limited, that his development hadn’t progressed far beyond outrunning a cornerback and making a catch. He didn’t need to do much more at the prep level.

He was the blazing receiver Maryland had lacked throughout Friedgen’s tenure. Finally, the Terps had a game-breaker.

“I always knew I wasn’t the best player on my high school team,” Heyward-Bey says. “I knew I was getting recruited off potential. Other people were agreeing, but they were taking it to a whole different level. I said, ‘I’m not only going to prove it to myself. I’m going to prove it to them that I can do it.’ ”

The beginning was promising. He was the first of a group of freshman wideouts to make it into a game, appearing for one play early in the 2005 season against Clemson. Fellow freshmen mobbed him afterward and asked what it was like.

Further answers weren’t forthcoming. He struggled to pick up the offense, to learn how to run routes, to translate his track speed into football speed. He suffered a nagging right ankle injury, vanished from the depth chart and eventually was redshirted. Heyward-Bey was in his own world, unsure where he stood one play into his career.

He progressed over the summer, hours of work with quarterback Sam Hollenbach and cornerback Josh Wilson helping him hone his skills. That didn’t completely polish Heyward-Bey’s game, but he still emerged as the Terps’ top wideout (41 catches for 613 yards with two touchdowns against both Florida State and Miami.

After befuddling the staff for a season, Heyward-Bey had Friedgen gloating about his burgeoning star’s three remaining years of eligibility.

“Coaches were down on him [earlier], and you could tell he wasn’t as confident as he could be,” Hollenbach says. “Just for him to be where he is now — he’s confident, playing well and he’s very open to what I have to say or the coaches have to say.”

Suddenly, it matters what Heyward-Bey says, too. His performance earned him a certain cachet, and he burnished his reputation during Thursday scrimmages for the program’s younger players. Many veterans escaped once their work was finished, but Heyward-Bey remained to encourage the freshman receivers.

Those sessions also reinforced Heyward-Bey’s understanding of the offense. The repetition provided reminders of variations on plays, twists often useful during games.

“He’s a sponge. He tries to listen to everything,” receivers coach Bryan Bossard says. “This is a guy who’s in his second year here now. It just clicks for him now. It makes sense for him, and he’s worked very hard for it to make sense for him.”

Adding knowledge to speed and a 6-foot-2, 206-pound frame eventually could prove fruitful for Heyward-Bey at the professional level. Yet he still has much to work on and plenty of time to improve before he seriously can consider an NFL career.

“It’s too early to put that stigma on him right now,” Bossard says. “I think if he continues to progress like this, I think he’ll have a chance. To have his size, his speed, his work ethic, his drive, his determination, it’s very rare.”

That’s enough to make anyone smile, especially someone with Heyward-Bey’s optimistic disposition. He is more comfortable than ever on the field and an increasing celebrity on campus, even if he attempts to deflect some of the attention.

Current success has not made Heyward-Bey forget his struggles last season, when he was hurt by some of the criticism he took. But today’s smile is justified because he’s also thinking about the final act of a drama he has envisioned since arriving at Maryland.

“I just remember a year ago people were talking about ‘we need to get some recruits in because Darrius is not learning the offense. He’s out there nervous,’ ” Heyward-Bey says. “Now it’s ‘Ohhhh!’ As long as I improve, everything will fall into place. If I improve, hopefully I’ll help out the quarterbacks and we can win a national championship.”

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