- The Washington Times - Friday, September 13, 2002

Kevin Dockett rounded up more than 130 tickets, paying for about 60 himself, so friends and family can attend tomorrow night's Florida State-Maryland game at Byrd Stadium. That adds up to a significant piece of change, but Dockett, who lives in Burtonsville and owns a fleet of dump trucks, can afford the tab. The main thing is, he is more than happy to do it.

"I make money," he said. "Money don't make me. If that's what it takes for everybody to see my son play, that's what I'm gonna do. It's gonna be live entertainment."

Dockett's "son" actually is his nephew, Florida State junior Darnell Dockett, an All-ACC defensive tackle. Kevin and wife Toni became Darnell's legal guardians back in 1994 when Darnell was 13 and his father, Kevin Dockett's brother, died from pancreatic cancer. This was about four months after Darnell walked into his Decatur, Ga., home and discovered the body of his mother, Cheryl Hambrick, who was shot to death in an apparent robbery attempt.

Darnell at first lived with his grandmother, but she couldn't handle him and he was shipped to Maryland. Kevin and Toni and their son, Kevin Jr., opened their home to Dockett, providing love, support and a nurturing environment none of which seemed to make much of an impression at first. "He was bad," Kevin Dockett said of Darnell. "A terrible kid."

Fed up with repeatedly having to leave work to go to school, where Darnell was always causing a fuss, Kevin Dockett turned to his last resort, "Hickory," a wooden paddle he bought at the Atlantic City boardwalk."I beat his [butt]," he said. "Excuse the French."

It was also about this time Darnell learned to play football at a boys' club in Gaithersburg. Bigger than the other kids, he played defensive end. But he was a "horrible sorry" player. Those are Darnell Dockett's words. "He once picked up a fumble and ran the wrong way into the end zone," Kevin Dockett said.

But Kevin Dockett worked with Darnell. So did another uncle, Carlton Wills, instilling fundamentals, or trying to. When he got to Paint Branch High School, Dockett was still raw and unrefined, a bully who liked to simply run over people. But by his junior year, Paint Branch coach Bob Windsor, a former NFL tight end, knew Dockett was special. As a senior, he was among the most highly recruited players in the area.

"We first put him at tight end, and he was an awesome sight," Windsor said. "Huge legs, big arms. But we couldn't even get him in a three-point stance. But he worked hard. It's a remarkable story what he's accomplished."

One of Dockett's cousins is former Maryland basketball player Steve Francis, an NBA All-Star with the Houston Rockets. Dockett said he talks to Francis all the time about "what it takes to make it." Another cousin is Sharmba Mitchell, the former junior welterweight boxing champion. Through Mitchell, Dockett struck up a friendship with Redskins Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington.

"He tells me, just go out and make plays," Dockett said. "He said, 'You've got all the tools in the world, just play hard.' Don't take any plays off. The NFL doesn't want anybody that takes plays off."

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One can only imagine the effect of Darnell Dockett's horrific experience as a kid on his psyche, personality and behavior. But the truth is, he was out of control well before that. "I was a delinquent," he said.

Dockett would find it amusing to stick a safety pin in a girl's rear end or fill a classmate's lunch box with glue. Dockett said he was suspended from kindergarten. By accident, he said, he struck a young girl with a go-cart. Not by accident, at the age of 13, he said he stole a car and ended up in a juvenile detention facility. His mother's murder, which he does not discuss, and his father's death only made it all worse.

Even after his introduction to Hickory, Dockett continued to make an impression and it wasn't always positive. Windsor, whose roommate with the San Francisco 49ers was a quarterback named Steve Spurrier (a fact that later would assume a certain irony), said a lot of folks at Paint Branch were not big fans of Dockett. "He was what I like to call a tease bug," Windsor said. "Sometimes he'd get a little carried away."

Like the time Dockett sneaked into the vice principal's office and "made a mess," Windsor said.

At Florida State, Dockett has settled down somewhat. But last year, said former teammate Chris Hope, who now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers, "He's a big kid. He lives by no rules, and until he understands he has to grow up and people look at him as a role model, he's going to be like that."

More recently, defensive end Alonzo Jackson, one of Dockett's best friends, was quoted as saying, "He's crazy, I'm telling you. I don't know what it is. I got a little personality, I'm a little crazy, but Darnell? He's off the wall. He's out in left field."

Dockett was asked if he is crazy.

"No," he said. "I think I'm normal. I just like to do things people don't think I could do. If somebody says, 'He won't do that,' I like to get them to say, 'Oh, gosh, he did do that.'"

Dockett keeps a pet python at home and enjoys feeding it live mice because "everybody's got to eat." He wears braids and is covered with tattoos, two of which read, "Rest in Peace, 1959-1994," and "Mama."

While Dockett was signing autographs not long ago, a youngster told him, "Everybody back in St.Pete thinks you're a thug." Dockett said he told the kid he doesn't know what a thug is.

"I'm me," he said. "If you don't want to accept me, fine. But one thing about me, I'm not gonna give you five different sides. I have just one side. If you like it, fine. If not, oh well.

"I've experienced more in my life than most people would experience in three or four lives."

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The only people Dockett said he cares about impressing are coaches and teammates he wants to be a leader on the field and in the dressing room and his family. Especially his family.

"You can say what you want about me, but I'm really a caring person," he said. "It might not seem like it, but I care about a lot of things. I care about my family. I know how it is to lose family. I put family before anything."

Darnell says of Kevin Dockett, "He wasn't going to let me go to waste."

Florida State coach Bobby Bowden has likened Dockett to a "bull in a china shop" for his sometimes reckless play. The 6-foot-1, 280-pounder is quick and strong, a key member of the Seminoles' defense. But he is still recovering from offseason surgery to remove bone spurs in his heel. He missed all of spring football and part of the summer workouts, and Bowden said Dockett "probably measures up at 75 percent" right now.

Asked if Dockett has started to grow up as a person, Bowden said, "I see exactly where you're coming from. When Dockett came here, he came from a very tough background. The loss of his mother and everything else. It was a tough situation. But he really has some good stuff deep down inside of him, and I think it's really starting to come out."

Bowden also was asked how good Dockett can be.

"As good as any of them," he said.

Despite his antics and the persona he seems bent on cultivating, those who know Dockett agree with Bowden, saying he has a big heart. Windsor, who teaches special education at Paint Branch, said he will always appreciate how Dockett went out of his way to talk to his class. "I tell you what," Windsor said. "It was the most attentive class I ever had. You could tell he always had a certain kindness to him. He's just like a big kid in a man's body. He's really a decent kid."

Dockett said he enjoyed the experience because he could identify with many of the students.

"I was in, like, the same situation they're in," he said. "Those classes are not because those people can't do the work, they just don't know things right now. A lot of people outside the class say they can't do this, can't do that. I was in the same situation. A lot of people judged me when I was in high school. 'He can't do this. He can't get his SAT scores. He can't play college football.'"

Dockett said he fooled them.

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Last November, in a game against bitter rival Florida, Dockett tackled Gators running back Earnest Graham, who emerged from the pile with a badly sprained knee. Spurrier, then the Florida coach, accused Dockett of intentionally twisting the knee to cause injury. (He also said Dockett tried to step on the hand of quarterback Rex Grossman). There even was talk of a lawsuit against Dockett, but nothing came of it.

Relations between the two programs had deteriorated over the years. There were fights and previous accusations by Spurrier. Bowden, who seemed to never have met a man he didn't like, had come to detest the outspoken, cocky Spurrier. But this escalated tensions to a new level.

"Sometimes you wonder if their coaches instruct this type of action," said Spurrier, who showed the media a videotape he said documented his claim. "I've had enough of it. I'm speaking out for Earnest Graham and everybody in college football. This kind of [stuff] should not happen, but it seems to happen over and over when we play these guys."

Responded Bowden: "I've never in my 47 years had a coach accuse my players of dirty play. But now this is twice he's done it. It's sad, really."

After the game, Dockett was heard bragging about hurting Graham, but it was not clear whether he was saying he did it on purpose or was just happy he had knocked a key player out of the game. Dockett professed his innocence, and an official review of the tape was inconclusive.

In the next game, against Georgia Tech, Dockett came out wearing the words "Not" and "Guilty" on his wrists and had his best performance of the year, tying a school record with five tackles for losses. "Darnell was unblockable," teammate Abdual Howard said afterward.

"No doubt it affected him," Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews said. "It affected all of us. There's a difference between playing dirty and playing hard. Here's a young man who plays hard, who plays aggressively. He tries to make all the tackles. But that doesn't mean he tries to go out and hurt anyone."

Dockett still maintains he did not try to injure Graham. He insists he is no longer bitter. "Now, it's like, over with," he said.

A big Redskins fan as a kid, Dockett said he will remain that way, even though Spurrier is now in charge.

"Steve's a great coach," Dockett said. "He'll probably want me to play for him."

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