- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ask Darrius Heyward-Bey about Maryland’s 7-5 season. Ask him about longtime teammates Danny Oquendo and Isaiah Williams. Ask him how his injured calf is coming along.

Ask him anything, he insists, except his plans beyond the Terrapins’ date with Nevada (7-5) in Tuesday’s Humanitarian Bowl.

Those plans, of course, include the possibility of the wide receiver giving up his final year of eligibility. But anyone who knows precisely how Heyward-Bey’s decision will unfold is guessing right along with everyone else.

And it’s exactly how the charismatic junior wants it.

“You get asked the question all the time,” Heyward-Bey said in a wide-ranging interview last week. “The best thing I can tell them is I don’t know. And that’s the truth. They’re like, ‘C’mon, man, I’m not the media.’ And I’m like, ‘What do you want me to say?’ My mom asked me and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ Nobody knows.”

What Heyward-Bey does know is there is a piece of himself the public will possess so long as he plays football. The tall, quick wideout with the winning smile and impressive work ethic is there for all to see on Saturdays, and scrutiny invariably follows.

But away from football, he is intensely private. He is careful in determining who is privy to his phone number, wary of people who would randomly call or text after receiving his digits second-hand. And while he acknowledges the NFL’s Jan. 15 early-entry deadline, he plans to constrict the decision-making process to a tight-knit circle of family and coaches.

For all of his efforts to minimize the attention he’ll receive, Heyward-Bey’s choice will be one of the most prominent subplots of Maryland’s offseason. Sure, coach Ralph Friedgen will hire new defensive and special teams coordinators, and January is a busy month for solidifying the 2009 recruiting class.

But the matter of where the Terps’ leading receiver for three years running will play next year will attract plenty of attention - much to his chagrin.

“The focus on me is not necessary,” Heyward-Bey said. “It’s not going to be that big of a story, anyways.”

‘That mystery guy’

It came as no surprise this month when Friedgen said Heyward-Bey submitted paperwork to receive a draft evaluation. It was a sensible thing to do, and part of the process Friedgen has used for past players who both stayed (E.J. Henderson and D’Qwell Jackson) and departed (Shawne Merriman and Vernon Davis).

It was no burden for Heyward-Bey; he just signed a sheet of paper and was done in five minutes.

His next NFL-related decision won’t come so quickly, and it certainly will not arrive until well after the bowl game. Heyward-Bey said he’ll rely on his mother and aunt, as well as Friedgen and offensive coordinator James Franklin to finalize his plans.

That’s it. No teammates. No longtime friends. No hangers-on. It’s an impressive compartmentalization on Heyward-Bey’s part, one he maintained for the last three years.

His reluctance to hand out his phone number - and willingness to switch it every few months - is a trick he picked up from Kansas City Chiefs receiver Devard Darling, a former Baltimore Ravens player who got to know Heyward-Bey well before he arrived in College Park.

There are other clever ways to limit access. Heyward-Bey, like many other players, is often inundated with ticket requests. Yet he deftly shut off a potential headache, setting aside two tickets for his mother and aunt and telling his mom to allocate the others.

“If you let everybody into your thoughts, you don’t have anything for yourself, you know what I’m saying?” Heyward-Bey said. “You have nothing for yourself to think about, and I think you have to have that, especially in sports when you’re playing a sport where the media and people in general just have access to your life.”

He was particularly cognizant of those restrictions this season, which he entered as the team’s most recognizable player. As the schedule progressed, fans howled for him to become more involved in the offense.

It was not, though, a complaint he voiced or lent credence to at any point.

“Anything I do, it reflects on me and the team,” Heyward-Bey said. “It’s just like going out at night, you make sure you say the right things and do the right things. I’ve always been that way. I’ve always been conscious of what I say and do and always just being that mystery guy.”

Keeping things tight

Heyward-Bey is the center of the biggest mystery in Maryland’s program right now.

He professes not to know the answer to it, and there’s little chance anyone else can credibly say for certain what Heyward-Bey’s future holds.

“I think Chris Turner or Danny [Quendo] said someone asked them, ‘Darrius is a real private person; so, has Darrius told you anything?’” Heyward-Bey said. “He was like, ‘You answered your question.’ And I am. I’ve always been that way.”

So the questions will linger, with Heyward-Bey simply grinning with amusement at the thought of someone trying to analyze his motivations.

Perhaps his calf strain, which cost him the regular-season finale but should not keep him out of the Humanitarian Bowl, will render him wary of suffering another injury. Or maybe he’ll decide after a season during which his receptions and yardage totals declined to return for an extra year of improvement.

Surely there is some appeal to spending a fifth year in school and chasing a conference title. But he would have to do it without Oquendo and Williams, close friends who were part of his recruiting class but are graduating this year.

Heyward-Bey could do without the overanalysis. But for now he has everyone guessing, even if it is far from his intent. He figures everyone, himself included, will know his plans at the deadline and anything he offers up before then would act as a distraction.

“If I go out there and start talking about going to the NFL or not going to the NFL, the focus is not on the team anymore - it’s on me,” Heyward-Bey said. “That’s not fair to my other teammates who have practiced hard and played out there in games when it’s rained twice this year and stuff like that. It’s just not fair to them. And that goes back to my question about why I am I like that? Because it’s not me.”

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