You are the average of the five people you hang around with the most.
My pops taught me that.
He taught me about a lot of things, actually, but especially about football. He played running back in the NFL for five years — spent four of them with the Bills — and even though I was too young to remember watching him play, you better believe he put on the tape for me and my brother more than a few times.
I didn’t get his size, but he taught me how to play big — how to turn speed and athleticism into violent collisions, and how to make sure that you enforce your will on every play. He also taught me that if you want to be the best at what you do — the very top, top tier — you need to operate every day knowing that somebody else is gunning for you. And they’re putting in the work. Are you?
Being around him made it really easy to fall in love with football. And it’s honestly the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do with my life — excel in high school, distinguish myself in college, and then make it to the league, just like Pops.
The thing is, at first, it was all very simple. Like from a young age, the idea of making it to the league didn’t seem like some really big dream. I knew I had gotten the skills and love for the game from my dad, and that if I followed his example I’d make it to the NFL and then just live a happy life from there.
Pretty simple, right?
But when I was 10 years old, that all changed. My whole perspective and mentality on life did. All at once.
See for a lot of my childhood, I really did get to enjoy the benefits of having a comfortable upbringing. I remember being able to eat out at nice restaurants whenever we wanted, and not having to worry about what we picked off the menu. I mean, when you’ve never experienced what it’s like not to be able to do that, you take it for granted.
But after a while, as my dad’s NFL career got further away in the rearview mirror, our financial situation changed. As a result, our lives changed, too. Little by little.
It played out in different, subtle ways, but the change I remember most was how we ate. Suddenly there was no flexibility when it came to meals. We had a strict eating schedule that depended on which fast-food place was offering what deal. On Monday, it was some deal going on at Popeyes. On Tuesday, it was some deal at a Chinese place. On Wednesday, it was wings. And so on, rinse and repeat, every week.
Honestly, it didn’t really phase me that much. It’s just food right? I didn’t realize my dad had lost just about all the money he had earned playing football. And I didn’t know the desperate means he’d resort to in order to try to regain the lifestyle we’d been accustomed to.
One day when I was in fourth grade, I was outside with my neighbors playing basketball. I remember it was a Saturday, Valentine’s Day to be exact. It was probably around noon. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye, I see my sister running toward us, and I can tell right away from her face that something’s really wrong. She’s out of breath, crying. And then she shouts.
“Dad’s been shot!”
Right then, time froze. I was stiff. Like hearing those words strung together just didn’t register in my mind. Like, nothing could happen to my dad, you know? He was a superhero, man.
I didn’t know the desperate means he’d resort to in order to try to regain the lifestyle we’d been accustomed to.
“Dad’s been shot! He’s at the hospital.”
Suddenly, I’m running, sprinting to my mom’s car and speeding toward the hospital. Everything up to the point when we got there is basically a blur. Just a million thoughts and emotions you’re trying to process all at once.
The next thing I really remember is walking into the hospital room.
My pops was still alive, but he was in bad shape. In a state I never ever expected to see him in. He had been shot seven times. Seven. And he was hooked up to a bunch of machines that were helping him stay alive.
And then, I noticed that he was handcuffed to the bed.
It was a drug deal that had gone bad. People my dad thought he was tight with had turned on him and left him for dead.
The average of the five people you hang around with the most, right?
My dad had said that to me many times, but this was the first time I’d ever thought about it in terms of who he was hanging around with.
It was in that moment, seeing my dad in that condition, handcuffed to the hospital bed, a switch flipped inside me.
Even after he recovered, I was changed. I think it was because I realized you really can’t take anything for granted — from what you can order off a menu to life itself. You have to act and live with purpose. No matter how high you make it, your decisions can take you down. Nothing is given.
Seeing my dad in that condition, handcuffed to the hospital bed, a switch flipped inside me.
I had held up my dad as a superhero up to that point, but in fact he was very human. And so am I.
And seeing my dad through that lens was extremely difficult, but ultimately I’m joyful for the journey. I feel eternally blessed that we didn’t lose him, and that he managed to turn things around and be a big part of my journey to the NFL. I’m grateful for all the talent and knowledge I’ve gotten from him when it comes to the game of football. But I’m also just as grateful for the lessons I’ve learned from him in terms of what not to do.
One of those lessons was that, just like the streets, the NFL is fast money. If you let fast money dictate your lifestyle and you choose liabilities over assets — not just in terms of what you do with your money, but with respect to the company you keep — it creates a drain. And once you create that drain and the game checks stop coming, it’s easy to go back to the streets looking for more fast money. That’s when things go bad.
It happened to my dad. It happens to way too many former football players.
But in that moment, standing in that hospital, I knew with certainty it would never happen to me. I was never going to let myself end up in that kind of situation.
It was after he was shot that my dad told my brother and me that one of his biggest regrets was not putting the work in when he could have — that he hadn’t taken the game seriously enough. He had been living off his natural abilities rather than building on them. He hadn’t put enough deposits into the game, so when he needed to make a withdrawal, there was nothing there.
So for me, coming into the NFL, I don’t have any illusions that I’ve “made it.” I understand that now is the time when the work really starts. So you better believe I’m approaching this opportunity with a clear head.
I’ve put in my deposits — practice by practice, day by day, year by year — in preparation for this moment. I put in the work to become a five-star recruit in high school. I made the decision to stay close to home and attended UCLA, and I worked hard to get my degree in two years (2.5 semesters to be exact). I had some great performances on the field, was named a team captain by my coaches, and walked away really proud of what I had accomplished in college.
But it didn’t just come together really neatly. Like anything else that’s worthwhile, the process challenged me in ways I never expected.
After playing in our bowl game my freshman year, I got a call from my mom telling me she was being evicted. My parents had split up when I was in seventh grade, and I knew that my mom was struggling to get by. But hearing the news that she was being kicked out of the place she called home was definitely a shock to the system. While I was helping her move out, carrying boxes back and forth, my mind was racing with different ways to make sure she’d be straight. I’ve always been a momma’s boy, and I felt a responsibility to step up. So the solution became really clear: She’d move in with me.
I just had to ask my roommate first.
Honestly, that was a pretty easy sell — he loved my mom, too. So for the next couple of years my mom slept in my room and I either slept on the couch or on the floor in my apartment. It wasn’t your “traditional” college experience, but, honestly, it was pretty sweet having her around, either just to ask about our day, or, yes, make us food sometimes. If there was a degree for making tacos, she would have graduated with the highest honors.
When I wasn’t staying at my apartment, I would sleep at the football facility. I’d pile up as many pillows and blankets as I could to create a makeshift bed — it’s called pallets for the ones who know — and it wasn’t so bad. I guess under the circumstances some people might have felt embarrassed, but that never registered with me. I knew I had done the right thing for my mom and my family, and that’s all that matters.
The janitors would wake me earlier than I would have liked, but the way I looked at it, as soon as I got up, I was ready to clock in. The film room and the weight room were steps away. And I took that same hustle and used it off the field to meet the right people and make the right connections to ensure that I have avenues and opportunities available to me once football is over.
I did what needed to be done. And truth be told, my sophomore year, when I spent most nights sleeping at the facility, I played some of the best football of my life.
I really felt ready to break out when I was a junior. Like I had gotten my degree, and this was the next item for me to tick off my college football checklist. But early on in the season I suffered a high ankle sprain that limited my mobility — not a great thing for a cornerback. I was told it would take six weeks to fully heal, but as a team captain I felt I couldn’t wait that long. I came back too early and, as a result, there were a few games where I just didn’t play to the level I know I’m capable of.
I knew the decision to play through the injury would probably hurt my draft value — it’s definitely something that teams asked me about during the draft process the last few months — but I also understood that, after everything I’d been through, when you’re drafted isn’t everything. It’s one thing to be a leader on a team that wins, but keeping those same values and principles when you’re injured, or when the team is struggling — like we did last year — is hard, and super important. Being there for my teammates and giving everything I can, every snap I can? Injured or not? That’s a life value. It’s bigger to me than football.
And so even if it hurt my draft stock, I know that, long-term, it’s that mentality and respect for the game that’s going to keep me playing in the NFL. My plan is for this to be a career. Now that I’m here, I’m planning on staying here a long time. A real long time.
And I can’t imagine a better place to start a new journey than New York.
Friday night, while we were watching the second and third rounds, there was a lot of nervous energy. I really expected to hear my name at any moment and kept staring at my phone.
But on Saturday, things felt a little more relaxed. Yes, I was frustrated that I hadn’t been picked yet, but I also know there’s no sense putting negative energy into what you can’t control. There are no L’s, only lessons. I know the work I’ve put in and the qualities I bring to a team. Everything I need to prove is going to be done on the football field, not by feeling sorry for myself.
I had just taken a shower and was putting on lotion when I noticed my phone buzzing. As soon as I saw it was a New York area code, I threw on clothes and went to the living room. I passed my mom, who was waiting to give my nephew a bath, and as soon as we made eye contact I think she knew without me saying.
“I think this is it, this is the call.”
This has been a weird time for everyone. There’s just a certain general lack of control right now that we’re all having to cope with in whatever ways we can. It’s a difficult time to really do anything, including navigate the draft process.
But that one moment when I was taking that phone call from the Giants — standing in my living room surrounded by the most important people in my life — it was perfect. I’m always going to remember that look of excitement on my mom’s face. And the big smile my pops had, knowing I was starting my career in the Northeast, just like him.
It really felt like my whole life had been leading up to the moment when I found out I was going to be a Giant. All those practices, the film room sessions, the nights sleeping on the floor — all those deposits — led me to New York.
It really felt like my whole life had been leading up to the moment when I found out I was going to be a Giant.
I’m truly humbled and all I can say is that I plan on bringing up the average for this organization. I’m going to come in and be a sponge from Day One. I want to learn as much as I can about playing in this system and for this team. I plan to put in the work, treat people the right way and prove myself on and off the field so that I become a respected member of this organization, and when I earn it, a leader.
After I was selected, we did a little champagne toast and my dad said something that stuck with me. “New York is a place where you’re going to be under a lot of pressure. The fans there love their football and demand winning.” Then he raised his glass. “This is going to be the toughest challenge you’ve ever faced, but Son, you were built for this. Embrace it. Now it’s time to put your head down and get to work!”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
See you soon, New York.
Darnay is also a mentorship program leader at the Future Elite Academy, a new facility opening in Westlake Village, California that will focus on the development of young men either entering or repeating their eighth grade year. You can learn more about his journey here.