Hurt

Aaron M. Sprecher via AP

I still can’t sleep some nights. My mind starts racing. My chest gets tight. My heart aches. It physically hurts. Used to be that whenever a wave of anxiety like that would hit me, I'd think I was having a heart attack. For real.

Some nights, I still go to a dark place. As a matter of fact, I haven’t slept on my left side in eight years. I only sleep on my right. Can’t even think about turning the other way.

The other way is … it’s an emptiness.

See, when I was growing up in small-town South Carolina, I was one of nine. Well, let’s call it seven in the house, because two of my older brothers were in prison. Three girls in one bedroom. Four boys in the other. Me and my brother Keivonte actually had to share a twin bed, even when we were grown.

We used to be rocking those fake jerseys from this place called Citi Trends. Everybody from the South knows what I’m talking about. You ask your mom for a Michael Vick jersey for Christmas and you get that thing with ATLANTA 7 on the front and no name on the back.

We’d be dreaming about how it was gonna be someday, like, “Man, when I make it to the league, I’m gonna have a closet full of real jerseys. And some Jordans, too. No more Citi Trends. No more high-water jeans, bro. No more running two miles to football practice because we ain’t got a car.”

That’s how little kids dream, you know?

I always slept on my left. He always slept on his right. For 17 years of my life, that was just what it was. We were attached at the hip.

Courtesy of Darius Leonard

Then one night in 2012, my brother got taken away from me. Over some stupid shit. Over a fight. Over nothing. And to be honest with you, I don’t think I’ve slept in peace since. 

That empty space in my heart ... it’s still empty.

Making it to the NFL, making the Pro Bowl, making all our dreams come true, it hasn’t taken that pain away.

December 15 was the day he died. This will always be the hardest day of the year for me. But I’m going to use today for something positive. I’m going to use this day to tell you our story.

Keivonte was tall.

I was small.

He was goofy.

I was goofy as hell.

Our main mission in life was to make you laugh. When you’re growing up with a lot of siblings in a small town, the things you do for fun are just ... stupid. Me and Keivonte were the young boys in the family, so getting control of the TV was tough. We used to entertain ourselves by trying to find creative ways to scare people in the house. Especially my sisters. Hide in the cupboard, turn the lights off in the kitchen, pop out of the closet when you’re making breakfast — whatever.

You’re standing there making some eggs and that demon hand come out from under the kitchen table like —

Blawwwwwww!!!!!!!

That shit used to make me laugh so hard I’d be crying.

We had to entertain ourselves, you know? Laughter was the best medicine for the struggle. We were living that life where some nights you were showering in the dark because our lights had been cut off. Or the light bill finally gets paid but you’re going over to your friend’s house to grab a shower because now the water’s off. But looking back, it’s not even a sad thing. We didn’t want your pity. That struggle is what made our family what it was.

We were better than rich. We were close.

I’m not lying. You know how much money I’d pay to bring my brother back?

Aaron Doster via AP

One of the things that kills me is that he didn’t get to see who I became. Because when we were kids, everybody doubted me. I know you hear NFL players saying stuff like that all the time, but just to give you some perspective on it, I was so small that I wasn’t even playing on varsity ’til the 11th grade. I’ll never forget, they were handing out the jerseys at the beginning of the season, and they didn’t have enough new jerseys for everybody so they gave me the sorry-ass THROWBACK.

You know when they give the benchwarmers the old design with the busted number?

They gave me number 2. Deuces! And I wasn’t no punter. The disrespect had me going crazy.

Man, even my wife was hating on me back then!! I’ve known her since kindergarten, and we were always super close. We literally used to play house with the Fisher Price kitchen set in Ms. Susan’s class. She was ride or die! But then you know how it goes when you get into middle school. Now all of a sudden the game’s changed. She’s got her little clique of girlfriends and everything.

I go up to her one day at lunch and I’m trying to lock it in.

I’m like, “Hey Kayla, will you be my girlfriend?”

And she’s like, “Nope.”

I think her clique was even like, “Ewwwwww!”

She shut it down immediately. I even came back in after recess, like, “Are you sure?

She’s like, “Yeah, I’m sure.”

In the back of my mind, I knew she would come around. I just always had this belief that I was gonna prove everybody wrong, even when it seemed crazy. With football, with Kayla, with my family’s situation, with my dreams ... I was just waiting on it. Waiting for that growth spurt, literally.

I’ll never forget, I grew like four inches the summer before my junior year of high school, and that’s when everything started poppin’. I was dog off the leash playing football now, because, like I said, me and Keivonte used to run everywhere. Not having a car, that was like a superpower in a way. Bro, I was doing 20,000 steps before there was a Fitbit or whatever. I was doing the workout before the workout.

I grew like four inches the summer before my junior year of high school, and that’s when everything started poppin’.

So now when the fourth quarter comes around and everybody’s gassed, I’m fresh. I’m fresh as a new pair of socks, man. Now I’m everywhere and I’m not 135 pounds no more. I’m hitting you with some pop. I’m doing good.

All of a sudden, over Christmas break, guess who wants to know if I wanna go to a party with her across town?

Yes.

Believe it.

She hollered at your boy.

Or that’s what I thought. We’re in her mom’s Ford Expedition listening to Jagged Edge on the way to this party, and I’m thinking I’m in. She’s definitely trying to holler at me. We on that R&B vibe. Life is good. But then we got to the party, and Keivonte stole my shine, man. This dude was such a good dancer that he’s got everybody dancing with him. I’m standing on the sideline like, Damn. I’m trying to play it cool, and then I’ll never forget, Kayla starts dancing with him. And I’m like, Naw. Hell naw.

She still makes fun of me for that. It lit a rocket under my ass, man. I had to get up off the sideline and go get my girl.

After that, it was a wrap. But we actually had to keep our relationship on the down low, because interacial relationships in our small town were not really a public thing. It was like you had to keep things real quiet, or people could cause some problems for you, you know what I mean? Obviously our friends and family knew the deal, but weren’t really putting it on Facebook or anything. A lot of people in town thought we were still just friends. It’s funny, we used to write each other these love notes and pass ’em on the sly in the hallway or whatever, and I’d keep them in my wallet. If I was having a bad day, you know, I’d just open up the wallet. Get that little boost. As a matter of fact, I still keep some of them in my wallet to this day.

Courtesy of Darius Leonard

To be honest with you, I don’t think I’d have survived everything that’s happened in my life without my wife being my rock. My Day One rock (we’ll forget her middle school foolishness). Almost a year to the day after we got together at that party, we were out on a date at this place called Huddle House. It’s like a Waffle House-type joint. My phone started blowing up, and I actually ignored it at first. We’re on a date, you know? But then everybody knows that sick feeling when you notice you’re getting way too many calls. You know something bad is on the other end of that line.

I finally answered and it was like, “Your brother got in a fight outside the club. He got knocked out. They’re taking him to the hospital.”

When we got there, it was so scary because he was lying there unconscious, hooked up to the machines and everything. But all the doctors and nurses told us that he was going to be alright. It just seemed like some head trauma. He was resting. Some swelling and this and that. It was gonna be all good.

He opened his eyes four different times while we were there.

Never, in my mind, did I think I was saying goodbye to him. Never.

He was just in a fight. People get in scraps. He didn’t get shot. He wasn’t the kid who dies, you know what I mean? He was just a goofy kid. He got in a fight and he hit his head. Doctors were taking care of him. We’re good, bro. You’ll be outta here soon and we’ll be doing stupid shit to make each other laugh again. Pulling goofy-ass faces again. Talking about the stuff that only me and you can talk about. We got big plans. We got shit to do. I’ll see you soon.

A few days later, on December 15, I got the call that changed my life….

“Your brother … he’s gone.”

“What are you talking about?”

“He’s gone, bro. He’s just … I don’t know. He’s gone.”

Courtesy of Darius Leonard

Sometimes I feel like no matter what I say next, it’s impossible for people to understand how I really feel. I’ve talked to therapists. I’ve talked to friends and family. I’ve tried to express my pain. But at the end of the day, all people can really tell me is, “I’m sorry.”

I’m tired of hearing, “I’m sorry.” I don’t want pity. I want an answer for how to take this pain away.

After Keivonte died, everything was just a really dark blur. I wasn’t no big five-star recruit. My grades were a mess. I wasn’t talking to anybody. I didn’t have a future. I ended up going to South Carolina State because I knew I’d have my family close, but people don’t go to the NFL out of South Carolina State. And anyway, I wasn’t even in the right frame of mind to dream big. I was just trying to make it through the day.

I redshirted my freshman year and I started spiraling. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t eating. I was having such bad chest pains that I literally thought I was having heart attacks. My anxiety, it wasn’t just a mental pain, man. It was physical. Excruciating.

The biggest thing for me was guilt. My momma always told us when we were kids, “If one of you gets into a fight, you all fight. You have to protect each other.”

I was haunted by the fact that I wasn’t there to save him. When my head hit the pillow at night, I couldn’t stop those thoughts.

Without Kayla being there for me, I don’t know where I’d be. Probably not here telling you this story, as hard as it is for me to tell it.

If I’m being honest, these feelings of anxiety and depression — they’re not things of the past. I know I’m supposed to be this Cinderella story. The kid from SC State who became a Pro Bowler and proved everybody wrong and all that. But those feelings are still something that I live with, and I try to overcome them each and every day.

If I’m being honest, these feelings of anxiety and depression — they’re not things of the past.

And the way that I overcome them is by reminding myself why I’m here.

I’m here to fulfill those dreams that me and Keivonte talked about when we were sleeping two to a bed, or sometimes just on the floor.

That’s what got me out of that really dark place when I was in college, and that’s what keeps me going today, on the hardest day of the year.

I used to always tell him — and everybody I knew — that I was gonna play for Clemson someday. Well, Clemson didn’t want nothing to do with me when I was coming out of high school.

So what’d I do when we played Clemson my senior year? I had 19 tackles and a forced fumble. We got rolled by them, but I made my mark on the world. They started calling me “Maniac.”

I used to always tell my middle school teachers on career day that I was gonna be a professional football player. They’d tell me, “Pick something realistic, Darius.”

So what’d I do when I got drafted by the Colts and Bleacher Report said I was the worst pick of the whole draft? A D+ grade? I went out my rookie year and I wouldn’t be f****** denied. I led the NFL in tackles and got Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP Photo

I became a Pro Bowler. I became a captain. I became a husband and a father, with another baby girl on the way. I got some Jordans, too. I got everything we dreamed about and schemed about.

But the truth is that I’m still in pain.

The truth is that I still can’t sleep on my left side.

The truth is that I still have to work through my anxiety.

All that stuff, it doesn’t make me weak. It makes me so strong, bro. It feels good just to say it and not hold everything inside. It feels good to be honest. It feels good because it’s real.

If you look at me and you see a Cinderella story, or a superhero, or the Maniac or whatever, just know that underneath the helmet is a real person who is still working through some real pain.

I know there are a lot of people reading this who can relate, but maybe they’re holding everything inside. Maybe they weren’t as lucky as I was growing up. Because no matter how bad shit was for me, I always had that one person that I could talk to, and it was like we were speaking our own language. We just understood each other on a different level. We didn’t even have to say a word. We could shoot each other a quick look and we’d know.

I lost that person eight years ago.

And damn it still hurts.

I miss my brother, and I love him, and sometimes when I can’t sleep at night, I still talk to him.

Keep watching over me, brother.

I got the message. I’m gonna keep going. I’m gonna keep smiling. I’m gonna keep making people laugh. I’m gonna raise that trophy. I’m gonna raise that family.

I’mma do it for everything we been through.

I’mma do it for us.

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