On Mother's Day, a Bittersweet Break
Hard Work Pays Off for Vivian Heyward-Bey and Her Son, Darrius, A Terps Star and Top NFL Pick, but Success Also Means Separation

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 10, 2009

Vivian Heyward-Bey put her hands to her ears to drown out the racket. A boisterous group had gathered at the home of a longtime friend to find out where her son, Darrius, would be working, at least for the next few years.

His best friends were there, as was his surrogate big brother, Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Devard Darling, all watching the TV.

The room went quiet when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stepped to the microphone:

"With the seventh pick of the 2009 NFL draft, the Oakland Raiders select Darrius Heyward-Bey, wide receiver, Maryland."

His friends roared. His aunt screamed. Darrius grabbed his mother in a bear hug.

In that moment, her only child became a celebrity, a certain multimillionaire, a 22-year-old professional football player -- the payoff for her hard work and decision to accept a full scholarship for him at a boarding school eight years ago.

Vivian was left with the realization that her son would be leaving home for good.

Today is the first Mother's Day they have spent apart. On Thursday, Darrius reported to the Raiders minicamp. He plans to move to California from his home in Silver Spring next month.

After Darrius's Beninese father returned to Africa when he was a few months old, it has been just the two of them. Darrius knows it will be harder for her than for him. He has his new life in California. New digs. Plays to memorize. Teammates to meet.

"I'm not going to lie. I'm going to miss my kid," said Vivian, 58, an accountant, sitting next to him at their dining room table last week. "I know he's a grown man. I know this is what he has worked for. I'm happy for his success. But I am going to miss him."

Although Darrius lived at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills from Sunday to Thursday, he came home to their Silver Spring apartment most weekends, and she often saw him at his games. While at College Park, he visited often.

The day after she learned that her son would be playing in Oakland, Vivian pulled up the Raiders' 2009-10 schedule. They play at the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants, which will bring him close to home.

She remembered sending up a prayer that God would keep him safe eight years ago when she decided to accept McDonogh's offer. She sent up the same prayer last week.

"I've taught him well," she thought. "He's a good boy, strong and smart. He makes good decisions. He'll be fine."

* * *

Darrius began playing basketball, the first sport in which he excelled, in second grade. He won a basketball scholarship to McDonogh, where he also ran track. Then somebody got the idea to try the tall skinny kid with the fast feet on the gridiron.

"He ran really, really fast, and nobody could catch him," said his aunt, Adrienne Heyward-Bey.

He lettered in track, basketball and football. He scored 12 touchdowns his junior year and 10 as a senior and was considered one of the top prep players in the country.

When it was time for college, he chose Maryland, rejecting offers from football powerhouses such as Alabama. He told friends that he wanted to be at a school where his mom could see him play.

They had always been best friends. After Vivian lost her job as an accountant when he was 8, they moved from a three-bedroom home into an apartment. At times, she fell behind in paying bills and taxes, but she tried not to let it affect her son. She gave up her health insurance but kept a policy for him.

When boxer Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield's ear in a 1997 championship fight, Darrius, 10, was watching with his mother, picnicking on buffalo wings, veggies and blue cheese dressing on a blanket on the living room floor. They slept under a tent in the back yard, rode bikes, watched sports on TV and trekked to the Jersey shore. Sunday dinners were often eaten by candlelight on a dining room table decorated with fresh flowers.

"I wanted things to be nice for him," Vivian said. "I always made it special. . . .

"I raised him to believe he could do anything because I always felt he was a limitless person."

But she also taught him not to take himself too seriously. When he decided to run away at 6, she helped him pack, then made him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, tied it in a red bandanna and attached it to a long stick.

"She told me to watch out crossing the street, then she closed the door," Darrius recalled. "I walked outside, but she didn't come after me. I walked down the sidewalk, and she still didn't come."

She was watching from a window, of course. After a few more steps, he returned home.

"We never talked about it," she said. "He came back because he knew he shouldn't have been trying to run away in the first place. I didn't need to say that."

Darrius was playing recreational basketball in middle school when lawyer Walter Ray, who worked to secure scholarships for gifted athletes, introduced the family to McDonogh. Vivian thought attending the exclusive school would give Darrius a chance at a college scholarship. He was excited about the school's emphasis on sports.

"I know this is a good fit for him," Vivian said in an interview at the time. "I know he will thrive there."

And he did.

Since the draft, Darrius has heard from hundreds of well-wishers, from school friends to NFL greats such as Deion Sanders, who texted his congratulations.

On a trip last week to Perfect Cuts in downtown Silver Spring, his barber, Eugene Brown, cropped Darrius's hair to a helmet-comfortable length. Brown has Darrius's picture posted on the mirror at his station, right next to one of Serena Williams, just above a picture of Jesus.

"This here is Darrius Heyward-Bey, who just got drafted in the first round to play in the NFL," Brown told a customer. "This is a rookie in the NFL right here!"

The best thing about the draft pick, Darrius said, is getting to play football as a career. The worst thing is leaving his mother.

The weirdest? "I'm going to be a millionaire in, like, June."

Darrius is expected to sign with Oakland this summer. Last year's seventh pick, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, signed a contract with the New Orleans Saints that will pay him as much as $49 million over five years -- $19.5 million of it guaranteed. Darrius's agent, Ben Dogra of CAA Football, said Darrius's contract should be comparable.

The rookie has indulged himself only once since the draft, buying a $300 pair of earphones. He says he plans to focus on his needs -- housing and transportation -- not on his wants. He said he also plans to buy a house for his mother, "something nice, with a garden" to keep her busy so she won't miss him as much.

People who know him said going pro was never about the money or the prestige of playing for a specific team. His selection so early surprised some analysts and stirred debate among commentators.

"He wanted to be a first-round pick because of the significance of the achievement, but we never had detailed conversations about where," Dogra said. "I could tell he just really wanted to play football and the closure of knowing where his home would be."

At the NFL Scouting Combine, a six-day opportunity for hopefuls to demonstrate their athletic and mental fitness, Darrius ran the 40 yard dash in 4.3 seconds, the second-fastest time logged by a receiver since 2000. He underwent an extensive physical exam with X-rays and MRIs. There were psychological, memory and drug tests.

The Oakland Raiders asked five minutes of questions about his personal life and 10 minutes about football. The New York Giants made him explain some of the plays he'd made at Maryland.

"I went about it like this: All you need is for one team to fall in love with you," he said. "If you like me, great. If not . . . " He shrugged. "I walked away feeling like I had impressed a lot of the teams."

On Darrius's draft day, April 25, the Cincinnati Bengals had just taken Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith. Darrius was curious about who would go next. Then his cellphone rang.

It was Cable, saying, "Darrius, I want you to promise me one thing, that you're gonna come out here and work hard," Darrius recalled.

"Of course," Darrius responded.

Before heading off to Oakland on Thursday, Darrius stopped by to say goodbye to his mother. He called from his layover in Denver so she wouldn't worry and again from California about midnight Thursday, before he went to sleep.

Vivian will supervise her son's business affairs. And she'll continue to pray that God watches over him. "I never had him all nested up. I always wanted him to spread his wings," she said. "Young people go to college and don't come back. . . . Fortunately, he's moving because he's got a job, a job that he has dreamed of."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company