On one of his first days as a Redskins wide receiver, Darnerien McCants wore an oversize white T-shirt with a drawing of a lion outlined in black and sparkling with silver glitter.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound McCants didn't realize the T-shirt would serve as comic relief until he walked into the locker room at Redskins Park in Ashburn.
"What's your deal, buddy?" yelled cornerback Fred Smoot.
"What is THAT?" linebacker LaVar Arrington demanded.
Another player delivered the punch line: "That looks like something you sleep in -- a nightgown or something."
Laughter cascaded through the room. Amid the din, McCants nonchalantly changed into his uniform, hanging the T-shirt in a stall. After practice, he found the shirt pinned to a bulletin board.
He took the prank in stride.
"Being an artist, you get used to being ostracized or looked at differently. So it's nothing new," says the 24-year-old McCants, who has an art degree from Delaware State and has been with the Redskins since the team drafted him in 2001.
Despite his teammates' ribbing, it didn't take them long to realize that McCants was serious about his artwork, which includes acrylic paintings, graphics and oils.
Last season, Smoot dubbed him "The Artist."
"He can do it all. . . . He's an artist," Smoot says. "Most of us are just athletes."
McCants has spent much of his adult life straddling the worlds of art and athletics, though lately he's had to focus on the NFL. Since 2001, McCants -- who didn't play football until his senior season at Arundel High in Gambrills -- has spent most of his time proving himself as a receiver. After being unlikely to make the team the previous two years, McCants is now competing for the No. 3 receiver spot, essentially a starter in coach Steve Spurrier's pass-oriented offense.
McCants has come a long way on the field, but not without a price: repressing the artist and accentuating the athlete. Art is his addiction, and the last few years he's felt like a heavy smoker in withdrawal. Scoring a touchdown is exciting, but it doesn't generate the visceral feeling of completing a painting. "It feeds my brain," says McCants. "Without art, I feel mentally lazy. But when I make an image in my brain come to life, it's so gratifying."
So he brings his sketchbook to Redskins Park along with his playbook. And while other guys may spend their downtime deep in a game of dominoes, you might find McCants off somewhere doodling. He has never apologized for his artistic passions, which also include poetry and music. Players have begun to commission him for artwork, and last year McCants sang Brian McKnight's "Still in Love" at defensive tackle Delbert Cowsette's wedding. "Darnerien was the first person I thought of," Cowsette says.
"A lot of people don't understand the way artists think," continues Cowsette, who graduated from Maryland in 2000 with a degree in graphic arts. "If you take an artist and take an athlete and put them together, you'll find their outlook is very different.
"It's kind of contradictory. But Darnerien pulls it off. He's got serious talent."
He is at once ebullient and a bit of a loner -- a contradiction, it seems, except when you see Darnerien McCants at work.
He's not much of a talker, doesn't hang out a lot, but he's always ready to share a song, a poem.
And he laughs a lot. It's not loud, or long, but a staccato, rapid-fire laugh that he frequently uses to punctuate his sentences.
He's breaking into one of those laughs now in the locker room after linebacker Shamar Finney hears McCants softly crooning Usher's "U Got It Bad," an R&B tune about being smitten. "What, you're in love?" Finney asks. "She got you going crazy, huh?" McCants only answers with that staccato laugh, but the "she" is actress Vivica A. Fox, whom he recently started dating.
His upbeat nature and work ethic have earned him the respect and goodwill of his teammates. They describe him as a good guy, even if, as cornerback Champ Bailey says, chuckling, McCants is "a different-type guy."
It's not just his art that makes him "different" either. McCants can be a little quirky, too. In practice, he's the receiver wearing the white gloves, not the black or maroon ones that everyone else wears. He thinks it helps the quarterback find him. And when McCants makes a mistake on the field, he's been known to loudly admonish himself. Like the time he dropped a pass and slapped his helmet, yelling, "You're supposed to get the ball, Darnerien!"
He's usually alone. After the final offseason practice, more than 80 players trudged off the field, walking in pairs or groups of three or more. Receivers Rod Gardner and Laveranues Coles joked around with Arrington. Starting quarterback Patrick Ramsey chatted with backup Rob Johnson. Linebackers Jessie Armstead and Jeremiah Trotter walked alongside defensive coordinator George Edwards.
And there was McCants, walking alone.
It's Joe, McCants's 3-year-old black Doberman, who greets him at the door of this one-bedroom apartment in Ashburn.
McCants heads to the den he's converted into a studio, Joe close behind. A black easel and black stool sit near an open window. Beneath the window is a crate stuffed with supplies: glue, black ink, crayons, rhinestones, rubber cement. And, of course, glitter paint.
Beside the crate are pastels and several baseball caps: beige, white, yellow. (A red baseball cap had purple glitter paint forming Roman numeral "V" -- McCants's number at Delaware State.) An Oxford dictionary/thesaurus, which McCants uses for poetry, sits on the other side of the box. A wooden table, for drawing, is partly covered with more art equipment, including unopened packages of paintbrushes. The studio's white walls are decorated with five black-and-white pictures, including a kaleidoscopic self-montage shot with the camera that now sits in a corner.
"When I step in here, this is my world," says McCants, standing near a closet full of paintings from his college years. "I've designed; I've created. I've got different colors, different shapes. I've got a little bit of everything to keep my mind working."
He grew up with his mother, stepfather and two brothers and a sister. The family, which lived in inner-city Baltimore for a time, moved to Columbia before finally buying a home in Odenton.
McCants showed signs of creativity early in his childhood. He remembers one summer in particular when he was grounded. He spent those days drawing comic book characters, then taping them all over the kitchen. "Anywhere I could put [pictures], I did, " he says now, chuckling.
It was about that time that Darlene Matthews realized her son was no typical adolescent doodler. She was struck by her son's depiction of a seascape, with splashing waters and white seagulls in the background. "Kids aren't that detailed when they do art," she says. It's a picture that she still has.
McCants had wanted to major in architecture, but Delaware State, where he enrolled in 1998, didn't have a program. So he turned to his first love. "Everyone is an artist," he says, "because the first things [schools] hand you as a child is a pencil and paper. Some people just grow away from it, but it's part of my life.
"I can't shake that."
In college, McCants became a technically skilled artist known for his contemporary realist paintings, says Donald Becker, an assistant professor who taught him at Delaware State. A requirement for art majors is an art show as a senior thesis. McCants sold at least half of his works -- about a dozen items -- making more than $1,000.
"We were very impressed," says Lori Crawford, chair of the art department, who taught McCants in four classes. "That was very unusual to have a student sell so many works."
One oil painting that McCants has declined to sell is "The Slave," his signature work. In it, the slave's hands are tied with white rope high over his head, which hangs low. His brown body is thin and elongated. "I'm using the body to show the distortion," explains McCants, alluding to the impact of slavery on the human spirit. "With the dark background and his head down, it shows the stressful situation." Tommy Frederick, the dean of arts and sciences, offered McCants $1,000 for the painting but was rebuffed. "When I get a house," says McCants, in the final year of a contract averaging $330,000 a year, "this is the first painting going up."
Crawford didn't know McCants was an athlete until his junior year. He was so disciplined about art, she says, she found out about his sports activities only after receiving a letter from the athletic department requesting an excused absence.
McCants was oblivious, too, when it came to professional football. He overlooked the pros partly because Delaware State, a historically black college, seldom receives NFL attention. But he scored 18 touchdowns during his senior year to lead NCAA Division I-AA and set a school record.
"He had as good a senior year -- I've been coaching 30 years -- as any kid I've seen," says Delaware State Coach Ben Blacknall, who bought two paintings from McCants's art show for about $200.
Instead of preparing for workouts his senior year, however, McCants finalized his resume and studied for Praxis, a national entrance test for teacher-education programs.
When NFL teams showed interest -- the Redskins selected McCants in the fifth round of the 2001 draft -- McCants was forced to undergo an intensive regimen. Scouts emphasized the 40-yard dash, and McCants ran a 4.41, excellent for a tall player. "The 40 was the least of my worries," says McCants, who had also received a track scholarship. "The thing I needed help understanding was football."
Thinking Too Much
Before last year's minicamp, Steve Spurrier Jr., the wide receivers coach, asked for the background of each receiver. That's how he learned about McCants's outside interests. Before long, Spurrier Jr. noticed an artist's introspection in the athlete.
"He thinks before he does things," Spurrier Jr. says. "It's hard to describe, but he's a thinker. It's a plus and a minus. It's good because he's always thinking. But it's a minus because it takes him a second before he can react."
McCants smiles, nodding, when he's told about his coach's remarks. "I know I do: I try to contemplate and think through everything," he says. "When I come out there as a receiver and I see the defense, I put something in my mind.
"Then by the time I blink, the defense may have changed. I'm trying to run what I had planned in my first image. It doesn't work, so I'm looking like I don't know what I'm doing."
Deliberating between brushstrokes is fine in McCants's world. But such contemplations are disastrous on the football field. In Spurrier's intricate offense, receivers have up to three options per route, and must react instantly to defensive maneuverings. "There's a purpose," Spurrier says, "to running every route."
Spurrier brought a coterie of his former Florida receivers to Washington last year, a development that initially seemed to spell doom for McCants. But McCants had a plan of his own. He requested tapes of the Gators' 2001 season, and reviewed every game until he grasped Spurrier's concepts. Through repetition, McCants erased most bad habits, and flourished during the preseason to make the team. He played nine games last season, making 21 catches -- including two touchdowns.
According to Redskins players with the club in 2001, no one has improved as much as McCants. "I have to give him his props," says Gardner, echoing Bailey. "I didn't think he would make it."
McCants took that fatalistic view early on, too. In the 2001 season, when the offensive unit held meetings under then-coach Marty Schottenheimer, McCants's mind was elsewhere. After the lights were turned off for video screenings, the artist leafed through his playbook to find a blank sheet -- for sketching.
Schottenheimer, a disciplinarian who never caught McCants, kept the receiver on the roster. Although McCants didn't play that season, the organization was drawn to his uncommon blend of size, speed and sure hands. "He hasn't played a whole bunch of wide receiver," Spurrier says, "but he's got all the qualities of a big-time receiver."
So art was put on hold.
Before last season, the man McCants thought couldn't pronounce his name was commissioning him to do a painting. Smoot wanted an artist's rendering of his initials. He had to wait for a while. Then wait some more. At the end of the season, Smoot resorted to threats. "Man, it's been a year and you still ain't do my piece," he groused. "You're going to be The Ex-Artist if you keep it up."
So McCants went to work in March.
"You know how Smoot is outgoing, flashy," McCants says. "It has to stand out."
The painting -- an "F" interlocking with "S" in gray with a black background -- stood out to Smoot. ("He really made it come to life," he says.) McCants enjoyed the work because it seemed like a jump-start. "Once I did that," he says, "I released all this energy inside my head."
He plans to take football as far as he can, but he also has his eye on life beyond the field. After all, he's not the first NFL player to go on to an artistic career. McCants is inspired by Ernie Barnes, a former offensive guard with the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos for six years before becoming a successful painter. Barnes retired in 1965 after receiving an offer from New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin, who was impressed with his art: $14,500 -- $1,000 more than Barnes's annual salary -- to give up football and paint for six months. He gained national exposure as the ghost painter for Jimmie Walker on the TV series "Good Times." Barnes, renowned for his depictions of black urban lifestyles, became the official artist of the 1984 Olympics. His paintings have sold for six figures to collectors including Bill Cosby and Norman Lear.
"I never stopped drawing," Barnes, now 65, once told Sports Illustrated.
McCants vows never to stop drawing, too. He is even making arrangements to do a show later this month. And Delaware State's athletic department wants McCants to do artwork for its new football stadium, which begins construction in the fall.
His former professor, Lori Crawford, has stayed in touch and recently contacted Bernie Casey, the chairman of the board of Savannah College of Art and Design. Crawford wants Casey -- an artist, art collector and former NFL player -- to meet McCants. Casey played in the NFL for eight years, starting in 1961, before becoming an actor and filmmaker. After playing for the San Francisco 49ers through 1966, Casey was traded to the Atlanta Falcons for their first-round pick (No. 3 overall) -- a star quarterback from Florida named Steve Spurrier. Casey wound up playing two years with the Los Angeles Rams, then went into the movie business, appearing in more than 40 films. ("I was traded for him!," a surprised Spurrier said. "Isn't that something?")
McCants recently resumed work on an abstract painting that he'd put on hold two years ago. He lit scented candles in his studio, filling the room with the smell of apples and grapes.
His hands are large, with long fingers, piano fingers, his musician friends say. His hands are dotted with a few tiny scars, from childhood and the NFL -- someone inadvertently stepped on him with cleats.
But the football field is far from his mind as he listens to CDs of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart.
A paintbrush all but disappears into McCants's right hand.
And the artist disappears into his world.