The happiest days of Devard Darling's life are the saddest.
How could they not be, ever since the Baltimore Ravens rookie wide receiver lost his twin brother, Devaughn, over three years ago? How could they not be, when the thing that Devard Darling loves to do -- his passion, now his profession -- was the very thing that took his best friend away from him?
The first day of the NFL draft this spring should have been a purely joyous one for Darling. His mother, Wendy Hunter, wanted to turn April 24 into a celebration, a testament to both his achievement and to the obstacles he had overcome. Friends and family gathered at a cousin's house, just down the street from Hunter's, in Sugar Land, Tex.
But Darling was nowhere to be found for most of the day.
"It was getting a little intense," Darling said. "I just had to get away. I had to get a peace of mind, so I went to my brother's grave and I just sat there. I just sat there in silence, just to calm myself down. It's just what I had to do."
The Baltimore Ravens chose Devard in the third round of the draft, putting him one step closer to his dream of playing in the NFL. But it wasn't just his dream; it was also Devaughn's, a dream they had discussed endlessly as they tossed footballs in their backyard or bedroom.
"There are so many situations that are bittersweet for me," Darling said. "My twin brother is not here, he's not physically with me. He's here spiritually, and I know that, and I feel him every day."
Devaughn Darling collapsed and died of an apparent cardiac arrhythmia during an offseason conditioning workout at Florida State in February 2001. He was 18, a soon-to-be sophomore linebacker for the Seminoles. Devard was pushing himself through the same workout, a series of sprints and agility drills, when his brother died.
No definitive cause of death was listed on the autopsy report, though the sickle-shaped red blood cells that were diffused throughout Devaughn's body were noted as a possible contributing cause. A 300-page report by the Florida State police cleared the university of wrongdoing.
Devaughn's family felt differently. The family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the university in October 2002, claiming that Devaughn was deprived of water and other fluids during conditioning drills. Late last month, a judge in Tallahassee approved a $2 million settlement between Florida State and the Darling family.
"Devaughn didn't die because of health defects," Hunter said in a telephone interview in mid-June, prior to the settlement. "His life was taken from him because of negligence."
There was never any question whether Devard Darling would continue to play football. He had to; it was what he and his brother loved best.
"Twin loss is such a profound, enduring loss," said Nancy L. Segal, a psychology professor at Cal State-Fullerton and the author of "Entwined Lives," a comprehensive book about twins. "Many identical twins try to keep their twin alive by pursuing the things they did together. Playing football is [Darling's] way of keeping his brother alive."
Devard and Devaughn participated in all kinds of sports -- track, basketball, swimming -- as children in the Bahamas. Track and field seemed to be the logical sport for the twins to pursue: Their cousin, Frank Rutherford, won a bronze medal in the triple jump at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, and their older brother, Dennis, ran on the Bahamas' 4x400 relay team in the 1996 Olympics.
But football was the sport that fascinated them, even though the Bahamas had no teams of its own. Their father, Dennis Darling Sr., spent his Sunday afternoons watching the Miami Dolphins on television, the twins at his side. Their mother would buy them football pajamas and underwear on shopping trips to Florida.
The twins were 12 when they moved to the Houston area with their mother and two sisters and finally got their chance to play organized football. They became so good that they had their choice of top colleges. Devaughn, a linebacker who doted on his slightly older brother, let Devard decide which school the twins would attend. Devard chose Florida State.
After Devaughn's death, Florida State officials said the school would honor Devard's scholarship, but it would not clear him to play football because he had the same sickle cell trait as his brother. So he searched for another school that would allow him to play, undergoing countless medical exams along the way.
He wound up at Washington State, where he started 26 games and caught 104 passes for 1,630 yards and 18 touchdowns in two years. Darling declared for the NFL draft after his junior season.
"The one thing that took his brother's life, you'd think he'd fear it," said Monique Smith, the twins' older sister. "But he doesn't. He attacks it with a different perspective."
Darling's brother is conspicuous by his presence, small reminders and tributes that Devard keeps close. He wears the silver chain that his brother had around his neck when he died. He puts a picture of Devaughn, in a Florida State uniform, inside his pads when he plays. (The picture has become so worn that "I got smart and I got it laminated," said Darling.) He taps his chest twice and points to the sky after every touchdown he scores.
"I don't mind thinking about my brother all of the time," Darling said. "He gives me strength, he gives me inspiration. It's not always sad times when I think about him. He actually picks me up and makes me feel better. When I'm out there on the field, I'm doing something I love."
Darling, 22, will resume working toward fulfilling his dream of playing in the NFL on July 29, when the Ravens report for training camp. It will be hot, for sure, at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., when the Ravens begin practicing the following day.
But Darling doesn't worry about the heat; he grew up in the Bahamas and Texas, after all. He proclaimed himself to be a "perfectly healthy guy" on the first day of rookie minicamp in late April. His mother says that she doesn't worry about Devard because of the family's spiritual beliefs, and also because she feels that Devaughn's death could have been prevented had he received water and a break.
Nor do the Ravens express concern; they were well aware of Darling's medical history when they drafted him.
"Unfortunately, he's experienced a tragedy in his family, and the fact that he's a twin kind of adds some major concern," Ravens trainer Bill Tessendorf said. "But he's been poked and prodded by some of the best [doctors] in the country. . . . Basically the feeling is his history created some risks, but not enough risk as long as you take the proper precautions."
Said David Shaw, the Ravens' wide receivers coach, "Just like all our players, he's just got to stay hydrated and take care of his body. He's real good about what he puts in his body, about his workout regimen. I don't even give it a second thought."
The Ravens moved up six spots in the third round in order to grab Darling with the 82nd overall pick, and they are happy to have him. When Shaw watched film of the 6-foot-1, 213-pound Darling, he said he saw "somebody that has the ability to be a complete receiver. That's one of the hardest things to be in the NFL, somebody that can do some of everything."
General Manager Ozzie Newsome was impressed with something other than Darling's physical skills.
"I would have to say that Devard Darling is in the top three or four guys I've ever interviewed as a college draft choice," Newsome said. "He was very impressive when he sat in that seat: his demeanor, the way he carried himself, the way he spoke, his convictions about doing things for his brother."
Nearly everything that Darling does is somehow touched by the memory of his brother. Draft day was especially sad, because Devard and Devaughn used to retreat to their room to watch it together.
"Every year, it was like our little ritual," Darling said. "We'd sit down and watch every second of the draft and see who got picked, just waiting for the day when our names would get called."
That day -- the day when the twins' names would finally be called -- was always going to be somewhat bittersweet. "That would be the one time that they would separate," Smith said. "That would be the only time they'd accept being apart."
The twins are apart now, but only physically.
"When he was drafted," said Rutherford, "He and Devaughn were drafted, in our eyes."
"Every day I live for him," Darling said. "I live for two. Everything I do is for him."