The last week of August should have been a joyous time for Virginia wide receiver Imhotep Durham. His older brother, Daniel, and 15 or so other family members were planning their trip to Philadelphia for the Cavaliers' season opener at Temple, still celebrating Imhotep's rise from an unsolicited walk-on to a scholarship player about to get in a game for the first time.
But in the predawn hours of Aug. 22, the speeding car in which Daniel was riding jumped a curb in New York and struck a fire hydrant and utility pole. Later that day, Imhotep was jolted from the euphoria of his football success by the news that Daniel, 26, the closest of his eight siblings, was dead.
"I wanted to be him," Imhotep said. "I still want to be him, I guess. He's my older brother. I always looked up to him. Everything he said always had a great effect on me."
Growing up in Brooklyn, the two brothers were opposites in many ways but often that meant they were perfect complements. "Like you have to have a left and a right," their father, Frank Durham, said.
Daniel was a natural athlete with a popping fastball and a smooth jump shot, while Imhotep, nearly five years his junior, was a gifted and dedicated student who had to work harder in sports. In recent months, they had begun collaborating musically, Daniel laying down the beats for a hip-hop track and Imhotep coming up with the melodies.
On the night he died, Daniel Durham, who left behind a fiancee, Mia Green, and their 2-year-old son, Nazir, was out celebrating his purchase of a house and his new job as a computer network engineer. According to Frank Durham and local newspaper reports, Daniel's friend Douglas Newton, 27, was intoxicated when he got behind the wheel to drive their party of four home from Manhattan some time after 4 a.m. The car had just crossed over the Queensboro Bridge when passenger Shakira Kahn, 22, screamed they were going too fast and scrambled to fasten her seat belt.
Daniel "was getting ready to buckle up, from what [Kahn] told me, and she couldn't get her seat belt on," Frank Durham said. "So he assisted her in getting her seat belt on, and by the time he went back to try to put his own seat belt on, the car had started flipping over."
The crash killed Daniel and the passenger in the front seat, Jason Kindall, 24. Newton, 27, and Kahn were relatively unharmed. Newton faces up to seven years in prison on charges including criminally negligent homicide and vehicular homicide.
Imhotep flew from Charlottesville to spend a week at home after his brother's death. He said he didn't know any longer how to feel about the sudden rise in his football fortunes, but his mother, Stephanie, suggested he think of Daniel. "First order of business," she said, "Imhotep plays."
As recently as last spring, the idea of Imhotep Durham working his way into Virginia's wide receiver rotation seemed fanciful at best. Selected at an open tryout in fall 2002, he was a quick but skinny kid with only one year of football experience. He labored in obscurity on the scout team for two years, "really too far below the surface to see the light," Cavaliers Coach Al Groh said.
But Durham has a history of working for what he wants. His high school, the Bronx High School of Science, didn't have a football team, so he went out and found the Brooklyn Patriots, a team for kids who for a variety of reasons couldn't play for their high schools. A computer science major at Virginia, he plans to attend law school next year and incorporate his interest in technology by pursuing intellectual property law or patent law.
"He's always been making things happen for himself," said Stephanie Durham, who named her son for a famed ancient Egyptian scholar, doctor and architect.
Groh began noticing the walk-on with the unusual name was giving the first-team defense "fits" on a consistent basis. "He's like one of those Boston Marathon guys," Groh said. "He's got great stamina. He never seems to wear out."
Despite sitting out spring practice to prepare for the law school admissions test, Durham has become Virginia's fourth wide receiver with the departure of veteran Ottowa Anderson, who is no longer enrolled at the school, and a collarbone injury to sophomore Fontel Mines.
"Everything that's happened is a blessing," Durham said. "I never thought I would have a chance to play."
He made his first catch two weeks ago against North Carolina, a welcome relief after dropping the only ball thrown to him in the season opener.
Daniel "would probably have laughed at me when I dropped the pass," Durham said with a smile. "Definitely. That's the kind of brother he was."