How much would you pay to be a part of a Big Ten football program? To play a Division I game in the Horseshoe? To get texts from your friends who can’t believe you’re on national television?
Henry Darmstadter figures some people would pay millions for that chance, and some wouldn’t pay a dime. For him, the cost looked like this: one year of forgoing a full-time salary befitting his Georgetown economics degree, one year of paying out of pocket for grad school tuition and one year of renting a room from a family near College Park on the off chance that he might become Maryland’s starting kicker.
Which, of course, he did, after the team’s incumbent kicker struggled in the season opener. In Darmstadter’s first game after taking over the job, he set a school record with nine extra points. In his third — at Minnesota last weekend, in front of the biggest crowd he had ever played for — he connected on a 51-yard field goal, the longest of his career. After the game, his longtime kicking coach sent him a text that pretty much summed up the experience: “You’re living the dream.”
“The whole thing is a little bit unreal to us,” said his father, Andrew, who initially thought his son’s pursuit of big-time college football was fanciful and even self-indulgent.
“Unreal” sounds about right. In an era when just about every football player is a physical marvel, Darmstadter is listed at 5-foot-7 and 183 pounds. (“I’m short, fairly unathletic-looking, obviously not the most physically fit person in the world,” he joked Wednesday. “He’s 5-7 on a good day, and he doesn’t have a lot of athletic ability,” added his father, with love.) When he showed up at Georgetown, wearing No. 51, the special teams coach referred to him as the Keebler Elf. And when he arrived as a preferred walk-on at Maryland this summer, some people around the program thought he was a new student manager.
“And they were surprised I was spending so much time in the locker room,” he said. “If you stuck me against everyone else on our team, I’d probably be the last person picked as being a guy on the team.”
So why will he be kicking field goals against Ohio State this weekend? Darmstadter — who grew up in Alexandria and went to high school at George Mason — finished his degree at Georgetown last year with a year of eligibility remaining. He had twice received second-team all-Patriot League honors, set Georgetown records in field goals made and field goal percentage and never forgot his middle-school fantasies: playing on television, playing in a bowl game, playing at the highest level. Why not take a shot?
He wound up attracting a solid list of schools that would welcome him as a preferred walk-on, including Pittsburgh, Arizona, Northwestern and East Carolina. But he also was applying for jobs as a finance analyst — getting at least two full-time offers. and wasn’t sure which path to follow. His parents had their view, and it didn’t involve road trips to Columbus, Ohio, or a year potentially spent as Maryland’s backup.
“When you send your kid to Georgetown, I guess you expect him to get a job when he comes out,” his father said. “I mean, what was he looking for? . . . But he said ‘Dad, I just want to be part of it.’ ”
Darmstadter also talked to former Georgetown players, and they had a different view. They told him he had 40 years of working in his future. They told him this was his last chance to go for it. One asked him what he’d do in a world with no money; “Oh, I’d go play football,” Darmstadter said. “There’s your answer,” came the reply.
He chose Maryland, for geographical reasons, and because his head coach at Georgetown was college teammates with Maryland special teams coordinator Pete Lembo, and because of the business school’s masters program in technology entrepreneurship. He would be paying for the chance to play, while also continuing a quintessentially D.C. internship: working part-time as a finance analyst for a Northern Virginia contractor that helps government customers “achieve their critical mission outcomes by leading them on the next stage of their digital journey.” (And you wonder why football seemed appealing?)
Maryland Coach D.J. Durkin introduced Darmstadter to his new teammates during a summer kicking competition. “Everyone, this is Henry. Henry is from Georgetown,” Durkin said, while teammates expressed surprise that the Hoyas even had a football program. Darmstadter resolved to soak up the Big Ten atmosphere even if he never got a shot to play, because this was such a vastly different experience than playing in the Patriot League, from the luxurious locker room to the teammates destined for the NFL to the food. Yes, the food.
“I mean, they just feed us really well,” he said. “During camp we’d eat like four or five meals a day. And we’d get this snack at the end of the day, and I’m thinking it’ll be like a granola bar, maybe some peanut butter and banana. No, it was like a full-blown meal. They would give you a whole pizza or a calzone, or they would give you as much Panda Express as you wanted. And you’re like, this is a snack? This is dinner!”
The team’s PR staff presented Darmstadter to local media members Wednesday afternoon — “Who wants to talk to me?” he asked a staffer on the way — and he attracted a bigger crowd of reporters than star receiver D.J. Moore, who couldn’t stop grinning at the scene. (I asked Moore if he knew Darmstadter’s last name; “No, I really don’t,” he admitted. “Is that bad? I think that’s bad.”) It was the first time Darmstadter had been interviewed since the Falls Church News-Press talked to him during his high school soccer career.
Which is all part of the charm. Playing college sports involves discipline and camaraderie and hard work and all those admirable things, and they apply whether you’re playing Division III field hockey or Patriot League football or whatever. But when you’re a 12-year-old kid working out with private kicking instructors, that’s not what you dream about. You dream about trotting out in front of 100,000 people at the Horseshoe, or making a 51-yarder in front of a hostile crowd of 44,000. Even when he was at Georgetown, Darmstadter didn’t forget that dream.
“I mean, everyone thinks it,” he said. “You’re not really watching other FCS schools play on TV. You’re watching Alabama play, or Maryland play, or Ohio State play. And just seeing those schools, you’re like, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be cool to play in front of all those people? That would be awesome.’ “
His parents, who will be in Columbus this weekend, are astonished. (“When my son sets his mind to do something, he can do it,” Andrew Darmstadter said.) His longtime instructor, local kicking coach Paul Woodside, is not. (“He could have done this years ago, but he was simply overlooked,” Woodside said.) And Darmstadter is feeling pretty good about his decision to pay for one last college football adventure.
“Oh, it’s well worth it,” he said. “It’s 100 percent worth it.”