Marcell Dareus refuses to be derailed

FAIRFIELD, Ala. -- The good times at Lester "Sarge" Reasor's home started on a recent early Friday afternoon, just as a brief April shower had passed over this sleepy Birmingham suburb. While his godson, former Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, chatted with friends downstairs, Reasor welcomed more and more guests into his family room. There was the man who helped raise money for Dareus' high school teams. There were mentors and old friends from around the neighborhood. Reasor was enjoying this gathering as much as anybody as he ambled around in an oversized, lime-green polo shirt that hung well past his knees.

When Dareus finally came upstairs, he couldn't help ribbing the diminutive older man. "Sarge," said the 6-foot-3, 319-pound Dareus. "Are you sure you aren't wearing one of my shirts?" When Reasor shrugged and explained that he just threw on the first thing he could find, both men couldn't contain their laughter. They both understood how nice it was to chuckle about such silly moments. There had been too many other times in Dareus' life when sadness and anger had dominated occasions.

For many NFL draft prospects, the weeks leading up to that event generate the kind of anxiety that comes with preparing for a final exam. In Dareus' case, he has embraced every moment of the process, especially when he has been in the company of his support group. "I've been doing things I never thought I would do and talking to people I never thought I would meet," Dareus said. "I've met Hall of Famers. I've met future Hall of Famers. And they all know me. It's been a little overwhelming."

Dareus' excitement stems from one basic fact: He's about to get paid. In a draft filled with top defensive line prospects, Dareus, 21, consistently has been mentioned among the best. His combination of size, power and quickness could make him the first overall pick, and it's unlikely that he'll fall beyond the top five. Talents like him just don't come around that often.

Cleveland Browns general manager Tom Heckert described Dareus as "relentless" and "a high, high motor guy who makes a ton of plays for a defensive tackle." An NFC personnel director added that, "Dareus can be a great nose tackle or a great three-technique [defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme]. He's a big man with great get-off, and he's going to disrupt the pocket a lot. He could be very special."

"The biggest thing that I'll bring to the NFL is my passion," Dareus said. "I want to win. I want to be first. When I started playing the game, I never thought about being a top pick, but I eventually made up my mind to be the best I could be. And I haven't slowed down yet."

The more Dareus spoke while sitting on a tiny love seat in Reasor's living room, the more he conveyed the traits that people always mention when talking about him: The quick smile. The easy-going nature. The respect that comes from years of saying "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" to elders like Reasor. There may be a dark side that erupts from Dareus when a football is snapped, but such menace only comes out during competition. "People ask me all the time how I can be so good at this game," Dareus said. "They tell me I'm way too silly for this to be happening to me."

What those people can't see is how seriously Dareus takes his craft. When he met former NFL stars Warren Sapp and Michael Irvin at a recent promotional event, he peppered them with questions about how to thrive in the league.

Dareus also is humble. When he was the MVP of Alabama's win over Texas in the 2010 national championship game, he didn't party afterward like a rock star. He hung out with his family at the team hotel, playing pool and reminiscing until it was time to go to sleep.

That isn't to say Dareus isn't confident. He did openly tell people in the weeks leading up to that Texas game that he was going to win most valuable player honors. He then knocked Texas' starting quarterback, Colt McCoy, out of the contest and returned an interception of Longhorns backup Garrett Gilbert for a touchdown. As Dareus neared the end zone on that return -- after stiff-arming Gilbert and spinning away from another potential tackler -- everything crystallized for him. I just made the play of my life on the biggest stage of my life, he thought. And I'm going to go to the NFL.

'A very troubled story'

Life should have been really simple for Dareus after that contest. He should have returned for his junior season at Alabama, continued to display his extraordinary gifts and then jumped into the draft without any hitches in the process. But as he would be the first to admit, nothing in Dareus' world has ever come off that easily. Somewhere along the way, there has usually been a setback, a tragedy, something to remind him that any dream he coveted was going to come with its fair share of pain.

In fact, what makes Dareus so special isn't the fact that he's a gifted athlete on the verge of cashing in on his potential. It's that he's still a young man who can see all the positives in life when so many negatives have pervaded his. "What's happening to Marcell right now really is a total blessing," said Pearson Woods, Dareus' oldest brother. "We're all happy for him because we know this is a nice ending to a very troubled story."

The pain that Dareus has experienced is almost too difficult to comprehend. It includes his father, Jules, dying when Dareus was 6 and the grandmother who helped raise him, Ella Alexander, dying when he was 13. When Dareus signed with Alabama, he hugged his high school coach and mentor, a man named Scott Livingston, and promised to connect with him later that day. But Livingston died in a car crash hours later, a tragedy that was just as devastating to Dareus as the day he learned one of his best friends, Mississippi State defensive end Nick Bell, lost his battle with cancer in November.

Amazingly, that doesn't even begin to cover all the sorrow in Dareus' life. The hardest thing for him to watch was the deteriorating health of his mother, Michelle Luckey, who spent a good portion of Dareus' adolescence confined to a wheelchair as a result of congestive heart problems. Still, she managed to raise six boys and one girl while doing her best to stay strong.

"Mom was cool but she was also hard and tough," Dareus said. "She loved us and she fought for us and when it came to her kids, she would do anything. Even though she was in a wheelchair, she was always trying to get out of it and do things on her own."

Dareus, the second youngest of those children, had a similar resilience.

He didn't play organized football until the fifth grade. His first introduction to the game came when some local coaches discovered him and his gigantic brothers -- Dareus is one of the smallest people in his family -- playing on a swing set at a Birmingham park. When Dareus showed up for his first practice, he was so clueless about football that he wore sandals, swim trunks and an obnoxiously bright T-shirt.

Once Dareus learned about proper attire, he also gleaned some invaluable lessons in respect. "When I was in little league, the only people who took pride in me were my coaches," Dareus said. "All the other kids would say, 'You're sorry' because I was just a defensive lineman. It was at that point that I made up my mind to make as many plays whenever I was on the field. It got to the level where I didn't feel right out there if the quarterback wasn't running for his life."

That attitude helped Dareus blossom into a local standout at Huffman High, but he still dealt with plenty of problems at home. Luckey's health problems had become so overwhelming that even attending her son's games had become a difficult task. In fact, Dareus sensed even then that his mother was slipping away from him. Before he went to Alabama, she had agreed to let him stay with Reasor and his wife, Juanita, for his final year of high school.

Reasor had spent a good part of his life helping kids like Dareus around Birmingham. In Dareus, he saw a young man who needed a little help reaching his own dreams. "He was the kind of kid you could always depend on," Reasor said. "If I had him doing a job for me, I never had to worry. Some kids would complain or make excuses. Marcell always had to do things right."

Doing the best he could

Dareus was no different when he arrived at Alabama as a lightly regarded recruit in the fall of 2008. "Marcell didn't come in with a big head," said former Alabama defensive line coach Bo Davis, who now coaches defensive tackles at Texas. "He just had a competitive edge to him. He was always asking me what he had to do to play more. He always wanted to find ways to get better."

Said Dareus: "I'd always heard about other players when I was in high school so I decided I'd do whatever was necessary for me to make my name here. But I also listened to what [Alabama head] coach [Nick] Saban always said about controlling the controllable. I just decided to do the best I could and everybody else would follow."

Dareus' first breakout moment came during his freshman season, in a win over LSU. After starting nose tackle Terrence Cody left the game with an injury, Dareus replaced him and held his own against a strong offensive line. By Dareus' sophomore season, Davis saw so much potential in his blossoming defensive end that he called a friend in the NFL to say Dareus -- who started only four games that season -- was "the kind of talent that comes around once every 20 years."

But as Dareus prepared for his junior season, everything started crumbling around him. Luckey became so ill in the spring of 2010 that she went on life support. When Dareus went to visit her one day, he asked her if she could still keep fighting a little longer. After Luckey promised she would do just that, Dareus left the room disheartened. He turned to his good friend Moreland Smith and said, "I think my mother is giving up on me."

Dareus said he was so distraught that he decided to clear his head by going to Miami with Marvin Austin, a defensive end at North Carolina at the time and another top prospect in this year's draft. Dareus said he was invited to a party that was supposed to be a birthday celebration for Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis, but his friends were skeptical. "I was thinking that here's a 20-year-old kid who's getting ready to go to South Beach to have the time of his life," said Moreland Smith. "And I'm a grown man and I can't even afford to do something like that."

The NCAA had similar questions about that trip. Shortly after his mother died, Dareus learned that sports agents had financed the party and that he faced a yearlong suspension for violating NCAA rules. After years of trying to do the right thing, Dareus felt like everything was going wrong.

"At that point I didn't understand why any of these things were happening to me," he said. "I'd ask myself why I had to lose my mother. I'd ask myself why I had to lose those games. I felt like I'd spent the last nine years of my life building something and I was still losing everything around me."

The one asset that kept Dareus focused was his attitude. When the NCAA reduced his suspension to two games -- and ordered him to pay $1,781.17 in impermissible benefits to a charity -- he scoffed at the suggestion to appeal the fine, saying that he was more than willing to accept his punishment.

Dareus also told his teammates they were going to get 100 percent of him. As proof, he refused to let a sprained ankle sustained in Alabama's third game (a 62-13 win over Duke) keep him off the field all year. "After that suspension, Marcell wanted to show people that he wasn't that kind of person," Bo Davis said.

Dareus was so dominant last season that he left little doubt about whether he should return for his senior year. He finished his Alabama career with 11 sacks and 20 tackles for loss, and one glance around his bedroom in Reasor's basement confirmed how far he'd come. The walls were lined with various pictures of Dareus' biggest moments at Alabama and several magazines featuring him on the covers. It was the kind of shrine he envisioned creating back when nobody saw greatness in him.

Yet Dareus knows full well the price that came with those dreams. "Marcell is still a big, old playful kid at heart," Smith said. "I don't know if I'd have his personality after what he's gone through."

Dareus agreed. "I've gone from being on top of the world at the Rose Bowl to losing two games to being a top pick," he said. "When you think about everything else, that's a lot going on. I may just be 21 years old but I've already had one hell of a life."

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.