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The 6-foot-3, 325-pound man straps on his white Nikes, slips into a gray “Bills” cut-off T-shirt and turns out of the locker room. He’s hulking. Filthy rich. Laughing. Indeed, Marcell Dareus appears immune to pain of any sort, be it physical, emotional, psychological.
The Buffalo Bills defensive tackle trucks to the back corner of the fieldhouse at One Bills Drive and takes the seat on the bed of a golf cart, arms crossed.
Begin a question with “Everybody close to you … ” and Dareus cuts in.
Once you peel back this outer layer of joy, there’s this chilling truth: Everybody close to Dareus dies. His father, his grandmother, his grandfather, his mother, his mentor, his brother, close friends. All gone. You’re damn right he’s dejected, depressed.
“Every day. Still to this day. Still to this day. Every day.”
So Marcell Dareus loathes the perception of Marcell Dareus. All outsiders see are sacks, a drug arrest, more sacks, a wrecked white Jaguar, a historic contract, that daily mega-watt smile. But nobody has a clue. Not even his own coaches and teammates. Snipes Dareus, “Nobody knows anything. People on this team don’t even know ...’”
No, players are not robots to plug into a fantasy football lineup by you or a 3-4 defense by a coach. They’re not emotionless lemmings. Take the worst family death in your life – how did that tragedy wreck your day, your week, your year? How did you function at your job?
Now try functioning in front of 70,000 fans every Sunday with millions watching at home. Now multiply that tragedy by four, by five, by six.
This is the burden the 26-year-old Dareus carries.
The reason he was late flying back to Western New York the long weekend after Buffalo’s 22-17 win over the New York Jets was that his uncle in Alabama was in ICU. Dareus felt compelled to stay at his side every second he could.
“I know he’s next,” Dareus says.
His voice softens. He repeats himself.
“He’s struggling. I know he’s next. … He had something with his leg. But it kind of messed up his body. All together, everything. It hurts to watch him deteriorate in your face.
“You know how that is — you’re seeing someone just fall away.”
Learning to say goodbye
“Why … am I talking to you?”
A scowl replaces the smile midway through this conversation. Reliving the deaths, one by one, an angry Dareus drops a profanity and steps away.
Then, he proceeds. Each death more painful than the last. His instant reflex, his coping mechanism to break into a childish laugh each time.
First, he lost his dad to prostate cancer. Marcell was only 8 and his mother wouldn’t let him say goodbye as he died. He didn’t know what to feel then – “death was new to me.” Dareus jokes he only cared about “cereal” and “cookies” then and couldn’t process the raw emotion of losing a father who, honestly, wasn’t always in his life growing up in Birmingham, Ala.
The second death, however, did strike him. His grandmother, Ella Alexander, helped raise Dareus. And she died of natural causes, he said, when he was 11 years old. Right then, he understood death, that it was the last time he’d ever see her.
At the funeral, it dawned on him. An “Oh, damn … ” dread.
“I realized she wasn’t going to be there anymore – and I wouldn’t see her ever again – that hit me,” Dareus said. “That hit me.”
His childhood got only tougher.
As a kid, he never owned a stick of deodorant. Kids bullied him for wearing the same clothes, the same shoes every day. Many nights, there wasn’t a bite of food on the table. His mother, Michelle Luckey, raised six boys and one girl on $600 a month, confined to a wheelchair for years due to congestive heart problems. Many nights, the entire family sat in the living room watching TV as their mother choked back tears.
“That’s pretty damn hard, bro,” Dareus said. “Like not having deodorant is one thing. But just imagine the lack of everything else.”
Football was the escape from reality.
His first day of practice, Dareus showed up in swim trunks and sandals and, initially, disdained the game. Then, sure enough, he set the park record for tackles in a season. He began daydreaming that maybe, just maybe, football could grant his entire family a better life.
Into high school, as it became clear Dareus could legitimately star one day, one man embraced the role of mentor: Huffman High School assistant coach Scott Livingston. As Dareus says, it’s “real easy” to trip into the abyss of drug dealing and crime. Livingston steered him in the right direction – he’d have Dareus work concessions at softball games – fully aware that this kid was special.
“He saw I was really serious,” Dareus said, “with what I was trying to do and said, ‘Marcell, if you’re serious. I’m your D-Line coach. Whatever we need to do, let’s do it.’ So he just made sure things were on the up and up and ‘Marcell, you don’t need to take stuff here, you don’t need to do this.’ He gave me information I needed because he knew I wasn’t getting it from anywhere else.”
This guidance put Dareus on the fast track to the University of Alabama.
And on the cusp of the next step, like a 2x4 to the face his senior year of high school, Dareus received a phone call. Then another call. And another. Livingston was dead. After dropping Dareus off, he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a tree.
No, no. Not a chance. Dareus didn’t believe his friends for a second.
“I was like, ‘How? I was just with him.’ ”
After night classes, the two would always meet up to talk football, life, his future. Livingston taught Dareus how to prepare yourself like a professional, whether that’s class, practice or applying for college. Suddenly, the voice of reason was gone.
He should’ve been sitting down with Livingston to “debrief” this monumental moment, to discuss the next step.
“He taught me how – before you do something – to brief, prepare yourself, do it and once you’re done debrief,” Dareus said. “Think about it. Talk about it. Dwell on what you just did. So the next time you do it, it’ll be even better. So he taught me that. And to know after that day we didn’t get a debrief, it was like … oh man.”
Dareus spoke at the funeral.
More funerals were coming.
A brother’s tragic end
Mom died on May 18, 2010. She had no more fight left.
Doctors finally put her on life support and, this time, Dareus was at the bedside. He asked his mother to keep fighting and she vowed she would, yet son could see the truth in her eyes.
That the end was near.
To drift his mind away from another looming death, to escape, Dareus took a trip to South Beach with North Carolina’s Marvin Austin. Only later did he discover sports agents financed the trip and Austin, he said, had taken money. Dareus was eventually suspended two games by the NCAA.
Friends bashed him. Family bashed him. He, somehow, moved on.
Asked about mom today − the emotions of losing her, thinking of her still today − he hesitates.
“You’re asking me to dig deep,” man.”
And that’s it. He turns away, shakes his head, fidgets. Dareus cannot rehash those thoughts.
That kid in sandals would become a national champion, a third overall pick, an NFL star. Thing is, tragedy haunts and stalks Dareus. Along the way, one of his close friends died of cancer, Mississippi State defensive end Nick Bell.
And on Sept. 10, 2012 – into his second season with the Bills – Dareus’ cellphone started buzzing non-stop again.
His brother, Simeon Gilmore, had been shot and killed in a triple homicide over a $40 bag of weed. As Dareus explains, his brother promised to pay a man, Jon Skaggs, the $40 when he returned home. Skaggs broke into the home before Gilmore arrived – couldn’t find him – and stole his television and money.
Later that night, Skaggs returned and shot Gilmore five times in the chest with a .45 caliber Glock. One friend heard the shots, stepped into the hallway … he was killed. Another friend, downstairs, was sleeping … he was killed.
“He asked for the money and my brother’s like, ‘What the … do you need the money for? You broke into the house.’ Then, that happened.”
If not for the victims’ families showing mercy, Skaggs could’ve faced the death penalty. He’s in prison for life. Here at the golf cart, Dareus smiles and forces that eerie, hearty laugh again as beads of sweat trickle down his temples.
“I lost it. I lost it,” Dareus said. “That’s the first time I showed emotion anywhere – in any kind of way – because I was ready to take off in my second year in the league and take over the league. Just go … crazy. And when that” stuff happened …
Dareus takes a deep, deep breath. His voice slows down.
“It took the steam out of me. In that second year, I did OK. I played good. But it took the steam out of me. I really couldn’t … couldn’t function.”
Because in his head then – and even now – he couldn’t shake one question: “What am I playing for?” The only reason he pursued football in the first place was so his mother could afford medicine. What now? She’s dead. His brother’s dead. Everyone’s dead.
“I never got a chance to really take it all in because of all this. With this here, they’re like ‘Marcell, we know what happened but … we gave you millions.’”
Dareus gazes straight ahead at the practice field in front of him. No, this death still has not sunk in.
“Never. Never. Still never.”
Dareus was on a rookie contract then. Now, he’s the richest athlete in Buffalo sports history, a cool $108 million over six seasons.
The game doesn’t stop, but the game can also help.
Nowhere to turn
Dareus still dips into bouts of depression today. Oh, he does speak to one of his brothers regularly.
They laugh. Cry. Spill their guts to each other.
“But at the same time, my story is the same as his story!” Dareus says, with biting bluntness. “We talk to each other and it only makes us feel bad, so we don’t really talk about this stuff.”
So, who’s his rock? Who can he lean on? He keeps teammates at an arm’s length. He has four kids – ages 1 to 4 – but they’re down south. He’s not married.
“I still don’t have anywhere to turn,” Dareus said. “Where in the hell can you turn? When you’re out here and there’s a world full of women that feel like they don’t have anybody to care about them and they are searching for someone to care about them. And even when you care about them, they might not even want that anymore.
“… So that puts me in an even more depressive state.”
And while football – his job, his livelihood – never allowed Simeon’s death to register, this game is a beautiful distraction. Up in Buffalo, he is 900 miles away from Alabama, 900 miles away from death … after death … after death.
Haunting memories are, effectively, suppressed.
The moment Dareus slides into his vehicle to head to practice, his mind drifts to X’s and O’s. He’s on “Buffalo Time.” All Dareus thinks about is that day’s practice, workout, meetings.
“If I’m in the car, it’s hard for me to just think about my mom because I’m in a car and I’m not trying to wreck,” Dareus said. “I think about the next play. I think about the team we have to play against and who’s their best player.”
And once he arrives at One Bills Drive, Dareus only maintains “jovial, good conversations” with teammates to stay in the right frame of mind.
No wonder guard Richie Incognito never heard about these deaths. The kid is always smiling, laughing, “a good teammate,” he says. No wonder defensive line coach Karl Dunbar had only the Cliff notes version of Dareus’ past, calling him a “dancing bear” at the facility.
Dunbar’s own 99-year-old grandmother was put in the hospital last week – he does know football provides a release.
“Like in ‘Remember the Titans’ when the man said, ‘This is my sanctuary,’ ” Dunbar said. “Marcell loves football. And he wants to play football. He knows football has put him in a position where he can take care of his family. Because if he didn’t have this, he might not have the money to take care of them.
“It’s 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it.”
When his demons are out of sight, out of mind, Dareus is a different breed on the field.
Incognito has smashed into 330-pounders for nine seasons now and, from Day One, could tell Dareus was rare. One play at training camp, he tried to “short set” Dareus by lodging both hands into his chest off the snap. Dareus backed up, swatted Incognito’s hands away, zipped around him and all Incognito could say was “What do I do?”
“He does stuff that’s very unconventional,” Incognito said. “You get done blocking and are like, ‘Whoa, did his big butt just do that?’ Like, ‘Wow.’ He is definitely one of the premier players in this league.
“You’ll feel like you’re getting into him and blocking him and then he’ll just shed you. The next thing you know, you’re on the ground and he’s making a tackle.”
This season has been a 5-6 grind. After totaling 49 tackles and 10 sacks in 2014, he has 34 stops and two sacks through 11 games in 2015. Whenever a professional athlete inks a nine-figure contract, skepticism spreads. Doubt. So many pros tap the brakes once they’re financially secure.
Dareus is asked this question from friends constantly. He absolutely won’t relent.
Football is his escape from a painful reality. Part of Dareus thinks someone will pinch him awake and he’ll be an 11-year-old kid again – this feels like a fantasy.
“I love this sport,” Dareus says. “Football has gotten me everything I had to this day. Why would I give up on it now? It still hasn’t given up on me. It made me the man I am. It taught me things a man couldn’t teach me because a man wasn’t in my life.”
Relief on the field
Alone at his locker on Friday, Dareus is much, much more subdued. The base from Kanye West’s “Monster” bumps nearby. At the ping-pong table, battles rage. At the pool table, players shout at each other over (probably, yet again) their alma maters. And here’s Dareus. He isn’t bobbing his head, isn’t lip-syncing words, isn’t chatting with anybody.
He quietly unlaces his cleats. A gold chain loops around his neck. His uncle is doing OK for now, he says, hanging tough.
Mention the conversation with Dunbar and his eyes widen. He acts surprised, relieved to hear his own coach may know more about this depression.
“So you opened his eyes a little bit to the” stuff going on?
Nobody might ever understand just how much each death, each quake shook Marcell Dareus’ world. He’ll write a book one day. Maybe then he’ll let all emotions pour out and attempt to move on.
Right now, he’s the face of a defense in disarray. In the present and the future. Pressure? No pressure.
“It ain’t always perfect,” Dareus said. “But it still gives me time to escape. My mind is on something I truly love and care about. Even though it’s not going the way I want it to, I still enjoy the game.
“I’m still loving every minute of it.”
Even if that depression will never go away.
“I’m really just hoping,” Dareus said, “that things change. All my life I’ve kept hope.”
Story topics: Tyler Dunne