NORMAN, Okla. -- Although born in Florida, OU junior center Ty Darlington is no stranger to the tradition of Oklahoma football.
His mother, Shelly (Fried) Darlington, was a member of the OU pom squad at the end of the Switzer era from 1986-89. Ty recalls stories she told him of having posters of the Selmon brothers on her walls as a young girl. She is the one who instilled the Sooner spirit in her young son.
“The second he was born he was an OU fan,” Shelly said. “I have pictures of him as an infant wearing OU bibs and football pacifiers and national championship shirts. He came from a long line of Sooners. They just bombarded him. He was the first grandchild in our family, so he got lots and lots of OU stuff since the day he was born.”
His family members were not just ordinary Sooner fans, though. Many of them took on essential roles in the game day tradition, as well.
His cousin, Todd Thomsen, was the punter on Switzer’s last four teams, including the 1985 national championship team that included some of college football’s greatest players in Troy Aikman, Tony Casillas and Brian Bosworth.
His aunt and uncle were both cheerleaders during the end of the Switzer era, and others were part of The Pride of Oklahoma.
His grandfather, Jack Fried, authored a book, The Winning Edge, which featured a behind-the-scenes look at the 1975 OU national title team. The book has been on display in the Switzer Center since its opening.
Darlington’s family members played pivotal roles in the building of Sooner football tradition.
Ty Darlington grew up in Apopka, Fla., a distant 1,263 miles away from Norman. Apopka, a suburb of Orlando, has been a recent powerhouse in Florida high school football, but Apopka football means a little more to Ty Darlington because his dad, Rick Darlington, has been the head football coach there for 12 seasons and has collected two state championships in his tenure.
Ty played for his dad for four years in high school, but the influence his dad had on him did not stop there. Ty’s mom remembers her sons watching film and learning the game at a young age.
“Ty is a student of the game, and Zack is, too,” Shelly said, referencing Ty’s younger brother Zach, who is an early enrollee as a quarterback at Nebraska. “They’ve watched film since they were little. They would watch and draw plays, and they understand things that I don’t understand because of their dad. Sometimes they may have wanted to turn it off because he would call them up out of bed and say ‘Come here a minute, let me show you something,’ and it wouldn’t be a critique on them, it would be an idea. He would bounce things off them. I appreciated that because he knew that they knew the game.”
Many coaches’ kids may feel overwhelmed by playing for a parent. Most parents have high expectations for their children, even more so when the parent is their coach, but Ty knew it was a chance to grow mentally in the game and learn things that would give him an edge over his opponent.
“My knowledge of the game is a lot better than most people’s my age,” Ty said. “I was around the game 24/7 when I was a little kid. I was always watching football with my dad and watching film with him. That was definitely a big advantage, being able to understand the mental part of the game.”
The long hours of watching film proved to be successful. During high school, Ty was recruited by numerous schools – Auburn, Florida State, LSU and Stanford to name a few – but he was also given the chance to be a Sooner, a dream he had his entire life, and he jumped at the opportunity.
“It was always my dream to come here to OU, but I had to check out the other places and really see what was the best fit for me,” Ty said. “I considered going to Stanford and other places, but in the end I feel like God gave me an opportunity to fulfill a dream.”
In Darlington’s first two seasons at Oklahoma he served as a reserve behind All-American and Wuerffel Trophy winner Gabe Ikard. His true freshman year proved to be a success, as he saw playing time in nine of 13 games, including one start at center against Baylor for the injured Ikard. With Ikard barely missing a snap in 2013, Darlington stepped on the field in only three of 13 games, but he knew it was a time of learning and that his time to be the star was just around the corner.
Coming into spring football and going into the 2014 football season, Ty is the projected as the top candidate to take over Ikard’s role at center. He has big roles to step into but is ready to take on the challenge.
“This is definitely a big responsibility for me, but I think I’m ready for it,” Darlington said. “Gabe (Ikard), Coach (Bill) Bedenbaugh and Coach (Jon) Cooper have all helped me to be ready to step up into that role. Some people may see that as a daunting task, but I’m ready. I can’t try to be Gabe. I’ve just got to do my thing and see where it takes me.”
Darlington will be the foundation for an offensive line in charge of protecting rising star, and Darlington’s roommate, Trevor Knight. Darlington and Knight were roommates their freshman year at OU, and decided to continue the arrangement going into their sophomore year in OU’s residence facility, Headington Hall. The relationship they have built is special, especially considering the role they will play for each other going into the 2014 season.
“We can kind of get the whole offense just in our little room,” Knight said. “He can talk about the protections and I can talk about the coverages and the back end of it. It’s a fun dynamic getting together and just being able to feed off each other.”
Darlington’s coach, Bill Bedenbaugh, said the duo’s situation is unique, but they have a chance to make something special out of it.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had that situation before where a quarterback and center are roommates, but it’s good,” Bedenbaugh said. “They’re both very similar type of people, and not all the time is a center and a quarterback that much alike. I know they’re both really dedicated to being great football players, and some of the little things that you can’t even coach, those guys are able to do. It’s a unique situation, and hopefully it will make both of those guys better.”
Fresh off an exciting Sugar Bowl win, the 2014 Sooners are motivated more than ever to finish next season on top. The hype around Norman is vast, especially with spring football in full force. Since the arrival of Bedenbaugh last season, the OU offensive line has made sizable steps towards becoming the best in the country, and Ty thinks the line has what it takes to bring the crystal ball back to Norman for the first time in over a decade.
“I think we’ve got a big chance to take the next step this year. Since Coach Bedenbaugh has come in we’ve improved tremendously. As a group we got a lot better last year, and I think we’re ready to take that next step to becoming a dominant offensive line and maybe even the best in the nation. We’ve got the pieces there. We’ve got depth and a lot of guys coming back who are experienced. I’m really excited about the group we’ve got.”
Now about that brother playing at Nebraska, one of OU’s most fierce rivals during the heyday of Switzer and Cornhusker coaching legend, Tom Osborne.
It almost seems as though the Darlingtons foreshadowed where their sons would attend college. Ty was a Sooner from birth, but Zack had a different experience. During the ‘90s, Rick Darlington was a Nebraska fan. Shelly even remembers him picking her up from the airport in a Nebraska sweatshirt on one of their first dates. Rick liked Nebraska so much, in fact, that he named their younger son after Zack Wiegert, a standout offensive lineman at Nebraska from 1991-94.
With two sons in the national football spotlight, Shelly Darlington said her family is overwhelmed with blessings. As a mother, though, she is most excited about both sons having the opportunity to get a college degree.
“Saturday for the first time--it actually seemed real to us that both sons were playing college football,” Shelly said. “As Ty was preparing for spring practice, Zack was out on the field in his Nebraska stuff. It’s a very unique thing. We’re grateful that they’re both going to get a chance to get a free education. That’s the ultimate goal. There are wonderful memories that happen with football, but coming out with a college degree and looking into their future, that’s a big deal not to have any debt coming out.”
Ty plans to finish his degree next December when he will graduate with an undergraduate degree in multidisciplinary studies. When he walks the stage, he will be the 15th member of his family to earn a degree from the University of Oklahoma. Generations have walked this campus before him, and he’s proud to follow suit.
Oklahoma football isn’t just a pastime for Ty Darlington’s family; it’s a family tradition.