Alden Darby's leadership rewarded as Tillman's No. 42 jersey returns to Arizona State practice fields.
By TYLER LOCKMAN FS Arizona
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Jersey No. 42 is retired at Arizona State in honor of the late Sun Devil Pat Tillman, but on Tuesday, No.42 could be seen roaming the football practice fields once again.
Alden Darby earned the honor of wearing a camouflage No. 42 jersey with "Tillman" on the back during practice for the rest of the season, part of a new tradition implemented by coach Todd Graham.
"To earn that jersey is really hard to do," Graham said Tuesday. "Alden Darby earned it because every single day he's brought it in the classroom, in the community, on the field, off the field. I think he's having an All-Pac-12 season. He's just been phenomenal."
Before the season, Graham and his defensive staff came up with the idea to honor players on defense who along with strong on-field performance display leadership, passion, service and dedication to academics -- all trademarks of Tillman. Once chosen, a player will wear the jersey in practice for the rest of the season.
A total of 11 Tillman jerseys can be bestowed during a season, but Darby is the first honoree.
"I'm not going to lie: I wasn't expecting to be the first one to get it," Darby said. "I actually kind of forgot that we had the Pat Tillman jerseys, so I wasn't expecting to be the first one to get it. I kind of thought it was going to be Brandon Magee or something like that."
Darby has drawn high praise from Graham lately, particularly for how hard he plays. Darby has twice totaled 12 tackles in a game -- including last week's loss to Oregon -- and also has two interceptions and one sack.
"Those (jerseys) are very hard to come by," Graham added. "There might only be one all year because the criteria is so high. So that speaks volumes about what (Darby) has done as a person and as a player."
Tillman played linebacker at ASU from 1994-1997, was the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 1997 and went on to play professionally for the Arizona Cardinals. In late May 2002, Tillman enlisted in the U.S. Army, walking away from football because he felt a duty to serve after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He died in 2004 while serving in Afghanistan.
Since Graham took over at ASU, he has used Tillman's accomplishments as a student, athlete and citizen as an example for his players. Tillman's image is displayed prominently throughout the football program's headquarters in the Carson Student-Athlete Center.
"Pat Tillman was the greatest example of service -- he gave his life for his country," Graham said. "Excelling academically -- 3.84 GPA, graduated summa cum laude in three and half years, academic All-American. Player on the field -- Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac-10, All-American player on the football field.
"But the most important things are the intangibles. He was not perfect. He was hard to coach, he was dynamic, he was kind of like taming a wild horse. He was something special, and we celebrate the uniqueness of each individual, but at the end of the day nothing came in front of his family or his team."
Graham told his players prior to last week's game against Oregon that he would be selecting a player to wear the No. 42 jersey the following week, but later that night, safeties coach Chris Ball gave away the secret by congratulating Darby.
"They know everybody's going to turn it up in the game, but they want to see it in practice consistently," Darby said. "They've seen that in me every day. They say I bring it every day. I'm always consistent and practicing hard."
Darby, who has 41 tackles and two picks on the year, said he wasn't sure about the camouflage pattern on the jersey at first, but it grew on him quickly, and the jersey is, of course, about much more than its appearance.
"It's an honor to put that jersey on," Darby said. "I feel honored having Pat Tillman's number on it and his name on my back. It makes me feel proud of myself.
"But I'm not satisfied, of course. I always want to elevate a little higher than this."