Darnell Dockett knows there are people who don’t like him, even though they don’t know him as more than anything but a big, rough football player for the Arizona Cardinals.
“They go by what you see or what you’ve heard,” he said. “‘Oh, here’s a black guy with tattoos and dreds, he’s from the ghetto in Atlanta.’ You paint this picture. (But) you’d be surprised. He’s much more than a football player. The more guys who really see through that understand that Dockett’s a cool dude.”
Dockett’s lapse into referring to himself in the third person betrays his desire to be liked, or at least appreciated. He wants people to understand where he’s come from, how many he’s helped along the way and how good a player he’s become.
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He talks of charitable work no one knows about and of helping “about 40 family members” who were in need. He is a prolific user of Twitter, showing his irreverent side to all who care to see.
In the NFL, more and more people are recognizing his talent as the relentless 6-foot-4, 285-pound heart of Arizona’s defensive line.
His stature grew in the Super Bowl, where his three sacks against Pittsburgh tied a record held by Reggie White.
This season, his seven sacks are the most for a defensive tackle in the league. He had a career-best three against the elusive Vince Young in the Cardinals‘ 20-17 loss at Tennessee last Sunday. He also had six tackles, four quarterback hits and three tackles for loss against the Titans.
In his sixth NFL season, Dockett has 46 tackles and 15 tackles for loss.
“Boy, he is really an explosive, athletic inside pass rusher that looks like he can play obviously over a tackle and give that guy problems,” said Minnesota coach Brad Childress, whose Vikings play the Cardinals Sunday night.
Dockett’s road to the NFL was as rough as it gets. When he was 13, he came home in Decatur, Ga., to find his mother dead from a gunshot wound to the head. The killer was never caught. Dockett’s father died of pancreatic cancer.
His uncle, Kevin Dockett, took him in and provided him with the stability and guidance that led him to a football scholarship at Florida State. Dockett was drafted by Arizona in the third round in 2004.
He signed a five-year, $22 million contract extension in 2006, then made the Pro Bowl as an alternate the next season.
“I just play hard,” Dockett said. “I just honestly feel it’s in my heart and my nature to just play and give it everything I’ve got.”
Bill Davis was promoted from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator this season, and says he has seen sides of Dockett he didn’t know.
“The thing that’s impressed me about Darnell is how hard he works and how much he loves the game,” Davis said. “He practices hard. He asks a lot of questions and he really tries to do it the way you ask him to do it. It was kind of a pleasant surprise … He’s been great for me.”
Dockett likes to joke around in practice but he’s deadly serious when the game starts.
“Practice is supposed to be fun,” he said. “You get your work in but you’re supposed to laugh and relax and be cheerful. Do a good job and do your work but I try to make it fun. Then on Sunday we’re not on joke time anymore. It’s us and them.”
He is a favorite of the television crews for his sometimes off-the-wall comments. He said people misunderstood him when he talked about making “minimum wage” recently. He said he realizes he is blessed to make a lot of money, but was referring to his salary compared to that of other top players at his position.
It’s an issue that gnaws at Dockett. He joined disgruntled wide receiver Anquan Boldin in sitting out mini camp with a so-called groin injury last summer and didn’t participate in the voluntary workouts.
But before training camp started, he announced via Twitter that he was putting his contract issues aside and would not let them affect his play.
Dockett has two years left on his contract after this season and he talks about playing it out and leaving as a free agent rather than re-signing with the team. But that could all change if the Cardinals decide to enter serious negotiations with a player so important to their defense.
He believes he deserves more money because he has shown he ranks with the best defensive tackles in the game.
He may have a point. In the past three seasons, Dockett’s 20 sacks are more than those of Albert Haynesworth (17.5), Kevin Williams (17.5), Tommie Harris (14.5) or Shaun Rogers (13.5).
Second-year pro Calais Campbell took over at defensive end this season when Dockett’s good friend Antonio Smith signed a lucrative free agent deal with Houston. Campbell credits Dockett with helping him, both with advice and by drawing lots of attention from the offense.
“I think a lot of my early success came because they were double-teaming him a lot, the same with the outside linebackers coming down off the edge,” Campbell said. “Dockett brings a lot of attention. They’re always making sure where he’s at.”
Dockett sure got a lot of attention from Seattle coach Jim Mora, who insinuated he was a dirty player after he shoved his elbow into the throat of Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Hasselbeck got up gasping for air, and Dockett was fined $7,500.
Dockett said the incident was an accident and that he respects Hasselbeck as a tough player, but he avoided getting into a war of words with Mora, something he said he wouldn’t have done earlier in his career.
“I’m going to let him talk about me how he wants to,” Dockett said. “But … I tell you what, if he had a chance, he’d put me on his team.”