PITTSBURGH – With his ability to run away from opposing defenses, former Poland Seminary High School running back Darius Patton knew the key to making people cheer. His athletic ability and charismatic smile made him more than just a gifted football player.
Darius was known as a silently hard worker who could not only light up the football field, but also brighten up a room with his smile.
“People know Darius as an athlete, but there was a lot more to him that I will miss. His smile would light up a room,” said Darius’s high school basketball coach Ken Grisdale to WKBN after hearing about his death.
Four years ago, the most iconic player to wear number four for the Poland Bulldog football team passed away and changed how people viewed mental illness and depression.
Darius grew up in Western Pennsylvania before moving to the Pittsburgh suburbs to live with his paternal grandparents.
“He did not know his paternal side of the family,” recalled Adella Patton-Dixon, Darius’s grandmother.
One of the reasons Darius moved out with his grandparents was to escape the hardships that his mother was facing.
“His mother was having a hard time handling Darius in New Castle,” said Patton-Dixon, “We had concerns that he had trouble with his mother.”
After moving in with his grandparents before entering sixth grade, his grandmother saw how much he valued learning.
“He was very smart, always asking questions, always open to learning.”
But even with his passion for answers, his grandmother saw something in Darius that others did not – his learning disabilities.
“It would take him a long time to get his homework done. We eventually had a male therapist talk with him because we wanted him to talk to someone.”
As a social worker herself, Adella understood the problems children had growing up in difficult family situations.
“You work with kids who go through mental care and eventually move back with their parents after they get help.”
Moving back with his parents is exactly what Darius did when he grew up, where it would be easier for his family to keep up with him.
Darius was able to move back with his parents in the Mahoning Valley and attend Poland Seminary High School, where he began to sprout as a legend to the football culture of the area.
Patton-Dixon recalled, “One thing was for sure, he didn’t have low self-esteem in sports.”
A NEW BEGINNING
When Darius moved back with his parents, his family was in the midst of turning their lives around. Per the Youngstown Vindicator, Darius’s father, Shawntel Patton, had many previous problems with the law that prevented him from keeping close ties with his children in their early childhoods.
In 1999, he plead guilty to forgery and was sentenced to six months to an alternative program.
In 2004, he was convicted for conspiracy to possess with intent of distributing cocaine.
Once Darius was back in his life, however, Shawntel began to show signs that he could lead his son down a good path.
“I had a relationship with his father,” said Mark Brungard, pastor of Church of the Rock and former Poland Head Football Coach.
“I was a little skeptical of his father. But after things got sketchy for him with the law, he started to attend our church and change himself for Darius.”
When Darius joined the football team under Brungard at Poland, Brungard immediately saw a resemblance between him and his father.
“He looked exactly like his dad. He was quiet. He was an extremely hard worker and very athletically gifted.”
Brungard knew the Patton family all too well. As a college quarterback at Youngstown State, he played alongside Darius’s father Shawntel who was a running back.
Brungard led the Penguins to two national championship victories in 1993 and again in 1994 with Shawntel – when Darius was just one years old.
“For Darius, there were kids who took to him right away and others who didn’t like him because he took their spot on the roster,” said Brungard.
Darius was a standout athlete all throughout the school year, where he played football, basketball, and ran track.
“For him as an African-American, I could not imagine coming from an inner-city school in Pittsburgh to a 95% white school in the middle of suburbia,” said Gabrielle Moore-Massey, track and field relays coach at Poland.
“He adjusted fairly well coming from his other school and having a tutor and such,” said Kevin Snyder, the principal at Poland.
In the classroom, Darius was able to hold his own because of his striving to learn.
“He was actually very respectful and a hard worker,” said Poland’s psychology and law teach Ronald Rowe, “The only negative was that he refused to ask for help on assignments.”
Darius eliminated his weaknesses in the classroom by showing his strengths on the football field, where he not only started – but shined.
During his senior campaign at wide receiver, Darius racked up 800 yards on 49 catches, 12 for touchdowns.
“He was that guy, that receiver for me,” said Darius’s former high school quarterback Collin Reardon to WKBN after hearing about the tragedy.
Darius ended up becoming an All-Ohio performer and later signed to continue his playing career near his former hometown at the University of Pittsburgh.
When Darius moved to Poland, he began to experience a sense of distance from people and it continued during his senior year, where he had many issues facing him.
“Darius felt like nobody could reach out to him,” said Patton-Dixon.
Darius’s attention deficit disabilities were present throughout his final two semesters at Poland.
“He was a great athlete with limitations because he wasn’t always there,” said Massey.
Darius had trouble proving his worth on the athletic field towards the end of his high school career because he was in and out of Belmont Pines Hospital while seeking help for his depression and mental illness.
“When one of our athletes got hurt, Darius was the next man up for some of the relays and Darius struggled with handoffs with the baton. He acted like he never had done it before,” Massey recalled.
“We talked a lot in the sense of staying after his grades because of the opportunities that would be presented in front of him as far as being an elite athlete who wanted to play D-1 college football,” said Snyder, “His senior year was definitely stressful.”
When Darius got to Pitt, he immediately began seeing the playing field. His ability to catch and run earned him a spot returning kickoffs and punts as only a freshman.
“It’s almost like football came intuitively to him,” said Rowe, who also acts as an assistant football coach.
FROM BAD TO WORSE
Darius’s position returning kickoffs and punts elevated him to have a future on the Pitt Panther offense.
But a mid-season collapse during a non-contact drill at practice pushed back those plans and marked the beginning of the end for Darius’s playing career.
“I talked to the medical staff at Pitt, and they were unsure if it was due to mental health or if it was something physical,” said Patton-Dixon regarding Darius’s collapse.
Darius was also said to have been going through depression while he was at Pitt. He also began to isolate himself from his teammates and coaches just like he did while he was at Poland.
“He was very warm at first impression, but he didn’t connect well,” said current Poland Head Football Coach Ryan Williams.
Williams was the defensive coordinator under Brungard before Brungard stepped down to focus on his own kid’s high school careers. Williams said that Darius was bright at first impression, but shut down after people got to know him.
“He wasn’t real connected,” said Williams.
Darius later dropped out of Pitt after the spring semester of his freshman year. His next step in life was very uncertain.
“He was involved with a female from a different school and was trying to go to Florida to play football,” said Patton-Dixon.
Darius continued to struggle with his depression and never played football again, and on November 15, 2012, he took his own life.
“I was very surprised. Even more surprised hearing about the episodes he was having prior to his death,” said Patton-Dixon.
Teachers and coaches who remembered Darius said he did a good job at hiding his true self and his feelings.
“The front he puts on is just a show, because he was very fragile inside,” said Rowe.
RAISING AWARENESS TODAY
Family members, teammates, and coaches remember Darius today through an annual walk every October in Youngstown.
“We have someone usually come to speak at the event and we take that month to raise funds. A lot of his friends come in to walk,” said Patton-Dixon.
‘Out of the Darkness’ Youngstown is an annual event sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), which also hosts walks in Pittsburgh and in other cities across the country.
“It’s a way of taking a negative situation and turning it into a positive,” said Patton-Dixon.
Darius is remembered by many classmates, teachers, coaches, and family members who knew him as a silent, hard worker. Many of them kept Darius’s family in mind after his death.
“You’re saddened for their loss as a teacher or coach, but I immediately thought of his father. His father was going through a lot and I couldn’t imagine being in his position,” said Williams.
Brungard, who also performed the funeral services, stressed the importance of Darius’s situation after the tragedy.
“It reminded me again how fragile every person’s life is,” said Brungard, “Mental illness is real and is something that needs to be dealt with in a healthy way.”