A refugee camp, family tragedy and football: How Darius Victor overcame it all to play in the XFL
If there's anything the New York Guardians running back can do, it's take a hit and get right back up
Darius Victor got walloped. It was the type of hit in which the clacking of pads reverberates through a stadium. The New York Guardians running back had taken a dump-off from quarterback Matt McGloin out of the backfield and was running full speed towards a first down when he met D.C. Defenders linebacker Scooby Wright during the first quarter of their Week 2 game. An unstoppable force met an immovable object.
At 5-foot-6 and 226 pounds, Victor is a bowling ball and it's near impossible for a defender to get his pad level lower on a stop. On this play, however, Victor fumbled the ball away and had to be helped off the field by trainers, clearly woozy from the collision. But in a quick conversation with Victor the next day, the running back seemed perfectly normal. He mentioned that he cleared concussion protocol and was ready to go for New York's Week 3 game at St. Louis.
"I'm good, thanks for checking," he said.
Of course he's good. It's going to take a lot more than that to keep Darius Victor down.
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Everyone in the XFL has a story and Victor's is perhaps the most remarkable of them all. It's a story of survival. Born in March, 1994, Victor spent his first five years on this earth in a refugee camp in Africa's Ivory Coast. It's a story of senseless tragedy following the murder of Darius' older brother, Kevin, in 2011. It's the story of perseverance after a fire destroyed the family's home not even one year later. Darius, the middle of seven children, has seen and experienced enough heartbreak to span multiple lifetimes.
And, yet, here is Darius, playing the sport that created an inseparable bond between him and Kevin because he'd do it for free if that's what it took to keep playing football. So, no, one good hit is not going to be Victor's downfall. He's bounced back from too many other blows already.
Sleeping in bushes
Victor still has bits and pieces of memories, but he was too young to fill in all the gaps. He just remembers the refugee camp was home and the bushes served two purposes: bedding and protection.
"I really don't remember it, but I always watch documentaries and stuff," he said before adding, almost nonchalantly, "my dad always told me that we used to have to sleep in the bushes."
In the bushes?
"Yeah, we used to sleep in bushes, and run for our lives, and things like that," Victor continued. "So, just seeing that and hearing him talk about it, it was like, 'Wow. I really came from that.' I tell everyone, every day I wake up, I thank God because I'm not supposed to be here. A lot of people didn't make it."
Darius' details are scattered, but his father, Gary, can recite the country's entire history today if you asked him to. He should know. He lived through the worst part of it.
"For 132 years, Liberia was peaceful and one of the most productive countries in west Africa," Gary said. "And then in 1980 they had a coup for first time. By August 1990 the entire country had collapsed. People were dying from hunger. It was a life and death struggle. You woke up in the morning and you weren't guaranteed to see the afternoon. It's a blessing, a miracle, that we were able to get out. Tens of thousands of refugees all over Africa, so we were blessed to be refugees."
Gary, his wife Patricia and their then four children made it out of Liberia in 1990. By 2003, the civil war that tore the country apart ended up costing the lives of nearly 250,000 men, women and children. Somehow -- and Gary still isn't sure why they were spared -- the Victors were not among them.
Still, life in a refugee camp was hard and the Victor family would not seek asylum in the United States for another five years after Darius was born. "Fortunately for us, the U.S. had a program in conjunction with the United Nations, so we were lucky to follow that program and seek asylum," Gary said.
A New Life
The Victors ended up first in Manassas, Virginia, before eventually settling in Hyattsville, Maryland, by 2002. Luckily for them, they already had family nearby. One of Darius' aunts lived in Virginia with another grandmother in nearby Silver Springs, Maryland. In all, Gary and Patricia had seven children: Velma, the oldest, followed by Earl, Kevin, Darius, Leon, Shaka and Nicole. Gary and Patricia both found jobs at Dulles International Airport as a bus driver and janitor, respectively. To this day they go into work together early in the morning and come back late at night.
"I didn't see them unless I would forget to wash the dishes or something and they would have to wake me up," Victor said. "They were always at work, handling business and I appreciate them for that."
When Darius was younger, though, that meant the children had to watch out for one another. "We just looked out for each other. It's not like we were just kids running around. We definitely had structure," Victor said. "But yeah, we went to the same schools, did similar activities after school. We're always together. So that's how that worked out."
It also meant Kevin, Darius' senior by four years, ended up being his de facto babysitter. The two became inseparable -- and competitive. "If he liked red, I would say, I like blue," Victor said. "It was a sibling rivalry thing. I remember one time in 2000 the Ravens were playing the Giants on TV and I asked Kevin who he wanted to win and he said the Ravens. So from the point forward I was a Giants fan."
Lo and behold, Darius now plays his home games with the Guardians at MetLife Stadium.
Football was a passion for Darius and Kevin, with Darius picking up the game at eight years old after watching his older brother play. From there, the two ended up playing running back and middle linebacker at Northwestern High School. That's where their competitive sibling rivalry rose to another level. Upon being called up to the varsity team one time as a freshman, Darius led the Wildcats with 15 tackles -- letting Kevin, already a member of the varsity squad, know exactly who had the better game among the brothers.
Two years later, Kevin Victor was dead.
The details of the incident remain fuzzy. The act, still senseless. In December of 2011, he was walking home from the Brentwood Community Center after playing basketball with his friends when they noticed they were being followed by two unknown suspects, who began shooting. Police responded to the incident at around 10:30 p.m. to find Kevin face down on the ground one block from his family's apartment. He was pronounced dead at an area hospital a short time later.
"They tried to rob him at gun point," Gary said. "They wanted an iPod or something."
Kevin's death has been a story that has followed Darius for nearly a decade. He's re-told it more times than he should ever have to. Still, the pain he felt was nothing compared to watching his family suffer. "My thing was just seeing my family cry. It's just the worst," Victor said. "And that's more painful than my actual pain. Just seeing my parents cry, and have them lose a child and I don't think anyone should lose a child like that. So, just seeing that was tough and it made me appreciate life more, and appreciate them more and just family, just to hold everything tight."
Then, in October 2012, the Victor's family apartment burned down due to a malfunctioning heater in the building. Darius had just finished rushing for 289 yards and four touchdowns against Laurel High School and was staying at his Godbrother's house when Leon called him.
"He said 'The house is on fire!' I'm like, 'What? What are you talking about? You're lying.' But, I'm down the street at my friend's house, so I come home, and I just see the house on fire and everything's damaged," Victor said. "I see my mom crying. I was like, 'Wow, I've got to go through this again.'
"That was the toughest part. It wasn't losing the stuff, or my favorite shoes. It wasn't none of that. It was just seeing my mom crying. So, that was pretty tough, man. It was a bump in the road again. This felt like tragedy hit all over again."
But out of tragedy, the Victors became closer than ever. Gary and Patricia came to as many of Darius' football games at Northwestern High School, and later Towson, as possible. Gary makes sure to call Darius every day, even if it's just to see how he's doing. They end every conversation with, "Alright, call you tomorrow."
And Darius channels Kevin's spirit in every aspect of his life. "I tried to be Kevin. Because he was a get-it-done person. It's either you do or you don't. Almost doesn't count in life," Victor said. "So I try to just live in that name, whether it was getting good grades, or making a play in a football field, or just washing the dishes before my parents came home. I tried to be that guy."
Time heals a lot of wounds, but it doesn't heal all of them. Talking about Kevin should, under any understandable circumstances, be a crushing conversation for Victor. But instead, his eyes lit up as he shared one final anecdote: A week before Kevin's passing, he and Darius were playing "Madden" as they often did. Finally, after years of losing, the oh-so-competitive Darius beat his older brother.
"I couldn't do it, ever," he said.
Victor's story is unique, but in many ways, there are hundreds of players just like him in the XFL (you can check out ourto see how Victor and all the players are doing). They've overcome numerous and sometimes seemingly insurmountable hardships. They've worked relentlessly for an opportunity to keep playing football for as long as possible. Some will get another shot at the NFL, most are simply squeezing the last little bit of joy they can out of the game.
Perhaps Victor will get another crack at the NFL. Maybe the XFL is his home for the foreseeable future. Whatever lies ahead, the Guardians running back knows that the adversity he's faced in his life has already prepared him for whatever obstacle he'll have to overcome next.
And, as he's already shown, he can take a hit -- several, in fact.
"You've got to be tough. Control what you can control, because life is never as bad as you think," Victor said. "I've been cut before, but at least I got there. I know millions of guys who wish would've got the opportunity. I go out there every day, perform how I could perform my God given abilities. I've been blessed. I tell people all the time that. God blessed me with the talent. So I do whatever I need to do on the football field. So just having that mental toughness, and just giving it all you got, because at the end of the day, it's not in your hands. It's God's plan."
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