This time last year things were uncertain for Darius Hammond.
He had suffered a broken leg in Strom Thurmond's playoff opener, and the team was knocked out two games later. The up-in-the-air nature of the injury left a lot of question marks.
“Once he broke his leg, you're looking at 'Dern, I've got one more season, and that's all I've got left,'” Strom Thurmond head coach Lee Sawyer said. “If something doesn't go right with the rehab or you know, that kind of thing, he will have never played again. He, of course, took it seriously and did whatever the doctors asked him to do. On the positive side, it didn't require any surgery when it happened. No screws or anything had to be put in. It healed on its own in a cast, and the doctors did a good job of easing him back into the rehab part of it.”
Everyone that saw Hammond through the preseason had their own view on his recovery. Sawyer said that once the doctors gave him the all-clear for spring practice he looked sharp. Hammond's offensive coordinator, Antwuan Hillary, looks back at the scrimmage against Laurens. It was a six-team scrimmage and, through the first two games, Hammond was kept mostly in check.
“Then we went up the hill to scrimmage Laurens, and he broke off a few long runs,” Hillary said. “Then I knew he was back to his old ways.”
As far as the player himself, Hammond has a bit of a different take, as well.
“I felt like it was around the time of the second spring practice, it felt pretty good then,” he said.
If there were any doubts, Hammond cast them aside in the Rebels' first game of the season. Against traveling all-star squad, Eastern Christian Academy, Hammond rushed 12 times for 117 yards and a touchdown. He also added in three catches, 41 yards and another score as a receiver. Of course, this also doesn't count his contributions in the kick and return games.
That game set the tone for a senior year where Hammond carried a target on his back.
“I can think of four or five games in particular where it was obvious on certain plays that we run,” Sawyer said. “You could just tell that they worked and worked specifically on that play, and we saw people slide out with him. That was constantly an issue, that teams would try to take him away. If I was coaching against us, I would be the same way. ...So that happened in all different ways. They would find ways to try to take him away running the ball, they would try to take away his ability to catch the ball and then they obviously stopped punting to him.”
That refusal to punt actually ended up benefiting the Rebels greatly in field position, and it didn't even require Darius to touch the ball.
“You know it's hard to do if you're not used to punting away from somebody you end up shanking the ball, and it ends up being a 10-yard punt,” Sawyer said. “...A lot of times they said, 'He's not going to beat us' actually ended up helping us as it opened up things for Jauveer (Hammond) and Ty (Brooks). Then it helps field position wise with people not punting to him.”
Hammond went on to finish the year with 1,568 yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground. He also added in 23 catches for 241 yards and the touchdowns. In the return game he racked up 529 yards on 23 attempts, three of which went for scores.
He also made Hillary's job much easier.
“He made my job a whole lot easier,” he said. “Besides teaching him what to do, he'd get out there and it'd be all him. You'd give him a few pointers because that's your job, but as far as what he does, it is very rare. It's very seldom that a kid comes to you like that. ...He led by example, he always went first on a drill, when he was doing anything on the board mentally, he always knew what to do. The kids took more from that than anything. He was never a big vocal guy, he always knew what to do and went hard at it.”
Rarely did teams hold Hammond down. The closest example that Sawyer could think of was the Rebels' third round playoff game at Hanahan. In that game Hammond was held to just 18 yards in the first half. Then, with about half of the quarter in the books, Hammond scored three times in four minutes.
“I don't think anybody ever really snuffed him out,” Sawyer said. “I thought (Hanahan) had, they were really schooled up on some of the stuff he does, but in the second half there he took over.”
That game, in particular, is also one that stuck out to Hammond.
“Before the game Coach Sawyer told me there would be a point and time in the game where I would have to step up and make plays,” he said. “And that time came.”
Though the season came to an end a round before the Rebels had hoped, Hammond was also able to achieve some of the goals he set for himself coming into the year.
“I wanted to do whatever I could to help the team win, and I think I pretty much did that,” he said. “One of the other things was to finish the whole season and playoff games and I did that.”
It was also a year that was special for Hammond, as he was able to be in the same backfield as his cousin, Jauveer, who played quarterback.
“We grew up playing football together and I knew he could throw the ball,” he said. “I didn't have to worry about it and I knew I could trust him. He played on the defensive side so a lot of people didn't know he could do that.”
The sensational senior rounded out his year with a nomination to be the state's Mr. Football and a trip to the Shrine Bowl. The latter of which was also extra special for Hammond.
“It was kind of big because you're playing with people from all over South Carolina and North Carolina,” he said. “It was a good thing to be a part of.”
Hammond currently has a solid offer from Newberry College, with other schools also showing interest. His loss, however, will be a tough one to overcome, even for a program like the one that Sawyer has built at Strom Thurmond.
“It's a problem we've had since I've been here, we've lost good players over the years and you always got to find somebody to take their place,” he said. “With Darius it's hard because he did so many things. Not only was he a good running back, but he was an excellent blocker in the backfield too. He also caught the ball well, he could have started at wide receiver for us too. And then he returned kicks and punts. Very seldom did he leave the field, except for defense. We've always had people step up and we've always had people say 'It's my turn,' but with him he's done so much for us. We can't look for one person to replace him, we need three or four to replace the various things he did for us.”
Scott Rodgers is a graduate of Alvernia University and a staff writer at the Aiken Standard.