Can This NFL Lineman Outrun His Tragic Past?

Can This NFL Lineman Outrun His Tragic Past?

Marcell Dareus of the Buffalo Bills is introduced before a game against the San Diego Chargers on Sept. 21, 2014, in Orchard Park, New York.

SourceTom Szczerbowski/Getty

Why you should care

Because losing so much makes you want to take something back. 

Marcell Dareus’ road to NFL stardom is a wicked ride of tragic blows that raises the question of fate’s intentions. Still, “Mr. Big Stuff” keeps moving. Change is nothing new for the nimble 330-pound bruiser with an infectious smile and Alabama drawl. The Buffalo Bills nose tackle has seen the peaks, and stumbled through valleys, and coming off the most disappointing year of his professional career, he’s determined to climb back on top.

A two-time Pro Bowler, Dareus is one of the most physically imposing players in a league of immovable objects. But his career is marred by losing seasons and off-field trouble. Two arrests — for drug possession and drag racing — and two suspensions cast doubt on his commitment to the league and reportedly caused some Buffalo execs to ponder a future without their biggest star. But this season, Dareus is healthy, eligible and ready to work; and, perhaps most important, the Bills’ anchor has come to grips with a lifetime of loss.

“I can’t tell the future,” says Dareus when asked about his goals for 2017. “My theory is to just always give this game everything I have. I don’t care who judges me. I’m enjoying taking care of my responsibilities.”

Dareus finds himself in a new defense playing for his fifth head coach.

By contrast, last season wasn’t about Dareus fulfilling his responsibilities or leadership role. In fact, it started with a four-game suspension for a second failed drug test, and four subsequent matches with hamstring and groin injuries — a break that afforded him ample time to think. Today, as he talks about the past, he does so with an awareness of how it’s propelling him forward. “My mom would say, ‘Do the best you can no matter what happens to me. Don’t ever give up,’ ” Dareus tells OZY. “I never understood that until things started happening.”

Things. The brutal truth is that Marcell Dareus lost almost everyone he was close to — his mother, his father, his grandmother, his grandfather, his younger brother, his mentor, several friends. But Mom taught him to keep moving.

Dareus was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and played sports — football, basketball, baseball, track and field — against his six older siblings when time permitted. Problem was, familial duties were always calling. Jules Dareus, Marcell’s father, died of cancer when Marcell was 6 years old. His widowed mother, Michelle Luckey, “did everything she could to put a smile on our faces,” says Dareus. But Luckey, who suffered from congestive heart failure, was confined to a wheelchair. “It was rough times,” says Dareus. “We didn’t have nice things and I didn’t have things I needed to keep clean.”

At 11 years old, Dareus realized that football was his ticket. “After my first season, I was like, ‘This is easy. I can do this.’ ” Football helped him make friends and opened the door to higher education. He chose the nearby University of Alabama, earning a starting spot at defensive end his sophomore season. In the 2010 BCS National Championship Game, a bone-crushing sack and interception return for a touchdown changed his life: Named game MVP, he became a clear NFL first-round pick the next season. Sadly, his mother passed away that May, four months before her son’s NFL debut.

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Marcell Dareus during pregame warm-ups prior to playing the Oakland Raiders in December 2016.

Source Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Bills drafted Dareus third overall in 2011, and he became a Pro Bowler two seasons later. The next season, in 2014, he repeated. But tragedy was always near. In September 2012, on the eve of Dareus’ second season, his 19-year-old brother, Simeon Gilmore, was gunned down in a triple homicide over a $40 debt. Dareus admits that his brother’s death affected his playing, but still, he rebounded. “Losing my mom prepared me for all of this,” he tells OZY. “You never know when your time is coming, so keep a smile on your face. This is all just a challenge to be great.”

In September 2015, following his latest Pro Bowl appearance, Buffalo gave Dareus a six-year, $96.5 million extension with $60 million guaranteed. The guaranteed figure is the most for any non-quarterback in the NFL. But a year later, the face of the Bills was suspended for the second failed drug test. “We all know that Marcell is a good person,” said Rex Ryan, then the Bills head coach, at a preseason press conference. “But he’s got to make better choices and understand that it affects the whole football team, not just himself.”

Now, Dareus faces the biggest challenge of his career. After starting last season 5-2, Buffalo finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the 17th straight year. Ryan was replaced by Sean McDermott. In his seventh NFL season, Dareus finds himself in a new defense playing for his fifth head coach and seventh defensive coordinator. What’s more, 2018 is his last year with a guaranteed contract. Should he underperform, or have another off-field hiccup, the Bills could be persuaded to sever ties with their golden goose. On a media call in May, McDermott said, “We need [Dareus] to play at a high level for us,” before adding, “I couldn’t be happier … I really believe he’s bought into what we’re doing.”

Whether or not Dareus plays his entire career in his adopted home of Buffalo, he’s got four young fans — Cory, Marcell, Aris and Kingston, ages 3 to 6 — who are his primary focus. In tribute to those he lost, Dareus is building a family of his own. “I have this responsibility to people that look up to me like no one else in the world looks up to me,” he says. “All I have to do is be the man I’m striving to be, and I’m their superhero. Shoot, who doesn’t want to be Superman?”

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