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May 12, 2013

Giving thanks on Mother's Day


Jordan Darling saw a "pray for Boston" tweet on his phone and thought little of it at the time.

He pondered the reference briefly but didn't have time to investigate. Instead, he shrugged and continued his walk thorough the front door of his family's Kansas City home.

Things began to unravel when he crossed the threshold. Once inside the doorway, the incoming University of Kansas quarterback saw his father's face, phone pressed against his ear. Darling could hear his mother, hysterical, on the other end of the line. Darling flipped on the living room television.

The worst was not a possibility. His mother was safe. He could hear her crying through the phone as news anchors rehashed the tragedy that unfolded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, the very race she was running.

"I knew right then and there that she was safe before anything really happened," Jordan Darling said. "It was a blessing that I didn't have to go through the things that most people with loved ones there had to go through. It was still a scary experience, but it was a relief that she was safe."

It wasn't until later that he found out exactly how close the explosions came to harming the woman that means most to him.

"I was 25.81 miles into it, so I was four-tenths of a mile away from the finish line," Leslie Darling said with military precision. "As I was approaching, the Boston Athletic Department volunteers stopped me. I had heard something, but I had headphones on and didn't know what it was at the time. We didn't understand why they were stopping us. That's when I heard another explosion."

Leslie Darling, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, doesn't walk during marathons. She's run seven of them and has never strolled a step … until April 15 of this year, that is. On that day in Boston, something inexplicable came over her. She stops short of calling it divine intervention. Whatever the motivation, though, it may have saved her life.

"For some reason, right at the 40-kilometer mark, right at the end of Heartbreak Hill, I just had this overwhelming desire to walk," Leslie Darling said. "I never walk. I usually just run the whole the way and that's it, but I walked up that hill. When I looked down at my watch, I had been walking for three minutes.

"Later as I found out the times of the explosions, I realized that if I take those three minutes back that I walked and I hadn't walked, it would have put within a half a minute of the first and second explosions."

VOICE OF REASON

A mother's frantic voice is soothing on some occasions.

The last time Jordan Darling saw Leslie cry also happens to be the last time he sobbed. The emotion causing the waterworks was different then. There was no scare. There was no chaos. There was no reason to mourn or worry. It was just the opposite, really. It was his junior year of high school.

Jordan Darling, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound starting quarterback at Waco (Texas) Midway high school, had just lost 22-7 in the Texas state title game. The tears themselves were not unique. The fact that they were motivated by joy, however, makes his case different.

He handled the loss as well as anyone could have expected. Until Leslie, who had been deployed in Afghanistan for the eight months prior to the game, showed up on the 30-yard line moments following the loss. The bravado that often consumes a quarterback never stood a chance.

"It was a big letdown football-wise, but I hadn't seen my mom in eight months. A few minutes after the game, we're getting our second-place medals, and she's standing 10 or 12 yards away from me.

It was a really emotional time for me. I'm not a very emotional guy. I don't cry very often, but that was the first time I ever had tears of joy. It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life."

MOVING AROUND

Leslie Darling's military career is the reason Jordan is Jordan. It's the reason he moved from Germany to the United States in seventh grade and took up football. It's the reason he signed with Kansas on a full-ride scholarship. It's the reason he played that game at Cowboys Stadium. It's the reason he became one of few players to start at quarterback in four different states.

Missouri, Ohio, Texas, Kansas; Jordan Darling has thrown meaningful passes in each. And although Leslie Darling was sometimes deployed thousands of miles away while he did so, the values she instilled in her son never left.

Discipline is one thing. Foregoing chunks of your social life to learn a new playbook every year is something else. Jordan was named the starter at four high schools for a reason, though. Winning the job in a new school every year is no small accomplishment.

"Being a quarterback is not like being a defensive lineman or something like that," Jordan said. "You have to learn a new offense every year. You have to learn the personnel. You have to make friends and become one of the guys right away. They have to accept you. It's really not that easy, but I'm blessed to have all of these experiences. It's going to be nice to go to college and have one offense and some stability."

MAMA'S BOY

Stories told by his parents on that front sometimes sound fabricated when they're not. Seventeen-year-olds don't talk multiple classmates out of dropping out of high school. Darling has. They don't take time out of their schedule to ask at-risk youth about their dreams. Darling does. And they certainly don't deliver impromptu pep talks to down-on-their-luck waiters at the local Cracker Barrel.

"We were eating, and the waiter had the same name as Jordan, so they got to talking," Leslie Darling said. "My son told him he was going to KU to play football. This waiter told him, 'Wow, you're really going places.' Jordan looked at him and said, 'Well. So are you.' The guy said something like, 'No, I'm just a waiter here, just biding my time and getting through school.' Jordan looked at him and said, 'Look, what you do here is valuable. What you do here is important. Don't ever take that for granted.'"

Jordan Darling is his mother's son. In a lot of ways, he's a military cliché -- the discipline, the respect, the yes sirs and no ma'ams. He chose Kansas over Kansas State, the defending Big 12 champion. That choice had little to do with football, though. It's why KU head coach Charlie Weis had to work just as hard at selling Lt. Col. Darling as he did on convincing Jordan.

"My mom has been in the military and deals with all kinds of people. I guess you can say she is a people person. She knows how to read other adults. She hit it off well with Coach Weis. He liked her and she liked him, obviously. If she didn't, there's no way I'd be going there."

"The moment that we sat down with Charlie Weis, I felt, in my spirit, that this man cared about, not just my son, but all those young men." Leslie Darling said. "When he looked me in the eye and said 'I'll take care of your son for you,' I knew that he meant it."

And so this Mother's Day, Jordan and Leslie Darling will be together, which has not been the case on several occasions. Turns out, as nomadic as the Darlings have been over the years, Weis' Jayahwks are a stabilizing force.

"My mom finds out where she has to go next summer," Jordan said. "But she has the option to turn down moving somewhere else, and she wants to stay here to support me while I'm at KU."



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