“I say that the strongest principle of growth lies in human choice.” — George Eliot, “Daniel Deronda”
Darius James flashed his overjoyed but clearly tired smile and threw up the “Hook’em Horns” sign for anybody who asked.
The 6-foot-6, 340-pound Harker Heights senior lineman stood proud atop the stage and took picture after picture with family, friends and high school teammates minutes after securing his future with the University of Texas.
Following 11 months of wait and wonder, and an injury-plagued senior season, the nation’s No. 1 rated center prospect became a Texas Longhorn after signing his National Letter of Intent during an early morning National Signing Day ceremony Wednesday at the high school.
Making things better, James signed alongside best friend and linebacker Naashon Hughes, as the pair officially joined fellow former Heights star Camrhon Hughes, a redshirt freshman offensive lineman.
But, through all the pomp and celebration, through all the handshakes and congratulations, something was off.
Something was missing.
Or, more accurately, someone.
It’d been exactly three years and one day since a 16-year-old James awoke on the morning of Feb. 5, 2010, to find the woman who raised him — his grandmother, Denise Jackson — had died in the night from a heart attack.
But it’s because of her memory that James is able to be in this moment — with television cameras and voice recorders surrounding him at all angles — as he becomes the city’s biggest (literally) high school football prospect to sign a major Division I scholarship, ranking among the top 20 players nationally, regardless of position.
Because, like many others who have grown up in Killeen, James could have taken another path, one mired in mistakes and regrettable consequences.
Darius James had every excuse to become another statistic from the dredges of Killeen.
But he didn’t.
James made a promise to his grandma — he was going to make something of himself.
Nicknamed “Elmo” because he used to carry around a backpack that featured the “Sesame Street” character, James has always been a friendly and outgoing character himself.
But following his grandmother’s death, the usually happy-go-lucky James would sometimes sit in his dark bedroom and ruminate over his potential future.
He argued the legitimacy of his dreams of one day playing in the NFL with the reality of them. Was he good enough? Was he big enough? Could he ever make it out?
Along with being his rock, Denise Jackson was also James’ biggest fan, pushing him into sports from a young age.
Following every game he played, Jackson was the first to come up to James, flash him that same big smile he now flashes to the cameras, and give her larger-than-life grandson an even larger hug.
For three years and one day, he’s missed that hug.
Although he had other family members in attendance, it wasn’t the same.
All the hugs and pats on the back on Signing Day couldn’t equal the ones he would have gotten from his grandmother.
She’s the one who believed in him from the start. She’s the one who always knew this day would come.
“It’s just a weight lifted (off my shoulders) knowing I did it for her,” James said. “Now I can’t wait to go up (to Texas) and keep proving her right.”