The #14 ranked University of Maine Black Bears are headed to the FCS semifinals for the first time in program history. For a program started in 1896, that’s a pretty big deal. The team defeated #4 Weber State 23-18 to secure their spot. Their historic run is made all the more special not just because of their upset win, or their nationally ranked defense, but because of their rallying cry. Darius Minor.
A season built from tragedy
On July 24th, 2018, 17 freshmen were taking part in a light orientation practice. The goal was to help the newly incoming players get acclimated to the team and to the demands of the program before preseason officially started. 18-year-old Darius Minor was one of the newly recruited players. And he was excited to be a part of the team.
Early in the practice, Minor complained about feeling faint. Moments later he collapsed. Neither training staff, nor medical responders could resuscitate him. 8 days later, the team began practices.
The school made every effort to ensure the students had access to support as they arrived at the stadium. Head Trainer Ryan Taylor spoke on this to the Bangor Daily News.
“We have a system in place to get them spiritual guidance if they need to talk to someone. “The coaching staff will talk to them and tell them it’s OK to be emotional and to be upset. And from a medical side of things, we will keep a very close eye on all of these players as we will the other athletes who are here on campus. (Help) is just a phone call away.”
A storied season led by Darius
Head coach Joe Harasymiak said in a public statement after Minor’s passing that the team would be retiring #39, the number set for Minor, for the next four years. Stickers with the #39 were placed on team helmets. The white #39 jersey was raised by two players during their team photo at the start of the season. That jersey traveled with the team to every game, and was present at every practice.
Senior defensive back Jeff DeVaughn was assigned to be Minor’s mentor on the team. He spoke at a memorial service held for Minor at the request of Coach Harasymiak. When asked about having Minor’s presence with this year’s team, he spoke from the heart.
“Everywhere we go, no matter where, it’s always going to be with us. I tap his jersey and pray to his jersey before every time I step onto that field. So I know he’s with us. Every time we’ve needed a big play … I pray to Darius and he always came through. So I know he’s with us and he’s a part of this moment.”
Becoming a family by embracing Darius’
The team has embraced Minor’s family through it all. Coach Harasymiak and defensive backs coach Matt Birkett attended his funeral in Virginia, missing the opening of training camp. In his press conference, Harasymiak spoke on Minor’s mother, Charity Wines. “That’s a strong woman, and you could tell why Darius turned out the way he did. I just let her know we’re here for anything she needs.”
As the season went on, the team stayed close with the family. No moment was more strongly felt on both sides than after their November 10th 28-9 victory over Richmond. Darius’ family attended the game as guests of the team, and came to the locker room afterwards, where Harasymiak presented the family with a game ball. In the same breath he told the team their championship news, with a single sentence:
Afterwards, Minor’s cousin and family spokesman Rob Otey spoke of the moment. “Words can’t express what that specific moment meant. There were about 10 of us at that game. And we weren’t expecting that to happen. We anticipated going into the locker room and maybe celebrating the championship. That was … very special. I told (Harasymiak) the other day, that regardless of what happens, the ties with him and the university will forever be strong.”
Playing for Darius
As Maine heads into uncharted territory, they continue to push forward as a team. That includes carrying the memory of Darius Minor with them. Junior all-CAA first-team defensive back Manny Patterson spoke of this.
“When it happened, we knew we had something to play for. We knew we had to play our season out for him. It made us realize you can’t take anything for granted…So we knew at that point that we can’t take anything for granted, that we had to live every play through him, play for him. And that’s how it carried us through the season.”
Senior wide receiver Micah Wright added, “Whenever I feel down, I look at his jersey on the sideline and I pull strength and motivation from that, knowing that not every day is guaranteed. I try to feed off that, and I play every game and every rep like it’s my last. Because you never know.”
Saturday (12/15): The Black Bears head to Washington state to take on the #4 ranked Eastern Washington University. The game will be televised on ESPN 2.