Gorman: From semi-pro to the Super Bowl
Just before the New Orleans Saints clinched their first trip to the Super Bowl, Darnell Dinkins' thoughts drifted back to the Hill District. It was on those streets that Darnell and David Dinkins, cousins who were more like brothers, would play catch from telephone pole to telephone pole.
"He would be the quarterback and I would be the receiver — back then, I threw too hard, so nobody could catch my passes — and every time we would throw, we would call out who was throwing it and catching it," Darnell said.
"I can't believe I'm actually going to be in it."
That Darnell Dinkins will play in Super Bowl XLIV is an inspirational tale of faith and perseverance. Nine years ago, Dinkins was playing quarterback for the semi-pro Pittsburgh Colts. Now, he will play tight end against the Indianapolis Colts on Feb. 7 at Sun Life Stadium in South Florida.
"It's just amazing, when I reflect on all the sacrifices I had to go through on this journey, now, to play in the biggest game in sports, is just surreal," said Dinkins, 32, an eighth-year veteran. "I drop to my knees every morning and pray to God and thank him for this opportunity. How many times can a guy go from semi-pro to the Super Bowl• It's almost unheard of."
It's the stuff of legends. Johnny Unitas did it, but that was more than a half-century ago. That's why Dinkins counts his blessings. He escaped the Hill's Elmore Square housing project at a time when gangs were running the neighborhood. He was a star quarterback at Schenley, but never could crack the lineup under Johnny Majors or Walt Harris at Pitt. Dinkins switched to safety, but lost his starting job to Ramon Walker as a senior.
That didn't deter Dinkins' dream of playing in the NFL.
"He stayed focused. He kept his foot in the door and worked to provide for his family," said his mother, Wendy Dinkins, who now lives in the Stanton Heights home the son she still calls "D.J." bought her three years ago. "I'm so proud of him — it's making me cry — because he never gave up."
So Dinkins married Shayla, his high school sweetheart, and they started a family. He didn't let pride keep him from providing for his wife and three children — Kayla, 10, Khalil, 7, and Kolin, 6 — so he worked odd jobs such as cleaning carpets and serving as a juvenile probation officer while lifting weights at midnight. Dinkins turned to his faith, leaning on advice from his big brother, Rob Thornton, and his pastors, the Rev. Neville and Connie Brooks, of Jubilee International Ministries in Plum.
"So many doors have been slammed in my face that instead of feeling sorry for myself or getting down, by the grace of God, I continued to get up and kept trying to be successful," said Dinkins, who spreads his message to inner-city youths through his Maleness to Manhood Foundation. "I kept thinking, 'Maybe I didn't put in enough effort. Maybe I didn't try hard enough.'
"That's my testimony: the true measure is when you're knocked down and all by yourself get back up and keep trying. There's nothing I can't accomplish, as long as I keep God first."
Finally, the semi-pro stint opened a door to the NFL for Dinkins, whose desire impressed a young offensive coordinator named Sean Payton at the New York Giants' training camp. Payton suggested Dinkins switch to tight end and play special teams, and the move earned him a roster spot.
After playing for the Giants, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns, Dinkins was praying for a chance to play for the black-and-gold - his hometown Steelers - when Payton called last February and asked him to sign with the Saints. So Dinkins took a chance on a team and a town that have shown tremendous resiliency since the Hurricane Katrina tragedy.
"Sometimes it's not always the way you planned for things to work out," Dinkins said, "but it's better than you could ever imagine."
Wendy, Shayla and her children surprised Darnell by going to New Orleans this past weekend for the NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings. They stood inside the Louisiana Superdome, whose roof had holes in it a few years earlier, holding hands with a complete stranger as Garrett Hartley lined up for the game-winning, 40-yard field goal. The woman next to Shayla squeezed her hand and embraced her when Hartley's kick aimed at the fleur-de-lis logo split the uprights in the 31-28 overtime victory.
Suddenly, Darnell's story went from semi-pro to the Super Bowl.
"This has been his dream from the time he was a young boy," Shayla Dinkins said. "The type of person my husband is, he never gives up on a dream. He's had mountains to climb, but we've climbed them as a family. It's been an absolutely amazing journey."
And here's the best part: it's not over.