Let’s Be Frank - From The Streets of Jersey City to the End Zones of Tempe
By Jeremy Hawkes, Sun Devil Media Relations
Frank Darby can't stop smiling.
No, really. Three things in life are certain: Death. Taxes. And an ear-to-ear grin on Frank Darby's face.
On the surface, there are plenty of reasons for that garish grin. He is coming off a career year on the football field in which he became one of the elite deep threats in the Pac-12. He looks to be a focal point of the team's offense next season as he attempts to make ASU just the second FBS program in history to have a wide receiver taken in the first round in three straight NFL Drafts. He's got a beautiful young daughter. And in May, he became the first member of his immediate family to graduate from college.
For all intents and purposes, Frank Darby has a lot of reasons to smile.
"I was always a happy baby. My mom would always tell me, 'You was goofy'," Darby said. "I always had a smile on."
Darby smiles when things are going well. He smiles when things are going bad. He smiles when he's in trouble. He smiles just to make others around him smile.
"I look at every day as a blessing. Other people from where I'm from want to be here. I wake up every day and the sun's up, I'm playing football at Arizona State," Darby said. "I wake up happy. Great vibes and positive energy make people want to be around you."
But the road has certainly been tumultuous for Darby. In fact, you'd hear his story and wonder just how he manages to bring that positivity – that genuine, sanguine energy – day in and day out. For the redshirt senior out of Jersey City, nothing has come easy.
He got himself out of the streets of Jersey. He struggled mightily in the classroom just to be eligible to attend college. He came to a program with a glutton of talent at wide receiver and bust his butt in the weight room and on the practice field just to get a sniff at playing time.
Darby is far from furtive. If you ask him about his life and where he came from, he is…well, quite frank about it.
He is every reporter's dream. One question. A single question: "How did you get to this point in your life?"
Two hours of extemporaneous thought later, Frank Darby had covered the major events and conflict of his life. And he was still smiling and ready to talk some more.
"You cool I'm on your time?" he asked after talking for about 120 consecutive minutes. Never mind the writer in question was the one taking up his Sunday. After two hours, I laughed, I was stunned, I was filled with overwhelming pride, and I had been entirely crestfallen and heartbroken at times. But in the end, I couldn't help but simply pick my jaw up and smile. After all, that's what Frank did the whole time.
"I just try to brighten everyone up around me. I want people to think I'm just a walking sun."
Frank Darby's life tale reads more like the great epics of antiquity than the story of a jovial young football player in his early 20s. From humble beginnings, he simply wants Sun Devil fans to remember that dancing kid from New Jersey who played hard for his teammates and was a good person.
"When you see me, you know to smile because I'll already be smiling. When you see me, you know to laugh because I'll already be laughing," he said. "I will always be that guy. Because where I come from, we just don't get this far."
"I want to play ball. I need to play ball. I've got anger in me and I've got so much to get off my chest. I'm going to play hard and play physical on the field. I'm taking this out on the competition."
It's a rare moment without levity from Darby. In the three months since he's been back home in New Jersey during the COVID-19 quarantine, Darby has lost three childhood friends to gang violence on the streets of Jersey City. Guys he ran around with on the block. Guys he balled with when basketball was still his dream.
One friend lost to the violence of the streets would be one too many for most people. Three in three months would be unfathomable for the average person. But for Darby, this is the norm.
They aren't the first friends he's lost. They won't be the last either. He knows that. They know it, too.
With over 1,200 violent crimes per year, Jersey City experiences a rate of violence higher than most communities of all population sizes in America. And while the numbers have gone down in recent years, crime still runs rampant. Five people were fatally shot between March 31 and April 21 – including friends of Darby - as the street gangs continuously retaliated against each other for prior affronts.
The most recent one was 23-year-old Javone Smith on April 6 – the fourth fatal shooting in a month along a 1.3-mile stretch between Rose/Cator avenues and Martin Luther King Drive at Oak Street. Smith and Darby went toe-to-toe on the basketball court for years, each among the top prospects in the area and frequently appearing on the same AAU circuits.
Just days prior to his death, Smith had called Darby to ask him to come talk to his little brother, who was having doubts about his future as a football player and was beginning to get involved in a bad scene as a result. Smith wanted Darby to share his journey to becoming a football player at Arizona State in an effort to curtail a potential tragic ending for his brother.
Darby went and talked with Smith's brother and then hung out with Javone and another childhood friend on the night of April 5. The next day, Darby was driving down Myrtle Avenue to pick up a friend. He came across a heavy police presence early in the evening and saw what looked to be a body on the ground. He called his friend to see what was going on.
"Javone just got killed."
Unfortunately, Darby has become all too used to these phone calls. He answers his phone in trepidation every time he gets a call around midnight when he's in Arizona, knowing all too well it's 3 a.m. in Jersey City and nothing good can come from those calls.
It is haunting as he recounts the friends and acquaintances he knows that were lost to gang and street violence. He checks off the prodigious list of names with alarming serenity. In the streets of Jersey City, it's just the way it is.
Darby grew up with friends from different blocks. His personality unsurprisingly transcended the border wars of rival gang territories. He'd play basketball with them, and join in some football games. They might get into a little trouble here and there during his early teenage years, stealing bikes or minor shoplifting. Nothing too extreme, but the seeds were planted.
As Darby's athletic career began to unfold, his friends realized he had his out. As Darby developed into one of the elite football players in New Jersey, his friends started getting involved in more and more violent crimes.
They'd get into fights and tell him about it later. Darby would get mad. They were his friends and, in his mind, he should be there for them in those moments. He would ask them why they wouldn't call him.
"They'd say 'Nah, Frank. This not you. You're the ticket.'," Darby remembers.
They told him to keep playing ball, to keep developing his craft. He had his ticket out of the street life of Jersey City and they weren't going to let him squander it with them. Like the great tragedies of old, they knew where their path lay. But they still had the pragmatism to know they could save a friend from it.
"They'd let me come around and chill with them during the day, but when it got dark out they'd tell me to go home."
The beefing and fighting eventually evolved into gun violence. Darby discusses it matter-of-factly. "Newski" was the first friend he lost when he was 14 or 15. It was retaliation for that group's prior transgressions. The cycle was in motion and nearly a decade later, it continues.
Three to four groups. Physically fighting would never answer anything again. It would be guns from then on out. The cycle continued with no one group knowing when the next one was going to come and retaliate next.
His friend Mark was next. Junie. Green. The list just continued to grow. It continued even when he flew across the country to join the Sun Devils.
Three more since he returned to New Jersey for the quarantine. These three were the hardest because Darby's escape the last four years has been simply being on the other side of the country from everything that was happening. Now, he was having to deal with it firsthand.
Damone Smith, or "Munch", was coaching high school basketball at Marist High. He was shot and killed on March 31. Darby had exchanged text messages just a couple weeks prior about him coming down to Tempe to catch a couple football games.
Then it was one of the best friends of his own best friend. Then it was Javone Smith. And between it all, he lost his grandmother – a heartbreaking addendum to an already nefarious homecoming.
"It hurts me the most because these people aren't here to see where my life is headed," Darby said. "I remember talking to each one of these people. Telling them what I want to do. What I want to achieve. Where I want to go. They would say, 'You're gonna do it. You're gonna do it.' It just hurts that they're not going to be here to see it."
After the last death, Darby knew he just needed to get home. And home was no longer Jersey City. Home was Tempe. There was nothing left for him in New Jersey. It was dark. It was draining. There was no motivation for him.
"I'm just at the point where I'm trying to hold everything together because I know for sure that I'm going to lose more as life goes on," he said. "It's crazy how I look at it now. I talk to all these people and I'm just like, 'Which one of you is going to go next?'."
He realizes that some of his friends are due. That's just how it is in the streets. He doesn't want to keep crying and beating himself up about it. He's already told his friends that when he gets back to Arizona, if the inevitable happens, he doesn't want to know about it.
He has a goal. He is all in on his senior season. The next time he goes to Jersey City, he hopes it is simply to pick up his mom and his siblings and his daughter and take them out of there. And he knows reaching his goals on the football field will help him accomplish that.
But he does hope that others will see how he was able to overcome so much loss to achieve those goals. He wants his story to be told and he wants his hardships known because even if it saves one person from turning down the wrong path, he knows it will have been worth it.
There is currently no active player in the NFL from Jersey City. He wants the youth from his hometown to see that it's possible. He doesn't want to just be another person that peaked in college. Arizona State will not be his last stop.
Already, Darby frequently will visit his alma mater Lincoln High School to meet with the football players to motivate and educate those that might be drifting the wrong way. And should he succeed in making it to the League, he wants to make the most of that time by returning to Jersey City and continuing to speak to the youth there and encourage them to not turn toward the life of crime. It doesn't have to end in the streets.
Frank Darby is proof of that.
The only time Frank Darby has ever turned down an interview request with the local media in his time at ASU is when he had to run to class. Usually, that literally meant running.
A college education was one of the most important factors for Darby once he actually made it to campus. Academics were never his strong suit in his youth. In fact, it was his academics that almost kept any of this from coming to fruition.
But now, Darby can safely say he is a college graduate, having earned his liberal studies degree this Spring. He is the first person in his family to accomplish the feat.
Growing up, Darby had "hoop dreams". His dream was the NBA, not the NFL. He was a highly-touted eighth-grade basketball prospect. He was concerned about going to a public school, knowing how rare it was for someone from Jersey City to make the jump from public school basketball to college, but Lincoln High School was his home school and that was where he knew he would have to make his mark.
Darby was a freak of an athlete though, and it didn't take long for him to be brought to the attention of Lincoln head coach Robert Hampton. Hampton took Darby to his office early in his freshman year and asked him a simple question: "Do you want to go to college?"
When Darby told him yes, Hampton was blunt.
"He told me basketball wasn't going to get me out of here."
Darby didn't want to hear it. Basketball was his dream and he wouldn't be told otherwise. But as he got older, he started to get a glimpse of the competitive hoops at the next level. He'd watch film and watch television documentaries and quickly came to the realization that "I'm not tall enough."
So, he tried out for football and it wasn't long before he became a star. He was Deep Threat Darby in Jersey City also.
Darby averaged a gaudy 26.7 yards per catch in high school. He posted over 2,000 career receiving yards with 26 touchdowns on 78 career catches. He truly burst on to the scene as a senior with 957 yards, 27.3 yards per catch and 10 touchdowns.
He was a star. Schools were starting to come and check him out and the recruiting process was underway. He was going to use his talents and get out of Jersey City.
"I wasn't really doing my school work, you know? I'm Frank Darby. I'm walking around this high school doing whatever I wanted," he said. "But my coach has this poster hanging in his office that simply said 2.3 and one day I asked him what it meant."
Coach Hampton told him that was the GPA he would need to even get a college to take a look at a student-athlete. Darby was flabbergasted. He had no idea.
He immediately went to his guidance counselor to see what his grades were like. He hit it right on the nose. 2.3.
"You know, I hear that and I run back to Coach Hampton and I'm like 'Yo, I'm good!'," he said. "And coach looks at me and he's says, 'No, you're not.'"
Hampton explained 2.3 was just to get a look from colleges. There was still the whole matter of SAT testing.
"What's an SAT test?"
By this point of Darby's junior year, he had already verbally committed to the University of Iowa. Hampton explained that his GPA was basically the bare minimum and he would have to excel on the SAT in order to be academically eligible to receive a scholarship offer.
Darby was an admittedly poor test-taker. When he committed to Iowa, in his mind, he simply was going to walk right on to campus and join the football team. The concept of excelling in his academics had never occurred to him.
The first SAT test came around. He didn't pass. No worries, Darby thought. It's just the first time. The second time would be better.
He was meeting the math part but was struggling with the language arts. Panic mode was starting to settle in as signing day was just a couple months away.
It was suggested he try the ACT test instead. Again, he didn't pass.
"At this point I'm like if you don't pass this test, Frank, you're going to be stuck in Jersey City with your friends," he said. "I always said I would do better than that."
Then, as if that weren't enough, sweeping changes were made to SAT testing beginning in 2016 with content, format and scoring changes all being made. Unfortunately, that test was not made available until after the February Signing Period.
Additionally, Darby was in the middle of an undefeated season while this was all going on before suffering an ankle injury in one of the final games of the season. In hindsight, Darby admits this was the best thing to happen to him. The injury forced him into homeschooling for the remainder of the semester, away from football and the distractions of high school. He could put all his focus into preparing for the SAT test.
While working with the language arts teachers from home, he was also taking part in the Khan Academy SAT practice testing almost daily.
"I was so determined. I was on that site all the time. Taking the tests, failing. Beep. Beep. Beep."
He never wavered in his preparation though. He knew the SAT test was his only shot.
Darby still prepared for signing day like nothing was amiss, purchasing an Iowa shirt and hat and attending Lincoln's signing day ceremony with several other classmates. But while they were signing their National Letters of Intent, he signed a piece of paper just to "play along", still convinced he was going to Iowa. He just needed a little more time.
It went in the newspapers. It was on social media. As far as anyone was concerned, it was official – even though it wasn't. He added another class to his senior schedule to boost his GPA, raising it up to a 2.7. He went and took the new SAT test shortly after, simply needing a 400 on the new scoring scale on the reading and writing portion to pass.
He vividly remembers sitting in the trainer's room a week later. He didn't want to look at his results himself. He asked the trainer to do it.
"He pulled it up and looked at me and just said, 'Give me a hug. You're going to Iowa.'," Darby said. "I started screaming. I'm eligible to play NCAA football. I immediately ran and called my recruiter."
But heartbreak was in Darby's future. Unsure if Darby would be academically eligible in time, Iowa went a different direction. They asked Darby to come and take an official visit to discuss some options for his future. There, they told him they would want him to grayshirt the 2016 campaign, attend a prep academy for a semester and then join the team in 2017.
But they also told him he owed them no loyalty. Darby was beside himself in tears when he left the visit. Everything he had worked so hard for was coming apart at the seams. He sat down with Coach Hampton at the meal provided for them for the visit. While he cried, Hampton asked him what he wanted to do.
"He said, 'Do you want me to try and find you another school?'," Darby remembers. "And I was just like, I don't want to go to an academy that's like doing my senior year all over again. I'm NCAA-eligible now. I can play anywhere. So, I looked at him and I said we are opening up the recruiting."
The late recruiting process was a whirlwind. Athletes of Darby's caliber were few and far between that late in the cycle and Darby was much more guarded after his previous experiences. He was also inundated with East Coast schools who wanted him, something that didn't appeal to the young man that wanted to get as far away from the troubles of Jersey City as he could.
ASU made huge inroads when then-wide receivers coach and current Nevada head coach Jay Norvell flew to Jersey City to sit down with Darby in his own home.
"Jay Norvell changed my life," Darby said, "I didn't even know what Arizona State was. I was in my computer room typing it up. I didn't know anything about the Pac-12."
The official visit to Tempe was equally impressive. Darby fell in love with Tempe, with sights and weather that were basically unheard of to the young man that had spent his life in New Jersey. Darby met with men's basketball head coach Bobby Hurley, a Jersey City native as well and another point in ASU's favor. The campus was better than anything he'd seen before. The housing facilities even more so. He was in love.
It didn't take much more than that to convince him.
"It was to the point where at the end of the trip you're with everyone and they tell you to go home and talk it over with your family and then reach back out," Darby remembers. "But I said to them that it's not my family's decision. It's mine. Give me those papers. I want to sign now."
Frank Darby met three fellow freshmen in 2016 when he stepped on campus and settled into the dorm rooms for the first time.
At the time, wishful thinking and the words of his coaches on the recruiting trip had given him hopes he might see some time as a true freshman at receiver.
"Dillon (Sterling-Cole) came up to me and told me he was a quarterback. Jack (Smith) came to me and said he was a quarterback also." Darby remembers. "But then this big dude came around the corner and I look at him and say, 'Oh, you must be the defensive end!".
That "defensive end" looked at him and laughed directly in his face.
"He says 'Nah man, I play receiver. I'm N'Keal Harry," Darby laughs. "And that's when I knew I wasn't going to be playing that year."
He wasn't wrong and he spent the majority of that Fall Camp running with the third and fourth string. Tim White was still on the roster. Darby came in with touted transfers in Ryan Newsome and John Humphrey. Kyle Williams was a freshman that season and there was already depth with the likes of Jalen Harvey, Cam Smith, Ellis Jefferson and Fred Gammage.
He was a nascent project, having only played competitive football for about three seasons to that point and he was realistic with his expectations.
But it was the final team scrimmage before the season that would set the tone for Frank Darby's career at Arizona State. The coaches laid it out for the team that it would be the last chance to prove if they could play or not this season.
Darby had had a respectable camp to that point, he was already catching the deep balls and and thought he still might have a chance to work his way into the rotation with a good showing. He was on the third-string offense, which was tasked with going up against the first-string defense for that round of reps. He figured it would be a perfect opportunity to prove himself as he lined up against freshman All-American Kareem Orr.
But the next thing he knew, he was getting absolutely bullied into the ground on the sideline on a ball thrown his way. Orr stood over at him and jawed at him after the rep. And then there was the insult to injury as Darby looked up and right into the eyes of Jay Norvell.
"He just looked down at me and he said to me, 'You can't play here.'," Darby said. "That changed my life. That taught me not to ever let anyone punk me again."
That moment taught him what college football was going to be all about. He was on the sideline crying. He was letting the fourth and fifth stringers take reps ahead of him. In his mind, he wanted to go home. He thought he was about to have his heart broken again.
"Am I a football player or not?"
He called his brother-in-law back home immediately after the scrimmage, who talked him off the ledge and told him adversity was going to be a part of things. It was simply a matter of how he planned to deal with it. He refused to recidivate back to the streets of Jersey City.
He got off the phone to scrounge up 50 dollars and went to Life Time Fitness to get himself a gym membership for the month. He ended up staying and working out until 3 a.m. in the morning. The team had its next practice at 6 a.m.
"They say what's done in the dark is what shows in the light." Darby ruminates. "I was just like, alright, I'll just have a Red Bull and I'll be alright."
That same day, they put Darby on the scout team. He already knew that was coming. The gold jersey simply served as a reminder that he needed to get better. He went to the gym after practice every single day and stayed until 3 a.m. and then he would rally and go straight to practice a couple hours later. As a member of the scout team, he didn't need to take part in the team meetings in the morning so he would simply take a nap for about 90 minutes in the locker room before practice each day.
That was his routine while redshirting his freshman year. Practice. School Work. Gym. Red Bull. Nap. Practice. Rinse and repeat.
He would go on to be named the program's Scout Team MVP that season. That was where Frank Darby the football player was born.
But his rise wasn't without its growing pains. Literally, as he welcomed his daughter to the world during his redshirt freshman season. Add in being a loving father to the long list of accomplishments in Darby's life.
On the football field though, the Sun Devils have had no shortage of wide receiver talent in Darby's first four years on campus. The program posted back-to-back NFL first round wide receiver draft picks in N'Keal Harry in 2019 and Brandon Aiyuk in 2020. Kyle Williams became one of the most prolific catch passers in program history.
Darby has shown plenty of flashes though, culminating in a career season as a redshirt junior this past year where he was second on the team with 616 receiving yards on just 31 catches with a team-high eight touchdowns. "Big Play Frank" has averaged 21.6 yards per catch in his career thus far.
After paying his dues, Darby is ready to assume the role of team leader as he enters his senior swan song.
Molding his body has become a way of life for Darby ever since that fateful scrimmage. He coined the term "Stupid Swole" to refer to his Adonis-like physique, a moniker that now rests on the undershirts of he and several of his teammates.
Even COVID-19 couldn't keep Darby away from his workouts. A friend of his would sneak him through the back door of a local gym in Jersey City. When the gym wasn't an option, he would simply pick up and move any heavy thing he could find around the house. Whether it was band squats with a case of water above his head or leg pressing his sofa, he would not be denied.
A juggernaut in the weight room and in life and on the football field, there's not much that ever seems to slow Frank Darby down. At any moment, he could have shut it down and committed to a life of poor choices in New Jersey. And given his history, not many people would have held it against him.
And despite all the hardships, Frank Darby has gotten to this point with a cheesing grin on his face, an infectious laugh that brightens a room and a larger-than-life personality that consumes every photographer and videographer's memory card. Whether he is stealing the show with his sweet tea eccentrics on HBO's 24/7 College Football or dancing before, during and after every practice, game and workout, you will always be hard-pressed not to easily spot him at any given point and time.
That's what he wants. He wants to bring mirth and excitement and happiness to the lives of every single person he comes across.
"When people love you, you do good. Because you don't have any people behind you hating on you or saying bad things about you," he said. "They're happy for you. I want everybody to be great."
And it's hard to not want to be better after a conversation with him. If you don't believe me, just ask him yourself. But make sure you have a couple hours of spare time. Maybe a Red Bull. And make sure you bring a good attitude, because Frank Darby won't allow you to have it any other way.
"I just can't wake up mad. I'm going to bring it every day," Darby reminds us. "I want to leave my mark on people. I just want people to say that Frank was a good guy and everything that comes his way, he deserves it."