I’m so impressed with the parents of Sam Darnold, who is rumored to be the first pick tonight in the NFL draft. They were parents who let their phenom athletically-gifted kid, be just that. A kid. Tonight we’ll find out if Sam is the first pick, or not. We can learn so much from Sam’s parents regardless of the level of talent our kids have, or what their passions are. I wrote this about USC’s quarterback eight months ago:
My husband asked me to read a story from the Bleacher Report about USC Quarterback Sam Darnold. I put him off for a day because frankly, I wasn’t that interested. I finally read it to appease him and found Sam’s story to be fascinating—mainly because of the parenting style of Mike and Chris Darnold.
From childhood through high school, Sam played basketball, football, and baseball. I think he played volleyball, too. His parents let him try and decide what sports he participated in. They didn’t make him specialize or get him private lessons or coaches. In fact, Sam believes his success in football is from playing all different sports and learning a variety of skills. In a refreshing story written by Jeff Perlman, you find out about a dying breed of parents—ones who believe in fun and no pressure. Parents who let their child lead his own life.
“USC’s star quarterback and his parents do not live by the LaVar Ball theory of the universe. They let a multisport supernova grow up into his own man. And that’s why this 20-year-old might be the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft.”
Yet the story of Sam Darnold isn’t the story of the modern quarterback, loud and sparkly and created to own the internet’s 24-hour hype machine. Nope, it’s the story of a young man on the verge of superstardom because, not long ago, he was allowed to diversify.
He was allowed to be a kid.
The Darnolds’ Capistrano Beach household is in the heart of south Orange County, where there are youth sports leagues atop leagues atop leagues, and private coaches atop private coaches atop private coaches.
In Orange County, it’s not uncommon for a nine-year-old pitcher to throw sliders and curveballs nine or 10 months of the year—with a father behind the backstop holding a radar gun. It’s not uncommon for a quarterback to play Pop Warner, then a season of flag and then spend the summer under the watchful eye of a $200-an-hour passing guru.
This was not going to happen to Sam.
“My parents,” the quarterback says, “wouldn’t have allowed it.”
On paper, this might come as a surprise. One would be hard-pressed to find a more sports-centric family than the Darnolds. Mike (Sam’s dad) was an offensive lineman at the University of Redlands, Chris (Sam’s mom) a volleyball player at Long Beach City College. Sam’s older sister Franki starred in volleyball at the University of Rhode Island and three of his cousins—Allie, Michele and A.J.—also participated in collegiate volleyball. Sam’s late grandfather, Dick Hammer, played basketball at USC and was on the 1954 team that went to the Final Four. He was also a member of the 1964 U.S. Olympic men’s volleyball team.
Put simply, organized athletics are a big deal in the Darnold world and have been for decades.
“But,” says Chris, “they’re not everything. We’ve always tried to keep things in perspective. Yes, our children have always loved playing sports. But around here, in this part of California, it too often becomes live and die. That’s a big mistake in my opinion. It has to be fun.”
“One day you open your eyes and it’s, ‘Holy cow, your son is in this position,’” Mike says. “I mean, it’s crazy, right? Crazy, crazy, crazy—one in a million.”
He pauses. Though Chris is acknowledged by family members as the emotional one, the father has been showing his soft side of late. He insists he never cared whether his children played sports or an instrument or worked a job—as long as they were involved and happy and tried different things. But to have a son as USC’s starting quarterback; to have a son who is a Heisman Trophy front-runner; to have a son who is humble and decent and respectful?
“Say what you want,” Mike says. “Sam’s not flashy, he’s not a yeller, he’s not a trophy collector, a bragger. But I feel like we worked hard to raise our kids the right way. And it’s paid off.”
I believe the Darnolds have lessons for many sports parents, myself included. Of course, they had an exceptionally athletic son who could have been recruited in basketball, baseball or football. But more than that, they raised a humble, balanced kid. They are proud of him as a person, not just as a star athlete. Their attitude and parenting style helped develop Sam into the man he is and will become.
I hope you take the time to read the entire Bleacher Report article about Sam Darnold and his parents. There’s also another great article in the Los Angles Times called “As expectations swell, USC’s Sam Darnold finds comfort at home near the beach” by Zach Helfand.
I’m excited to watch him play football this year. Here’s a YouTube of his 2016 highlights.
Click here to watch a recent interview with Sam Darnold by CBS’s Allie LaForce.
What do you think about kids specializing in one sport at an early age?