Burnt orange and navy blue confetti descended on Erick Dargan’s shoulders following Oregon’s loss in the 2011 BCS national championship game. He remembers it vividly and, to this day, it still hurts.
“That’s something I never want to witness again,” Dargan said. “That feeling after the game really left a sour taste in my mouth.”
Now entering his final season with Oregon Ducks, Dargan appreciates the losses he’s had along the way. He understands the importance of his suspension in the final two games last year. Dargan was suspended after a violation of undisclosed team rules. But he has taken mishaps and mistakes in stride, developing them along the way and utilizing them to step in this year as a leader in the Oregon secondary.
“I’ve seen a lot,” Dargan said. “I’ve witnessed a lot from playing with the guys playing before me. I feel like that’s going to help me this season. Just put everything I’ve learned over the last four years and get ready to leave it all out this year.”
Dargan’s older brother Derrick Blanche would play music at 6 a.m. before every game during Blanche’s high school career. The loud pre-game ritual would wake everyone in their Pittsburgh, California home, but it didn’t upset or annoy Dargan. Rather, he found the way his older brother would gear up for football games fascinating.
By the time it was Dargan’s turn to play high school football, Blanche’s pre-game morning music tradition carried on with his younger brother.
Whatever Blanche did, Dargan would try to emulate. As they grew up, Dargan’s admiration for Blanche motivated him to be better than his older brother.
“Erick watched him, saw how talented he was and wanted to be better than him,” Dargan’s mother Tammie Dargan said.
Until this year, Blanche held the single season rushing record at Pittsburgh High School with a total of 1,654 yards in 2004. His performance on the football field was unquestioned. However, his size and his diabetes became red flags for major college teams. He eventually found himself at Langston University in Oklahoma.
After a severe ankle injury — and a stint at Diablo Valley College — Blanche left college for good.
“When Derrick went through what he went through, he got to watch his opportunity not prevail like it should have,” Tammie said. “It taught him not to take anything for granted.”
While injuries ended his college football career, Blanche regrets not finishing college and not getting his degree. Blanche aims to be an example for Dargan — mandating that his younger brother performs to the best of his ability, not only on the football field, but also in the classroom.
“He calls me every day to make sure I’m always doing something to better myself,” Dargan said. “He really stays on me.”
Hard work, dedication and responsibility are some of the core values Blanche imparts to his younger brother.
“There are no shortcuts in life,” Blanche said. “You sometimes have to take the long route to get where you need to go.”
In high school, Dargan couldn’t be kept off the field.
On defensive days, Dargan would take breaks from practicing at his starting safety role to join the scout team offense. He always wanted to make his team better. “That’s what made him special,” said Victor Galli, Dargan’s high school coach. “He has this quality about him. He hates to lose. He’s very, very competitive.”
Dargan’s desire to play would cost him in his senior year. After hurting his knee against Granite Bay the week before, Galli planned to keep Dargan out against rival Monte Vista.
Galli decided to have Dargan suit up in case of emergency. At halftime, with Pittsburgh trailing, Dargan slammed his helmet against the wall and began crying in the locker room.
Dargan begged Galli to let him play, and the coach eventually conceded. Dargan went in and played well but took a shot to his knee that forced him to miss the rest of his senior season.
“Erick was so looking forward to his senior year and got robbed of seven games,” Galli said.
The same pain Dargan experienced in high school found him again last year when he was suspended for the final two games of the season, including the Ducks’ 30-7 victory over Texas in the Alamo Bowl.
“It was a traumatic experience for me,” Dargan said. “It hurt me deeply.”
As a senior in the secondary, Dargan is being called upon this year to be a leader for the team. He feels that being suspended last year is just another experience that he’s learned from. Just like Blanche was an example to him, now Dargan uses his experiences to fuel the wisdom he conveys to his younger teammates.
“It’s nothing to be sad about,” Dargan said. “It’s a team game and any decisions or actions you take affect the team. I share my experience with other people to help guide them.”
“He’s coming into his senior year and I expect him to be — especially coming off the suspension — one of the best leaders we’ve ever had here,” Oregon secondary coach John Neal said.
Throughout spring practices, Dargan has been making plays on the field. More importantly, he’s been a coach on the field. Dargan is always pulling his younger teammates to the side and teaching them how to succeed in a college secondary.
“Everything I see right now, he’s going to be a difference maker for us,” Neal said.
On June 16, Dargan will earn a degree in family and human services from the University of Oregon, becoming the first person in his family to graduate from college.
“It’s so important he walks away from college with a degree,” Tammie said. “It’s something words cannot explain. It just warms my heart that he’s succeeded at this level.”
The degree will validate that he is professionally suited to guide and lead. But in reality, Dargan has had plenty of practice being a leader and has always aspired to be somebody people can look up to.
“He’s always lending a hand,” Blanche said. “That’s Erick. That’s always been Erick.”
When football isn’t in session, Dargan can be found at his old high school or the local Boys and Girls Club in Pittsburgh, talking to kids about his experiences and the importance of attending college.
“That’s his home,” Galli said. “He loves coming back to the high school. He loves seeing the kids and they love seeing him.”
Giving back to the Pittsburgh youth has become Dargan’s passion. Just like he needed to look up to his older brother, his hardworking mother and his older teammates and coaches, Dargan plans to do the same for others. Whether it’s on the football field in Eugene or in the classroom at Pittsburgh High School, being a leader is something Dargan loves to do.
“In my eyes, I’m just Erick Dargan,” Dargan said. “I’m just a regular guy who was once in their shoes trying to share my experiences.”
Follow Joseph Hoyt on Twitter @jhoyt42