Nebraska wide receiver Zack Darlington had two dreams growing up. One was to play football for a Division I program. The other was to serve his country.
While Darlington focused on winning a state championship with Apopka (Fla.) High School in 2012, he didn’t realize he had not yet received the big-time college offers. As a dual-threat quarterback, his attention was placed on leading Apopka to a 13-2 record and the Class 8A state title in 2012.
With no Division I offers by the end of his junior season, Darlington figured football at the FBS level was not in the cards.
“I didn’t really recognize the fact that if you don’t have an offer by the time you’re in your junior year, you’re probably not going to go play anywhere too big,” Darlington told Land of 10. “Usually by senior year, guys aren’t bringing in big offers. By then, they’ve already committed and are showcasing what they’re bringing to college. That’s the case at Division I, at least.”
After winning the state championship title on Dec. 17, 2012, Darlington discussed his future with his family. He was leaning heavily on trying to attend the Naval Academy. He still wanted to play football, but he saw this as an opportunity to pursue both of his dreams.
“That was my big goal and my big dream, but then I got my first offer on Christmas day from Virginia Tech,” Darlington said. “I realized when I talked to my family and friends about it that if God wanted me to go to the Naval Academy, I don’t know if he would have placed those offers in my life.”
Those offers included Ohio State, West Virginia and, of course, Nebraska. Darlington decided his dream to serve in the military would have to wait.
“I figured I would go ahead and chase it as far as I could and do the football thing,” Darlington said. “I figured if [the military] was something I was still interested in later on, I’d pursue it. For now, though, I was going to go ahead and go with football. I did that and was able to come to Nebraska.”
When Darlington arrived at Nebraska, he soon met punter Sam Foltz. The two became friends and Foltz got Darlington involved with the Nebraska chapter of Ducks Unlimited.
Darlington later attended a banquet for Ducks Unlimited, where retired Army Command Sergeant Major Kenny Winn was tending a booth for his company TIII Operational Solutions and Heartland Precision Rifle. Winn was familiar with Darlington, mostly from following recruiting news. He did not yet know about Darlington’s character, but he knew people were excited to have him on campus.
Winn remembers the day Darlington spoke at a Ducks Unlimited banquet. Darlington was there on behalf of a foundation started in Foltz’s name, who died in a car accident in July 2016. By the time Darlington was finished speaking, the room was captivated. Winn was, too.
“I just felt compelled to talk to him, so I called him over to my booth when he was on the way out,” Winn told Land of 10. “I said, ‘You know, I do long-range marksmanship instruction and if that’s something you’d all like to do or something for the foundation, I’d love to help out.’ I didn’t know what that would turn into or what it would look like, but what it turned into was Zack and 5 or 6 other teammates coming out for a long-range team building event.”
Neither Darlington nor Winn could have predicted just how close the two would become. And Darlington had no idea that Foltz’s invitation would steer him toward his other dream.
“It might not have made sense at the moment,” Darlington said. “But when you look back, it’s like, ‘Oh, I see what you were doing there.’”
Darlington shared the news Tuesday that he was leaving the Nebraska football team to pursue his dream of serving in the military. One day later, he was on his way to go pheasant hunting with Winn.
Winn calls that time together good “windshield time.” It allows the two to talk about life, the military, and everything in between. And on similar trips before, the conversation of enlisting came up.
Winn has “been around the block,” as he puts it, so the two would discuss Darlington’s options and future.
“He became more than a mentor, but a really close friend,” Darlington said. “He served in the military and he was in the Army. He was very good at what he did. He was a sniper and a sniper instructor. I went out and shot with him and went to some of his courses. He was telling me, ‘You might be made for this kind of thing.’”
While Winn saw the potential, he never wanted to tell Darlington what to do. He was there to listen and offer his experience, but it was always up to Darlington what his future would hold.
“I’ve never pushed him,” Winn said. “In fact, I’ve done the other side of that because I understand the commitment and sacrifice that goes into it. I’ve always tried to be the devil’s advocate there. To commit yourself to the military is very honorable but on the other side, there’s inherent risk associated with that. I just wanted to be sure he had all of his options weighed and he set himself up for success well beyond the football field.”
But Darlington, who will graduate in May with a major in communications and small group leadership and a minor in criminal justice, is ready.
After spending his first two seasons as a reserve quarterback for the Huskers, Darlington later moved to receiver in the spring of 2016. His football journey then took an unexpected turn when Foltz died that summer. In addition to punting duties, Foltz was kicker Drew Brown’s holder.
The first person to hold for Brown during that fall camp was Darlington. Foltz had previously said that the job would be Darlington’s when he graduated. It only made sense he step into the role now.
For Winn, Darlington’s decision to hold and to stay at Nebraska through a coaching change and adversity showed who he was as a person and as a teammate. In a world where collegiate quarterbacks tend to move around in order to find more playing time, Darlington chose to stay.
“Here’s a guy who said, ‘You know what, I’m good with it. I’m a teammate. I want to get on the field, and I’m going to keep myself mentally and physically prepared for when the time comes that they ask me to do it, I can be ready for the team and my teammates,’” Winn said. “I don’t know many other quarterbacks specifically at that level willing to stick around because there might be a shot or because his teammates need him, or even a guy who says, ‘I’m a 4-star quarterback but to get on the field, I’ll hold kicks for PATs. I’ll be the PAT holder.’
“Most people wouldn’t do that, but Zack would.”
Darlington has heard it before, too. He’s a “team guy.” And he’s perfectly happy with that reputation because for Darlington, his dream to join the military was always about more than just himself. It was about serving others.
“In the Army, they have the Ranger Battalion, the Green Berets, the Delta Force, the more, small, specialized teams. That would be my goal, because I want to be in there with them,” Darlington said. “I want to be the one helping lead the charge. A lot of people ask me why I wouldn’t go to officer candidate school because I’d have my degree and I’d make a lot more money, but it’s not about money. That’s not what I’m doing this for.
“I want to do it because it’s my passion, it’s what I want to do and it’s what I want to serve.”
With one door closing, Darlington is ready for the next chapter in his life to begin. It’s still bittersweet, though, as he will always love Nebraska.
“I am devoted to this state and this program,” Darlington said. “I will take it to the grave with me.”
Darlington has plans to go to basic training in Fort Benning, Ga. He then hopes to attend The United States Army Airborne School – or “Jump School” – and become Army airborne certified. From there, sniper school would be on the horizon.
Winn believes Darlington’s time with the Huskers will prove beneficial on this journey.
“There’s all sorts of clichés you can say about the military and there’s all sort of references from the gridiron and back to the military,” Winn said. “Like, ‘Oh, the gridiron is a battlefield’ and all of that stuff. At the heart of it, though, it all comes down to one thing. You were given a mission and it’s your team. The best cliché out there is that when you’re on the battlefield, you’re not doing it for the flag. You’re doing it for your brothers on your left and your right. Zack has personified that. And you look at him and his love for patriotism and his love for team, when he came out of the tunnel any game, if he wasn’t holding the flag, he was behind the guy that was, or to his left or his right.
“He was never in the back. He was up front leading.”
Darlington won’t run out of the tunnel with his Nebraska teammates again, but he’s content. His football career didn’t turn out as he expected, but he was able to realize his dream of playing big-time football.
And that was something he never imagined possible as a junior in high school, waiting for the offers to arrive.
“Here’s a guy that wanted to do two things in the world: play DI football and serve in the military,” Winn said. “He’s living that dream.”