Georgia Tech walk-on Dickey takes on calculus, Tech defense

Chance, or perhaps fate, placed Darryl Dickey on a path that has given him joy, not much sleep and, among other things, a sore knee.

Only the most diehard Georgia Tech fan is aware of Dickey’s existence. He is a walk-on on the Tech football team, one of those anonymous team members who shares a jersey number with a scholarship player. But Dickey has played a vital part in the Yellow Jackets’ season, running the scout-team offense to prepare the Tech defense for its upcoming opponent.

As the season progressed, Dickey spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on a near-weekly basis, offering glimpses into the life of a nonscholarship football player both inches and miles from the spotlight.

Getting started

As a newly arrived freshman in 2010, Dickey had no intent of continuing his football career after playing linebacker and then quarterback at Ola High School. But days after the start of classes, he ran into a buddy who was a preferred walk-on, who encouraged him to try out. He skipped a day’s worth of classes to find a health-care facility that would give him a physical, then made the team at a tryout. He kept it a secret from his parents, who were under the impression he had soured on the game and wanted to focus on his studies.

“After I got the call from Coach [Liam] Klein, I was like, Hey, Mom. Yeah — I’m going to play football,” he said. “She was like, What?”

Running the scout

In the 2010 season, Dickey filled in wherever necessary. The scout team, usually a mixture of redshirting scholarship freshmen and walk-ons, was quarterbacked by Synjyn Days. Dickey’s role for 2011 was unclear. But then, quarterback David Sims moved to B-back in the spring. In the preseason, freshman Vad Lee performed well enough to convince coach Paul Johnson to have him share snaps with Days and starter Tevin Washington rather than run the scout team. Those duties now fell to Dickey.

“I’m happy that I’m getting to actually run it this year,” he said Aug. 23, nine days before the season opener. “Going from just being an extra fill-in guy to getting to run it, it’s nice.”

Early action

Some walk-ons play four seasons and never touch the field. After his redshirt season in 2010, Dickey’s wait lasted less than 60 minutes. In the fourth quarter of Tech’s 63-21 win over Western Carolina, A-backs coach Lamar Owens sent Dickey to the headphones wired to the coaches box. Quarterbacks and B-backs coach Brian Bohannon told him he was going in, offering additional instruction: “Don’t fumble.”

Dickey anxiously watched the clock as Western Carolina continued to drive, hoping Tech would regain the ball before time ran out. An interception finally ended the Catamounts’ possession. With 3:37 remaining and butterflies in his stomach, Dickey ran on to the field with his parents, sister and grandparents in the stands. He ran five plays and didn’t fumble. Butterflies aside, he was surprisingly calm.

“I wasn’t terribly nervous about anyone else’s defense, knowing the defense we play against every day,” Dickey said Sept. 6, five days after the game.

Fighter jets

As he came down from the high of playing in his second game — he played in Tech’s 66-24 blowout of Kansas, even though his newly made jersey read “Dicky” — Dickey was grappling with schoolwork. Dickey earned high marks at Ola, “but this is not an easy school,” he said Sept. 20.

It’s especially difficult for a student trying to balance football with aerospace engineering. Dickey loved the introductory aerospace engineering class he took in the spring and wants to design fighter jets. To do so, he would have to pass Calculus 3 in addition to Differential Equations and “all kinds of crazy classes.” With his first test upcoming, he didn’t yet know what sort of beast Calculus 3 would be, he said, “but the concepts are a little out there. It’s vector calculus, so you work with three-dimensional space instead of normal equations like you’ve done the rest of your life.”

Armchair quarterback

Dickey would have preferred to be in Raleigh for the team’s 45-35 win over N.C. State on Oct. 1, but he got the next best thing: a weekend off. Players not on the travel squad lift weights at 6 a.m. Friday and then are released for the weekend. Dickey went home to Locust Grove to watch his sister, Devon, a freshman at Locust Grove High, play in a volleyball tournament, catch up on homework and recuperate.

He watched the Tech game on television with his family, seeing friends and teammates run plays he had seen drawn up in meetings and defend N.C. State plays he had executed just a few days earlier.

“You’re sitting there and you’re thinking, “Oh, we ran that against them,’” he said Oct. 4, three days after the win over the Wolfpack. “‘They should be able to stop that with ease.’”

Zzzzz

Tech’s fall break brought sweet slumber. With no classes Oct. 17-18, Dickey crashed for 10 or 11 hours one night, which is four or five more hours of sleep than he normally gets.

“I felt like I was at a point where, every time I sat down, I could sleep,” Dickey said. “No matter where I was, class, everything, I was just hitting like, zombie mode.”

Free of zombie mode, Dickey offered an insight into Tech’s improving secondary. As Dickey and the receivers work opponent pass plays over and over, they typically can hit some plays on Tuesday and Wednesday, but “they’ll close it off by Thursday. It’s tough to get the passes in. They’ve picked up on their keys and they do a good job of working hard while they’re out there during those periods.”

Surf’s up

Dickey’s more experienced teammates knew to be on the side of the field closer to the locker room when the clock expired in Tech’s upset win over then-No. 5 Clemson Oct. 29. Dickey was on the far end of the field as the student body poured onto the field.

Students, happy to share their excitement with anyone in a Tech uniform, pounded on Dickey even though he hadn’t played a minute. Soon after, a couple of fraternity brothers lifted him into the air and started to pass him along above the sea of students. A wire-service photo of Dickey, held up by students with his helmet aloft, made sports websites and sent the image worldwide.

Calculus 3 and the Bulldogs

Dickey was holding his own in Calculus 3, but had another big test coming the week of the Duke game. On his last test, he made the class average — a 47. In high school, a 47 class average probably meant that some of the less intelligent students bombed. "But here everyone is pretty smart," he said.

The professor “curves at the end [of the semester], so you’re kind of at a loss as to what you have until the very end,” he said.

Dickey sat on a bench in the lobby of the Tech football offices with an ice pack on his knee. He’d gotten it banged up in practice. So he had that to take care of, along with getting the Tech defense ready for Duke (and Georgia the following week), fraternity initiation and the small matter of Calculus 3, Statics, Physics 2 and American history.

All because he’d run into a friend on campus.

“I would never have known about it,” he said. “I wouldn’t even have had any of these opportunities. It’s kind of crazy how a chance can work like that.”