Here comes Darien Moran with his red Wisconsin “W” hat flipped backward over his closely cropped hair. Typical 14-year-old, bounding with energy at the start of a new day. Anything seems possible to a teen, even something as big as overcoming a rare disease. And that’s good because that’s exactly what Darien is doing.
But this particular day isn’t about battling a disease. Nope. It’s about football—Wisconsin football. And Darien loves Wisconsin football. He looks good, squinting into the sun with his Aunt Terry and younger sister Ashley nearby in the shadow of Camp Randall Stadium.
A smile splits his face. Why not? Darien is going to see his belloved Badgers play today for the first … time … ever. He lives a scant 10 miles away from this Saturday cathedral but never has come to worship the Badgers. You know how it is. Money, time, etc. So, this is a big deal.
Watch the entire feature profile of Darien Moran on “The BTN Pregame Football Show” presented by Auto-Owners Insurance at 11 a.m. ET on Saturday. And see previous TV feature profiles in our special BTN Features section.
It’s an even bigger deal when you consider the special access Darien will have on this day—his day. He formed a bond with the 2013 Badgers as part of the Make-A-Wish program, and he is fond of Chris Borland, a hustling whirling dervish of a linebacker who plays at full speed and tackles anything that moves.
“Oh, he’s my favorite,” says Darien.
Darien is toting a Wisconsin helmet, a gift from the team. The signature of Badger coach Gary Andersen is big and bold: “God bless, Darien! Go Badgers!”
“I want to get autographs on this,” says Darien, holding up the helmet by the facemask like a prize.
A Wisconsin administrator has another surprise for Darien on this Saturday morning: an authentic No. 44 Borland game-worn jersey. He quickly changes out of his red Wisconsin football T-shirt and slides into Borland’s red No. 44. This is sweet.
“How does he get this on?” Darien says, taking off his cap and rubbing his head. “It’s so small, and I don’t even have pads on.”
“I’m wearing this to school on Monday.”
Today is the culmination of a Make-A-Wish dream for Darien. He’s in remission right now, having recently finished his final rounds of chemo. He looks good, lobbing a football on the Camp Randall Stadium turf before Wisconsin’s season-opening game vs. UMass. Darien already has encountered more hardship than some do in a lifetime. And he’s just a ninth-grader.
“I’m just doing what I can,” says Darien. “Staying positive.”
Darien Moran is like most teens. There’s wrestling, there are friends, there’s soccer, there’s school, there’s football. Go, go, go, go. That’s Darien Moran’s world.
School. Sports. Friends. School. Sports. Friends.
The calendar flips quickly. Moms and dads know the drill, although Darien hardly knew his two parents. He lost his mother when he was four years old and his father died eight months after that. He marched on, living with Aunt Terry and Uncle Larry. This was his normal. This was his life. And it was all OK.
School. Sports. Friends. School. Sports. Friends.
But then, it showed up. There was hip and leg pain that just wouldn’t go away in the summer of 2011. At first, physicians thought the pain and discomfort was a result of Darien’s activity. Go, go, go. The prescription: physical therapy. But Darien’s symptoms got worse, not better. And he was losing weight. Something wasn’t right.
“We didn’t know what was going on,” Aunt Terry recalled. “The therapist is the one that said there’s something more going on. We had the MRI and he was at Children’s Hospital and they thought he had Ewing’s Sarcoma. And one of the pathologist said, ‘No, I don’t think that’s it. It’s something else.’ “
It was something else. It was Histiocytosis, a rare autoimmune disease that caused tumors throughout Darien’s body. Chemotherapy is the treatment, but it’s not the cure. There is no cure, only the hope that it doesn’t return.
“So that started a year of chemo,” Aunt Terry says.
The toxic rounds of chemotherapy blasted away at the tumor in Darien’s hip and pelvic bone. It was working, but six months later Darien found a tumor on his skull. More chemo treatments every 28 days. It was hard, but he pushed forward like before.
And then his Uncle Larry, the man who helped raise him all of those years, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Darien remained unshaken, strengthened by those around him. He stayed busy, buoyed by youthful energy and a positive outlook. He believes he can do anything, remember?
“He’s a strong young man,” Aunt Terry says.
Darien is tumor-free on this August day, and he’s feeling good, too. He kept active during the latest recovery process and now plays on his ninth grade football team at La Follette High.
“I play several different spots,” he says. “We are OK.”
Darien has had no time to ask “Why me?” And if he could, why would he bother? Keep going forward, setting an example for others. He never has wavered. He never has flinched. He has pushed through the punishing treatments. He knows the tumors could come back some day. He’ll never really be out of the woods. But, let’s stay in the moment, OK? And right now, everything is pretty cool for Darien.
To help Darien get through these times, he became involved with Make-A-Wish. What would he choose as his wish? A trip to the Super Bowl? A chance to meet a celebrity? He thought about trying to meet Eminem but knew that would take too long. Then he thought it would be cool to have a place where he could watch his Badgers play.
“I like the Badgers because they are a good team,” he says. “They’re all big and really nice people.”
Darien opted for a bedroom makeover. When the project was complete, Make-A-Wish got in touch with the University of Wisconsin to see if some Badger football players would visit Darien in his new room when the project was revealed. The Badgers players went one better: They helped put the room together – and it didn’t stop there. Darien’s family took a tour of Camp Randall Stadium, went to practice where Darien got to help out, and Darien scored plenty of Badger gear.
And the room? It was unveiled last spring. It’s a teenage boy’s dream, a combination of electronics and football items that would make any fan’s jaw drop. There’s a Badgers turf rug, “stadium” lighting, a flat-screen TV, laptop, sound system, sports collectables … you get the picture. A collection of over 60 hats that belonged to Darien’s father also were incorporated into the room design, giving it a personal touch in a place that’s all about Darien.
“It’s a nice set up,” Darien says.
The stands of Camp Randall Stadium are filling up. It’s almost game time. Darien heads to Coach Andersen’s private booth perched high above the field. It’s quite a view from here. Aunt Terry and Ashley stay while Darien is off to the locker room. He has a full day ahead with his Badgers, a day that would be capped by meeting Wisconsin legends J.J. Watt and Ron Dayne, as well as a resounding Wisconsin win.
“I would like to go to Wisconsin someday,” Darien says. “I’ll have to see. But this is great. I’ll never forget this.”
Darien wasn’t a patient on this day. He wasn’t cringing through chemo and fighting the tumors. He was just an ordinary Wisconsin fan on an extraordinary day smiling at his Badgers at a college football game. He looked just like a normal kid, which is exactly what he wants to be.
|About Tom Dienhart||BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.|
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