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Sep 18, 2020

The Journey

By: Jackson Sternberg

Note: The following appears in the The Citadel gameday football program.

Just eight months after he tore his left ACL in the spring of his sophomore year at T.L. Hanna High School, running back Darien Rencher tore his right ACL, PCL and in his words, “whatever ‘L’ you can imagine.”

Rencher was told his recovery time would be 16 months, which would have been long enough to eliminate both his junior and senior seasons.

The Anderson, S.C. native somehow managed to swing what could easily be called a terrible twist of fate into a positive one, as he put together a senior performance that earned him a walk-on spot with the Tigers.

As a child with Clemson alumni for parents, Rencher spent his childhood sliding down the Hill at Memorial Stadium on cardboard boxes. His father, who ran track for the Tigers, brought him to as many Clemson sporting events as possible, and Tigertown quickly became a home for the Renchers.

After the injuries to both knees, some of the scholarship offers he had received slowly disappeared, and his options were limited as he prepared to begin his senior season after a relatively short recovery given the severity of the injury he sustained. That said, Rencher had one goal laid out in front of him heading into his final high school campaign.

“I had a dream. If I was going to do this, I wanted to have no regrets and I thought I would really love to play for Clemson. Coach (Brent) Venables told me to wait and they’d try to find me a preferred walk-on spot.”

Rencher would not secure his spot on the team until a week after his high school graduation, when Venables ultimately gave him the call he had been waiting for his whole life.

While many could look at the damage dealt to Rencher’s knees as a devastating blow, the now fifth-year senior took his time away from the gridiron and in recovery mode as a means to grow as a person and leader. Arriving at that mentality took a concerted effort on his part.

“As an athlete, ‘ACL’ is something you never want to hear, but I found encouragement and I knew I’d make it back. When I tore the second one, I thought, ‘This is crazy.’

“I don’t know if God wanted to balance it out, but that one really hit home, because I had just rehabbed for eight months. When I heard that, it was devastating.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Rencher is grateful for the experience and all the lessons he was able to take from the recovery process while still acknowledging how challenging a time it was for him to endure.

“When I look back, I wouldn’t change a thing, but I definitely wouldn’t choose it going forward. That timeframe really molded me into who I really wanted to be but never gave the attention to as far as who I wanted to be as a man and as a person. I was able to focus some energy and time on some stuff that I’m really proud of.”

In a time when football, something he had always excelled at, was taken away from him, Rencher managed to ask himself the following question.

“What else can I be good at?”

He proceeded to answer that question with as many responses as possible. Through extensive reading and working, Rencher was able to cultivate leadership skills that he brought with him when it was time to put the helmet back on.

“The things I developed during that season are a lot of what differentiated me as I moved forward. I started speaking and my mentors bought me books. I was seeking any wisdom and knowledge I could find.

“A lot of the things people see about me beyond football…they go back to those beginning stages of development when I was crafting myself as a man. That time gave me a vision of what I wanted to do if football never came back.”

Rencher credited his faith as one of the ways he manages to stay so positive and find the silver lining in all situations. He believes while God may not have a direct plan that he is carrying out, he presents you with opportunities to shape you to carry out the prayer you pray.

“At first when I tore my ACLs, it felt like God had abandoned me, but looking back, it prepared me for these moments. My faith was strengthened when I had to figure out who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. Those moments have given me an anchor to hold on to as we navigate through all different types of adversity.”

In a summer stained by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the several instances of injustice that require so much attention, Rencher was able to put these hard-earned skills to work when helping to lead the community demonstration in June.

The death of Ahmaud Arbery in particular struck a chord with Rencher, and when the nation was gripped by the death of George Floyd, he and his team saw an opportunity to help raise awareness and bring the Clemson community closer together.

Rencher spoke with quarterback Trevor Lawrence as well as linebacker Mike Jones Jr. and wide receiver Cornell Powell, and with the help of P.A.W. Journey, the team organized a peaceful demonstration and used the platform as Clemson student-athletes to contribute to the community in a truly meaningful and powerful way.

“It was amazing to see the turnout. I didn’t know if anyone was going to show up, but to see all the other teams, people from the community, people driving hours to be a part of that…it was crazy.”

The work is not done, but Rencher and his teammates took this experience as a glimpse of what Clemson as a community can continue to strive for.

The leadership and ability to bring people together that Rencher carries with him, along with his talent on the field, has been validated in the form of a scholarship, one of his proudest achievements. During the summer of 2018, the former walk-on became a scholarship athlete, proving to him that if you put in the work and the effort, you will get rewarded.

That work and effort is crucial to where Rencher is today, both as a person and as an athlete. He stated that the phrase “natural-born leader” actually upsets him, because it makes it sound like a person can be born with that ability, whereas in reality, it takes dedication to find your voice and become the person you want to be.

As time marches on, Rencher and his teammates will continue on the path to fight for equality and strive for more player empowerment in college football, another part of what was an incredibly trying summer for Clemson and the country as a whole. Through his faith and his unbelievable drive, Rencher is sure to be a standout member of society, wherever life takes him next.

“No matter what, I need to keep on keeping on and never stop smiling. My motto is that it’s a journey, and if I continue to take the right steps and never quit, it’s all going to work out.

“If you don’t quit, you’ll win in the end.”