New York Giants rookie running back Orleans Darkwa doesn’t yet have a catchy nickname or a signature touchdown celebration.
Instead, he has a personal motto: “Carpe diem” or “Seize the day.”
That is exactly what the 22-year-old former team captain for the Tulane Green Wave has been doing since joining the Giants mid-year.
Darkwa, 6’0” and 215 pounds, is the latest Giants rookie to make a positive impact this season.
In that limited action, the rookie already has five carries for 21 yards (a 4.2 average), one rushing touchdown, and two receptions for 17 yards, with most of his snaps coming on third down.
That production isn’t bad for a rookie who wasn’t with the team for the first 10 weeks of the season, nor is it surprising given what Darkwa is all about.
A Brush with Greatness
Before Darkwa even had thoughts about becoming an NFL player, he received one of life’s most valuable lessons from his parents, natives of Ghana who settled in Nashville, about how to achieve success.
“My parents are really big on discipline,” he said. “That’s something they instilled in me for as long as I can remember, and it’s a lesson I’ve applied my entire life as far as not going out all the time and just focusing on what I have to do.
“I learned that you can’t take shortcuts to reach your goals, and you can’t expect things to be handed to you,” he added.
Possessing a naturally inquisitive nature, Darkwa also quickly realized the importance of education, both in the classroom and on the football field.
After a successful high school career at The Ensworth School in Nashville, Darkwa was recruited by Tulane University.
In the classroom, Darkwa earned his degree in sociology in three-and-a-half years.
On the gridiron, he earned a starting job as a freshman, when he ran for a career-high 925 yards and 11 touchdowns.
He followed that campaign up with 924 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns but struggled through his junior season with a serious ankle injury.
Following that frustrating campaign, Darkwa had a life-changing experience when his former high school coach, Lemanski Hall, a former NFL linebacker who played from 1994-2002 for the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans, Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings, set the young man up for a brush with greatness.
That “greatness" was former Oilers/Titans running back Eddie George, whom Hall had been teammates with from 1995-97.
For Darkwa, having a chance to meet George was a golden opportunity to tap into what he perceived as an excellent knowledge base whose advice could ultimately help him get drafted by the NFL.
George's biggest advice to Darkwa, according to Mike Organ of The Tennessean, was to take better care of his body.
“In my senior year, I dedicated myself to eating the right things and not going outside of the cafeteria,” he said. “The cold tub was my best friend.”
The extra attention to details paid off. As a senior, Darkwa finished with 863 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns, earning a place on the Doak Walker Award watch list, the award recognizing the nation’s top college running back—an award that George had won in 1995.
“If you do the right things to make sure your body is right,” Darkwa said, “you’ll feel brand new each day.”
Despite not winning the Doak Walker Award in 2013—future teammate Andre Williams out of Boston College took home the honors that year—Darkwa set his sights on the NFL draft, where, according to the research done by his agent, Darkwas was projected as a fifth- to seventh-round prospect.
Darkwa’s phone never rang during the draft, and while teams immediately began to express interest in signing him to compete for a roster spot, he was still disappointed that his journey had taken an unexpected turn.
The thing about Darkwa, though, is that he views a setback as a challenge. So when he signed as an undrafted rookie free agent with the Miami Dolphins, Darkwa had his sights on making the team.
He made a strong case to do that, rushing 22 times for 102 yards (a 4.1 average) with one touchdown in the preseason.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he also caught seven of eight pass targets for 53 yards.
His performance was good enough to where he made the Dolphins’ initial 53-man roster coming out of camp.
However, his stay on the 53-man roster was short-lived, as Miami waived him on October 6 only to sign him to the practice squad three days later.
Darkwa remained on Miami’s practice squad until the Giants came calling following the season-ending broken leg suffered by running back Michael Cox against Seattle.
“I had to make a quick decision, so I had a long talk with my agent and my parents,” Darkwa said regarding when he first heard from the Giants.
“I was in Miami since May, so I was kind of used to what was going on there. I had some reservations about going to New York at first because what if it didn’t work out?”
After some quick soul-searching and guidance from his family, Darkwa decided to take the leap into the unknown.
“It was the best decision I could have made,” he said with a big grin.
A Rapid Rise
Over the last couple of weeks, Giants head coach Tom Coughlin has spoken about his practice regarding when rookies are given a chance to contribute.
That practice is simple. Rookies need to earn practice reps by demonstrating a grasp of what’s being taught in the classroom.
They then need to show they can handle the practice reps they receive on the scout team and on special teams.
If they can do all that, their reward is game snaps.
As soon as Darkwa got his hands on the Giants playbook, he was confident he would have rapid success in learning his assignments.
What’s been his secret?
“My coach at Tulane (Curtis Johnson) was the Saints receivers coach, so he brought with him elements of the Saints offense,” Darkwa explained, noting that there are a lot of similarities to what the Giants do.
Darkwa’s familiarity with the concepts helped to make his transition to the Giants a lot smoother than anyone expected.
“To be able to come in and pick things up the way he has, says a lot about him and his study habits,” offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo told reporters.
“He’s really smart,” added running back Rashad Jennings, who has taken Darkwa under his wing. “He’s young, so the confidence level has been coming for him pretty quickly.”
Besides the familiarity with the concepts, Darkwa chalks up his early success to playing with quarterback Eli Manning, whom he called “a legend.”
He also praised the tips he has received from Jennings and Williams. He also revealed that Giants running backs coach Craig Johnson has often spent extra time with him, at the rookie’s request, so that Darkwa can better grasp the finer details of the Giants offense.
So far, so good.
“He has a knack for finding the hole or if there is a small crease in there,” McAdoo said. “He can kind of get down low and get through there in a hurry. He has done some good things out of the backfield. Otherwise in pass protection, he has been a pleasant surprise.”
Jennings, who like Darkwa is a student of the game, said Darkwa’s ability to learn so quickly is somewhat rare for a rookie.
“He gets it off the first lesson. He doesn’t take many repeats. That’s one thing about him that’s unusual in most rookies,” he said.
“He learns from other people’s mistakes, which is also unusual for rookies, because in most cases, you have to make the mistake yourself in order to fix it. But he has a chance to be a great student of the game, and he’s showcasing that every day in the classroom.”
Before he was starting to turn heads on the offense, Darkwa quickly proved himself a force on special teams.
In six games playing mostly on kickoff coverage, Darkwa has six special teams tackles, four solo, and holds the only forced fumble on the team.
That forced fumble against Rams running back Benny Cunningham, by the way, was extra special for Darkwa.
“That was one of my good friends I forced the fumble on,” Darkwa said. “We grew up in Nashville together. It was good to have the opportunity to get a big play on special teams, and I hope to continue that.”
That would be just fine as far as special teams coordinator Tom Quinn is concerned.
“Darkwa has been a great pickup for us,” Quinn told reporters this week. “He’s a good, sound football player. Guys like that, you really like.”
A Bright Future
Darkwa, who per Over the Cap is signed through 2015, hopes to have an opportunity to compete for a larger role on the Giants offense.
Jennings, who along with Williams has plans to train with Darkwa this offseason in Miami, believes that Darkwa is the complete package.
“He can do everything you want—he can block, he can catch, he can run the ball, he can get skinny through the hole,” Jennings said.
“I really think I’m an all-around guy,” said Darkwa, who soon plans to meet with the Giants coaches regarding what they want him to weigh coming into 2015’s camp.
“I know people look at my body and think I’m a speed guy who doesn’t like contact, but I love contact; that’s how I’ve always played.
“I hope to get better at everything whether it’s pass protection, catching the ball and understanding these concepts to a ‘T’ to where I don’t even have to ask questions in the classroom.”
Off the field, Darkwa, who aspires to go into sports counseling when his playing days are over, said he’s also looking forward to tapping into the vast amount of resources the league offers its players regarding post-NFL career planning.
One of those resources he has lined up is an internship with a sports company in Orlando.
“I’m ready to get to work,” Darkwa said.
Patricia Traina covers the New York Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and The Sports Xchange. All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced. Follow me on Twitter @Patricia_Traina.