Days Like This: The Darren Hall Story
Follow the journey of San Diego State CB and 2021 NFL Draft Prospect Darren Hall in real-time as he prepares to go pro.
There’s something special about Darren Hall. His unlikely combination of explosive talent, deep passion for the game and a humble demeanor make Darren captivating both on and off the field. Over the next few weeks, Wilson.com Managing Editor Liz Ziner will sit down with Darren and his father, lifelong mentor and coach, Art Hall, and hear their firsthand accounts of D’s journey up to and through the NFL draft. In this first installment, you’ll get to know Darren, his come-up and how Art’s words of wisdom have shaped both.
Growing up in the Pasadena area is ideal for football fans and players alike. Best known for hosting the Rose Bowl, Pasadena also boasts one of the country’s most active 7-on-7 communities and is home to several dominant high school football programs. Add to the equation a father who had played football from the age of 6 and coached for upwards of two decades, and the stage is perfectly set for Darren Hall to play football.
From the start of Darren’s career, Art was determined not to fall into any tropes.
“I had the privilege of coaching my son since he was a young pup. And in our community there’s a phrase called ‘daddy ball,’” Art says.
The phrase refers to the attitude of entitlement that often comes along with coaching your son’s team‒ letting your kid play whatever position he wants because he is the coach’s son.
“We wanted to make sure that we did away with that.”
Instead of giving Darren preferential treatment, Art’s approach was to maximize his time with Darren in the offseason so that when the season started, he’d be able to focus on coaching the other 29 kids on the team, few of whom had any offseason coaching.
“I needed to make sure that the time Darren and I spent during his younger years was gonna be very valuable,” Art says.
The two took January off to rest after the season, then February through June was Art and Darren’s training time. Countless hours were spent on ladders, heels, passes caught—whatever Darren needed to work on.
“So, by the time we got back to the season back in August—July, August—his production and his growth were evident, and I didn’t have to focus on him. Now I can bring the other kids up to speed that may not have that kind of interaction at home.”
Darren was happy to share the spotlight with his teammates, and he never really let the pressure of being the coach’s son get to him.
His resilience has helped him a lot. Like in sixth grade when he played 7-on-7 against sophomores and juniors in high school. He routinely took a beating in practice, but he also broke up passes and occasionally intercepted the starting QB on varsity. Those incremental wins helped build his confidence, making him indomitable when he returned to playing with his age group.
“When Darren got to his high school, there were ninety kids on his freshman team,” Art remembers. “And one thing I’ve always made a point to do, Liz, is to make contact. If my son is gonna be over here, I want to introduce myself to his coach, or to whoever is interacting with him. Because I have to get a good read, an assessment check for myself. So, I’m watching his freshman team, there are ninety kids, and I say, ‘Wait a minute, if this team stays together, his senior year, they’re gonna do something spectacular.’ Ninety kids was a lot of talent on that team. ‘OK, you’re Darren’s dad. I’ve got thirty DBs in this group, but I don’t have to worry about him. I can see his technique. He’s a true DB.’ But in that line, there were thirty kids that were trying to play DB. You know, the guys wanna be in a popular position.”
But Art and Darren both trusted the process and Darren’s determination grew stronger as he progressed from freshman to sophomore year.
As a tenth grader, Darren got an opportunity to play 7-on-7 varsity when his coach made the usual varsity starters run track as punishment for joking around in the weight room. Darren and his fellow younger teammates rose to the occasion and as a result, were promised playing time when the varsity starters returned. It looked like Darren was going to get his time to shine. The team had four out of five DB spots filled at the time, and it seemed like Darren was destined for the fifth spot.
But, of course, it wasn't that simple. Because right when it seemed the stars had aligned, a student transferred into the school who happened to be a hotshot DB. He would almost certainly claim the fifth spot. Art and Darren started to hear chatter that Darren should transfer schools because he wasn’t going to play. Art fielded phone calls and offers from several high schools in the area trying to lure Darren into transferring with the promise of unlimited playing time. So Art gave Darren the choice: stay or go.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Darren wanted to stay.
From then on, it was the starters and Darren on the field, doing the weekly installs.
“You’ve never been a second-string, second-team anything,” Art reminded Darren. “If we stay, you have to continue to approach it as if you are the starter. I don’t care what the papers say, depth chart-wise. I don’t care what the boards say. I don’t care what anything says. You have to make up your mind that you are the starter.”
Darren kept his chin up, carried himself like a starter and learned exactly what he would need to do if he were given a starting spot. The first few games of the season saw Darren being run on and off the field, called in for passing situations, etc. By week five, he was a starter. Darren would go on to receive ten Division 1 offers as a backup that year.
In those moments of adversity, Art and Darren followed the 24-48-hour rule. After a bad day or tough game, they’d wait 24-48 hours to talk it out. The cooling-off period gave Darren a chance to get his head right and bounce back. And he always bounces back.
Between Darren’s sophomore and junior years, his athletic ability leveled up from strong and steadily improving to downright dazzling. The passion he’d used as motivation became visible to everyone around him. And it was infectious.
“I remember his varsity coach said, ‘Hey, man, we gotta get Darren to tone down,’” Art says. “ I said, ‘Coach, he’s playing from a different place. He’s playing from, like, deep down [in his heart]. You can’t tone that down.’ If he’s playing from [his head], you’re gonna be like, ‘Hey man, knock it off.’ But he’s coming from deep down. And when you come from deep down, it’s a different expression. Because you can tell somebody who’s being a hothead versus somebody who’s just passionate about what they’re doing.”
Darren was and always is, the latter. And his teammates took notice.
That’s when everything got real, and Darren went all-in on his dream of playing pro ball.
San Diego State
In retrospect, Darren says the time he spent on the bench was a blessing.
But it wasn’t smooth sailing straight through. There were a couple of times where Darren’s determination and faith were tested—like in 2019 when a quad strain forced him to miss the first game of the season entirely and severely limited his playing time in the second game. Or when he had to miss playing in the Rose Bowl, a disappointment that hit extra hard for the Pasadena native. But in both cases, his team got the W, and the recovery time was exactly what Darren needed. The following weekend, he was always healthy and fully back in action. Instead of mourning the missed playing time, he focused harder. It paid off in spades when Darren went on to lead the country in pass deflections that year.
“It kinda shapes you,” Art says. “There are certain things you may go through that made you better along the way. And when you get to a certain place, it’s like, ‘Had I not gone through that, I wouldn’t be where I'm at.’ It kinda has this way of working out.”
Faith, both in himself and in God, has played a huge role in Darren’s football career.
“It started with me and my son—back when he made the jump from sophomore to junior year. We all witnessed the jump, and it was like, ‘Yo, this is crazy,’ because he’s always been one of the best players youth-wise in this area,” Art says. “They dubbed him ‘Hitman’—Hitman Darren Hall. The passion he played with—if you watch the videos from back then, and then you watch him today, one thing that’s gonna stand out is that same passion.”
It’s true. Watch any clip of Hitman Darren Hall on the field and you can’t help but be captivated.
Before every game, Art would text Darren two things: 1. Reminders of what to look for in the other team’s offense. The two spent countless hours reviewing film so D would be prepared to seize any opportunities. 2. A reminder of who he’s playing for, as Art put it: To The Glory Of God, later abbreviated to #TTGOG.
That resilience and passion for the game became a major source of inspiration for Darren’s teammates. They wanted in on whatever was propelling Darren. TTGOG caught on like wildfire, and even led to preseason, and then weekly, group prayers.
“Darren played the back end with five guys in that defensive backfield that were all Division I prospects,” Art says. “His great friend, Thomas Graham, who played on the back end with him, is preparing for the NFL draft as well, just to give you an idea of how good that team was. But all of these guys were with us weekly. So they were learning what it meant to come out of yourself and to really know why you have these gifts, and why you have these talents, and why we give God glory with our gifts and talents.”
The movement kept growing. What started as fellowship between father and son was attracting the attention of teammates and members of the community. Soon, kids and parents and athletes of all levels were attending the prayers. Older kids were modeling good habits (like keeping up with academics) for the younger kids and for one another. The positive outcomes were inspiring and eventually led Art and Darren to formalize TTGOG and create the Ball By Faith Foundation, which aims to uplift athletes everywhere.
“We want to be everywhere a ball is,” Art says. “The plan is is to go into the communities where there may not be a lot of involvement in sports, where we’re going in and we’re being a blessing to these communities where there may be levels of poverty, but you may have kids that wanna play, or wanna know how they can do things better or have a different outlook, but there’s no one that’s showing them. So, we’ll use sports as the draw to bring them together.”
The foundation’s camps and training efforts will provide support for athletes at all levels to help them thrive spiritually, academically and athletically.
Naturally, Darren’s success is compelling proof of how the foundation’s tenants work. His success on the field speaks for itself, but the role he plays off the field is just as important.
“I don’t have any brothers,” Darren says. “However, I feel like I am the big brother of the organization and everything that goes on. I get reached out to a lot by some of the younger guys, and some people that were there when the meetings first started, just asking for advice. Asking what they can do to be better, what can they do to get this scholarship offer, what can they do to be a better person even. And, say they’re struggling with something in their life, they hit me up for prayer, constantly. I’ve just been there for whoever’s in need. Whenever, however. I am a shoulder to lean on, a shoulder to cry on, a shoulder to be able to just pour yourself out on. And I’ve done that to other people as well in the group. So, it’s just like a brotherhood that’s been created.”
On a career path not known for encouraging male vulnerability, Darren hopes to break the stigma that mental toughness means never showing emotions.
“I feel like it’s hard for guys, or men in general, just to open up and be vulnerable,” Darren says. “So I tell them that there’s a safe space, and I’m able to be there for them. I do it first and am vulnerable with someone else, so they know that it’s OK to be vulnerable.”
Walking the talk isn’t just what Hitman Darren Hall does, it’s who he is. From the field to the foundation and even on his Instagram, it’s evident Darren's passion for the game and helping others is too deep to be tamped down. As he approaches a career-defining and highly competitive NFL draft day, you’ll regularly see Darren reposting his peers’ impressive stats and offering encouragement to guys who a less-assured person would consider their competition.
Even a global pandemic can’t hold back the Hitman. As draft day draws nearer, Darren is determined to stay focused and positive, despite the wrenches COVID has thrown into the mix.
Darren will have a few chances to showcase his skills before draft day, and we’ll be checking in with him every couple of weeks for updates on his journey. Be sure to follow @WilsonFootball, @DayOneFB, and the man himself @_dh23_for the latest developments in Darren’s story.
This interview has been lightly edited for concision and readability.