Away from home and following the recommendation of the only Power 5 college program to offer him a scholarship, offensive lineman Christian Darrisaw checked in to Fork Union Military Academy, turned in his cell phone and tried to make the best of it.
Holmon Wiggins, Virginia Tech's receivers coach at the time, saw Darrisaw play in his hometown of Upper Marlboro, Md., in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Even though the Hokies were thin on scholarships by that point in the recruiting process, Wiggins told head coach Justin Fuente, "This is a guy we have to get."
Darrisaw's grades needed to improve, though, so the Virginia Tech coaching staff referred him to Fork Union, where he could spend a semester without affecting his athletic eligibility. The school put students on a strict military schedule, starting the day with morning marches and taking away their cell phones while they were on campus. Darrisaw had seen the path work for Hokies players like Silas Dzansi and Terius Wheatley, though, so he figured he'd see where it could take him.
"It's definitely crazy," he said. "You take a kid's cell phone right now, they'll go wild. Not having that cell phone for four months, you definitely got to kind of adjust in a way. You've got to like interact with other people.It's like getting to know other people. That really helped me the most, just interacting with other people."
He adjusted to life at Fork Union, impressed Fuente with his strength during the school's workout in front of college coaches, and arrived at Virginia Tech in time for the spring semester of his freshman year. By the next fall, Darrisaw improved so quickly the Hokies made him their left tackle.
"This is a highly intelligent young man now," Fuente said Friday. "This is a guy that picks things up. You saw jump from 15 spring practices to fall camp, the ability to understand the technique and the execution that we were looking for. It was pretty apparent early in camp like, 'When was the last time this freshman made a mistake?' It was unusual to say the least - to have a player that young who had only been through 15 practices – take off like that in the fall."
Little about Darrisaw's path, through an injury that had him "playing on one leg" before offseason surgery and a 2020 season when he opted to play in the midst of a pandemic and stayed on the field through a groin injury, has been conventional.
He's navigated it with surprisingly few setbacks, though, thanks to a resiliency that led Fuente to call him the "ultimate warrior" on Friday.
The Vikings targeted the 6-foot-5 Darrisaw in the first round of the draft Thursday night in hopes he'd bring an air of toughness to their offense. He certainly looks the part, and he's got a back story to match.
"I think it speaks even more volumes about Christian and his dedication to being as good of a football player as he could be, when you think about the shape and strength gains he made even while he was gone [during the pandemic]," Fuente said. "We were all struggling for workout material and places to work out, gyms were closed and all those sorts of things, but he still continued to develop. He's made huge strides from a physical stand point. I still think he has more left in the tank."
On Friday, as Darrisaw toured the Vikings' practice facility and posed for photographs with team officials while holding up his No. 71 jersey, coach Mike Zimmer looked forward to his return for the start of rookie minicamp at the end of next week.
Darrisaw's status as a first-round pick represents one of the first times in his football career he'll join a team where he's already established some status. The Vikings hope he is ready to take the left tackle job as a rookie, though Zimmer said Darrisaw will "have to come in and compete like everybody else."
That part of the job should feel fairly familiar to him.
"You gotta block out all the outside noise," Darrisaw said Thursday night. "There are going to be people who ride with you and not ride with you. Just have to stay level-headed. I feel like it motivates me every day, whether it's a workout or anything I'm doing. It's motivating me to be a better person."