As former teammates and coaches have been alerted to the seriousness of Darryl Hammond’s medical condition, appreciation for his football accomplishments has only grown.
Hammond played on the last Ferrum football team when the Panthers were still a junior college, and he was an honorable-mention All-ACC defensive back for Virginia in 1987.
More impressive in many respects was his 16-year career in the Arena Football League. As a combination wide receiver and defensive back, he was chosen the No. 19 indoor player of all time when the AFL held its 25th anniversary.
In 2013, he was named to the AFL Hall of Fame.
In many respects, Hammond was living a dream life, complete with a role in the 2004 movie “Longest Yard,” before his world turned upside down. This past fall, Hammond was diagnosed with amytrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
There is no cure for ALS, a neuro-muscular disease that, in its early stages, has made it nearly impossible for Hammond to speak.
“Back in September, a doctor examined me and noticed my tongue wasn’t responding the way it should, and said he thought it could be ALS,” said Hammond, texting his way through an interview. “I’ve been battling ALS for two years but didn’t know it was ALS until last September.
“I had a benign brain tumor in 2013 that required 30 light radiation treatments. My last MRI showed the tumor is gone.”
As word of the ALS started to spread, friends started to put together a golf fundraiser for Hammond, 47, who has lived in Nashville, Tennessee, since the second of two stints with the AFL’s Nashville Kats in 2005-06.
Ex-Virginia teammate Shawn Moore, who works for the College Football Playoff in Dallas, has helped gather support at the UVa end.
Moore played at Martinsville High School and had heard about the junior-college sensation down the road at Ferrum.
“We went to Virginia Tech on our official visit together and he told the players at Tech that he was going to UVa while I lied to them and said I was going to be a Hokie,” said Moore, who became an ACC player of the year for the Cavaliers.
Hammond entered UVa as a junior wide receiver in 1986 before moving to safety as a senior.
“He was just a freakish athlete,” said another of Hammond’s ex-UVa teammates, Elton Toliver, from Troutville. “I remember that we’d finish morning practice during two-a-days and he’d ride his bike from University Hall, where we practiced, to Scott Stadium, where we ate lunch.”
Then, Hammond would ride his bike back to University Hall, sometimes with a detour.
“People said he would ride his bike to the Dell [outdoor courts] and play basketball between the two football practices,” Moore said.
Hammond is from Center Cross, a town of fewer than 800 on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula. The son of an oyster-boat fisherman, he played football and basketball at Essex High School in Tappahannock.
“I was better in baseball than the other two sports in high school,” Hammond said, “but I didn’t play [baseball] as a senior.”
In a memorable Group AA playoff game, Hammond had more than 25 points and 25 rebounds when second-seeded Essex lost to eventual state champion Drewry Mason in 1984.
Hammond did not grow up in prime recruiting territory, but it happened that Hank Norton, the Ferrum football coach, had a summer home down the road in Deltaville.
“He was a great athlete for us,” Norton said. “He started out on defense and I said, ‘No, I’ve got to have you over here on offense.’ He still holds a school record for receptions in a game against Guilford.
“He could have done anything. He was probably the best basketball player at Ferrum and didn’t play basketball. Darryl was one of my favorite players. He certainly should be in the Ferrum College Hall of Fame.
“Lou Gehrig’s Disease is a bad, bad call. That’s a tough one.”
It hasn’t prevented Hammond from playing golf, apparently. He texted earlier this week that he would be unable to conduct an interview until he finished a round with Jon Kaleo, a former University of Maryland quarterback who also played in the AFL.
“I think he needs a neck brace to play golf,” Moore said, “but he still drives his kids to games. When I was there in March, he drove his son to a baseball game. He still gets around pretty well.
“I was out there with a couple of our teammates, Marcus Wilson and Derrick Boyd, and I told them to be prepared. Where once he was 220 pounds, now he’s around 165-170. He takes everything [he eats] through a blender.”
Ex-Tennessee Titans player Tim Shaw confirmed last year that he had ALS and it has been reported that football players are four times more susceptible to ALS than the general population.
“I read the same thing,” Hammond texted.
He has a wife and three children, girls 15 and 13 who play travel soccer and an 8-year-old son. He met his wife, Robin, when she was a hurdler on the UVa track team.
Salaries in the AFL ranged from $30,000 to $175,000, Hammond said, and while there was a time when he made six figures, that wasn’t always the case. During one stretch, he supplemented his income by operating a forklift for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
He had taken drama classes at UVa but had little acting experience until he was asked to be Michael Irvin’s stunt double in the remake of “The Longest Yard.” The original stunt double got hurt on the Saturday before Labor Day and, two days later, Hammond was flying to Los Angeles.
“The next day, which was a Tuesday morning, I was in the huddle with Adam Sandler, Nelly, Burt Reynolds and Terry Crews,” Hammond said. “In short, I got into the business by luck. I thought I was dreaming.”
The AFL does not have a pension plan, which is one of the reasons Hammond’s friends have organized Monday’s fundraiser. Ex-Virginia coach George Welsh, who lost a cousin to ALS, is among those who have offered to help.
“He was a very good player who helped us a lot that year when we made it to a bowl,” said Welsh, referring to the 1987 team that won its last five games after a 3-4 start.
Hammond still carries a photo of his touchdown-saving interception in a 42-17 victory over Duke, which was unbeaten when it came to Scott Stadium.
“I could give you the name of any guy who’d ever played with him and they’d tell you the same thing,” Toliver said. “He was just a phenomenal athlete. For him to be struck down like this is just unbelievable.”
Information about the Darryl Hammond fundraiser can be found at www.DHam7.com