LOS ANGELES -- Growing up in rural Dry Branch, Ga., Darqueze Dennard saw his grandfather come home every day with white chalk on his brown boots.
Claude Curry worked 23 years at the local chalk mine, the town's primary economic engine. He drove locomotives, loaded train cars and stacked bags. The chalk and clay from the local kaolin mine are used to produce everything from medicine to toupées to cosmetics. In a wisp of a town with a population of 3,198, where one yellow caution light blinks at the lone two-way traffic stop, the mine serves as a top career option.
Four generations of Dennard's family have lived in Dry Branch, which is part of appropriately named Twiggs County. Darqueze grew up promising he'd find something different.
"I didn't want to have to take that route," he said. "I wanted to get as far away as I can, just to go somewhere different. I just wanted to go somewhere else and show everyone that you can make it out of Twiggs County and Dry Branch."
On New Year's Day against Stanford, Dennard will take the field for Michigan State as college football's most decorated defensive back. Instead of the chalk mines of central Georgia, he'll play between the chalk lines of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
This season, Dennard won the Jim Thorpe Award, presented annually to the country's top defensive back, earned consensus All-America honors and anchored the vaunted "No Fly Zone" secondary of Michigan State's top-ranked defense. But he almost didn't escape Twiggs County or even play college football. He entered the final game of his senior year of high school with zero scholarship offers and dim collegiate prospects. But one magical Friday night altered the course of both Dennard's life and the Spartans' program. It is a story of serendipity and opportunity that will, fittingly, culminate in the shadows of Hollywood.
"I catch myself thinking back and looking back all the time," Dennard said. "Everything happens for a reason."
More than a month before Dennard's regular-season finale at Twiggs County High, Middle Tennessee State pulled his only college scholarship offer. The Cobras' showdown against Dooly County (Ga.) High on Nov. 6, 2009, provided a final showcase. Bobcats wide receiver Keith Mumphery had already committed to Michigan State. Courtney Williams, Dennard's position coach at Twiggs, printed out reams of articles about Mumphery to motivate Dennard.
"The reason you're not getting recruited," Williams told Dennard, "is that Keith Mumphery has a 10-times better work ethic than you."
What the Cobras' coaches didn't know was that three members of the Spartans' coaching staff had flown down from East Lansing, Mich., on a private plane that day, with Mumphery's game scheduled as the final stop on their tour of the area. Michigan State assistant coach Dave Warner had no idea who Dennard was before kickoff, but he kept seeing Twiggs County's uniform number 3 making plays all over the field. Warner saw number 3 catch touchdown passes. He saw number 3 reel in two interceptions. He ultimately saw number 3 lead the Cobras to a 42-22 victory.
"Even though I wasn't looking for him, he kept popping up over the course of the game," Warner said. "There's number 3 again."
When Warner climbed back on the coaches' private plane after the game, he discussed number 3 with his colleagues on the flight home. And when Warner returned to his office, a DVD of number 3 just happened to be waiting in one of the stacks on his desk. Soon after, Dennard and Mumphery went from high school adversaries to college roommates.
"There really aren't any secrets in recruiting anymore, but for whatever reason he was," Warner said. "But he stood out in my mind as a no-brainer."
Cut through the YouTube clips, Rivals.com rankings and Hudl.com highlights and recruiting -- at its very essence -- is an evaluation and opinion business. With so much information readily available, however, it is susceptible to groupthink. One player receiving a high-major offer can trigger dozens of others. At Michigan State, coaches try to be careful not to let perception cloud evaluation.
With Dennard, Warner bypassed the Spartans' recruiting protocol of taking film to a position coach and later to a coordinator. He brought the DVD directly to head coach Mark Dantonio, who called him later that night with a simple message: "I saw the tape, let's go."
The recruitment didn't go without a hiccup. Dennard visited Michigan State in January and liked it. The Spartans offered hin a scholarship and he committed. But when defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett traveled to Twiggs County before National Signing Day, Dennard started to express doubt. South Carolina and Illinois had begun to show interest. Dennard thought he might want to look around.
Barnett lobbied for two hours before telling Dennard that if he called Dantonio to let him know Dennard was wavering, Dantonio would have Barnett on the next flight to Tampa to try to sign another defensive back on Michigan State's recruiting board. "I want to go back home and see The Book of Eli with my wife," Barnett told Dennard. "If you say no, I'm going to miss date night."
Perhaps the most significant date night in Spartans' football history happened, and Dantonio never knew of Dennard's second-guessing until Barnett told him about it years later. Dennard blossomed from a two-star prospect into a two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection.
Dennard started two games as a true freshman in 2010. He snared a one-handed interception in a 10-7 win over Ohio State as a sophomore, a play that's commemorated in a picture hanging in the Spartans' facility. He picked off Aaron Murray twice in a triple-overtime upset of Georgia in the Outback Bowl that season, a not-so-subtle reminder that his home-state team shouldn't have overlooked him.
By Dennard's junior year, he had emerged as a suffocating cornerback who meshed perfectly with Michigan State's defense. Michigan State favors press coverage, which allows the Spartans to stack the box to stop the run and negate many intermediate-length pass patterns. Good luck beating Dennard or fellow cornerback Trae Waynes over the top.
"Everyone talks about putting eight guys in the box; what he does allows us to put nine," said Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. "Last time I looked, nine is better than eight. We're one of the top rush defenses in the country every year because of our corners."
This season, Michigan State finished in the top five nationally in scoring defense, total defense, run defense and pass defense, respectively. Dennard has four interceptions and 10 pass breakups. Still, his success is best reflected by the number of times that opposing quarterbacks respected the "No Fly Zone" moniker and simply ignored his side of the field.
Dantonio would place the 5-foot-11, 197-pounder on his all-time defensive team from his coaching career. "I only put 10 guys on my bus, and [Dennard] is sitting in that front seat now, so it's quite an accomplishment," Dantonio said. "There's some great players on there that have played a long time in the NFL, and he'll be one of those guys that follow."
Scouts have varying opinions about Dennard's future. Two interviewed by SI.com offered a range of draft projections from the late first round to the fourth round. That hasn't slowed agent interest, however, as Lisa Curry, Dennard's mother, said she's receiving 50 calls a day from agents interested in her son.
With Dennard rocketing toward the NFL, few will root harder for him than the assistant from Middle Tennessee State who once pulled his scholarship. Brent Brock is a self-proclaimed "Georgia Boy," a former high school coach from the same area as Dennard. He says the phone call to pull Dennard's offer was one of the hardest he's made in his career. The Blue Raiders ended up giving the scholarship previously allocated to Dennard to a junior college player. "We'd have loved to have had him, as you can imagine," Brock said. "But it came down to a numbers game."
Brock had visited Dennard's house multiple times, enough to feel comfortable to ask for unsweetened tea, as Brock told Dennard's family that he had to watch his sugar intake. (He did accept their offer of a buttered biscuit, though he asked that they not tell his wife.) When reached on the phone this week, Brock expressed more joy for Dennard's success than regret at Middle Tennessee's recruiting blunder.
"Is he the one that got away?" Brock said. "Absolutely. But it tickled me to death that he had a chance to get a college education and play for a program like Michigan State."
Dennard had always promised he'd find a way to get out of Dry Branch. Looking back, he's thankful for the one transformative night that changed everything.
"If that never happened," Dennard said. "I don't think I would be playing football."
Instead, he's on track to become his family's first college graduate this spring. His career path has diverted from the chalk dust on his grandfather's boots to the chalk lines of the NFL, a world away from the lone blinking caution light in Dry Branch.