Darby Is More Than Poetry in Motion : UCLA: The All-American safety is a ferocious tackler. Off the field, he spends his quiet time writing verse.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Perhaps it was wishful thinking put into verse. Then again, it might have been ordained and Matt Darby knew it.

In any event, Darby, UCLA's strong safety, wrote this poem before the 1990 football season:

The first year was gray,

Like the flag pole that does not sway.

The second year was white,

like the stripes that shine bright.

The third year was red,

like the miles of blood that was shed.

The fourth year was blue,

like the field in search of the clues.

The fifth year was white again,

like the stars of an All-American.

Now at the end of the 1991 season, Darby's prophecy has been fulfilled.

He was named to the first team United Press International and Kodak All-American teams.

His selection was part of UCLA's legacy at the position. He is the fourth Bruin safety named an All-American since 1980, after Kenny Easley, Don Rogers and Eric Turner.

When Darby was reminded that his poem had been written when UCLA was coming off a losing season in 1989 and before another in 1990, he simply smiled and said:

"I believed in myself. If I made the right commitments and did the right things, I would become an All-American. It was one of the things that I had in my heart and mind that I would accomplish."

Darby is an enigma to his teammates and friends. On the field, he tackles opponents with such ferocity that the impact can be heard in the stands.

He is virtually bald, by his own choosing, and his teammates call him Hagler and Kareem , after the former middleweight champion and Laker superstar center.

Off the field, Darby is quiet, almost shy. His leisure hours are spent writing poetry or in the company of his fiancee, UCLA student Cheryl Nichols. They will graduate in June.

"Football is a war-type game," Darby said. "You can't go out with a soft heart. Football is a bunch of battles on the field."

But when Darby is off the field, he wears glasses, which give him a studious appearance, speaks quietly and usually prefers to be by himself.

"He's had a great career, and he has been an interesting player to be around," UCLA Coach Terry Donahue said. "I hardly know he's there. He's been here five years, and I don't know if I've seen him five times (off the field). He blends. "He doesn't have many problems he brings to you, and he's quiet around the coaches. On the field, he has taken hitting to a standard, and that's his legacy here."

As a senior on a team that has an 8-3 record going into Tuesday's John Hancock Bowl game here against Illinois, Darby said that he leads by example.

"I'm sure anyone on the team could tell you that I'm not really verbal," he said. "I think that has more impact. Anybody can talk the talk, but it's harder to walk the walk."

He leads the team in tackles with 77, 18 more than any other player. He is also the team leader in fumble recoveries with three and has intercepted two passes.

Darby, a rock-solid 6-foot-2, 200-pound player, also plays linebacker when the Bruins are in a prevent passing alignment.

His value then is twofold, as a pass defender and run stopper.

Darby attended Green Run High in Virginia Beach, Va., and didn't initially intend to play college football so far from home.

"However, I made a gut decision when I came here on a recruiting trip," he said. "I just had the feeling that this was the place for me. UCLA had a strong tradition of defensive backs and safeties, and also national exposure, along with a first-class education."

Darby was miserably homesick his first two years at UCLA.

"I used to go home on Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring break and during the summer. The last two years I've gone home only once a year because I was going to summer school.

"I've matured and got my priorities in order, like graduating on time."

As for his introverted nature, Darby said: "I've opened up a lot more since I came to UCLA. It has been an enjoyable experience, and I've made a lot of lifelong friends."

Darby was born in San Diego, then moved to New Jersey and Norfolk, Va., before his family settled in Virginia Beach.

"My father was a flagman on aircraft carriers, so we traveled all over," Darby said. "He was in the service for 20 years, retiring as a chief petty officer."

Darby has three older brothers and a sister. He said his brothers were good basketball players and attended college, but eventually dropped out.

"Their careers were hurt by grades, wrong crowd and drugs," Darby said. "They weren't able to reach their full potential.

"My father (George) wasn't around a lot when they were growing up because of his service commitment. So he spent a lot of time with me because he regretted not spending much time with my older brothers."

His parents saw him play against Tennessee in Knoxville earlier in the season and then traveled to Los Angeles for the Oregon and USC games.

Darby is majoring in Afro-American studies, his fourth major since he came to UCLA.

"I wanted to learn something more about me, my background and heritage," he said. "Also, after football, if I get enough money, I want to get my own business, so I can put some money back into minority, or poor, communities for educational and job skills."

Darby said he intends to play in the NFL and has received questionnaires from five or six teams.

"If I had a choice, I'd probably choose the Washington Redskins," he said. "No. 1, they play on grass and, 2, it's close to my home. It would be an excellent place for my family to drive up and see me play."

Darby said that he will continue to write poetry, a passion for him since he was in junior high school.

Asked if he wanted his poems published, Darby said: "I've thought about it, when I get enough (poems) to write a book. I have also thought of writing for greeting cards."

Darby has his own inimitable greeting style as a player. Off the field, his gentle, poetic nature takes over.

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