Courtesy of The Times When Ursula Peppers watches son Darryl wrestle, she can't help but think back a little more than 18 years ago, shake her head and be thankful.
A 5-foot-5 block of chiseled granite, the Merrillville High School senior wrestler entered the world Dec. 18, 1993. Born three months premature, he was a frail 2 pounds, 14 ounces, no bigger than his dad's hand.
"It's a blessing that he's here, what he's been through," Ursula Peppers said at Saturday's Merrillville Semistate, where Darryl was the surprise winner in the 170-pound weight class.
Then again, anything Darryl does shouldn't come as much of a surprise, considering the ultimate battle he won, the one to live.
"He was a miracle," Ursula Peppers said. "He was so little. The doctors didn't know if he was going to make it."
She was at a church Christmas program when her umbilical cord ruptured. Darryl spent three months in the neonatal intensive care unit of Methodist Hospital in Gary. He had reached 4 pounds when his parents were allowed to take him home. That, however, wasn't the end of the struggle. Because his breathing would stop, Darryl had to remain on a heart monitor until he was a year old.
"Thank God I survived," he said.
Few days pass in which the Peppers family doesn't thank God. Each night before Darryl competes, he and his mom pray, asking God to watch over him and allow him to do his best.
"I always tell him, let that be your motivation," Ursula Peppers said. "God chose to spare your life. You could've been gone."
Now fully healthy, Darryl maintains one memory of his first months, a nickname. His mother's nickname for him evolved into Duke, by which he's known throughout Merrillville High School. The droning sound resonated Saturday in Engelhart Gym during his matches.
"A lot of people thought it was boos," Darryl said. "It definitely got me pumped up."
Darryl (38-6) rallied to win his semifinal match in overtime, wearing down McCutcheon's Ethan Dale. He did the same with Logansport's Dalton Christensen in an 11-5 finals victory.
"I have to wrestle smarter when I get taller guys," he said. "I love the third period. I can feel most kids break, and I stay on them."
Merrillville coach David Maldonado doesn't take Darryl's drive for granted but has almost come to expect it from Darryl.
"I think with him there's always been that fighter's spirit," Maldonado said. "You can't coach that. A lot of kids either have it or they don't. Every once in a while, you get a kid who will fight for everything. A lot of times, he gives up some height, a little bit of weight. But he's not afraid. He's the type of kid who genuinely trusts us as coaches when we say just keep going, keep moving forward, keep getting after the legs. That's half the battle."
As far as Darryl is concerned, the least he can do is leave it all out on the mat.
"I could've been one of those premature kids who ended dying," he said. "Being the smallest, I've had to fight the hardest to survive. I like it that way. It really makes me work harder. It really gives me a bigger drive. It's made me more competitive also. I'm really nonstop until it's done. If I don't (go all out), I just don't feel right."
An 1,120-yard rusher in football, Darryl bowed out in the first round of semistate last season. The finality of his senior year prompted him to raise his game.
"It's the only goal I have now," he said. "I didn't take it as seriously as I should have (before). The drive wasn't there."
Motivating Darryl isn't a problem for Maldonado.
"He's a pretty even-tempered kid," Maldonado said. "He doesn't get upset. He responds well to anything you tell him. You can talk him through things or be screaming at him, and he listens. He's a very coachable kid. He's beating kids who beat him early in the year."
Ironically, Darryl is now so muscular, he sweats profusely. What the coaches used to think was fatigue turned out to be dehydration.
"You look at him now, you would've never thought of how he was as a (baby)," Maldonado said. "It's almost the polar opposite. He probably loses 4, 5 pounds of water weight (in a match). He comes off the mat just drenched."
On Saturday alone, Darryl consumed seven 32-ounce Gatorades.
"That's not including water," he said.
After his matches, Ursula Peppers gushes with pride, not just over her son's triumphs, but over the young man he's become.
"He's like a fiery, hot, little pepper," she said. "He's really quiet but really forthright."
Darryl is one of seven Pirates competing in the first round of the state finals Friday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. For all the stories of adversity that athletes overcome in wrestling, it's hard to imagine anyone appreciating the moment more than Darryl.
Well, except his parents.
"You never know when your last day really is," he said. "Do everything the hardest you can. Always look to get better."
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