Darius Aiken didn't have the easiest childhood.
The Clarendon Hall standout athlete needed to be taken from his parents at an early age. He grew up with his grandmother before going to live at Connie Maxwell Children's House in Orangeburg. While he was there, he enrolled at Clarendon Hall and slowly found a new family.
He left Connie Maxwell as he prepared to begin high school and bounced around from one house to the next. That lack of stability was a challenge, but he eventually found a place to lay his head every night in the home of Alison Ridgeway, who is now the guidance counselor at Clarendon Hall.
Through all of his trials and tribulations, Darius is succeeding on and off the field. The junior is now an A and B student and a star on the gridiron and basketball court.
"I'm glad I went through what I went through because it made me the person that I am right now," Darius said. "It drives me now because I want to be the best, and I want to make it."
FINDING A HOME
Darius grew up with two siblings without a particularly stable foundation. He spent most of his childhood being raised by his grandmother, Silvia Lemon, one of his biggest parental figures.
"I looked up to my grandma the most. Through thick and thin, she was always there. She told me to keep my head up. I was a bad kid, and she dealt with me, and that takes a lot to do," Darius said. "She was a strong woman, but she went through the most dealing with us."
Eventually he moved into Connie Maxwell. In the sixth grade, he came to Clarendon Hall and met two very important people: Ridgeway and Anthony Reitenour. Both would fill important roles in his life that he missed growing up.
"Not many people grow up with father figures or a mom in the house," Darius said. "For me to have a mom and dad and someone that can support me mentally and stuff like that is amazing."
At the time, Ridgeway was a middle school teacher who took a liking to Darius. When he needed help with anything, be it tuition or schoolwork, Ridgeway was there.
Reitenour was the head football and basketball coach for the Saints. Darius played football since he arrived at Clarendon Hall but mostly because he wanted to be around his brother and cousin on the team.
"I never liked it, never was into it because he would always beat me at every sport," Darius said of playing sports with his brother, Shonterro, growing up. "I never liked any of it; I just played because they were on the team. Everyone told me I had the potential to be something more, so I came outside and put in the work, even off the field."
Reitenour got closer to Darius in an unexpected way. While playing JV as a middle schooler, Darius got into a fight on the field and was ejected from the game. Reitenour sat down the young Saint. That conversation spawned a lasting relationship.
"I grabbed him and took him back to a kindergarten classroom, and he was so upset because he was being called names on the field, and he'd gotten his neck ripped up," Reitenour said. "Our first interaction was me calming him down in that situation. I had talked to him as a coach but never really had a deep conversation with him. From that moment on, we grew closer and closer."
As Darius got closer to high school, he was forced to leave Connie Maxwell. As he bounced around from house to house, he left Clarendon Hall. Reitenour was concerned for him, so he started to help Darius find places to stay. He enrolled back at Clarendon Hall and eventually found a permanent home at the end of his freshman year.
"He always had a special place in my heart," Ridgeway said. "At the end of the ninth grade, he was back and forth between different houses without any consistent place to stay. Final exams were coming up, and he asked if he could stay at our house the week of exams, and I said, 'Yeah, absolutely.' And he's been there ever since."
That one week grew into years of living with the Ridgeways. He bonded with Ridgeway's children, Toby and Hanna, though that took some time. He quickly became a member of the family. While Alison hasn't formally adopted Darius, she is his legal guardian.
"For me, it was a no brainer," Ridgeway said. "When he stayed with us that week, he got along with the kids. He just felt like part of the family. I thought I was going to have to find him a place to stay, and finally I was like, 'Darius, you're like family and things are working, so why don't you just stay here?' And he was like, 'Absolutely.'"
Darius was hesitant at first. He was open with Ridgeway early on, saying that it was difficult to trust people after going from house to house for so long. She was understanding, and the two became closer during the first few months.
"At first, it was scary," Darius said. "She gave me the love and support that I needed, and that really keeps me going."
One moment that helped secure that bond came early on, as the Ridgeways celebrated Darius' birthday in June after he moved in at the end of the school year.
"We had cupcakes for him and got him a couple of gifts, and he was like, 'Wow, this feels like a real birthday party. I don't think I've ever had a real birthday party,'" Ridgeway said. "For my kids, they were a little older, so they understood, but it was kind of a shock that there were kids that close to us that don't get to experience the same things, even the simple things we get to. For me, it was just normal to give him a birthday cake and some presents."
FINDING SUCCESS ON THE FIELD
As Darius was settling into his new home, he was learning how to thrive on the football field and basketball court. While he didn't have a passion for sports growing up, something clicked during his time at Clarendon Hall. He wanted to succeed, and Reitenour could see it.
"He was a kid that played, and he was OK, but once he started believing in himself and believing that he could be great, everything changed," said Reitenour.
Darius was a star as a sophomore, rushing for 1,106 yards and 16 touchdowns. One thing that helped was the all-world player he had playing on the outside, Kylic Horton, who now plays football at South Carolina.
"It was kind of easy for me," Darius said of breaking out alongside Horton. "Right now, they pretty much give me the ball, but we knew when we threw it to him that he was going to catch it."
The two were close. Darius calls Horton his cousin, and he learned so much from the former Clarendon Hall superstar.
"We're close. On the field, we make jokes. We used to get drilled by coach Ant all the time," Darius said. "Off the field, we hang out, talk. He'll teach me a little something, tell me like to protect the ball every time. Before the game, we'd have a little talk to get me right, get me hyped."
In the spring, Horton graduated and left for South Carolina. At the same time, Reitenour left Clarendon Hall to become the athletic director at Jefferson Davis Academy, as well as serving as both head football and basketball coach. At the same time, the Saints were preparing to make the jump from eight-man football back to 11-man.
"Not having Anthony there to make him feel more comfortable and Kylic with a few more of those seniors was definitely a big change," Ridgeway said. "He told me, 'I don't know if I like 11-man football; I don't know if I want to play.' I said, 'You love football. Just because you're having a coaching staff change and things are going to be different doesn't mean you have to give up.' And he didn't.
"He actually told me a couple weeks into the season he was really glad he decided to play."
So are the Saints.
After Horton graduated, there was a void in Clarendon Hall athletics. Darius was going to have to be one of the main people to fill it.
"It was hard at first. Every team pretty much double-teamed me," Darius said. "My mindset, the only thing I think of is that I have to be better. Right now, my goal is to be the best, and that's what I'm going to continue to do."
Aiken continued to thrive in his new role. He rushed for 1,451 yards and 18 touchdowns, while catching another two scores. Defensively, he added 32 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble.
Everything was going well for Clarendon Hall until a fateful rush in the second-to-last game of the regular season against Calhoun Academy.
"I went to go cut outside for a touchdown, got swept out from under me and landed on the side of my neck," Darius recalled. "Going on the ambulance, riding all the way there, I was thinking, 'What if I was there? What would've changed?'"
The game was close when Darius left in the ambulance in the third quarter, but the Saints collapsed without their star runner and lost 28-6. Darius then missed the next week, the first time he'd been unable to suit up for a game in his career, as the Saints fell to St. John's Christian Academy 52-6. He came back for the playoffs but wasn't fully healthy as Clarendon Hall ended its season with a 29-6 loss.
"When I came back, I did not feel 100%. It wasn't excruciating pain, I just knew if I landed on it weird again, it would be more damage," Darius said. "It was very frustrating because that team, I'm pretty sure we could've beaten everybody; the game just was off. Not even my running game was on point."
Now Darius is beginning basketball season, where he and Kole Elliot will lead the charge of returners aiming to take home a championship. The Saints played for the SCISA 1A title a year ago, falling in triple overtime. They hope to find similar success without Horton.
SETTING NEW GOALS
Darius' life changed when he came to Clarendon Hall, especially after moving in with Ridgeway. He went from a kid going through the motions to setting his sights on college, whether or not he's playing sports.
"Coming to Clarendon Hall, a Christian environment, and seeing that I could be more than what I was putting myself out to be," Darius said. "I came from something that was not good, and now I'm making something of my life."
One of the people who laid the groundwork to success was Horton. Going from a small private school like Clarendon Hall to South Carolina made Darius feel like new doors were open.
"It really shocked me at first (that) somebody from a private school can make it that far," Darius said. "That encourages everyone that it doesn't matter where you come from or what you go through, you can still make it if you put your mind to it."
While Ridgeway loves to see Darius succeed on the field, she's most proud of how he's grown in the classroom.
"He's had some difficult times with academics, but last year I sat him down and said, 'If you're looking to play ball at any type of college, you have to have good grades.' Then we had the discussion if he didn't play ball, what did he want to do," Ridgway said. "He said, 'I want to go to college; no one in my family has ever gone to college.' He seemed to get more serious. He's a smart kid. It doesn't take a ton of effort for him to make A's and B's and the occasional C."
Even though part of his found family isn't at Clarendon Hall anymore, Darius still has so many people in his corner. Horton came to watch the Saints play on Monday night, and Reitenhour is always quick to chat with his former player.
"I love him like my own," Reitenour said. "He will always be a part of my family. It doesn't matter what school I'm at, where he's at, I'll always be a phone call away for him and every Clarendon Hall player I've ever coached."
That support will help Darius do great things.
"This community means a lot to me. I know I have support here, no matter what it is," Darius said. "Teammates mean more than just people you play football with. For me, they are my brothers.
"I'm thankful with God sticking with me through thick and thin."
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