By Ken Rodriguez
Tyrone Darden knows the power of a promise kept. He knows because one carried him through school and away from trouble, from fifth grade all the way through college, from the East Side and its drugs and drive-by shootings to Southwest Texas State and a degree in criminal justice.
Darden knows the power one man can have on a boy raised by a single mother with seven children. He knows because one man entered his life 11 years ago with a promise that gave him vision and motivation.
You know that man as the starting center for the San Antonio Spurs. Darden knows him as the closest thing to a father he ever had. "I love him to death," said Darden, 22. "I'm looking at a picture of him right now."
Without David Robinson, Darden isn't sure where he would be — maybe behind bars, maybe dead — but he sure wouldn't be in San Marcos, pursuing a master's degree in secondary and special education, dreaming about a return to Sam Houston High School as a teacher and coach.
In 1991, Robinson promised Darden and 92 other fifth-graders at Gates Elementary School $2,000 scholarships if they graduated from high school.
"A lot of people didn't make it past middle school," Darden said. "As the years went by, the numbers got smaller and smaller. Some people got killed. Some went to jail. Some dropped out."
Darden estimates that one-third of the original fifth-grade class graduated with him in 1998. He made it through not because of football (he was a wide receiver) or track (he was a sprinter). He made it through because teachers, neighbors and relatives reminded him of Robinson's pledge week after week, month after month for seven years. Because once his mother heard of the promise, she refused to let her son fail.
"She told me she could make zero contribution toward college," Darden said. "She always worked at least two jobs, sometimes three.
"I grew up in a tough neighborhood. There were gangs and girls and a lot of things in front of you. It was hard to concentrate. Knowing I had a way out of all of that made me try harder in school."
Robinson made more than a pledge to Darden and his peers. He provided tutors to help them with class work, mentors who monitored their progress in school, professionals who explained career opportunities in medicine, education, law enforcement and other fields.
Robinson also provided social opportunities that Darden and his classmates from Gates will always treasure: annual Christmas parties at the home of Robinson's parents, trips to museums and universities, summer parties, banquets, a round-trip flight to Houston for a Spurs-Rockets playoff game.
"There were so many events, I can't remember them all," Darden said. "He was more than a superstar giving money. He was a father figure to a lot of us."
Chris Mackey grew up without a father. He played basketball at Sam Houston. He wasn't good enough to earn an athletic scholarship. But he was smart enough to listen to fatherly advice: Focus on getting into college, Robinson told him.
"That helped me tremendously," said Mackey, a senior at the University of Houston. "I plan to become a computer programmer."
Gracie Word has a story. Homer Adams III has one. So does every fifth-grade student from Gates who made it through high school and into college.
And those who didn't? Monies marked for them were given to students who graduated, which made the original scholarships worth about $8,000 each.
As it turned out, Darden earned a football scholarship to SWT, where he now plays as cornerback. But the Robinson money pledged for him did not go unspent. "I was able to send money home to help my mother with bills," he said.
Robinson gave Darden a plaque four years ago with a Scripture: "Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long" — Psalms 25:5.
Above the verse is a photograph of Darden and Robinson, taken in June 1998. Tyrone thinks of it as a family portrait. A young man facing his future, right beside his father.