"Mr. Dependable:" SSHS volunteer Darden dies
For nearly three decades, John Darden has been a staple on the sidelines of St. Stephens High School football games.
Adorned by his trademark tool belt, signature reading glasses and red baseball cap, Darden helped repair anything from helmets to shoulder pads for the Indians football program.
On Sunday, Darden unexpectedly passed away at his home in Hickory at the age of 71, leaving behind a legacy of care for not just athletic equipment, but those whom he interacted with on a daily basis.
St. Stephens head football coach Wayne Hicks learned of Darden's passing early Sunday morning after receiving a phone call from one of Darden's daughters.
“Out of everything, he was truly a humble guy," Hicks said of Darden. "Even though he didn’t graduate from here, he cared about this school a lot. He was just a solid, great person. He was good with our kids.”
Darden, who graduated from Crossnore High School in Avery County and played football, baseball and basketball at the school, started helping St. Stephens High School with their football equipment 27 years ago when his daughters Jodie and Jill both attended the school, serving as athletic trainers.
"(Former Saint athletic trainer) Gene Brooks asked if we thought he would (become equipment manager)," said Jodie Hall, one of Darden's daughters. "We talked to him, Gene talked to him and the rest is 27-year-old history."
Since that time, Darden has been a part of each and every high school football season at Saint as a volunteer.
Darden is no stranger to service. He was a maintenance mechanic for the United States Army from 1964-69 in Germany, and he also spent time volunteering with Boy Scout Pack/Troop 250, utilizing his Furniture Production degree from Catawba Valley Community College in assisting youngsters in designing their Pinewood derby cars.
When Hicks was hired as the new head football coach at St. Stephens in 2013, Darden was one of the first people he met.
“I gave (Darden) a call, and I wanted him to stay involved in the program for sure," Hicks said. "From that point on, he was 'Mr. Dependable.' You could always count on him. I didn’t have to ever worry about equipment issues — on JV or varsity."
Beyond his trade of making repairs, Darden formed some valuable relationships on the sidelines, particularly with St. Stephens' football players.
Zach Bumgarner, who played football at St. Stephens High School from 2008-11 and later went on play at UNC-Charlotte, cherished his relationship with the late Darden.
"Mr. Darden was a one-of-a-kind guy," Bumgarner said. "We had a great relationship then and I always appreciated his hard work and the help and support he gave the team."
Darden's care for the players went beyond their time at St. Stephens.
"This past season, a bunch of the players and coaches from Saint came down to UNC-Charlotte to watch me play, and coach Darden came with them," Bumgarner said. "It really stuck with me that he remembered me and thought enough of me to come watch us play. That just shows how much he cared about the players and the community. I am saddened to hear of his passing. The Saint community will miss him greatly."
Darden always took time to share his love of sports with friends, including Mike Hedrick, vice president of the St. Stephens Athletic Boosters.
"I met John Darden in the fall of 2006 when I had just joined the Saint Boosters," Hedrick said. "It was my first home football game setting up and working concessions. Both of us were there hours before game time to get things ready. From that day until this past season, we would talk every home game about the game last week and the upcoming contest that night, and we also tried to solve the world’s problems right outside the field house hours before the game. He was easy to talk to. I will miss those talks. John was dedicated to the Saint football program and having our equipment ready for every game. He loved our kids and Saint football. John’s work ethic, character and love of the game made him the perfect role model to be around the young men in our program."
With his friends and family surrounding him, Darden was honored for his 25 years of service to the St. Stephens' football program on Oct. 30, 2015 during halftime of Indians' varsity conference game against Freedom.
"We gave him a team picture and had all of the kids sign the edge of it," Hicks said. "It was a well deserved honor.”
Later that year when the Indians made the 3A football playoffs for the first time in five seasons, Darden came to football practice the week before the school's postseason game against Pisgah, displaying a hat from Saint's last playoff victory in 1991.
After the Indians defeated the Bears 14-13 on a thrilling last-second missed field goal to claim their first playoff win in 24 seasons, former Indians quarterback Spencer Brown commemorated the victory by presenting Darden with a gift.
"I told (Darden) that I was going to get him a new hat if we won," Brown said. "My dad and I actually gave it to him this past fall. Dad said he'd never seen him happier."
A reliable resource, a trustworthy friend and loyal member of the Indians' tribe, Darden may be gone, but his legacy will be long felt at a school that may not have been his alma mater, but over time became his home.
"It will be hard to replace a man like John Darden," Hedrick said. "He will be greatly missed. I know football Friday night just will not be the same for me."