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Wide receiver takes long road from Air Force to UNLV

Updated August 19, 2017 - 6:54 pm

There comes a day each February when UNLV’s football program has an open tryout, where those with dreams of playing in college get the briefest of looks to perhaps realize the longest of long shots.

The Rebels offer such a chance because, well, you just never know.

Most of the time, nothing comes of it. But sometimes, a Darren Palmer walks onto the field.

You would think if UNLV coach Tony Sanchez was going to give a 26-year-old junior wide receiver who hasn’t played a down since his senior year in high school a second glance, it would be one who spent seven years in the Air Force while serving in Alaska and Hawaii, who was deployed for six months in the Arab kingdom of Jordan, who embodies all the strength and discipline and focus and determination you would expect from a senior airman.

One of Sanchez’s brothers, Joey, is serving his third deployment in Iraq as part of the Army reserves and will have been abroad a total of more than 1,250 days when his current commitment ends.

Their grandfather was a prisoner of war for three years while serving for the British during World War II, something Sanchez thought much about this past week when taking the Rebels to the movie “Dunkirk.”

His is a deep, profound respect for the military.

“We can stand up and say, ‘Hey, we disagree with this or that in the world right now and we want this in order to be a better nation,’ ” Sanchez said. “But we only have that opportunity because of the men and women serving and sacrificing their lives every single day so we have those freedoms.

“There’s a confidence and toughness about (Palmer). He’s not going to waste this opportunity. He served years in Alaska, so we know he’s tough. He appreciates it more than any kid on this field. He brings leadership and a presence that’s important for our young men to see. We haven’t played a game yet, but I’ll tell you what, I’m really proud of that son of a gun.”

Palmer was walking around a mall in the western suburbs of Atlanta in 2009 when he happened past an Air Force recruiting office. His parents couldn’t afford to send him to college, so he went inside and chartered a new path to hopefully one day attend school and play football.

He worked support services while deployed and, thankfully, never saw combat while many he knew did outside the wire.

Alaska took some getting used to all those years; Hawaii, not so much.

“When it’s 50 below and bright sunlight at 3 a.m., that can be rough,” he said.

His father was in the Army, a sister the Marines and his stepmother the Air Force. No one back home in Georgia had a clue why he would eventually head to Southern Nevada.

But he is in Las Vegas because a fellow airman in Jordan said he thought it would be a good fit and Palmer believed him enough to head this way. He is at UNLV after earning an associate degree from College of Southern Nevada last year. He is with the Rebels after showing enough speed and athleticism at the tryout to be invited back for spring ball, where he earned a walk-on role that now has him starting on some special teams and in the rotation at one of the team’s deepest positions.

His teammates call him Uncle Darren and Old School, and he isn’t afraid to admit that when the music begins blaring in the locker room and others begin dancing, he often has no clue as to the song or the artist.

So he bobs his head and pretends.

“They have already become like brothers to me, especially the other wide receivers,” said Palmer, who is majoring in kinesiological studies and receives financial assistance for school through his GI benefits. “They’re younger than me, obviously, but that part brings me happiness and lightheartedness, because I’m pretty serious most of the time. To be honest, this is a lot like the military. You get yelled at for making a mistake, but you take it and learn from it and move on and get better. It’s never personal.

“I know when the season opens (Sept. 2 against visiting Howard), I’ll be amped up. I’m a different type of guy on game day, even though it has been a long time since my last game day. I’m pretty intense and fired up and ready to go.

“I dreamed for so long about getting to this point, I haven’t thought about what happens after all this. I appreciate Coach Sanchez so much for this chance. I’ve never had a coach talk to me on such a personal level and always be there if we need him for anything. That’s the coolest thing.

“I just want to ride this out. I like being a civilian. I like enjoying my facial hair.”

Mostly, nothing comes of those February tryouts.

Sometimes, the continuation of an amazing journey does.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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