It was a winter night inside a middle school gymnasium nearly eight years ago in the Pittsburgh area.
A young Darren Massey, then in the eighth grade, was playing in a basketball game, just as the heavily involved multi- sport athlete did during a given week.
It was just like any other game on the hardwood for Massey. His mother, Renee Sabat, was there, like she always was, along with his grandparents, Lee and Karen Sabat.
Only on this night, Massey would be dealt an unfamiliar sight when the final scoreboard clock struck zero.
Absent from the crowd were his mother, his grandmother and older brother Dante.
On this night, Massey’s life would change forever.
It was his grandfather, Lee, who received a phone call after the game simply saying, “get home,” as soon as the game had concluded.
At home, it was his grandmother, Karen, and the oldest of three brothers, Dante Massey, present and at Renee’s aid after taking her there at halftime of the contest.
“We took her upstairs, because she said she wanted to go into the bathroom,” Karen recalled in a recent phone interview. “She told me to go get her pajamas and it was just across the hall. All of a sudden, I heard the most bloodcurdling scream and she screamed ‘mom’ for me. Well, in two seconds, I was on the floor with her. The last words she ever said to me was, ‘mom, my head’ and she just collapsed right on me.”
According to Karen, Renee had been sick that day and was vomiting in the bathroom while the game was going on.
After Dante had called 911, Renee had suffered a heart attack when being put in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.
She was then flown to the Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh where Massey’s family would quickly follow her to.
“Even the neurosurgeon, when he had a meeting with us, he actually asked Darren to leave the room,” Lee recalled. “He wouldn’t leave. He just stayed right there. He wasn’t going to leave. In the middle of that night, we had to make the decision to pull the plug. Basically, she was brain dead, so we had to, which was not an easy thing to do.”
Redshirt junior wide receiver Darren Massey, an All-PSAC performer for the Fighting Scots, tragically lost his mother due to a sudden brain aneurism. She was 32.
Massey, a McKees Rocks native from the Pittsburgh area, despite dealing with a significant loss at an early point in his life has always tried to stay positive while competing in everything he does day to day.
“She was absolutely there 100 percent for us, even though she didn’t have support of a male figure helping her out,” Massey said. “I’m very optimistic and it’s all let up because of her. It was a tough childhood, but she was always there to keep us up and happy. She was always a positive person even though things weren’t great.”
Passing on, Renee left behind Darren, Dante, who just recently graduated from Penn State, and youngest brother Tyler Banks, who is now in the eighth grade himself.
“It was tough, we did everything with her,” Massey said. “She was always there. We looked up to her. [She was] that figure we never thought we would lose at a young age. It happened so fast; we just didn’t know how to respond to it.”
During a period immediately following the death of his mother, in which Lee described as not having a moment of “down” time, Darren and his brothers never had a doubt of where they wanted to stay.
The decision was to switch schools and move in with their grandparents who took full responsibility immediately.
“It just felt great to actually have someone who was there, especially a male figure like I said with my grandfather,” Massey said. “I always call my pap my dad, because I never had a dad. He was there through thick and thin no matter what happened. Of course, my grandmother, she was always there and always that grandmother that did everything for us. It was very important to have them around.”
For Massey, it was about excelling in school and performing to the best of his abilities on the football field. Playing for Montour High School in McKees Rocks, Massey set a class AAA record that has yet to be broken in the PIAA as he racked up 200 receiving yards in a playoff game back in December of 2009 against Bishop McDevitt.
“She was there at every single game,” Massey said of his various games before her passing. “She didn’t miss one game growing up. We talked about getting recruited through high school to go to college and talked about the goals that I had even at a young age, having just dreams of making it as far as I can in football.”
Those dreams, which Massey and his mother shared, have played a large part in his drive to excel on the field.
“It’s amazing,” Massey said. “The one thing she said was you were born to be a star. I keep that in the back of my head every single game.”
“He’s realizing that his dream is still football,” Lee added. “He’s not going to give it up and that’s his dream. He promised his mom when she was alive that he was going to do this in football.”
When it came time for college, there were a few bumps in the road for Massey, but it would not deter him from continuing on his path. He signed on with the Fighting Scots and head coach Scott Browning back in 2012.
However, coming to Edinboro University as a partial qualifier academically and missing out on a semester, Massey was forced to sit out a year athletically as he had to get his academics straight before being cleared to play.
Having dealt with a few off-field troubles early on in his time at Edinboro, Massey had the support of both Browning and associate athletic director Todd Jay; two men whom have had a huge impact on Massey since he arrived.
“Todd Jay and Scott have been there for Darren,” Karen said. “They’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty. I can’t say enough about both of them.”
“Darren’s not an angel,” Lee added. “Darren does what kids do. Scott and Todd Jay, they’ve been sort of keeping an eye on him. [They’re] trying to help him make some right decisions and grow up a little bit. He is starting to do that. He’s grown up a lot since he’s been at Edinboro.”
Browning, in his 10th year as the head coach of the Fighting Scots and 30th year on staff at Edinboro, sees Massey’s growth and maturation on and off the field as an extremely rewarding feeling as a coach.
“It’s incredible,” Browning said. “I told Darren back when he first came here — you know he got in a little bit of trouble — and he and his grandpap and I sat down and talked and we agreed then that I’m going to see Darren through.”
“The effect that he has on everyone else in the program, people look up to him, they follow Darren. I think he realizes that and he’s accepted that role.”
As far as Massey’s relationship with Jay, a longtime athletic administrator, he was assigned to keep an eye on and keep track of everything going on outside of the classroom and off the field. It was Jay who Massey talked to for guidance, advice, and staying within the lines in general.
Over time and through experiences, the relationship and bond built on trust formulated, according to Jay.
“He’s a special kid,” Jay said. “He’s been special for the impact that he’s had on our program. He had his issues, but he’s matured a great deal
I think as a man...I just don’t know if I’ll ever be more proud of somebody than I ever have been of him when he ultimately graduates.”
After picking up 18 credits nearly every semester since he’s begun at Edinboro, according to Jay, the health and physical education major is on track to graduate in the spring of 2017.
“My goal is to see Darren Massey graduate from college,” Browning said. “We’re on track and we’re going to accomplish that.”
“For me, it’ll mean that he’s one step closer to the crystal ball, so to speak,” Karen added.
Massey, who has one more year to play, has caught a school- record 193 passes while hauling in the second most touchdown passes in program history with 22.
He finished the 2014 campaign with a school-best 80 catches in a single season, only to beat his own mark this season with 87 grabs.
Through 29 games at Edinboro, Massey is fifth in career receiving yards with 2,083 as he’s logged eight games of 100 yards or more and eight games with 10 or more receptions.
He holds the single game record with 15 catches against Slippery Rock, set just three weeks ago.
Massey, who will routinely go over to the side before his team enters the field to pray and point up to the sky toward his mother, says he can feel Renee with him when he steps onto the field and doesn’t doubt for a second that with her help he can achieve his ultimate goal of playing pro football.
“Absolutely. I mean I feel like she’s there supporting me even through just not football, but life in general,” Massey said.
“I put everything in a positive perspective. I think everything happens for a reason. She said it will happen and I believe it will. She put that thought in my head and I’m going to stick to it until it does happen.”
Mike Fenner is a Senior Staff writer for The Spectator.