WALLA WALLA — Darnell Handcox’s career at Walla Walla High School has been, charitably, snakebitten.
The senior three-sport athlete (football, basketball and track) has suffered injuries during both his sophomore and junior football seasons, and just this past summer Handcox suffered a severe high ankle sprain.
But now he’s ready to go, and Handcox, a playmaker at wide receiver and safety, hopes he can stay healthy for his final football campaign as a Blue Devil and help lead Wa-Hi to the state playoffs.
“Since this is my senior season I want to make sure it’s the best season possible,” Handcox said. “I want to play in every game and help my team out a lot.”
Handcox grew up in a football family. Father Moe Handcox played at Kamiakin High School in his prep days and went on to star at Walla Walla Community College, and brother Moe Handcox Jr. was an all-league receiver for the Blue Devils and now plays baseball for Walla Walla Communty College.
“We’re a football family and we just kind of picked it up from our dad, and we’ve loved it ever since then,” Handcox said.
That made it especially hard to watch from the sidelines for games in 2011 and ’12.
Handcox’s first brush with the bench came during a game against Moses Lake his sophomore season. He was blocking for Wa-Hi standout Jonah Hoe on an option play when he lost his footing. A Moses Lake linebacker, coming in to make a tackle, ran Handcox over and in the process gave him a concussion.
It was the third concussion he’d had that season and Handcox spent the remaining two games of his sophomore football season riding pine.
“It wasn’t severe, but it was the worst concussion I’ve ever had,” Handcox said.
Luckily for Handcox, he didn’t suffer any more concussions his junior season. Unluckily, he lasted just one play into 2012 before being sidelined again.
Against Moses Lake — again, this time in the season opener — Handcox suffered a dislocated kneecap after being tackled awkwardly on a pitch rout.
“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “It kind of hurts actually because football is my first love and I just have to sit there and watch it. It’s really hard.”
Handcox was sidelined for four games before making his return against Pasco in Week 6 and played the rest of the season. He caught 25 passes for 340 yards and seven touchdowns, still making honorable mention on the all-Mid-Columbia Conference team, but the Blue Devils missed his explosiveness on offense and his lockdown ability as a defensive back during his absence.
“As a junior he only played in the last four games, so that was a huge hit,” Wa-Hi coach Eric Hisaw said. “You look at some of those games (Handcox missed) and he might have been a difference maker. He’s huge, because you can tell him, ‘Hey, go shut that guy down,’ and you can erase that guy from the field.
“He was a huge vertical stretch for us, the speed,” Hisaw said. “Our other receivers did a good job, but he was different — dynamic athletically. We lose him, it got a little tougher.”
The injury bug wasn’t done with Handcox after that, however. He sprained his ankle in the last week of June at a basketball camp in Spokane, again putting him out of commission, this time for six weeks.
He wasn’t able to run on it until mid-August, missing Wa-Hi’s football camp.
“That took me the whole summer to rehab it,” Handcox said. “It’s still not 100 percent right now, but it’s where I can go and be a threat.”
Handcox focused on lifting weights and gained about five pounds in the process. Although he hasn’t fully recovered — his ankle does get sore toward the end of practice — Hisaw said the speedy trackster hasn’t lost a step.
“He’s a kid that’s resilient, persistent, never felt sorry for himself, always had a smile on his face, just continues to work through every setback that he’s had and has become better because of it,” Hisaw said.
Handcox has his sights on a successful senior season — and he’s eating and sleeping better in hopes of avoiding another injury — but don’t expect him to take any plays off.
“No, I still go 100 percent, go hard every play,” Handcox said. “It’s (injuries) just something I want to feel like it never happened. It always is kind of in the back of my mind, but when I’m in the zone, in game mode, there’s nothing in my mind but that game or that play.”
Said Hisaw, “To his credit, he hasn’t asked to come out. He wants to be a part of this thing, he wants to continue the change and development of the program and he wants to be that leader that shows that, ‘Hey, it’s OK to be hurt and keep playing. I’m not dying, I’ve just got a hurt ankle. Tape me up and I’ll go.’
“We need more of that mentality.”
Handcox, a slender 6-foot, 175 pounds, wants to play college football, and despite his abbreviated junior season he still has a chance to play at a smaller school.
“He’s got the build to play strong safety or play outside backer somewhere,” Hisaw said. “He’s got great feet, he can probably put on another 15 pounds. He’s got a real chance to go and play college football somewhere. It may not be at a Pac-12 team, but he’s got a chance to go play at the next level.”
Eastern Washington University invited Handcox and fellow Blue Devil Stuart Gillin to a football camp over the summer, but he was injured.
Eastern is still interested, as is Division II Central Washington University — two universities who field excellent teams in their respective divisions.