While injuries are an inherent aspect of playing in the NFL, some injuries are more significant than others.
When an injury causes an NFL player to miss an entire season, it can be career-ending or at least result in the player never performing at his pre-injury level.
Although Cleveland Browns safety Thom Darden missed the entire 1975 season because of injury, he overcame this obstacle, which did not adversely affect his future play in the NFL.
Instead, Darden, for the rest of his career, earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors and became the leader in interceptions in Browns history.
— Petey Snaxx 🎳 (@PeteWestPark) December 15, 2020
We take a look at the life of Thom Darden – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.
The Early Years Through High School
Thomas Vincent Darden was born on August 28, 1950 in Sandusky, Ohio.
Sandusky is located in northern Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie, about one hour from Cleveland.
When Darden was growing up, his favorite sport was baseball.
His unique skill was that he could pitch ambidextrously.
He had thrown with his left hand, but he had to throw right-handed after a mosquito bite swelled his left hand before a Babe Ruth League game.
“I just couldn’t hold the ball with my left hand. My father said, ‘You think you can throw the ball with your right hand?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ So I finished the game right-handed. We actually won the game.”
While Darden played football as well as baseball, he initially did not like football because he played halfback and occasionally quarterback and was getting hit all the time.
Darden attended Sandusky High School, graduating in 1968.
The key for Darden’s future was when he moved from offense to defense to play defensive back as a freshman at Sandusky High School.
“I started learning how to play the secondary as a freshman in high school and I enjoyed it. I wasn’t getting hit, and I had an opportunity to hit other people. I loved it.”
Darden’s dream when he was growing up was to play baseball for the Cleveland Indians.
He actually tried out for the Indians while in high school and nearly signed with the team to play baseball.
However, Darden decided that his future was in football.
Darden’s play on defense helped Sandusky High School compile a 29-1 record during his three years playing on the varsity (including consecutive 10-0 teams in 1965 and 1966).
Sandusky High School was Ohio State champions in 1965.
Darden was recruited by many Big 10 colleges, including Ohio State and Michigan.
However, Darden lost interest in Ohio State when he saw Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes erase Darden’s name from the bottom of his recruiting chalkboard and rewrite it at the top before a recruiting meeting in Hayes’ office.
Hayes claimed that Darden was his top recruiting target, but Darden did not believe him.
Darden was offered a scholarship by Michigan, and he headed to Ann Arbor, Michigan to continue his football career.
Darden played for Michigan from 1969 to 1971.
In a 40-17 Michigan loss to Missouri on October 4, 1969, Darden had his first interception in college for the Wolverines.
Darden’s second college interception (which he returned for 15 yards) occurred in one of the biggest upsets in Michigan history – a 24-12 victory over undefeated Ohio State on November 22, 1969.
In 1969, Darden played in 11 games.
In addition to his two interceptions, he had 82 tackles (62 solo tackles), including six tackles for loss.
With an 8-2 regular season record in 1969, Michigan tied for first place in the Big 10.
Michigan then lost 10-3 in the Rose Bowl to USC on January 1, 1970 and was ranked ninth in the final Associated Press poll.
In the opening game of the 1970 season, a 20-9 Michigan win over Arizona on September 19, 1970, Darden intercepted a pass (which he returned for 19 yards), broke up a pass, and had 14 tackles (10 solo tackles).
On November 14, 1970, in a 55-0 Michigan shutout of Iowa, Darden recovered a fumble in the end zone for his first touchdown in college.
For the 1970 season, Darden, playing in 10 games, intercepted five passes (which he returned for 46 yards) and recovered two fumbles.
He also broke up 10 passes and had 69 tackles (53 solo tackles), including four tackles for loss.
In addition, Darden was a punt returner for the Wolverines in 1970, returning 18 punts for 153 yards.
Darden was voted first team All-Big 10 by United Press International in 1970.
Michigan had a 9-1 record in 1970 and was ranked ninth in the final Associated Press poll.
— GoBlue🏈Today (@GoBlue365) August 28, 2020
In a 38-0 Michigan shutout of UCLA on September 25, 1971, Darden intercepted a pass, which he returned 92 yards for a touchdown.
Darden scored his second touchdown in 1971 in a 61-7 Michigan rout of Indiana on October 30, 1971.
He intercepted a pass and returned it for 60 yards for the touchdown.
Probably Darden’s most memorable game for the Wolverines was a 10-7 Michigan win over Ohio State on November 20, 1971.
Darden intercepted two passes in the game, which he returned for 11 yards.
His second interception late in the game basically sealed the Michigan victory and caused an enraged Woody Hayes to run on the field (for which he received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty).
..following "Touchdown Billy Taylor" in 1971, U-M's Thom Darden's brilliant interception sealed the win. Woody Hayes wanted a penalty on Darden–didn't get it–and was mildly upset 🤣🤣#goblue #beatohio pic.twitter.com/q8EDsGOkod
— MVictors (@MVictors) November 20, 2018
In 1971, playing in 12 games, Darden intercepted four passes (which he returned for 163 yards), broke up three passes, and had 67 tackles (48 solo tackles), including one tackle for loss.
He also returned 24 punts for 237 yards.
Darden in 1971 was voted first-team All-American by the American Football Coaches Association and The Sporting News and second team All-American by the Associated Press and United Press International.
In addition, he was voted first-team All-Big 10 by the Associated Press and United Press International in 1971.
Michigan had an 11-1 record in 1971, winning the Big 10 title, but losing 13-12 in the Rose Bowl to Stanford on January 1, 1972.
The Wolverines were ranked sixth in the final Associated Press poll.
After playing in the College All-Star Game on July 28, 1972 (where he intercepted future Pro Football Hall of Fame Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach), Darden headed to the NFL.
The Pro Football Years
Darden was drafted in the first round of the 1972 NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns (with the 18th overall pick).
As a rookie, Darden was an immediate starter for the Browns at strong safety, where he started all 14 regular season games in 1972.
On October 29, 1972, Darden had his first NFL regular season interception, when he intercepted Denver Broncos quarterback Charley Johnson (and returned the interception for eight yards), in a 27-20 Cleveland win over Denver.
In a 26-24 Browns victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 19, 1972, Darden intercepted future Pro Football Hall of Fame Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw and returned the interception for 20 yards.
For the 1972 regular season, Darden intercepted three passes, which he returned for 64 yards, and recovered a fumble.
In addition, he returned 15 punts for 61 yards in 1972.
Cleveland had a 10-4 record in 1972, which earned it a wild card berth in the playoffs.
Darden’s play helped the Browns rank in the NFL third in fewest passing yards allowed (1,736) and tied for fifth in most sacks (38).
The Browns played the undefeated Miami Dolphins in the playoffs on December 24, 1972.
Darden started the game at strong safety (in a starting defensive backfield with Clarence Scott at left cornerback, Ben Davis at right cornerback, and Walt Sumner at free safety).
With Darden’s play, the Browns held Miami to only 74 “net pass yards” in the game.
Darden also returned a punt for 38 yards in the game, but Cleveland lost to the Dolphins 20-14.
In 1973, Darden moved from strong safety to free safety, the position where he primarily played for the remainder of his NFL career.
Darden was excited to play free safety because he saw the position as the quarterback of the defensive backfield, as the free safety called the plays and signals.
“I loved that position.”
He started 10, and played in 11, regular-season games in 1973.
On September 30, 1973, Darden intercepted New York Giants quarterback Norm Snead and returned the interception for 36 yards, as the Browns defeated the Giants 12-10.
Cleveland, helped by Darden’s performance in the game, limited the Giants to only 74 “net pass yards.”
In a 17-9 Browns loss to the defending and eventual 1973 Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins on October 15, 1973, Darden’s play helped Cleveland limit Miami to only 38 “net pass yards” in the game.
In addition to his one interception described above, Darden recovered a fumble in 1973.
He also returned nine punts for 51 yards in 1973.
The Browns had a 7-5-2 record in 1973, but failed to make the playoffs.
In 1974, Darden started all 14 regular-season games.
Darden had one of the most productive games of his NFL career in a 21-14 Browns win over the New England Patriots on November 10, 1974.
He returned a fumble for 29 yards and a touchdown (for his first NFL regular season touchdown) and had two interceptions of Patriots quarterback Jim Plunkett (which he returned for 14 yards).
In 1974 Darden ranked third in the NFL with eight interceptions, which he returned for 105 yards.
He also returned 21 punts for 173 yards.
Cleveland had a 4-10 record in 1974.
Despite the losing record, Cleveland, helped by Darden’s play, ranked in the NFL tied for fourth in most recovered turnovers (40), tied for fifth in most interceptions (24), and tied for fifth in most recovered fumbles (16).
Darden’s career was significantly disrupted by a knee injury that he suffered during the 1975 preseason.
The injury was so severe that Darden was forced to miss the entire 1975 regular season.
After his injury in 1975, Darden started all 14 regular season games in 1976 and returned to the field with an excellent season.
It began with his first regular season game back – the opening regular season game in 1976.
Darden had two interceptions of New York Jets quarterbacks (one of future Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Namath and one of Richard Todd), which he returned for 30 yards, as the Browns defeated the Jets 38-17 on September 12, 1976.
In 1976, Darden intercepted seven passes, which he returned for 73 yards.
He also recovered a fumble, which he returned for three yards.
Darden was named second team All-Pro by the Pro Football Writers of America in 1976.
The Browns had a 9-5 record in 1976, but failed to make the playoffs.
In 1977, Darden again started all 14 regular season games.
— AFL GODFATHER (@NFLMAVERICK) September 24, 2018
In 1977, Darden intercepted six passes, which he returned for 107 yards.
Cleveland had a 6-8 record in 1977.
Darden started all 16 regular season games in 1978 and probably had his best NFL season.
In 1978, Darden led the NFL in both interceptions (10) and interception return yards (200).
Pat McInally was the Cincinnati Bengals punter and he also played some wide receiver…..well……Thom Darden of the Browns felt like he should just be a punter pic.twitter.com/a0U6jfrE90
— OlSkoolSports (@OlSkoolSports) August 3, 2020
Darden in 1978 was named first team All-Pro by the Pro Football Writers of America, the Newspaper Enterprise Association, and Pro Football Weekly, second team All-Pro by the Associated Press, and first team All-Conference by Pro Football Weekly, Sporting News, and United Press International.
He also was invited to the Pro Bowl in 1978.
Browns cornerback Hanford Dixon (who played with Darden in 1981) later said of his teammate:
“[Darden] unquestionably was the greatest safety the Browns ever had . . . He also was ranked fourth among the NFL’s hardest hitters by Sport magazine. He often was given license to freelance his coverages to wherever he saw the best chance to snare an errant pass.”
The Browns had an 8-8 record in 1978, but failed to make the playoffs.
With Darden playing safety, Cleveland ranked in the NFL tied for fifth in most recovered turnovers (45).
Darden again started all 16 regular season games in 1979.
Darden was named second team All-Pro by the Associated Press, first team All-Conference by Pro Football Weekly, and second team All-Conference by United Press International, in 1979.
In 1979, Cleveland had a 9-7 record, but failed to make the playoffs.
For the fifth consecutive year, Darden started every Cleveland regular season game in 1980, starting all 16 regular season games.
Darden was optimistic going into the 1980 season that the Browns would be successful.
“We believed we were ready to get over the hump. We’d had two years of [head coach Sam Rutigliano’s] philosophy. We had a lot of offensive weapons and we felt we could compete with any team in the league. Our confidence level was very, very high.”
In the final regular season game of 1980, on December 21, 1980, in a 27-24 Cleveland victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, Darden intercepted Bengals quarterback Jack Thompson and returned the interception for 23 yards.
This win over the Bengals clinched the AFC Central Division title for the Browns with an 11-5 record – the team’s first division championship since 1971.
Darden views the 1980 Browns, known as the “Kardiac Kids” for having several games decided in the final moments, as his favorite team.
“The one thing that I have learned, and it follows me both in business and in raising kids, there’s a certain amount of love and, I guess you call it, opportunity that comes with a team, an organized team, especially in the sports realm. There’s an intangible feeling of success that you already have. I did not play on another Browns team that had all of those intangible feelings that we had on that team. We went into every game knowing that, as long as we stayed close, regardless, somehow or another we were going to win the game at the end of the game.”
Cleveland advanced to the playoffs against the Oakland Raiders on January 4, 1981.
Darden started the game at free safety (in a starting defensive backfield with Ron Bolton at left cornerback, Clinton Burrell at right cornerback, and Clarence Scott at strong safety), but the Browns lost to the Raiders 14-12.
In 1981, Darden played in 13, and started 10, regular season games.
Darden intercepted three passes, which he returned for 68 yards, and recovered two fumbles in 1981.
Cleveland had a 5-11 record in 1981.
Darden retired from the NFL after the 1981 season.
The Years After the NFL
Darden is married to Melissa; together, they had a daughter, Carrie (who graduated from Michigan Law School in 2020), and adopted a daughter, Katelyn.
Darden also has a son and a daughter from two prior marriages, and a stepdaughter and a stepson from Melissa’s previous marriage.
After his retirement from the NFL, Darden became a professional sports agent.
He represented such athletes as Felix Wright, Chris Calloway, and Tony Boles.
He also operated a nonprofit organization that provided assistance to schoolchildren who struggled in basic skills testing.
In 1996, Darden started a financial services company, Darden Group, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
It helps small and midsize businesses find capital.
Darden was inducted into the Sandusky High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 1991.
In 2016, Darden was inducted into the Cleveland Browns Legends Program.
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) September 18, 2016
— Scott Patsko (@ScottPatsko) September 18, 2016
In describing the history of the Cleveland Browns, when you discuss interceptions, Darden must be at the beginning of the conversation.
He can definitely be described as Cleveland’s best player in making and returning interceptions.
He ranks first in both Cleveland career regular season interceptions (45) and Cleveland career regular season interception return yards (820).
He not only grabbed interceptions, but he also returned them for significant yards.
Club 46: Thom Darden embraced Cleveland on his path to becoming one of the best DBs in team history
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) September 16, 2020
In addition, he recovered nine fumbles in his NFL career, which he returned for 32 yards.
Darden appreciates the time he spent playing with the Browns in front of Cleveland fans.
“Browns fans, you took a young Ohio kid from a small town and you really supported him through his growing pains. You helped him become a man. You saw the good and the bad in him and accepted him, so I thank you for that. You constantly treated us like we were family. You showed me how people in this country are supposed to love, not only as sports teams, but as fans and players. So I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
For his nine seasons of excellent play at safety, including all of his interceptions and fumble recoveries, Cleveland Browns fans should thank Thom Darden for giving them many happy memories.