By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Surrounded by friends and family, Ramsey Dardar beams, repeating a mantra as concise as it is – once you know his story – profound.
“I’m blessed,” he says. “I’m blessed.”
He tells it – through a smile, of course – to the photographer snapping photos of him, as he reads an article he’d never read before from 36 years ago about – you guessed it – his smile.
He tells it to the wait staff at Walk On’s, where he’s being celebrated by those who love him, just three weeks removed from a 19-year prison sentence.
He tells it to Lyman White, his former LSU teammate and the Program Director of Professional Athletes Supporting Students (PASS), a local non-profit dedicated to “helping students to succeed in school, sports and life.” White and PASS are helping Dardar get back on his feet.
For years, Dardar was the one knocking people off their feet – offensive linemen, in particular. The Cecilia, La. native was the youngest of four, a preternaturally strong youth who set a state record in high school with a 59-foot shotput and spent his time away from football riding horses and fishing.
“I grew up on a farm,” he says. “I’m a country boy. I’ve had it good all my life. Where I grew up, it was a small town. The only time you saw a red light was around Christmas time. Everybody knew everybody.”
Everybody knew Ramsey, too, particularly football coaches across the country. A 6-foot-5, 230 pounder as a junior, Dardar earned scholarship offers from football powerhouses across the country. Oklahoma and Houston pursued him hardest from outside of the state, but Charlie Pevey, Charles McClendon’s longtime offensive coordinator, landed Dardar’s signature in December of 1979.
“He recruited me with delicate hands,” Dardar says. “I was leaning to Oklahoma and Houston. There were quite a few teams trying to get me. But everybody at my high school, including my high school coach, wanted me to go to LSU. So I chose LSU.”
At LSU, Dardar played his freshman season on the J.V. team, going up against the likes of John Ed Bradley and looking up to the likes of Geroge Atiyeh, before breaking out as a sophomore in 1981 with 77 tackles, 14 for loss, four fumble recoveries, and two blocked field goals as the team’s starting nose guard. In 1982, he finished First-Team All-SEC and was named SEC Defensive Lineman of the year. LSU rolled to 8-3-1 record, earning Jerry Stovall National Coach of the Year honors, thanks to wins over Florida State, Florida, and, for the first time in 12 years, Bear Bryant’s Alabama, who said afterward it was the worst physical beating his Tide team had received since the 1960s. Dardar spent the game tying up all-SEC center Steve Mott “like an offensive lineman,” he’d tell Sports Illustrated, freeing LSU’s linebackers up to stop the Alabama option.
“That was one of the best games of my career at LSU,” Dardar says. “LSU hadn’t beaten Alabama since 1970. That day there, everybody was screaming all over the place. We’re shaking hands with one of the greatest coaches ever, and he’s telling us, ‘You guys are a bunch of gang bangers.’”
His fame became divisive. Fans from Cecilia and Breaux Bridge both claimed him as a native son, and chafed when the other did the same. In truth, Dardar lived in the latter but attended school in the former, “because that’s where the school bus took me.”
Dardar’s talent took him to the NFL, selected in the 1983 draft by the Cardinals. It was then his drug addiction began to haunt him. He left LSU in the top five in school history in career sacks (15), but played just three seasons as a pro, getting hooked on crack-cocaine and running into trouble with the law. Tragedy struck, too, when his 2-year-old son, Ramsey Jr., died after being struck by a car in a parking lot in 1997.
“It was a bitter pill to swallow,” he says. “At that time, I was in the middle of my drug addiction. I felt like I was guilty that this happened, this tragedy happened. I felt like I let my wife down, my other kid down. My wife was pregnant at the time. It brought a lot of pain.”
By 1998, having already served six years for burglary, he would plead guilty to eight more counts and begin a prison sentence lasting nearly two decades. It was a sentence, Dardar says, that saved his life.
“God had a plan for me,” he says. “He took me off the streets, because I could’ve gotten killed. Some of the people I was hanging around with, and some of the areas I was hanging out in, it’s not a good place to be. But when you’re on drugs, that doesn’t matter. I’m 20 years drug free. The night I got arrested and I was in that police car, I knew I was going to do some time. I asked God to help me, to give me time to wean myself off these drugs.”
Dardar spent time in both Angola and Hunt Correctional in St. Gabriel. He worked out, got clean, and worked in Hunt’s education building. He even played football, up until three years ago, when the program was cut.
“Everybody talks about Camp J,” he says of Angola. “That’s lock up. That’s the place where guys can’t live in population. It’s well known all over the country. It was pretty tough when I first got there. Being that I was Ramsey Dardar to a lot of people, football player, people wanted to know what it was like being an LSU football player, being a professional football player. It helped me survive Camp J.”
He had visitors, too: Jerry Stovall, his coach at LSU. Former teammates, old friends. But, most critically, his wife, Lorraine, whom he met at LSU. Lorraine made it a point to bring the children around, making the drive from Atlanta. It took her a while to follow them inside for the visitation.
“She always brought my kids to see me,” Dardar says. “After some years passed, she finally started coming. We stayed in touch with each other the whole time. She made sure my children were close to me. They came often, all the way from Atlanta. I thank her for it. My children always supported me. Even today we have a real good relationship due to the actions my wife took.”
“Ramsey’s the type of person, he’s very kind hearted,” she says. “The man I fell in love with, married, I was hoping and wishing he came back. I think he did. If I was going to leave, it was leaving something he turned into.”
Prison changed Dardar, for the better. He says he only received “three or four write ups” his entire sentence, adding that “most guys end up with 100” over similar sentences. Nearly 20 years after his sentence began, he walked free in September 2017, and was welcomed back with open arms. His family met him at the gates, and those who fell in love with his ever-present smile have been hounding him for visits ever since.
“Me and my wife have been up and down the highway, because all my old friends from high school, junior high school, my school teachers – some of who I’ve forgotten – I’ve gotten calls from all over the country,” he says.
He’s even made some local visits. He stopped in to see Ed Orgeron – his teammate for a few weeks at LSU, before Coach O transferred to Northwestern State – and Pete Jenkins, now and then LSU’s defensive line coach.
“He got very emotional,” Jenkins says. “He cried and had everybody crying. I waited a long time for that day to come.”
For the most part, those, these days are happy ones for Dardar. He says his only goal is to “get back into the community and build my name back up.” His family is never far from his side. The smile is back, and it only disappears, for a brief second and merely by necessity, when he repeats his favorite phrase to whoever is nearest.
“I’m blessed,” he says. And the smile returns.