Editor's note: This article was published in February 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic led to the cancelation of the XFL season.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — "It's a blessing just to be here, you know?"
Darius Victor could have been talking about the opportunity he has to still be playing professional football. After he went undrafted and his chances in the NFL and CFL didn't pan out, Victor is ready to roll as a running back with the New York Guardians of the XFL, which relaunches this weekend.
But Victor was talking about life in general. He's been through more than most, from a fire that destroyed his family's apartment to the shooting death of his older brother to having lived the first five years of his life in a refugee camp in West Africa.
So when the 25-year-old says he's grateful to be standing on the turf after a recent practice at MetLife Stadium, where the Guardians will host the Tampa Bay Vipers on Sunday, it's not idle chatter.
"You never know when your last down is," Victor told me. He was talking about football at that point, but he was indirectly offering a metaphor.
To observe Victor, who is listed at 5-foot-6, 226 pounds, is to marvel at how big and small someone can look simultaneously. When he momentarily stood next to Guardians defensive end Bunmi Rotimi Jr. (6-foot-3, 265 pounds) between reps at practice, he appeared to be about half as tall as Rotimi. But he was just as wide.
Watching Victor puts one in mind of Maurice Jones-Drew - a small but powerful wrecking ball of a back who relishes making contact. Rob Ambrose, head coach at Towson University, once said he sometimes had to remove Victor from short-yardage drills because he kept hurting his teammates with his hard-charging running style.
That physicality was on display when Victor ran over a Vipers defensive back during a joint practice a few weeks ago, in a clip that's since bounced around the internet:
Victor isn't your usual NFL castoff clinging to a dream of playing professionally. He was born in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast, where his family lived after escaping from war-torn Liberia. He lived in the camp until he was 5 years old. Victor has no real recollection of that time beyond what he's been told by his parents and what he's seen in documentaries.
"My dad told me he used to sleep in bushes, how'd he'd be running from bullets - just survival mode," Victor said. "The refugee camp was a lot better than being on the outside. It was a blessing just to be able to find some food and clean water and things like that."
With the help of a relief organization, Victor's entire family - his parents, plus his four brothers and two sisters - made it out and settled in the U.S. They first wound up in Virginia before landing in Hyattsville, Maryland, where Victor was raised.
He was nearly 18 when his brother Kevin was shot during an attempted robbery not far from the family's home. Darius had looked up to Kevin, who was four years older than him and had played football in high school.
"Losing him was very tough, but I live in his name, and I try to make him proud of me," Victor said.
The fire that destroyed the family's apartment happened 10 months after Kevin's death. Darius recalled that it coincided with a game in his senior year of high school where he rushed for 289 yards and four touchdowns on 14 carries. No one in the family was injured, but all of them were displaced for a few weeks. At the time, Victor couldn't help feeling a bit like Job.
"That was like, 'Wow, what can happen now?'" Victor said. "I just lost my brother, and this is happening? It's like, 'What's next?'"
Things have stabilized for Victor since then. He went on to star at Towson, where he finished his career with 3,309 rushing yards and 41 touchdowns.
After going undrafted in 2017, he got an invitation to the New York Jets' rookie minicamp. No contract was offered, but he impressed the New Orleans Saints enough at their rookie minicamp to get a training camp invite. Victor said Saints head coach Sean Payton took a liking to him - "'My little bowling ball,' that's what he called me," Victor said - but the Saints were loaded at running back that year: Adrian Peterson, Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, Daniel Lasco. Victor didn't make the 53-man roster.
Victor said Payton called around to other teams to try to line him up with another opportunity. That November, he landed with the Arizona Cardinals' practice squad. After the 2017 season, he signed a futures contract - which put him on the 90-man offseason roster - but his spot became precarious after Bruce Arians was fired as head coach. The Cardinals waived Victor in the spring, brought him back for their final preseason game, then waived him again the next week.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL signed Victor last year, only to tell him just as he was about to head north that they had to cut him because they had given too many roster spots to non-Canadian players.
Victor said he wasn't invited to any XFL showcase opportunities until the last one, back in October. He was thrilled when Jerald Ingram, the Guardians running backs coach who held the same role with the New York Giants from 2004-13, reached out to express interest in bringing him on. Victor had been a Giants fan growing up and badly wanted to work with the position coach who had supervised backs he admired like Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. Soon afterward, the Guardians drafted him.
Victor is one of hundreds of players with something to prove when the eight-team, 10-week XFL season kicks off this weekend. He could wind up splitting backfield reps with Tim Cook, a former Oregon State running back who spent some time on the Jacksonville Jaguars' offseason roster in 2017 and 2018.
But no matter what happens, Victor is grateful for the chance - in more ways than one.
"You never know when your last down is," Victor said. "Of course I want to get back to the NFL. I'm trying to use this as a (springboard) back to the NFL. But I'm just taking the blessing of being able to play the game I love. I love playing football right now."
Dom Cosentino is a senior features writer at theScore.