Darnell Ewell

Four-star defensive tackle Darnell Ewell, who will sign with the Irish on Wednesday, is Notre Dame's most important defensive recruit in the 2017 class. (Photo courtesy of Andy Hilton/recruit757.com)

The words used to sting. The cold stares, too.

All for not fitting into a box so many of those around 6-foot-4, 310-pound Darnell Ewell kept trying to cram him into.

The Norfolk (Va.) Lake Taylor High School football standout and soon-to-be Notre Dame defensive line prodigy kept marching to his own beat. Literally, sometimes.

He’s a member of the Junior ROTC program at school.

A couple of months ago he joined the school’s swim team — with zero competitive experience — with the hopes of thrashing his way in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle races to better conditioning that could pay off next fall on the football field.

Darnell Ewell

Notre Dame defensive line recruit Darnell Ewell (right) and brother Denzel joined the Norfolk (Va.) Lake Taylor High swim team this winter in hopes of improving their bright football futures. Photo provided/ANTOWYNE SHAW

He’s a social media hermit of sorts, lurking but not posting on Twitter and largely ignoring Instagram, Snapchat and his own Facebook page. Pop culturally, he’s oblivious to one of Lake Taylor’s most famous alumni, actor Stephen Furst — “Flounder” in the movie “Animal House.”

“Never saw the movie,” he said.

As far as intra-curricular activities, Ewell stayed after class, raised his hand, respected his teachers, and did extra credit on the way to fashioning a 3.7 grade-point average.

“For a long time the toughest thing I went through in life was getting up every day and doing the best I can at school and sports and everything — and getting mocked for it,” Ewell said.

“I guess I’ve got to say it’s because of my size and how I am in my personality. Not a lot of people like me. They always judge me before they even meet me, and it really took a toll. But I just grew through that mentally, and it prepared me for where I am right now.

“Now, personally, I don’t care anymore. I’m going to do what I do. And I’m going to have fun doing what I do.”

Even Ewell putting his signature Wednesday on his 6½-month-old verbal commitment to Notre Dame has more than a tinge of defiant forward thinking to it.

The prospect projected to be the most impacting among ND’s defensive signees — even including some possible late National Signing Day additions to the overall 18-player group — will be the first player from the talent-rich Tidewater area of Virginia to sign with the Irish since Virginia Beach Salem High’s Isaiah Gardner in 2003.

And Gardner, a cornerback, left ND after his freshman season to transfer to Maryland. The last Tidewater product to start and finish his career at Notre Dame was receiver-turned cornerback Carlos Campbell, who signed with the Irish in 2001 out of Hampton High.

If the Irish can win a tug-of-war with Michigan State for safety/linebacker hybrid Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a one-time Virginia commit from Hampton Bethel High, they’ll have two from the region in one class.

“The Tidewater area — the 757 as they call it — is a terrific area for talent,” CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. “In the Frank Beamer years, Virginia Tech built and sustained its program recruiting players from that area. If Notre Dame could get a foothold in this area, look out.

“Maybe Darnell Ewell will be the start of that. But for so long, they’ve been missing down there.”

It’s not for lack of trying on Notre Dame’s part.

There’s been at least one five-star prospect nationally from the area in 2017 and the four recruiting cycles that proceeded it, as well as a handful of top 200 prospects.

Notre Dame had offered scholarships to almost all of them, as well as Virginia Beach Bishop Sullivan High linebacker Teradja Mitchell, who appears to be the premier prospect from the area in the next class.

“Notre Dame is very demanding, academically as well as football. Some kids are scared of the name,” offered longtime Lake Taylor coach Hank Sawyer of the lack of a connection. “Their reputation proceeds them.

“Darnell wasn’t scared. We had a couple of kids the past couple of years go to Ohio State. I told Darnell, ‘Hey, do something different if you want to.’”

And so instead of landing in what is being billed as Ohio State’s best-ever class and joining friends and former teammates, freshman defensive end Jalyn Holmes and defensive back Wayne Davis, on the Buckeye roster, he bought into Notre Dame’s academic prowess and the idea of a Brian Kelly renaissance.

The four-star Ewell’s other finalists were national champion Clemson, national runner-up Alabama and ascending Michigan.

“When I first met Brian Kelly,” Ewell said of ND’s eighth-year head coach, “I was really surprised how short he was. His height. But his tone really spoke out. There was a demeanor about him. It really showed out. It was all positive.

“You know my dad used to force me to watch football with him when I was a little kid. And whenever Notre Dame came on, he would force me to watch them and he would run his mouth about them all day.

“Once I committed to go there, it’s all he ever talks about now. Now he’s crazy, very proud of me. But this was a decision I made for myself.”

Just as it was when he first went out for football.

That decision was motivated by his desire to impress a girl, Ewell said.

“I found out quickly I was pretty good at football,” he said. “Got my first scholarship offer (Clemson) in eighth grade. Made all-state several times.

“Never got the girl.”

Ewell, in fact, started for Lake Taylor’s offensive line as a freshman — this on a team that Sawyer has built into a state power in the third-largest of Virginia’s six enrollment classes.

His little, er, younger brother Denzel — a 6-3, 295-pound sophomore — started alongside Darnell this past season on the offense line. The elder Ewell played both ways for the Titans. Sawyer is convinced Denzel will eventually, too. He’s already cannonballed into swimming with his older brother.

“Offensively, Denzel is already as good as Darnell,” said Sawyer, who was the one who put the swimming bug in their ears. “And Darnell’s game, I think, is going to translate to the college game very well.

“Anyone can dominate the smaller players. Darnell dominated the big kids, too. But he’s more than that. He’s an intelligent person, a role model and he’s known what he’s wanted out of life for a long time.

“He’s so clear in thought, you think to yourself, ‘Man this kid’s been here before.’ You don’t get 16- 17-year-old kids talking like that.”

When football ends, Darnell Ewell, the son of a security guard (mom Lashone) and counselor for troubled youth (dad Phamas) wants to be a psychologist.

“I want to understand what makes the mind tick,” he said, “what makes people make certain decisions.”

There’s little doubt about what moves Darnell Ewell. He wants greatness and isn’t afraid of how other view his path to get there. That includes all the putdowns he heard during ND’s 4-8 season in 2016.

“Sometimes for greatness to happen, we all have to be put down to realize what we need to do to come up,” he said. “So what if they had bad season? So what if people think Notre Dame has lost its touch? Personally, it’s not about what other people are saying and thinking about. Everybody messes up and nobody’s perfect.

“The opportunities on the football field and for a career are crazy. I hope I can live up to that expectation. And just to be even accepted, I feel pretty fortunate.”

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

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