TAMPA, Fla. -- The memories Darnell Dockett has of his childhood are painful and ugly. He has been through things most of us can't even hypothetically put on our radar, because imagining them taking place is so ... unimaginable.
At age 13, Dockett entered the family's suburban Atlanta home to find his mother, Cheryl Hambrick, dead. She was killed execution style, a gunshot wound to the head. Fourteen years later, the case remains unsolved.
His father, Darnell Sr., who had a distant relationship with his son, moved Darnell Jr. to Maryland, outside of Washington D.C., to live with his uncle, Kevin Dockett. Darnell Sr. lived nearby.
A few months after the move, Darnell Sr. died of pancreatic cancer, leaving Darnell Jr. an orphan at 13.
"I could break my arm tomorrow and I'd be OK because I've been through worse things than that," Dockett said at the Cardinals' media session Wednesday. "There is nothing I could go through in everyday life, from this point on, that would hurt.
"My pain and tears are gone," he added. "I've done shed enough of them."
His uncle and football were his saviors.
Dockett, now 27, admits he wasn't an easy kid to handle. He was very familiar with fighting, stealing and pretty much not doing right. When he first gave football a shot after moving to Maryland, his taste for street life was far more insatiable than running, tackling and playing the game a lot of kids in his neighborhood, including his cousins, did.
"I was 13 and never played football; I never did anything," Dockett said. "They tried to put me on the football team, and I quit. ... I remember my coach saying, 'Do you know what a three-point stance is?'
"'No," Dockett answered, "but I can tell you how to steal a Buick Regal."
Dockett eventually gave football another shot after vanity and pressure from his highly athletic cousins -- and his dump truck-driving uncle -- persuaded him to give it another shot.
"My uncle, man, I thank him so much because he forced me to play football," Dockett said. "If I didn't play football ..."
Buick Regal owners still might be a little nervous.
"I tried, and in my first year, I sucked -- I sucked bad," Dockett recalled. "I had three cousins who could have been professional. I looked up to them doing their thing. That next season, I started lifting weights, started doing pushups, and when you're young and you start to develop a body, you get fascinated with the mirror. I was always big and fast enough. I got the confidence to play football. I ran like two, three people over the first day in pads, and it wasn't no looking back."
Dockett developed into one of the country's top high school defensive linemen and ended up signing with Florida State. He stood out for the Seminoles on the field, but he couldn't avoid trouble off it.
He battled with his grades and, during his junior season, was charged with shoplifting. He was suspended for the Sugar Bowl and avoided jail time after taking part in a pre-trial diversion program.
That history and Dockett's frequently unwound on-field emotions overshadowed his strong career at FSU, which included 64 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors. Arizona took him in the third round of the 2004 draft.
Dockett started as a rookie and created perceptions that he was a draft-day steal. He registered 46 tackles in each of his first two seasons -- a relatively high total for an interior lineman -- and improved that total to 53 in 2006. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2007 when he posted a career-high 75 tackles and nine sacks -- three more than he had combined in his first three seasons.
This season, facing double teams and creating them as part of Arizona's defensive scheme, Dockett had 49 tackles and four sacks during the regular season. He has five tackles in the playoffs.
Dockett's unbridled emotion and relentlessness were traits that propelled him and, to some degree, held him back. Earlier in his career, he occasionally drew penalties for losing his cool and his focus. Where Dockett has grown in this, his fifth NFL season, is in maintaining his intensity while using a common-sense filter when needed.
"Technically, he's a very good football player from how he plays his own independent technique and what he does defensively, as far as causing disruption on the offense," Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "He's a strong, physical player that has an explosive first step. Emotionally, what he brings is a guy that is very intense, very competitive and wants to win.
"What Darnell has done a very good job of this year is being able to rein some of that in at the appropriate times. What he had done in the past was gotten out of control at times, and that led to some penalties that were hurtful to us. This year, he's really got that down. That's part of becoming a team for him as well as for our football team."
As for his aggression, Dockett said: "I play with passion and emotion. I wasn't one of those silver-spoon kids, playing football since I was 5 years old, moms taking them to practice, buying all the new stuff. I had the same high school shoes for three years. Would have had them for four if my big toe wasn't about to bust out."
His 2-year-old son, Dillon, has redirected some of Dockett's emotion. Having experienced the heartbreak of not receiving the total devotion of a father and then having both of his parents die when he was young, Dockett said he doesn't want his son to miss out on anything -- especially his attention.
During Arizona's improbable rise to NFC champion, Dockett has trumpeted the battle cry of disrespect louder and more frequently than any of the Cardinals players proclaimed as underdogs. Seeing as how his life has gone, he has earned the right to do so. He knows what it's like to emerge from doubt and seemingly bottomless trappings.
Squandering opportunity is something Dockett almost has done too many times, and now that he's old enough to reflect, he understands the importance of taking advantage of things when they present themselves. He wants "no regrets" about his preparation or performance for the biggest game of his life.
He also wants his uncle to share this experience with him, so he's flying him to Tampa. Kevin Dockett won't arrive until Friday because he couldn't take a few extra days off work. That's the ethic he helped instill in his nephew, and it's an effort Dockett appreciates.
The heavily tattooed player has an ode to his uncle inked on his massive right arm, thanking him for sticking with him and being an uncle, brother and father. It reads:
For believing in me
when no one else would.
When the odds were against me,
beside me you stood.
For being my friend,
brother, confidant and father.
Because of you I know
blood is thicker than water.
Words can't express my gratitude,
nor any amount of money.
From the bottom of my heart,
thank you and I love you,
It was his uncle's intervention that has Dockett looking at life a lot differently today.
Dockett said he has installed a GPS tracking device on his car to help police locate it should it be stolen by people he once emulated.
"I did research on OnStar -- it don't work," Dockett said of the type of GPS system he has. "If people want to steal your car, all they got to do is cut the wire that notifies the cops. I learned that the best thing to do nowadays is to have insurance."