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NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — Ty Darlington was well aware of the issues facing college football — concussions, pay-for-play, racial issues, transfer rules to name a few— but felt powerless to do anything.
Not anymore. The 6-foot-3, 286-pound center for Oklahoma overcame nerves and attended a Big 12 Student-Athlete Advisory Committee conference as a favor to the school's director of student athlete development, and now he's known as "The Senator."
The change started after he was encouraged by director Dr. Carol Ludvigson to listen in at the SAAC conference in Dallas in June 2014. He was reluctant to say much at the time and said the event was something he "had no desire to go to."
"None. I just wanted to come to practice, go to workouts," he added. "If I happened to have any free time, just relax for a second."
During the two-day trip, something clicked.
"These issues that I always complained about, or we talked about — it wasn't like we weren't talking about this stuff behind closed doors, we never really felt like we had the power to do anything about it," he said. "So when I got down there, I realized there might be a real opportunity here to get involved and not just talk about it."
And talk he has. He's become an advocate for college athletes' rights, and teammate Sterling Shepard calls him "The Senator."
At a conference in Washington D.C. in January, he made a positive and powerful impression on college leaders when he spoke as a student member of the NCAA's autonomy legislation committee. He passionately spoke about protection against concussions, in part, because his brother missed the 2013 high school season after having one.
Now that he's made his voice heard, people want to hear what else he has on his mind. Recently, Darlington talked about quarterback Baker Mayfield, a second team All-American who got caught up in transfer rules.
After his football days are over, Darlington wants to coach or become an athletic administrator.
"Ty is an AD-in-training," Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. "He may have much bigger sights than that. He's exceptional. I start to run out of adjectives. He's just an extraordinary leader.
"A lot of times it's his influence by leading by example rather than actually doing something, but he does a lot. I can't say enough about him."
Darlington is taking graduate courses in adult and higher education. He was president of Oklahoma's Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter in 2013-14 and 2014-15, and was a critical part of the football team's leadership council when a racial incident on campus threatened to divide the squad.
He has plenty to show for his accomplishments, including the Campbell Trophy as college football's top scholar-athlete and the Wuerffel Trophy for community service. As his this fourth-ranked Sooners prepare to play top-ranked Clemson in a national semifinal, he hopes younger athletes are ready to continue what he has done off the field.
"For me, it's a legacy deal because I want to see more people step up," Darlington said. "I don't want to leave a hole in different areas. It's more in the other areas — the FCA, the SAAC, the NCAA representation. I want to see people step up to work to make the student athlete experience better."
He wants to be part of the process.
"I think college athletes are influencers that don't realize the impact that they can have when they maximize their potential and use their platform the way that they can," he said, "and I would like to help them."
On the field, his leadership has helped an offensive line blossom. His play was solid, too. He's a second-team All-Big 12 pick.
"He's been an incredible leader," OU coach Bob Stoops said. "An example of what you want in a student-athlete, the absolute example. He's led with the way he works and what he says, the way he communicates, listens to others. Ty's been exceptional."
Oklahoma created a seven-member leadership council after last year's loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl. The team came up with a system, typed it out and met with Stoops, who agreed to it.
So, who came up with the presentation?
"Of course, Ty," Shepard said. "The Senator, Ty did it. We all had a little input in it. That was the start of it."
It helped to have that in place when video of a racist chant by members of the school's Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter rocked the campus — and the team. The leaders met and conveyed messages to the rest of the team. After hours and days of intense meetings, an agreement on how to get involved was made. Among other things, the team had silent protests during spring practice.
"We saw a team come together in a way like I have not been a part of in the past," Darlington said. "That's what gives me the most pride, is seeing the adversity the team's fought through and seeing the way we've come together."
Darlington said he liked the fact that football players at Missouri took a stand against racism together, but the impact — the eventual ouster of the school's chancellor and president — made him think. He said athletes need to be careful to use their power carefully.
"It's scary because of the responsibility it places on 18-to-22-year olds," he said.
Darlington said there's more to be done. Going forward, he'd like to see fewer restrictions on the way the athletes can use their name, image and likeness, and he'd like to see progress in the conversation regarding compensation.
Mayfield lost a year of eligibility when he transferred from Texas Tech. Darlington believes that was wrong, especially because Mayfield walked on at Oklahoma.
He hopes the student voice helps lead to change.
"That kind of stuff is important to me, and hopefully, within the next couple years, I'll be able to look and see that stuff happening without me," he said.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter @CliffBruntAP