NY Times: LAS VEGAS, March 4 — (Again from Paula)

When the cheering section for Joe Darger is at full strength, it includes his father, his mother, his 18 siblings and his father’s other wife.

They wear red T-shirts, blow on red noisemakers and wave red pompoms. They appear no different from any other group in the U.N.L.V. family section — only larger and louder.

“We cheer for all the players,” said John Darger, Joe’s father. “We like to get a little rowdy.”

John Darger is married to Carollee Darger, Joe’s mother. He is also married to Elizabeth Darger, the mother of eight of his children. He calls himself a polygamist.

His children range in age from 2 to 40, with Joe in the middle at 20. A 6-foot-7 sophomore with spiky blond hair and a feathery shooting stroke, Joe is the most accurate 3-point shooter on the Nevada-Las Vegas basketball team. The Runnin’ Rebels, 25-6 after a 65-47 victory over Colorado State on Saturday, are poised to qualify for the N.C.A.A. tournament next week.

“I think we’re going to be on the road for a while here,” Carollee said.

Fifteen of Joe’s family members drove to Las Vegas on Saturday for the team’s regular-season finale. They came in a three-car caravan, six hours from their home in Riverton, Utah. They left Riverton after a morning baptism and arrived at the Thomas & Mack Center just in time for tip-off.

Pregame introductions at the Thomas & Mack are not to be missed. They are basketball’s version of a Las Vegas show, with fireworks exploding from the scoreboard, flames shooting up from each basket and cheerleaders strutting across the hardwood in faux leather uniforms.

This does not seem like a place for a Mormon who left the student dorms last year when he learned they were coed. But Joe has found a home at U.N.L.V., perhaps because the family here is nearly as open as his own.

Dating to the days of Jerry Tarkanian, U.N.L.V.’s famous former coach, the Rebels have been noted for running the fast break and for accepting players who are out of society’s mainstream.

“We’ve always taught our kids to respect other people’s beliefs and ways of life,” John said. “We always tell them, Don’t judge anybody for any reason.”

College basketball has plenty of experience with nontraditional family structures: parents in jail, parents in shelters, parents missing entirely. Joe grew up with three parents in the house.

Although Elizabeth Darger did not make the trip to Las Vegas on Saturday, she watches Joe’s games with almost as much interest as John and Carollee. She helped bring up Joe and is described by family members as his surrogate mother.

Joe, who averages 6.3 points, declined to comment for this article, saying that his coaches did not want to create any distractions heading into the postseason. But with the N.C.A.A. tournament starting March 13, the television cameras will inevitably find Joe and his family.

When Joe played at Riverton High School, he was a top prospect and a subject of intense gossip. During road games, opposing fans would taunt him with chants about his family. When he met college coaches, he would immediately tell them about his background. Some were taken aback, but they did not stop recruiting him.

“I know the kid really well, and I like him a lot,” said Rick Majerus, a former Utah coach, who recruited Joe in high school. “I met the family, and they were very nice people — certainly loved their son and cared about him.”

John Darger is a 60-year-old real estate developer with bushy gray hair, a thin goatee and a deep singing voice. He grew up with 46 siblings. His father had several wives. Polygamy was passed down like a family heirloom.

When John met Carollee 32 years ago, he was a construction worker and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They were married in the Salt Lake Temple. For anniversaries, John still writes songs for Carollee.

John considers himself a Mormon, but he is no longer recognized as one. Because polygamy is illegal and the church renounced the practice more than a century ago, John said that he had been excommunicated. His children, however, remain active members of the church and have given no indication that they will practice polygamy.

“We have never pushed our kids to pick our lifestyle,” John said.

John and Carollee sat in the lower bowl of the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday night with a few of their younger children. The older ones, who now have children of their own, were directly above them. The family was unable to get enough seats in the same row, so it had to split up.

The family cheering section erupted when Joe sank two early 3-pointers, and it cringed when he jammed his right thumb chasing a rebound. Standing on the sideline in the second half, with his right hand wrapped in tape, Joe watched his team pull away for a victory. He hugged every senior who came to the bench.

At the end of the game, the Dargers walked down to courtside and waited for more than an hour as Joe signed autographs. They wanted to congratulate him on the game and check on his hand. When he finally came over to meet them, they gathered in a huddle and discussed plans for the night.

Much of the crowd seemed headed to nightclubs on the Strip, but the Dargers retreated to a house in a subdivision just outside Las Vegas. John and Carollee bought the house for Joe, partly because they did not want him to live in a dormitory, and partly because the family needed a place to stay after games.

“Joe generously agreed to give up his bed tonight,” said Crystal Lee Darger, one of his older sisters. “He’s sleeping on the couch.”

The house is two stories, in a gated community, and Joe normally occupies the master bedroom. Nine basketballs roll around the floor. The walls are covered with photos of his girlfriend and his favorite players.

“We think this works better than the dorm,” said Carollee, sprawling out on an oversized beanbag chair.

Carollee is 49, with long brown hair and a sharp sense of humor, often aimed at her husband. Besides rearing children, she runs a health-food store in Salt Lake City called Shirlyn’s Natural Foods. Over the years, her daughters have worked by her side.

As Carollee relaxed on the beanbag chair, children came and went. Her sons cooked burritos. Her daughters gave each other massages. When polygamy was raised as a topic of conversation, they laughed. They say they think it is amusing that people are so fascinated by it.

“We are just people,” Carollee said. “We are normal people.”

The Dargers live in a seven-bedroom house in Riverton, about 20 miles from Salt Lake City. All the children were born at home, delivered by a midwife. When they were young, they often slept three to a room. The whole family shared two bathrooms.

“That was a battle for survival,” said Angel Lee Darger, one of Joe’s older sisters. “But it’s also how we learned to get along so well.”

At first, the family lived on a farm outside Riverton. The children had to wake up at 5 a.m. every day to help their parents milk the cows and feed the chickens. When the family moved into town a few years later, the wake-up calls did not come any later.

John still roused the children at 5 a.m., but instead of farming, he took them to the local recreation center to shoot baskets. Jason Darger, one of Joe’s older brothers, claims to have made 93 of 100 3-point attempts during one of those sessions.

As the children got older, they played full-fledged games of five-on-five. Their annual holiday showdown made the local news. Of John’s 18 children, all but the 2-year-old have played some level of competitive basketball.

“By the time they turned 5, every one of them was in a league,” Carollee said. “I think it taught them a lot.”

Many of the children are grown now; only Joe does not live in Riverton. Their houses are separated by no more than 10 minutes. For birthdays, they pick one night each month to celebrate. For Christmas, they draw one name from a hat and buy a present for only that person. Still, the stack of presents is three feet high.

Every Sunday in Riverton, the family gathers to eat dinner, read Scripture, play chess and sing. Sometimes, John tries out a gospel or country piece that he has written. Usually, though, he falls back on his old favorites, “Jimmy Crack Corn” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”

When Joe is in town, he and John take turns on the guitar.

When everyone is singing together — 50 children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces — the house can become loud.

There are no fireworks, flames or leather-clad cheerleaders, but still, the Dargers can put on a Las Vegas-type show.


  1. Tom Grover March 6, 2007 at 11:11 am

    Sounds like a good baller. Too bad Utah State didn’t land him as a recruit!

  2. Proud Daughter of Eve March 6, 2007 at 12:19 pm

    Nice to see some coverage of polygamists that focuses more on the family than the shock value.

  3. Paula March 6, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    I’m a little surprised that the family is so open– no worries about being prosecuted?

  4. Tom Grover March 6, 2007 at 10:39 pm

    I have a friend who is an assistant Coach at Riverton High School, who was Joe’s coach. Apparently, Joe was baptized LDS last spring.

  5. Tom Grover March 6, 2007 at 10:40 pm


    The only way they get prosecuted is by an overzealous county attorney. Mark Shurtleff has made it pretty clear he’s not interested in prosecuting bigamy straight up without other crimes.

  6. no thanks March 8, 2007 at 10:22 pm

    Prosecuting polygamists is a no win situation. Everyone loses. Now on the other hand going after a child rapist…

    I think you would find that this guy is only legally married to one woman anyways. The other one is his “spiritual” wife.

  7. Paula March 8, 2007 at 11:20 pm

    no thanks, I realized that later after I’d posted that. But then why do others feel they need to be so secretive? Maybe the young wives, or incest?

    Tom– I thought that getting tough on polygamy was more in vogue these days. (I know it wasn’t in the past. My uncle used to be a sheriff in Salt Lake County and he said they pretty much knew where a lot of the polygamist families lived, but had been told to just leave them alone if there weren’t other problems.)

  8. Christian March 9, 2007 at 1:25 am

    Great Story. There is so much negative about polygamy groups. If we can get past the stereotyping and see the people it is not even close to what so many of us might be more familiar with. While I do not believe in the practice being condoned by God, I can appreciate their beliefs.

    Also, wanted to comment on the possibility of Joe being baptized LDS. Many of the polygamist do so. Their believes as Mormons/LDS would not interfere with their desire to do so. Many of the polygamist families do have their children attend church and even quite a few of the adults attend as well. You just have to realize they are not as noticeable as some of the groups. They dress and act much like any other family other than they have multiple wives.

  9. BroBrooz March 9, 2007 at 1:48 pm

    Why prosecute folks like this for being responsible for many wives and children; when there areso many with one wife, and children who aren’t…?

  10. BroBrooz March 9, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    My cousin was on the SL county sheriff’s dept.
    Years ago he took me on a ride around SLC, pointed to houses ‘where the ‘plegs’live- said they had been told toleave them alone…

  11. rpascale April 3, 2007 at 6:23 pm

    I am pleased to see postive press for a polygamy family. I worked as a social service worker for the State of Utah for nine years. I left the position last year due to working with a poly family that was being persecutred against by the school system, AG office, Guardian et Litem, some of the other workers, due to the fact that the family was a poly family. All discussion seemed to center around the fact that the family was poly, instead of the fact that the mother was suffereing from severe PTSD from trama she had suffered from the hands of her first husband who was not poly, but a regular LDS member. The judgements flew right and left, no where was there room for understanding, by some of the workers and professionals working with the family. There were three of us pushing to get the family help, another coworker, a peer parent and myself. I was raised to always allow others the right to believe and and live according to the dictacts of their hearts. I was very sad to see the amount of persecution this family had to endure. I pray for a kinder world, where the goverment has no say in the choices of non-violent lifestyles a person choose to live. I am pleased that in SLC some families who have chosen the polygamy lifestyle are left in peace. If we ever have the opportunity to vote on the issue that allows this to occur, I will vote in the affirmative to allow others to have the right to chose what non-violent lifestyle they desire.

  12. DJ August 2, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    Joe is my cousin and these people are my family. They are the funnest, happiest, close family I know. John Darger is my Mother’s brother and he has been like a father to her. He is a very responsible man who loves his family more than anything. They are ALL best friends and its so great to be in an atmosphere where there is so much love, acceptance, and fun. I myself am not a polygamist, but knowing their family and being a part of it I’ve learned its just like any other religion just trying to do what they feel is right. They are wonderful people and I love them all!

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