By Pat Graham
DENVER (AP) — The teenager glances at the picture in his room of Darrent Williams returning a kick, reading the inscription he long ago memorized.
“To my wonderful son, Darius, daddy will always love you. Keep doing good in school, in sports. When you think of me, and I’m not there, look at this picture.”
And so the son does, each day. A prized memento from his dad just before his death.
It’s been 10 years since Williams, a 24-year-old defensive back/returner for Denver, was shot and killed in the early hours of Jan. 1, 2007, following a confrontation between Broncos players and gang members at a nightclub.
The family doesn’t really celebrate New Year’s anymore. Too painful. They do celebrate Williams.
“He’ll always be alive in our hearts,” said Tierria Leonard, who had two kids with Williams, Jaelyn, now 14, and Darius, 17.
Instantly, Broncos players took a liking to Darrent Williams and his charisma.
A second-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2005, he was fun loving and played with flair. He even once famously wore his hair in what he called a “Fro-hawk” — part Afro, part Mohawk — for a Monday night game.
“There’s kind of a general rule in the NFL when you’re a rookie, where you just kind of shut up and do your job,” said former Broncos safety John Lynch, who’s now an NFL analyst for Fox. “In Year 2, you can start talking. But Darrent was one of those kids who got away with it, because he came in talking and was such a positive energy and so much fun. That smile. You’d look at him like, ‘Come on rookie,’ but you couldn’t help but crack up.
“I remember the disbelief when that happened — four hours earlier I was in the huddle with the guy, and then I’m hearing he’s no longer with us.”
Williams and several of his teammates went out after a season-ending 26-23 overtime loss to San Francisco on Dec. 31, 2006.
He was killed while riding in the back of a limousine.
Witnesses at the murder trial said Willie Clark exchanged words with then-Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall as Williams arrived at the nightclub with a group. The confrontation escalated inside when somebody in Williams’ group sprayed champagne in celebration.
The dispute continued outside as Williams and his group tried to leave. Witnesses said Clark desperately searched for a gun following the altercation, hopped into an SUV to catch up with a limousine carrying Williams, then fired the fatal shots. Williams died in the arms of teammate Javon Walker.
Clark was sentenced to life in prison plus 1,152 years. A judge denied his recent request for a new trial.
Williams’ mom, Rosalind, was there for all of the testimony. So was Leonard, who wanted to know everything for later, when her kids had questions.
Rosalind Williams has pictures of her son all over her home in Mansfield, Texas. On bad days, when she’s really thinking of her son, she will retreat into a room and meditate.
“Sometimes, you just have to have a good cry,” she said. “You just take it one moment at a time, so you can get through it.”
This warmed her heart: On May 29, 2008, the Darrent Williams Memorial Teen Center was dedicated to serve the youth in a suburb of Denver. A place where kids could play and do homework.
“It speaks volumes of the people that are so caring in Denver,” the mom said.
There’s also the Darrent Williams Good Guy Award, which is given to the Broncos player who best exemplifies Williams’ enthusiasm, cooperation and honesty when dealing with the media. The first recipient, in 2007, was Lynch. This season, the award went to Broncos outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware.
Fitting, since Ware, who was playing for the Dallas Cowboys at the time, sent Rosalind his Pro Bowl jersey soon after Williams’ death.
Several former Broncos have reached out to the family over the years. Safety Nick Ferguson has checked in. Same with Walker and running back Tatum Bell, who also played at Oklahoma State with Williams.
Ten years. It’s hard for Lynch to believe it’s been that long.
“This gives me a chance to reflect, get on the phone and see how Rosalind is doing, see how his (family) is doing,” Lynch said. “It’s important on these anniversaries that we all stop and remember the promises we made when he tragically passed away.
“Darrent will always have an indelible place in my heart. He was such a special and vibrant personality.”
Tierria Leonard remembers the last Christmas the family spent together. Days before Williams’ death, they traveled to Denver to watch him play on Christmas Eve and open presents. Darius received a remote-controlled car — a present he still has. Jaelyn got snow boots. For Leonard, Williams gave her a diamond ring, tennis bracelet and earrings.
The ring never comes off.
She met Williams at a high school basketball game and had her cousin get his number. She had Darius at 16 and Jaelyn at nearly 19.
“They each remind me of him,” said Leonard, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas. “Jaelyn, her grin and laugh are just like his. Darius, you look at him and just see ‘D.'”
Darius Williams is a defensive back — just like dad. A good one, too, with colleges taking a look at him.
He once wore No. 27 — dad’s old number — before switching to No. 4 in high school at Fort Worth Arlington Heights (No. 27 was taken his freshman year).
The senior watches clips of his father on his phone all the time. His favorites are from Williams’ college days at Oklahoma State, especially a pick-six against Kansas State in 2003.
Another memory: The blue Impala. His father would pick him up from school in that car, and he was the envy of all the kids.
“People would run up to the car,” Darius recounted.
On game days last fall, Darius honored his father by wearing a wrist band with his initials and number, along with shoes on which he wrote “RIP.” But his biggest tribute was playing like him.
“I’ve got that fight,” Darius said, “that heart of his.”
Recently, he began getting a tattoo of dad on his chest — a picture of Williams in his Broncos uniform, with a pair of wings.
“I hope he’s proud of me,” Darius said.