I sat on my knees. My eyes lay fixed upon the television screen which stood before me. It was the night of December 31st, 2006, and I was at a friend’s house celebrating New Year’s Eve.
Yet as everyone else partied outside and shot off fireworks, I sat watching the end of a football game. The Denver Broncos were playing against the San Francisco 49ers.
If the Broncos won the game, they would make the playoffs.
If they lost, the season would be over.
The game was in overtime and the 49ers had the ball. Joe Nedney, the 49ers kicker, was poised to score the game-winning field goal.
I hoped for a miracle: a bad snap, a kick that was wide right, or a blocked kick.
Anything. I listened to the announcer.
“The kick is up and …”
My heart stopped.
There was no miracle for my Denver Broncos. The game was over. The season was over.
“Listen to the stunned silence of the Bronco faithful here,” said the announcer.
The room I sat in was as quiet as Mile High Stadium. My eyes were moist with tears. The season was over.
I watched the replay, numbingly turned off the TV, and then I walked outside. Dad asked me whether or not the Broncos had won, and I told him the news. He didn’t say anything; he just stood with me in empathy for a long time.
I finally spoke: “Well, I suppose if I can’t deal with a loss in sports like this, I won’t be prepared for something difficult in real life. So I had better get over it.”
That New Year’s night, I slept dreamlessly while the world partied.
I woke up the next morning around eight o’clock, and soon after went onto the Internet to see what people were saying about the upcoming Wild Card playoffs. Since Denver lost, the Kansas City Chiefs had qualified to take the final playoff spot. I mused on the headline: “Hail to the Chiefs.”
But then something else caught my attention. It was a picture of a Denver Broncos player. My eyes darted over to see what the article was about.
Darrent Williams, a cornerback, was the man in the photo.
I assumed that he had been in some sort of trouble related to New Year’s Eve partying. Perhaps he had been arrested? Yet as my eyes scanned the headline, I caught the keywords, “[S]hot and killed.”
“Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams was killed early Monday when his white stretch Hummer was sprayed by bullets after a nightclub dispute following a New Year’s Eve party.”
Shot and killed! Darrent Williams?
I always felt a special liking for Darrent Williams, the man who wore number twenty-seven, perhaps because he was a young, talented player with an infectious smile and a knack for interceptions and kickoff returns. Perhaps it was also because people thought that he was too short, and that he played with a chip on his shoulder because of that.
Now he was dead? When my brain finally processed what had happened, I let out a gurgled sob.
Mom shouted worriedly, “What’s wrong?” I stared numbly at the screen while my parents ran up the stairs. As they neared the computer, I stood up and looked away. The tears formed in my eyes.
I pointed to the computer, and my mom read the headline. “Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams was killed … his white stretch Hummer was sprayed by bullets. …”
“I’m sorry, son,” dad said. I nodded and wiped my tears as I got up from my chair. “Yep,” I managed.
What could I say? I walked over to my bathroom and closed the door. The tears flowed unhindered down my face.
I thought of last night. The Broncos had lost their game, and their season was over because of that. But the Broncos had next season, and Darrent Williams didn’t have a next season.
I couldn’t help but wonder if things might have been different had the Broncos won. Perhaps everything might have been different. But it didn’t happen that way. He was dead and my mind swam in tears. A painful wall of grief stood in front of my eyes, blocking my view wherever I looked.
If you’re a Broncos fan or player, you have a special bond with your team. You bleed orange and blue. Ever since 1960, Broncos fans have been among the most loyal and devoted fans in professional sports. We love our team. We stand a Mile High in support of our team. There’s something special about being a Broncos fan. This death, this murder, was personal. This was a death in the family.
Later in the day, I sent a message to Williams’ family through the Denver Broncos’ website. Then I read that Darrent Williams was from Fort Worth. Fort Worth—I live in Fort Worth!
Maybe I could go to the funeral and personally pay my respects to Darrent Williams. I could talk to the family and to the players, and personally give them comfort and tell them that this Broncos fan’s heart was also bleeding.
The next day, my dad had to leave on a business trip. Before we took him to the airport, I turned on the television. I went to NFL Network hoping to hear something about Darrent Williams’ funeral. At that moment, Mike Shanahan, the coach of the Denver Broncos, was about to start a news conference about Williams’ death.
Shanahan had noticeable difficulty keeping the tears in. He said that Darrent Williams had also been with Brandon Marshall and Javon Walker, two Broncos receivers, when he was murdered. Apparently, the bullets had come through the window and hit Williams in the neck, killing him almost instantly. He died in Javon Walker’s arms.
Shanahan recalled that Darrent Williams, or “D-Will” as his friends called him, lived life with a smile on his face. “You never know why God takes somebody, but I know one thing. He got somebody very special in Darrent.”
After Shanahan answered the questions, he talked about the funeral preparations. Following a private memorial service in Denver, the Broncos were flying down to Fort Worth for the funeral. Their website showed that the funeral was to be held at Great Commission Baptist Church, at noon, on Saturday.
My brother, Brian, who was returning to school at the United States Air Force Academy in a week, had a going away party set for two o’clock, but my mom figured that the funeral would end before that. Excitement and relief began building within me. I was going to Darrent Williams’ funeral, and we would all lay him to rest.
Saturday drew near. Some people from the Broncos’ online message boards wanted to sit together at the funeral to show our support. One Broncos fan, Gabriel, was coming up from Austin, and he sent me his cell phone number and asked me what I looked like so we could find each other at the funeral.
Thursday night, as my mom and I ran errands in the mall, we walked into a sports store. “Are y’all going to Darrent Williams’ funeral?” one of the ladies who worked at the store asked us, indicating my Broncos gear. She and the rest of the store staff were going. It really touched me to hear that other people were attending the funeral. As we left the mall, I saw some guys standing beside the door. One of them wore a Raiders hat.
“Hey, it’s a Bronco[s] fan,” the man said. I felt the sympathy in his voice.
Finally, it was Saturday. I was nervous. Yet, I felt that it was extremely important for me to attend the funeral. I felt that this event would impact me for the rest of my life, and I dearly wanted to pay my respects. Before we left, I wrote a letter to Darrent Williams’ mother and placed it in my Bible.
I didn’t feel right in wearing my Denver Broncos clothing to a funeral, but I wore a dark blue polo shirt with an orange stripe running horizontally across the chest. Broncos colors to match my Broncos watch.
As we got near to the church, I called the cell phone number of the Broncos fan from Austin. “This is Gab,” came the answer, but I couldn’t hear very well because of the noisy traffic. “Hi, this is Steven Thorn. May I speak to Gabriel, please?” I said.
I probably sounded a little dumb asking for “Gabriel” after he had already said who he was, but I wanted to make sure I had the right guy. He probably didn’t mind anyway.
“We’re on our way to the church and we’re almost there,” I continued. “Like I said, I’m wearing the dark blue polo shirt with an orange stripe running horizontally across the chest. Where outside the church did you want to meet?”
“Well, there’s a long line outside the church and I’m in it, so I’m just going to go ahead and go in,” Gabriel said. “Ah, okay,” I responded.
“Thanks for calling though,” he said. “Means a lot.”
“Alright, bye,” I said.
I felt really bad that we didn’t connect in person, but when I lifted my eyes from the phone, I saw exactly what he meant about the crowds of people.
We had left our house at about eleven o’clock a.m., expecting to get there in plenty of time. However, it took us about thirty minutes to find a parking spot.
While we crawled through the traffic toward the church, I saw who I assumed to be family members of Darrent walking toward the church from the back parking lots. Further along, I could see a trail of buses parked, which I assumed to be the buses that the team came in. Then I saw the carriage that had his body in it.
As we moved further along the street, I saw a man on a horse carrying a Denver Broncos flag. I had read something about him the night before. He had been at the funeral at Darrent Williams’ old high school. His son had played football with him. He was paying his respects.
The man’s face was covered—he didn’t want publicity. The horse paced back and forth as the man held up the flag and declared his support for our Darrent Williams.
We finally parked in a field next to Grace Lutheran Church, which was across the street from Grace Community Baptist Church. I stepped out into muddy grass with my Bible in hand and checked to make sure that the letter to Mrs. Williams was still inside.
As I looked around at the other mourners and noticed that a lot of other people were wearing their Broncos gear. Meanwhile, I was wearing my short-sleeved dark blue polo shirt. It was very, very cold, yet I hadn’t brought a coat. I was willing to endure the cold to show my colors.
Then I heard a lady talking to some other ladies. “Are y’all looking for husbands here?” I turned to see a group of African American ladies walking toward Grace Community Baptist Church. They were wearing black dresses, and some of them had hats on. “No, I already got a husband at home,” said one of the ladies.
The lady who asked the question turned to my family and me, examined us for a moment, and then pointed to Grace Lutheran Church. “Is this y’all’s church?” she asked. “No,” I responded, confused.
“Where are y’all going then?” she asked. “To the funeral,” I said, pointing to Grace Community Baptist Church.
“Oh, okay.” The lady turned her head to one side, as if she was still confused, and then she walked off.
It was then that I realized my family and I were attending a funeral at an African American church. We were some of the only white people there, but the thought had never even crossed my mind that I was white and Darrent Williams was black. There wasn’t any difference to me. I didn’t see why there should be any difference to them.
The lady had probably meant no harm, but my heart stung just a little more inside. Darrent Williams was a Denver Bronco, and I wanted to pay my respects to him.
Paying my respects was going to be difficult, however, as the sanctuary was completely full. The funeral staff was trying to figure out how to accommodate the masses of people that had arrived.
We stood outside the church for thirty minutes, waiting to get in. Meanwhile, the time had come for the funeral to start.
Finally, we were allowed inside.
As we walked into the church, people at the door greeted us, and I nodded in response. I saw large posters of Darrent Williams and the Broncos as we walked into the overflow room. Inside, there were two big televisions receiving a live video feed from the sanctuary so we could see what was happening.
The funeral hadn’t started yet because everyone was still viewing the body. Countless people walked by the casket. Someone came into the overflow room asking if anyone wished to view the body, but moments later, they came back and informed us that the funeral needed to get underway.
It concerned me that the funeral hadn’t started yet. We needed to leave at one-thirty, and my watch read one o’clock. I sat in my seat with a stoic face. I was upset with how things had developed. I wasn’t even there in the sanctuary. I was in the same building, but I could only watch the proceedings on a television screen.
Some people I didn’t know stood at the podium and talked about Darrent Williams—about how he was a good young man, and how he was in heaven right now because he believed in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. I couldn’t concentrate very well because I was so worried that we would have to leave before hearing any of the Broncos’ statements.
Thirty minutes later, we were walking out of the church.
I hadn’t even heard the Broncos’ owner, Pat Bowlen, the Broncos’ coach, Mike Shanahan, or their running back, Tatum Bell, speak. I kept a clamp on my mouth and tried to not swear. Everything had gone wrong.
I was so wrapped up in my emotions that my mom had to remind me that I had written a letter to Mrs. Rosalind Williams, Darrent’s mother.
I took the letter out of my Bible and gave it to one of the ushers. He promised us that he would give it to her. In spite of everything that had gone wrong, I felt comforted in the knowledge that Darrent Williams’ mother would receive it.
Then I remembered that I had left no return address. There was no way for her to respond if she wanted to. I tried to shrug the thought off as we walked back to the car. She would receive the letter. That was enough.
Nothing else went right that day.
As we missed the speeches of Pat Bowlen, Mike Shanahan, and Tatum Bell, we found the car stuck in the mud. I spent the next hours waiting for a tow truck. Meanwhile, the funeral continued a mere block away.
It felt like I had failed and let somebody down.
I missed the funeral, had taken up almost four hours of my brother’s last Saturday with us, and had made all of us late. I looked at the cold, grim, gray sky, and then looked at my brother.
“Are you upset with me?” I asked, trying to disguise bitter, hot tears. “Steven,” he said, “I just want to spend time with my family. That’s what I’m doing right now with you.”
Not many things were right in the world, but at least we had each other.
A tow truck eventually rescued us out of the mud, along with another couple who had gotten stuck with us.
Later that afternoon, I can remember taking out the garbage and thinking about everything. I was still angry. I didn’t get to pay my respects to Darrent.
Those words that I had spoken a week earlier on that New Year’s Eve had been sickly ironic: “Well, I suppose if I can’t deal with a loss in sports like this, I won’t be prepared for something difficult in real life. So I had better get over it.”
Apparently, I hadn’t been prepared for difficulty in real life.”
I don’t know if this story has an end. Perhaps it has nothing more than an admonition. If it does, then it’s the admonition that I received from a man at Albertson’s weeks after the funeral.
My mother stood at the checkout, and I saw the man bagging the groceries look at my Broncos gear. While my mom paid for the groceries, he looked at me and said, “How’s it going, Bronco?”
A million thoughts rushed through my head. A million things to say: Darrent Williams; next season; Javon Walker, who was with Darrent when he died, and Jay Cutler, our new quarterback.
I managed to say something about the offensive line and the running game. He remarked that we would always have a good running game, and he thought that Cutler would do really well as Denver’s QB. Then as I left, he told me, “Stick with it, Bronco.”
Months later, I was speaking to some people at church about football. By that time, another Denver Broncos player, Damien Nash, had died unexpectedly of heart complications.
One of the men said that the Broncos might win the Super Bowl “if they have any players left by the time the season starts.”
I was stunned into silence. Hurt.
What was I supposed to say? What can you do? How can you make some people understand that these players were near and dear to so many of our hearts? Maybe you can’t make them understand.
Either way, I’ll stand by my Denver Broncos. All of us will.
We still bleed orange and blue, no matter what. We’ll support the Williams family, the Nash family, and each other.
The Denver Broncos wore the decals of Darrent Williams and Damien Nash, numbers twenty-seven and twenty-nine, on their helmets during the season of 2007-2008. Both Darrent Williams and Damien Nash died at twenty-four years of age.
Darrent Williams, Denver Bronco
The latter link takes you to a video slideshow tribute that I did on January 3rd, 2007, two days after Darrent Williams passed away.