Mile High Tragedy: Promise, Champagne and the Jersey that will Never be Forgotten

Limousine in Shooting

In the early hours of January 1st, 2007, three Denver Broncos left a club where they had been ringing in the New Year, and celebrating the birthday of then Denver Nugget Kenyon Martin. Minutes later, a horrific event forever changed the lives of these three Broncos, who were both teammates and friends.

 

“I still have those clothes.”

 

April 20th, 2002 - Day 1 of the NFL Draft. The Green Bay Packers draft Javon Walker in the first round and 20th overall.[1] He is the third of thirty-four wide receivers to be taken in the draft, behind only Donte Stallworth (Saints) and Ashley Lelie (Broncos).[2]

March 4th, 2004. The Washington Redskins trade star defensive back Champ Bailey and a second-round pick to the Broncos for running back Clinton Portis. Bailey would remain the starting left cornerback for the next nine years, and although currently out with a foot sprain, the job is still his.[3]

April 23rd, 2005. Despite trading for Bailey in the previous offseason, the Broncos use their first three picks of the 2005 NFL Draft on defensive backs, hoping to address the weak side of their secondary.[4] The first of these three picks is used on defensive back Darrent Williams out of Oklahoma State.

 

“It’s just something that reminds me every day of what could happen and this is what happened to my friend. And this is like…what’s left of him is on my clothes.”

 

September 11th, 2005. Javon Walker tears his ACL in the first game of the season for Green Bay. He will miss the entire year. Williams, however, has a successful rookie season, recording 50 tackles and intercepting 2 passes, one for a score. Thanks to his stellar play and trademark “fro-hawk” Williams becomes a fan favorite. One of the fans he wins over is my younger brother, Ryan, 14 at the time, who to this day is still the biggest Bronco fan that I know.

April 29th, 2006. The Broncos select quarterback Jay Cutler out of Vanderbilt with their first-round pick in the 2006 NFL Draft. On the same day, the Packers agree to trade Javon Walker to Denver for a second-round pick.[5] Unhappy that the Broncos traded for another #1 receiver, Ashley Lelie requests a trade. Denver complies, sending him to the Falcons in a three-team deal. Now needing to fill the new void at receiver left by Lelie, the Broncos select Brandon Marshall in the fourth round of the draft, the very next day.[6]

Sunday, December 3rd, 2006. After losing 3 of their last 5 games, the Broncos decide to bench quarterback Jake Plummer in favor of rookie Jay Cutler. Cutler instantly gels with Marshall, and they connect on a 71 yard touchdown pass to tie the game late in the fourth quarter.

 

“All I remember at that point in time was he was just looking up at me and I was like, ‘I got you, Dee. I got you, Dee. I got you, Dee.’ So the limo went off the road into the side of the snow. I just remember grabbing him, pulling him out the limo.”

 

Sunday, December 24th, 2006. Javon Walker catches 3 passes for 52 yards and a touchdown, while Brandon Marshall adds 4 catches for 65 yards of his own in a win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Darrent Williams gets his 4th interception of the season, solidifying his role as starting cornerback opposite Champ Bailey. The Broncos are a win away from making the postseason. On Christmas morning the next day, my brother finds that Santa has brought him the jersey of his favorite player, Darrent Williams.[7]

Sunday, December 31st, 2006. The Denver Broncos are eliminated from playoff contention on the final day of the regular season, losing to the 49ers 26-23 in overtime. Although their season is over, the Broncos show promise, along with a wealth of young talent. Along with Cutler, Javon WalkerDarrent Williams and Brandon Marshall all show signs of turning into stars for this young Denver team.[8]

Later that night, WalkerWilliams and Marshall head out to the Safari nightclub in downtown Denver, where at least three of their teammates and two Denver Nuggets players are celebrating New Year’s Eve. The ensuing events after midnight are a point of much dispute.

 

“You don’t know what to think, to have someone die in your arms and you know you’re the last person he hugged.”

 

January 1st, 2007, 12:00 AM. When midnight strikes, Brandon Marshall’s cousin, Blair Clark, shakes and sprays a bottle of champagne over the entire 3rd floor VIP section of Safari, angering two members of the Denver Crips, a notoriously violent gang. An argument starts between Marshall, Clark, and the two gang members, who are promptly removed from the 3rd floor VIP section.

1:30-2:00 AM.  The two gang members confront Marshall and Clark again. When the argument gets heated, the two gang members are kicked out of the night club. But instead of leaving the premises, they wait outside and confront Marshall and Clark when the party draws to a close, reigniting their feud.

2:10 AM. Williams, worried that the argument is escalating out of control, heads over into the midst of the fight, before things get physical, pleading with everyone to break it up. In front of the entire group, he tells Marshall, “Come on, get in the limo.” After having no success, Williams leaves and joins Walker in the white stretch Hummer that he arrived in. A minute later the argument finally ends and the groups separate. Marshall and his cousin head to their own Lincoln town car that will take them back to the suburbs, the opposite direction of Williams and Walker.

2:13 AM. The white Hummer with WalkerWilliams, and a handful of friends and dates leaves the club. A white Chevy Tahoe pulls up in the lane to its left. Seconds later, as Walker is leaning over to reach for the music, Williams falls into his lap. Thinking that he’s just messing around, Walker then moves to push Williams away. That’s when he sees the blood pouring out from Williams’ neck. He attempts to stop the bleeding, cradling Williams in his arms while applying pressure to the wound, which has now stained Walker’s white shirt. But to no avail, as Williams dies almost instantly as he slumps into Walker’s arms.

 

“Javon picked him up, he was like, ‘Don’t die on me. Don’t die on me.’ But D wasn’t saying nothing, he was holding him like he was a baby.”

 

January 6th, 2007. Five days after his death, Darrent Williams is laid to rest in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. In attendance was Williams’ mother, Rosalind Williams, along with high school sweetheart, Tierria Leonard. In the days following his death, and the weeks thereafter, Leonard would call Darrent’s phone regularly to hear the recorded sound of his voice. At the funeral, their seven-year-old son Darius asks his mother if Daddy has his cell phone in the coffin.

Javon Walker does not make an appearance.[9]

 

“Maybe when I see him in heaven, I can ask him, maybe put it behind me then.”[10]

 

The Aftermath:

The new year in Denver began with the end of a life, and so, the end of a promising career. And although nothing can rival Williams’ grim fate, his teammates did not escape the incident without scars of their own. Walker, who held Williams in his dying moments, was never the same, not as a player, and perhaps not as a man. From 2007 to 2008, Walker played for both the Broncos and the Raiders, totaling only 41 receptions, 483 yards and a single touchdown, never playing in more than 8 games each year.[11] In 2009, he played in 3 games, never tallying a single catch. He retired the next year. Marshall’s football career, while more successful, has been beset by bi-polar disorder and an almost endless string of off-the-field incidents. [12]

And as for the jersey that my brother received, just days before Williams was killed, “I wore it once to school, the first day after Christmas break. Then I hung it up on the wall when I got home.” It hasn’t moved since.

THROWBACK THURSDAY: GARRISON HEARST

Garrison Hearst

In the lexicon of professional football, players are so often forgotten amid conversations of legends, current stars, classic rivalries and Tim Tebow. Players that were around for a few years, regardless of how dominant or impressive they were, rarely find themselves being mentioned once they disappear from the scope of the spotlight. Here’s where I’d like to put the spotlight back on these guys, and shed some new light on someone many may have forgotten.

With that being said, let’s take a trip back 15 years to the 1998 NFL season and have a little talk about Garrison Hearst; my favorite 49er of all time.

Some things resonate more than others, especially when you’re a kid. Weird stuff is cool. Like different face mask types.  Hearst sported the classic “Deion“  face mask, which should be the only face mask allowed for running backs.[1]  Another thing about Hearst that still intrigues me; he was one of the last running backs I can remember that donned a nasal strip.[2] Before even watching him play, I already thought he looked really cool. And for my 10-year old self, that was very important.

By the way, I sincerely hope my office IT department doesn’t closely audit internet activity; I’d rather not have this conversation anytime soon (or ever): “Seems yesterday you spent almost 2 hours googling ‘Garrison Hearst nasal strip’, ‘Weird NFL facemasks’, ‘Steve Weatherford sixpack’ and ‘Cee-Lo Green without sunglasses ’, while listening to Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ on repeat the entire time… Can you explain that?”

Uhhh… nope, I cannot.

Okay, okay, back to Garrison Hearst.

Hearst spent his first four seasons toiling in Arizona (’93-’95) and Cincinnati (’96), dismal franchises at the time.[3] Then in 1997, after being released by the Bengals due to injury concerns, Hearst rejoined the 49ers, which had been in search of a solid running back since Ricky Watters bolted for the Eagles after the 1994 season.[4]

In his first year with the Niners, Hearst ran for 1,019 yards and 4 TDs, while averaging 4.4 yards per carry in 13 games; all this before injuring his collarbone in Week 13. With a great start to his 49ers career, Hearst was poised for a breakout season the following season.

Jump to September 6th, 1998[5]; Week 1 of the 1998 NFL season.[6]  I was at a summer country club watching the Jets-49ers game at the snack bar on, from what I can remember, the smallest TV in the history of the world (approximate figure), surrounded by Jets fans over the age of 60.[7] [8]

After playing to a tie in regulation, the game went into overtime with both teams tied at 30. After the Jets failed to get a first down, Jet punter Nick Gallery pinned the Niners on their own four-yard line. And then this happened:

Again; I’m a 10-year old 49er fan, who already liked Garrison Hearst. And I then watch him break off the longest run in the most clutch situation that I had ever experienced in my short history of NFL fandom. I needed nothing more; I was hooked. From then on Hearst was my favorite player of all time. I forgot about every other player in the NFL; life was about Garrison Hearst. Steve Young and Jerry Rice were merely afterthoughts. And although Jerry Rice was who drew me to the 49ers, Hearst gets the credit of keeping me a fan for good; that run being the icing on the cake.

Aside from the run itself, my most vivid memory of that play was watching Mo Lewis’ diving attempt to punch the ball out of Hearst’s hands from behind. I was convinced that it was going to be a fumble, but Hearst held on, falling into the endzone and capturing the hearts of millions of Americans in the process.[9] However, after re-watching the video, my new favorite part is 49ers radio broadcaster Joe Starkey describing Hearst running downfield as he “throws off bodies like clothes after a marathon”. Perfect.

Hearst’s rushing numbers in ‘98: 1,570 yards and seven touchdowns on 5.1 yards per carry. After his first two seasons with the 49ers, the guy was on his way to becoming a certifiable star.

Despite the promise of the regular season, the playoffs proved opposite. Hearst suffered one of the most brutal ankle injuries I’ve ever seen, one which would essentially derail his career, in the NFC Divisional round game against the Atlanta Falcons.[10] (Another moment I had the pleasure of watching firsthand.)

After sitting out two full seasons, he would come back to rush for 1,206 yards and 4 TDs on 4.8 yards per carry, winning him the comeback player of the year in the 2001 season. Not enough can be said about his comeback in 2001, as he was basically written off after missing the two full seasons following the ankle injury in ‘98.

Despite his importance on those 49ers teams of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, Hearst is rarely mentioned, much less remembered, due in part to his lack of longevity. In the context of NFL greatness, Hearst’s career can be interpreted as merely a blip on the radar screen. But many times it’s not always the big names that leave the most everlasting impression, and big moments are not always saved for the greatest players of all time. The same goes for memories. What Hearst may have lacked in career longevity was made up for by his affinity for the big play.

What I will remember most vividly are those two plays from 1998 juxtaposed together; the 96 yard run in Week 1, followed by the ankle injury in the playoffs. Hearst’s ’98 season captured exactly what being an NFL player can be. One minute, on top of the world as one of the top 3 rushers in the league. The next minute, written off as a one-hit wonder. Seeing Hearst at his highest, then at his lowest, was something I couldn’t comprehend as a kid; but now in retrospect, it provides a glimpse into the reality of being an NFL player.

Let us remember those players that left lasting impressions on our minds for their performance, even if only for a game.  After all, these guys are not only playing for a living, but for us, the fans;  specifically, for this fan.