To say the least, this has been an emotionally draining day here at Dove Valley, and I apologize for not posting here sooner.
There are candles lit outside the front entrance of Broncos headquarters now. The office is silent; the hallways desolate. In other words, it’s the precise antithesis of any room into which Darrent Williams entered.
That was evident from the moment he arrived.
I have never seen anyone walk into a building in his first day on the job with the enthusiasm that this fast-talking Fort Worth native showed.
It was April 24, 2005, and the final four rounds of the draft chugged along. It is Broncos custom to bring their first-day draftees into Dove Valley on this day to meet the coaches and staff, answer questions at press conferences and display their newly-minted jerseys. Some players handle the event with distant, almost dour stoicism. Others bound from stop to stop in the building with the giddiness of someone barely one-third his age.
You could count Williams among the latter category.
A broad smile seemed tattooed to his face as he moved about the building with his fellow rookies — two of which shared his position: Domonique Foxworth and Karl Paymah. They drank the proceedings in sips with cool professionalism. Williams, on the other hand, quaffed the environment in gulps, grinning all the way, seeming to lead his fellow rookies along their quick trip around Dove Valley.
Perhaps I should have seen his unbridled joy coming, because Williams was never the kind of fellow who was going to slink meekly around. Three months earlier during Senior Bowl week, I chuckled as he high-stepped after an interception — in practice! Granted, Senior Bowl practices are about the most intense imaginable because each player hopes to impress the hundreds of coaches and scouts on hand, but that showed an ebullient, excitable spirit that would become his calling card any time he donned a helmet — whether it was in front of 76,000 onlookers at INVESCO Field or 76 media observers at a mini-camp practice during the horse latitudes of the football year.
Two years in the NFL wilds seemed to harden Williams just a smidgen. It does that to many; it is, after all, a collection of the best of the best at the game of football. Many players arrive in the NFL having known nothing but peaks on the football field; traversing the valleys and doing so with dignity and resolve is a lesson that not all are able to learn and a condition to which some cannot fully adapt.
Williams found those on the field in 2006. The Oct. 29 loss to Indianapolis in particular was crushing for him, so much so that the usually talkative cornerback didn’t meet the media following the game. A day later, though, he did, and even though the blame for the big day that Colts wideout Reggie Wayne had at the Broncos’ expense was shared by many, it was the second-year cornerback who owned up to what happened.
“I’m cool with taking the heat, because it just makes me mentally tough,” Williams once said to me.
In this case, Williams vowed to make changes in the game’s wake, even when the reasons for Wayne’s receptions went well beyond his realm of responsibility.
“I’ll play a little more aggressive,” he said at the time. But even when assessing frustration, he did so with a bounce in his voice and optimism in his heart. Sure, he’d been beat, but like the great cornerbacks he sought to emulate, he forgot about and soldiered onward. Six days later, as though he wanted to prove his point, he became the first Bronco in a decade to recover two fumbles in a single game in the win at Pittsburgh, pouncing on the football on a kickoff return and again after a deep reception to stifle a Steelers threat.
It was almost as though Williams declared to the world, “Is that aggressive enough for you?” as his procurements of the football sparked the Broncos to a six-takeaway day. Two weeks later, he bounded into INVESCO Field’s south end zone with his second NFL touchdown via an interception return.
A month later, though, I crossed paths with a more introspective Williams in the locker room following the win over Cincinnati. In the course of answering queries from a horde of inquisitors, he’d referenced some criticism from the media, and how he didn’t worry.
“I don’t care what nobody says about me,” he said. “My teammates have got my back.”
I don’t know why, but I sensed something below the surface of his remarks, so I waited until the crowd thinned to ask him more about the subject — to find out just how aware he was of what was written and spoken about his play. I figured he’d brush off the topic with a laugh and a smile. Those were the two best weapons in his arsenal; with those at his disposal, nothing seemed to faze him.
But when the question was posed, something different happened. For the first time since I’d met Williams, I heard a quiver of pain in his usually upbeat voice. It was not for what the public assessments of his play did to him. Rather, it was for those he held closest, and how they absorbed everything that was said and written about their beloved young NFLer.
“You know, I hate it when my mom and people in my family call me and say, ‘Keep your head up; don’t worry about what they say,’ and I’ll (reply),’ ‘What did they say?’ They tell me stuff they say,” Williams said on Christmas Eve. “It’s kind of sad, just how people think that way.
“It’s really hurting my family more than anything. That’s why I come out here and give it my all every week, because I’m playing not only for me, but my family, my teammates and my coaches. I really don’t care what people say about me, but ultimately, (my family) does.”
That day, Williams was feted by Broncos observers for his end-zone interception of Cincinnati’s Carson Palmer. But what meant more to him was how his teammates embraced him … just as they always did. It seemed like Williams was always at the epicenter of any on-field celebration, whether it was slapping hands with Champ Bailey after one of his many interceptions or getting a hug and a ride from John Lynch after scoring against San Diego six weeks ago.
His enthusiasm and disposition made him a sterling teammate — whether the team was the Broncos, or his family back in Fort Worth. He would do anything to protect and support both without hesitation.
Without hesitation … really, those words encapsulate the Darrent Williams to whom I asked many a question. He spoke boldly and honestly. Some might have construed his words as cockiness. But he always spoke from the heart — the same heart that bled just a tad on Christmas Even when he spoke of how his nearest and dearest reacted to what was written and said.
It’s still hard to believe that we won’t hear that voice around here again.
Late this afternoon, as the building had mostly emptied of the staff and players who gathered here today, I hobbled into the darkened, silent locker room just to glance at the spot where Williams held court so many times with the press, staff members and teammates.
Yet even if the room were filled, it would still seem desolate without Williams around.
A lively, engaging, bright light at Dove Valley has died. It shone with every smile that Williams shared with a teammate, a coach, a staffer or an interviewer.
All the while on this sad night here, candles burn out front, giving hope that the light burns on somewhere else.
But that light is no longer with us, and for this, my heart — and I surmise, the collective heart of Broncos Country — breaks tonight.