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Gunned down

Sports | Darrent Williams' death highlights problem of gun violence in pro football

Issue: "Endings & beginnings," Jan. 13, 2007

It's hard to figure out exactly why Darrent Williams had to die. Police say they have no motive for why a vehicle pulled alongside and opened fire on a white Hummer limo used by the Denver Broncos defensive back. The drive-by culprits peppered his limo with perhaps a dozen bullets shortly after 2 a.m. as Williams pulled away from a Denver nightclub where he had been celebrating the coming of a new year.

The gunfire killed Williams and injured two others riding with him. He was 24.

"We all know that Darrent was an excellent player, but as a person, he was a first-class young man who brightened every room with his smile, attitude, and personality," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said in a statement. "I cannot express how heartsick I feel at this loss."

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Was Williams caught up in some sort of gang violence? Police can't say for sure. Did the gunmen simply pick out Williams' limo at random? Again, police don't know.

Connecting Williams' shooting to a string of incidents involving NFL players and guns may not be fair to Williams. Rather than glorify gang life, Williams spoke of returning to his native Ft. Worth, Texas, to help local children avoid gangs.

And though perhaps not explicitly tied to Williams, the NFL's growing number of run-ins with guns has become so prevalent, neither league officials nor former players can ignore it. Even prior to the 2006-07 season, newly inaugurated league commissioner Roger Goodell sounded the alarm: "I worry about guns and our players," he said. "We've really got to get a handle on why there's such a proliferation of gun violence around our players."

Goodell's comments may surprise some. But close watchers of the NFL know that large numbers of players pack heat when they go out on the town-either as a status symbol or out of a fear that, considering Williams' death, doesn't seem so illogical.

One thing is certain: NFL players messing with guns is not a recent phenomenon. Former star offensive lineman Lomas Brown told The New York Times four years ago that guns were a common accessory for many players throughout his 19-year career. "Just about every guy I played with in the NFL had a gun," he said, noting guns were ubiquitous in locker rooms, on team planes, in cars, and even at training camp. "Almost every player I knew had one. Guns are rampant in football. You have all these players packing guns wherever they go. It's a disaster waiting to happen."

Notable firearm incidents

Sport: Basketball
Athlete: Jayson Williams
Story: In 2002, police alleged Williams accidentally shot and killed his limo driver with a shotgun. Though a jury acquitted him of aggravated manslaughter, it deadlocked on a reckless manslaughter charge. Williams could face retrial on the lesser count.

Sport: Football
Athlete: Tank Johnson
Story: In Johnson's second pro season, he was convicted of handgun possession, which earned him an 18-month probation. On Dec. 14, police raided the Chicago defensive tackle's home, seizing six firearms (including two assault rifles). Days later, an assailant shot and killed Johnson's bodyguard while the pair were outside a Chicago nightclub.

Sport: Football
Athlete: Sean Taylor
Story: Police arrested the Washington defensive back on June 4, 2005, on a felony gun charge after Taylor allegedly fired shots into a vehicle just days earlier. Taylor's lawyers negotiated a plea deal that helped him avoid jail time or a felony record.

Sport: Basketball
Athlete: Stephen Jackson
Story: Police in Indianapolis charged the Pacers guard with a felony count of criminal recklessness after Jackson allegedly fired several shots from a handgun in October. Jackson claims it was in self-defense.

Sport: Football
Athlete: Chris Henry
Story: On Jan. 30, 2006, Orlando police arrested the Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver on multiple gun charges. He pleaded guilty to avoid jail time.

Around the Horn

NFL: At a time when pundits wonder whether Mark McGwire will ever make the baseball Hall of Fame despite never failing a steroid test, the NFL seems willing to embrace its biggest doper. San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman failed a doping test earlier this year, served a four-game suspension, but still will be heading to the Pro Bowl and was recently named AFC Player of the Week. Merriman doesn't deserve the honor, says Dolphins star Jason Taylor: "You really shouldn't be able to fail a test like that and play in this league, to begin with," Taylor said. "To make the Pro Bowl and all the other awards, I think you're walking a fine line of sending the wrong message."

FOOTBALL: How desperate are University of Alabama boosters for a return to football glory? Crimson Tide officials lured coach Nick Saban away from the Miami Dolphins with a record eight-year, $32 million contract. The Crimson Tide's pursuit of Saban is nothing new: 'Bama fans pined for Saban even when he coached SEC conference foe Louisiana State.

NBA: A new year, a new ball-or rather, an old ball. The NBA returned to its old leather basketballs on New Year's Day after a bevy of protests from players about a new synthetic leather ball during the first part of the season. Minnesota star Kevin Garnett seemed to approve. The vocal critic of the composite microfiber basketball scored 32 points in the first game back with the old leather ball.

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