Darryl Williams was laid to rest on Saturday in Boston. I was lucky enough to have him as both a hero and a dear friend for more than 25 years.
I first learned about Darryl in 1980 while I was writing a book, and his story compelled me to want to join the world of sport. One of the first things I did when I helped start Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society in 1984 was to hire Darryl to speak to students in the Boston schools.
I knew the day I met him that he would become a lifelong friend. And he was.
Darryl was the victim of a heinous hate crime in 1979 in Boston; I'd been the victim of a hate crime in Virginia a year earlier. I read about Darryl's case in 1980; he read about me a few years later. When we first met, Darryl told me he'd assumed I was black. But then he quickly said, "The color of your skin does not matter to me. What's in your heart matters."
And a person's skin color never did matter to him. I heard him say this to many audiences: "White people didn't shoot me. Three white people shot me."
Darryl was a serious athlete and a good student at Jamaica Plain High School in the late 1970s. Like many 15-year-olds, he was not particularly socially conscious. He loved sports and music and girls. He was thinking about how he was going to play for the Patriots.
It all seemed to be on track during his sophomore year when his team went to play Charlestown High School on Sept. 28, 1979. He played well in the first half. While the team was waiting for the second half to start, he was hit by a sniper's bullet fired by one of three white teenagers from a rooftop. He survived, but as a quadriplegic, confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his years.
It might have been easy for Darryl to leave the hospital hating white people, but that isn't the direction he took. Instead, he devoted the rest of his life to teaching others the transformative power of love. And what a heart he had. He was a communicator, and the message he communicated was love.
Just two weeks ago, we were talking about getting together at the celebration of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society's 25th anniversary. We'd called each other pretty much every month since my family moved to Florida, and my wife, Ann, saved many of the voice mails Darryl left on our home phone. They were full of love, humor and inspiration, all beginning with "Hello, my dear friends."
By definition, a hero is distinguished by exceptional courage and strength. Literary and cinematic examples of heroes are often portrayed as physically indestructible, using their powers for good, and to defeat villains and criminals. As a society, we often mistakenly think of an athlete or an entertainer as a hero, but people are not heroes simply because they are athletes or entertainers. Darryl Williams, though, was a hero in every sense of the word. He exemplified courage and strength.
These are Darryl's words from his unpublished life story:
Unfortunately, racial intolerance followed me as I recovered from my injuries in the hospital, including Ku Klux Klan death threats. Verbal and physical abuses from hospital staff and patients. As I grappled with the painful thought of possibly living life with paralysis, I would cry myself to sleep many nights. When awake, I would have to resist the natural response of revenge.
I knew many men would have difficulty with such a huge life adjustment. After long, ofttimes-emotionally draining hospital stints, I was discharged into a world that I was unfamiliar with: a world of paralysis!
No one is exempted from adversity. All are faced with two options:
• Fully submit to the adversity, rolling yourself up into a little ball in a corner of the room.
• Make the adversity work for you, i.e., use it to educate and empower yourself.
The severity level of adversity varies from one person to another. However, what is typically the same is the person's initial reaction: fear and avoidance.
I believe what superseded my "initial reaction," was to restructure myself; personal pride would not let me give up! Everyone has this type of "personal pride;" oftimes it takes standing in witness of someone else's journey to ignite it.
During his stay in the hospital, he was visited by two neighborhood thugs who came to tell him that they were going to assault some white people to take revenge for what had happened to him. He convinced them not to do it.
Over the years since, Darryl delivered his message anywhere he could. I will always remember that we spoke back-to-back at a "Team Harmony" event led by another hero of ours, Lenny Zakim. There were 12,000 teenagers in the audience. Darryl started his speech from his wheelchair by saying, "Good morning," and getting only a muffled response. He repeated his greeting more loudly -- "Good morning!" -- and got the buoyant response he was after. He followed that by saying, "Thank God you came alive. I was afraid I was going to have to break-dance to get your attention." Darryl's great sense of humor brought the house down.
So many times, I watched as people met him for the first time and seemed not to know what to say, but his sharp wit opened the conversation and put them at ease.
He had champions in the Boston media, including Joe Fitzgerald and Dan Shaughnessy. Joe Malone, a public figure in Boston, was always there to help. President Clinton once told Darryl that he was "an inspiration." Muhammad Ali called him "the second greatest." Northeastern University president Jack Curry awarded Darryl a presidential scholarship, and he earned a B.A. in human resources management there. As a team member who spread the gospel of forgiveness over blame, intelligence over ignorance, compassion over disdain, and love over hate, he helped the Center for the Study of Sport in Society's "Project Teamwork" on its way to being named "America's most successful violence prevention program."
I call Darryl "America's lesser-known Nelson Mandela." Like Mandela, he had every reason to hate white people. Instead, he loved all people.
Before he died, Darryl wrote a book about his life, and hopefully some intelligent publisher will bring it into the public's hands so more people can be inspired. He called the book "Triumphant." And that is exactly what Darryl's life was: triumphant.
I define a leader as someone who stands up for justice and doesn't block its path. Darryl Williams became a leader. He was unable to stand physically, but he was a towering figure for social justice.
Like thousands of others, I will miss him terribly. We're all better people who live in a better world because he graced this planet with his presence.
Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 14 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.