A Tragedy: Williams’ Death Underscores Perils Of Pros

By Mike Klis
Updated: January 3, 2007

DENVER — As details of his final night unfold, loved ones of Darrent Williams can be consoled knowing he was wise enough to take precautions.

The Broncos cornerback heeded warnings from the NFL and his team regarding the dark side of fame and fortune. He took a limo to a downtown party instead of driving.

When he smelled trouble outside the Shelter nightclub at closing time, he and his fellow Broncos got one another out of harm’s way, at least temporarily.

What Williams may have underestimated, however, is that as a well-known Broncos player, his safety was at risk merely by putting himself out among the public.

“On the streets, people think we have it all,” said Cris Carter, the NFL’s second all-time leading receiver and featured speaker for several NFL programs that warn players about the perils of celebrity.

“And they already have the perception that we think we’re better than them. I try to tell these guys, you can’t apologize enough – ‘Sorry I spilled your drink. Can I buy you another one?’ ‘Sorry I stepped on your shoes.’ You have to go out of your way to be apologetic.

“In society, players don’t realize that everybody’s packing right now. It’s not like it was 20 years ago when you got sucker-punched and took care of it outside. Now, the way people resolve conflict is to shoot you.”

Having just finished his second season with the Broncos, Williams left a disturbance outside the nightclub Monday morning only to be shot and killed a few minutes later while sitting in his rented limousine by a gunman in a passing vehicle.

Professional athletes were left not only to contemplate the cost of privilege but to wonder how safe it is in the public eye.

“In a lot of ways, they’re marked men,” said Mike Haynes, a former star defensive back who is now the NFL vice president of player employee development.

“Their salaries are published, everybody knows who they are, and if they get involved in off-the-field incidents, those become public. The one thing we can do is go over as many different situations that we think they might find themselves in and try to help them think those situations through so that they’re making good decisions.”

Education and instruction are at the core of NFL security. Perhaps the most important program is the rookie symposium, a three-day, mandatory event held in late June.

“One of the themes of the rookie symposiums is players as victims, being victimized in various ways,” said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. “They can become targets whether through identity theft, or friends and family that can put a lot of pressure on them in a lot of ways because they have a lot of money.”

Williams, 24, attended the symposium about 18 months before he was killed. Variations of the symposium’s message are repeated to all players each year at their respective training camps.

There was evidence Williams paid attention. Haynes said the league’s program emphasizes to players they shouldn’t drive even if they have one drink.

The players also are told that when attending places where alcohol is served, try to bring along a few teammates, and stick together.

“You can get a situation where you’re mad, seeing red, and you might want to do something you would later regret,” Haynes said. “Well, your teammates should be trying to help you make the right decision by pulling you out of there and getting you in a car and getting you home safely.”

Williams’ agents, Jeff Griffin and Troy Asmus, said from all reports they’ve received, their client was urging others to get in his limo and leave the scene as tempers were escalating.

Yet, Williams’ fate turned grave anyway.

“As good as we are about putting the protocols in place to prevent things like that – and that’s where most of my efforts are directed being proactive and preemptive – things like that you cannot stop,” said Don Lyon, director of security for the Rockies baseball team.

In addition to educating the Rockies on their safety concerns, Lyon gives his business card to the players and their families.

“Only because I want them to call me,” Lyon said. “If they feel threatened in any way, shape or form, pick up the phone.”

But not once in his 14 years with the Rockies has a player called him.

Jesse Brezzel works for NBA Security and also owns BRT Protective Services in Denver. BRT offers security to pro athletes for $40 an hour, usually including a retired police officer.

Brezzel said BRT provided services for one Western Conference all-star during the 2005 NBA All-Star Weekend in Denver.

“If something goes down, you have some credibility with you,” Brezzel said. “You don’t have the homeboys. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper than the alternative, too. …

“They need a person with experience who sees something when it’s going on. (Security) can call police officers outside to tell them to keep an eye out on what’s going on. They are security. Not bodyguards. They all should use it.”

The Broncos’ security representative is Sessions Harlan Jr., who served 30 years in the Denver police force and is now contracted out by the NFL.

Harlan is a frequent visitor to Broncos practices. Club officials and coaches and several players have his phone number.

Yet, Harlan wasn’t informed of the New Year’s Eve gathering at the Shelter until he got a phone call at 3 a.m. Monday, notifying him of Williams’ death.

“You can’t be there 24-7,” Harlan said. “These guys are grown men, and you’re not going to follow them around. You just hope and pray these type of things don’t happen.

“I’m shocked like everyone else. I’m angry. I’m angry something this silly ended so tragically. I don’t know what could have been said or done to evoke this type of tragic ending.”